The Pain of Infertility and Why I Won’t Adopt

by JS LEE

Like every story about a woman who tries to have children and can’t, mine is deeply personal. It begins with my own adoption. I arrived from Korea at six months old, expected to be one of those clean slate babies with no memories or trauma. The family I was adopted to had two kids of their own, and eventually four more. I’m not going to get into all the ways my adoptive family failed me, or all the situations I’ve survived. I’ve been through it extensively and no longer need my truth validated by repetition. But for the sake of the subject, I’ll share a few relevant stories.

My adoptive mother would tell you that when she did the right thing by gifting me a Korean baby doll, I loved it. I named it Baby Jessica because I’d never seen another Asian child, and my juvenile mind decided we were all Jessicas. When her pacifier was removed, she wailed violently. It was horrifying and made me anxious. Perhaps on a subconscious level, it reminded me of the orphanage in Korea where I was surrounded by babies crying out for their mothers. Or perhaps it tapped into my feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. But even as a three year old, I knew to pretend that I loved Baby Jessica because she was a special gift and I couldn’t disappoint my parents. I wanted to love her, but I resented her. Nothing I did, aside from shoving the pacifier back in her mouth, soothed her–and even then, it only shut her up. It made me feel I was incapable of loving her well enough. Now I see how my relationship with that doll mirrored the relationship with my adoptive mother. Not being able to effectively bond with or respond to me, she silenced me.

Life with my mother was always difficult and the relationship with my father was no better. At best, he enabled her cruelty. At worst, he made me deeply uncomfortable with being a girl–and specifically, an Asian girl. Partly due to my dysfunctional family home, I got engaged at twenty to an older domestic adoptee who was suffering from his own adoptive family and adoptee issues. He wanted to have children right away, but I wasn’t ready. His rage left him punching holes in walls and throwing furniture into the air. It wasn’t a safe place to raise cats, let alone a little human. And his meanderings over how difficult it would be if one “had a really hot daughter” made my skin crawl. Given my past, I thought all men had uncontrollable and inappropriate sexual urges. But thankfully I wasn’t prepared to bring a child into our unstable environment. Realizing we were both in over our heads, I was divorced by twenty-five.

I spent the following several years convincing myself that I didn’t want kids–but really, I didn’t trust men to father, or myself to mother. I let myself stay in subsequent unhealthy relationships because I had no timeline or plans, and no understanding of what healthy was. Being told all my life how lucky I was to not be dead or worse off, I internalized that to mean I didn’t deserve much else.

But because life isn’t always cruel and unfair, I met the person who is now my husband of five years and partner of ten. We’ve had to work through our individual and joint issues, but it’s a peaceful and healthy life. We loved and lost a dog together. We have two adorable cats. After much therapy and support, I found myself wanting to have a child with him. I used acupuncture, Chinese Medicine, and other supplements to better our odds, given my later age. Due to my other health issues, insufficient health insurance, and financial constraints, we decided against more aggressive medical intervention. And just when I thought it wasn’t possible, we succeeded. I was pregnant. I could hardly believe it. But it didn’t last long, and never happened again.

I cursed myself many times for not starting sooner. Society loves to hate on older women who decide too late that they want to make a family. In one article and blog after another, I’ve read how selfish we are for making kids a last priority. Empathy is reserved for those who always wanted children, started early, and tried for decades. And maybe they’re more deserving and their pain is worse. But I like to think: pain is pain. I try not to compare mine to others.

Of course I wish I’d been able to sort through my adoption trauma and childhood abuse and teen rape and everything that followed much sooner, to get to a healthy place to try to have children faster. But life didn’t go that way. And maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. I’ll never know. I’ve struggled with so much loss–my birth family, foster mother, adoptive family, and the miscarriage of my one chance to understand natural family. I still don’t have the heart to read through and delete the blog I kept for our unborn child that I’d hoped to reveal when they were eighteen so they’d know without a doubt, they were loved. I haven’t yet fully processed that loss. But maybe because of all I’ve survived, I know I can live without having the things many others consider birth rights. Because as an adoptee, I never had any. My adoptive parents were entitled to another child, but I wasn’t ever really entitled to a mother, family, or even knowing anything about how I came to be. And I don’t feel entitled to a child–mine or anyone else’s. I’m working on other ways to nurture, love, and fill my life with meaning. I don’t mean to shame those who’ve adopted but to offer a different perspective.

I often remind myself that we don’t always get what we want in life. I try to do what I can with what I have, and not dwell on what I don’t. Sometimes it’s much easier said than done. Everywhere I look, every day and even more so on holidays, I’m reminded of what I’ll never have. I don’t resent anyone for having what I can’t.

And I also don’t want to contribute to a system that takes from the underprivileged rather than giving them what they need to survive together. Adoption doesn’t fix infertility, and there’s no way to replace a parent or child. I know some who’ve adopted and also have a biological child who are honest enough to agree that it’s different. I do believe one can love a child that’s not biologically theirs, but love is not enough. Food, shelter, and good parenting is not enough. Being a good adoptive parent is a lot more complicated than being a good biological parent, if you want to do the child right. Throw a different race and culture into the mix, and the complexities multiply.

So there’s no misunderstanding, I don’t think poorly of everyone who has adopted. If completely necessary and with the right people, it can be beautiful and healing. If adoptive parents are cognizant of the responsibility and work hard to support their child’s needs, I wish them the best. I think we all do what we think we need to at the time. I hope adoptive parents today commit to doing better because the tools and resources are there for them now. I hope the system improves to include more vigorous vetting and post-adoption monitoring. Too many are abused and/or die at the hands of their adoptive parents and that’s all too often overlooked for the sake of the happy narrative. Contrary to popular myth, not all adoptive parents are wonderful people. If a second chance at family is needed, society should ensure the family is worthy and capable of providing it–not just financially, but emotionally, culturally, and beyond.

I hope someday in the near future, adoption becomes limited to only the truly orphaned kids who have no healthy living biological family. In order for that to happen, we need more social services that work toward family preservation. There’s no reason for poverty, social stigma, or lack of resources to be breaking up families. People often raise funds to adopt, and I’d rather see funds raised to keep families together. Another option is legal guardianship, which allows the child to be cared for while maintaining their identity and allowing their birth families to maintain rights, should their situations change. I also had a client who fathers long-distance by funding an African family’s kids’ schooling. He builds the relationship via video conference mentoring, emails, and visits, while the kids remain with their family and culture in Africa. If only the truly orphaned with no healthy biological families were allowed to be adopted, I think you’d find there really isn’t the need to rescue as many children as society believes. It’s the families that need saving; not just the children.

And that is why I’m not interested in adopting as a way to build a family and fulfill my desires to be a mother. I hope you’re able to understand that it’s not because my heart’s not big enough, and not because I don’t know the pain of infertility and the loss of a life-impacting dream. While I don’t believe all adoptions are bad, the adoption industry is not something I support.

If you are struggling with infertility or miscarriage; trauma from being adopted; or grief over giving your child away because it felt like the only option–my heart goes out to you. I only hope we find ways to be whole without hurting anyone else.