Kind Words from an AT Grandfather

At 95 years, I must confess, that I have a sentimental side and an analytical side, both of which influence the decisions I make in my daily life. Keeping these two variables in balance is, for me, truly the key to contentment. Happily, supporting Adoptions Together satisfies both realms.

Mr. Feffer
Richard Feffer with his grandchildren.

My sentimental side thanks Adoption Together for giving my daughter and her husband the chance to have a complete and beautiful family and, by extension, giving me and my wife the happiness of loving and enjoying the love of two exceptional grandchildren. Matthew and Elena have brought me much joy and fulfillment.  I cherish the memories of summer vacations on Cape Cod, birthday parties, visiting days at summer camp, high school and college graduations, horse shows, holiday celebrations, and family travels abroad.  One of the highlights was a weekend college visit with my grandson. Just the two of us; college basketball, student opera and dorm fare!


My analytical side demands that I only donate to efforts where the need is great and the issues are difficult to solve.  Adoptions Together more than meets these criteria. They don’t just create a “win/win” solution; but a “win/win/win” solution.  They help resolve the pain and difficulty suffered by a birthmother who places her child for adoption. They provide counseling services for families in need of specialized support services. They provide assistance for all children, whether in foster care, or on the verge of aging out of the foster care system. ATI’s mission is to provide every child with an opportunity for a loving and nurturing environment.  They are the answer to those seeking the joy and fulfillment of a family life.

When I celebrated my birthday in March, I admit that I did not want or expect lavish gifts but I was delighted to learn that so many of my close friends and family chose to make donations to Adoptions Together in my honor.   For this I am truly grateful.

Bravo Adoptions Together. You will always have my support!


Introducing our first Youth Ambassador, Jake!

Jake points to his photo on the wall at the Adoptions Together office in Calverton.

Adoptions Together is very excited to announce our very first Youth Ambassador! Jake is ten years old, loves soccer, and was adopted as a baby. Now, he and his family have decided to sponsor the Heart Gallery to make sure that every child gets a chance at a loving forever family.

Continue reading…

Books on Adoption and Interview with Maggie Mei Lewis


As a topic, adoption has many different facets. Some people adopt infants and need help figuring the best way to explain adoption. Others bring home older kids who already know what it means to be adopted, but whose communities still have some things to learn.

We tried to put together a list of books that would reach everyone in the adoption community, and know there are plenty more wonderful books out there! Don’t see one of your favorites on our list? Make sure to leave your recommendations in the comments to this post!

Continue reading…

“This is not a job for me. It’s a calling and I love it.” Interview with an Interim Care Provider

Have you ever wondered who takes care of an infant between the time they are born and the time they are placed with their adoptive family? In many cases, that person is an interim care provider like Felicia Simms. We spoke with Felicia to learn more about what the experience is like for her and why she has been an interim care parent for over five years.

Felicia Simms, interim care parent for Adoptions Together.

Introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your family.

My name is Felicia Simms and I am an interim care provider. My husband James helps a great deal and is very supportive. I have a 24-year-old son who lives in New York and works in a corporate office for Bloomingdales, which he absolutely loves. My husband is retired from the Prince George’s County Police Department, and he now works as an officer working court duty in Charles County. I worked for the government for twenty-six and a half years before retiring in 2004. Ever since then, I’ve been at home during the day by myself, unless I have a baby staying with me.

How long have you been an interim care provider?

I have been an interim care provider since May 2010, so a little over five years.

How did you become an interim care parent?

Before I became an interim carer for Adoptions Together, I was a foster mom for a different agency and I worked with older kids. It was a challenge for me and I didn’t always feel like I was making a difference. Because my husband works, I was mostly doing this by myself and I decided that I wanted to do something where I could provide for the children entirely on my own. I researched interim care, and then I found Adoptions Together. I narrowed it down from 20 different agencies and picked AT because I felt like it was a good fit. I read a lot about the agency before I ever made my first phone call.

How many babies have lived with you?

Right now I’m on my 52nd or 53rd placement. I have a little one with me right now, and a few weeks ago I was present to see one of my babies placed with his forever family.

How long do the babies usually stay with you?

It depends on the situation for each baby, because every baby and every family is different. The least amount of time that a baby has stayed with me was a week. The longest was about nine and a half weeks, for medically fragile twins who came to me at five months old.

What was it like the first time you brought a baby home?

It was heaven. Heaven is the best way I could describe it. I was in awe. I was alone during the day, so I could revolve my entire schedule around the baby. I liked knowing the baby depended upon me and that because he was with me, he was going to be loved from the very beginning.

Is it difficult to let go?

If I’m being honest… I understand what I do and what my purpose is, as an interim care provider. I understand that my purpose is to care and love these babies. I’ve got that. With that said, I can’t control my feelings and I don’t try to control my feelings. Once they come to me, I treat them like my own, because they deserve every bit of that love and attention. So sometimes yes, it is difficult to let them go, but I work through it because I understand. I do fall in love with these babies and it is hard, but this is what I want to do.

Felicia with her husband James.

Are there any babies or stories that really impacted you?

Don’t get me wrong, I treat them all like they’re mine and I love every one of them, but there are a few that really touched me. My second or third placement was a little boy named Samuel. When I first met him, he was in the hospital, not quite ready to go home. My husband and I stayed there overnight at the hospital, waiting with him until he could come home with us. I told my husband he didn’t have to be there, but he wanted to stay, and I knew that I had all his support. It was really a special situation. I’m still in touch with Samuel’s mom today.

The twins that stayed with me for nine and a half weeks were also very special to me. When they were born, one was 1lb and the other was 1.5lbs. Jessica [Taylor, AT’s Domestic Adoption Counselor] called me and said “We have twins and they have a lot of issues, and we were wondering if you’d be able to take this on.” I couldn’t answer right away because I had to talk to my husband, because I wanted him to know what might be entering our lives—twins, boys, who had been in the hospital for five months, with kidney and lung problems, tubes to help them breathe, specialists we’d have to deal with. It was a lot. They had reflux, and that was just one of the minor issues they had. My husband said “let’s do it.” So I called Jessica and told her we were in. At the time they were with us, one of the babies was on 6 medications every day, and the other was on 7 medications. From my understanding, today they aren’t on any medications.

Is there anything else that you would like to talk about that we haven’t covered?

I just want you to know that I have people asking me all the time “how do you do this?” and ‘how long will you do this?” I will do this as long as I can, until I no longer feel like this is a calling. I feel like this is what I was meant to do. I want people to know that these babies are well taken care of. From the time that I pick these babies up, until the time they go home, they are loved. I want them, and everyone else, to know that they were always loved. My only regret is that I didn’t find you sooner. I truly missed out. I am so blessed to be doing this.

Felicia Simms is a wonderful person, and just one of the many people who work with Adoptions Together to ensure that every child, at every stage in their life, is loved and cared for.


Positive Adoption Language

Alisha Wolf, LGSW, MPH
Education and Training Director
Adoptions Together & FamilyWorks Together

   I was leading an adoptive parent training recently, and we began discussing Positive Adoption Language (PAL).  Many parents in the training knew about it and stressed the importance of its use. One dad raised his hand and said, “I think lots of adoptive families know about positive adoption language, but I wish more people outside of the adoption world knew how to use it.”

We couldn’t agree more. The words that we use say a lot about the way we think and what we value.  Many words that have traditionally been used to describe adoption carry negative connotations.  For example, describing the person who gave birth to an adopted child as the “natural parent” signifies that there is something unnatural about an adoptive parent and an adoptive family.  See the chart below identifying negative terms and their preferred terms.

Negative Terms

Preferred Terms

Gave up her child for adoption

Placed her child for adoption

Real parent; natural parent

Birth parent, biological parent

Adoptive parent


His adopted child

His child


Born to unmarried parents

To keep

To parent

Adoptable child; available child

Waiting child

Foreign adoption

International adoption

Track down parents


Unwanted child

Child placed for adoption

“How can we teach Positive Adoption Language to the people we interact with?”

Many adoptive families wonder how they can share PAL with the people around them.  While there are many different ways to do this, I’ve found modeling to be quite effective.  Most people outside of the adoption world are simply unfamiliar with adoption and adoption language.  I’ve seen many people tentatively try to ask about a child’s birth mother, but simply don’t know how to refer to her.  I like to meet the person in that moment, saying, “It’s hard to know the right words for all of this, huh?  We call the woman who gave birth to an adopted child his birth mother.”  Showing an openness to talk about PAL can invite more questions and initiate a larger discussion about the way we talk about adoptive families. Like so many adoption-related matters, each family has to find the method of sharing PAL that’s right for them.

How do you share positive adoption language with the people in your life?

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Attachment, Technology and Helicopter Parenting

Erica Moltz, MA, NCC
Clinical Director
Adoptions Together & FamilyWorks Together

Ever-present gadgets we can’t seem to live without rule many of our lives so that when we are physically with our children, we are too busy to be genuinely with them.  Dr. Ron Taffel, a well-known family therapist who has worked with hundreds of families wrote a recent article in a popular journal.  He stated that a growing body of research suggests that this technology and the information overload it dumps on us undermine our ability and desire to interact with and focus on our children.

Many of us spend hours on our mobile devices that are always within arm’s reach, so that inevitably our attention is interrupted.  Between texting, tweeting, on-line chatting, Facebook, emailing and sharing Instragram photos, a lot of parents are distracted from really being with their children.  There was a recent study published by Jenny Radesky in the journal Pediatrics demonstrating that parents who were observed with their children in fast-food restaurants were spending more of the meal absorbed in their smartphones, ignoring their children who were making repeated and escalating bids for attention.

What will it mean, therefore, that a generation of kids has grown up or will grow up getting this kind of agitated, fragmented distracted attention from their parents? What will it mean when hyperaroused parents can’t stop shifting their focus?  If attachment is based on focused interest, attention and attunement, how can chronic distraction translate into children experiencing secure attachment?

You may be wondering, “What happened to the era of “helicopter” parents who are too involved in their children’s lives?” This parenting style is still alive and well with those over anxious parents who encourage their child to participate in a bullet-train of activities that constantly re-directs the child to the next task that needs to be accomplished.  Just as with distracted, technology-infused parenting, “helicopter” parenting doesn’t equate with connection.  When kids are always on to the next activity, on a virtual conveyor belt, this kind of focused attention has the same effect as distracted parenting in that it does not provide anchoring and soothing, reliable attachment.

Research shows that that restful downtime is necessary for kids’ brains to synthesize new information and to internalize secure attachment so that they can develop a sturdy sense of self. This means that along with setting reasonable limits, it is important for parents to strongly focus on creating points of connection and to become partners with their children in fun and relaxing activities during times when the parent is focusing attention on the child.

An effective strategy to help parents create points of connection that encourage attachment is for them to use the PACE model below that was developed by Dr. Dan Hughes, a nationally known attachment expert.

P = Parenting with playfulness so that our children know we delight in them.

A= Parenting with affection and attention.

C=Parenting with curiosity about our child and what is behind their behavior.

E=Parenting with empathy so that our child “feels felt”.

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Totes of Hope

The AdoptionWorks team is well aware of the unfortunate reality that children in the foster care system are frequently moved to different foster homes and group homes during their time in foster care.  Often times these moves have nothing to do with them, and they find themselves being abruptly uprooted from living situations, foster parents, foster siblings and schools that they were just beginning to get accustomed to.  When they are moved, it is often with no notice, and with their belongings quickly packed in trash bags.  One can only imagine the shock, fear and confusion that a child must experience when they are moved in this way, only to be made worse by the complete lack of dignity of having their few possessions shoved into trash bags.  

Kerry Pachino decided to do something to make sure that as many foster children as possible can at least have the opportunity to pack up their possessions in suitcases, backpacks and tote bags instead of trash bags.  She has recently created a donation program which is called Totes of Hope, where people can donate new or gently used backpacks, suitcases and totes to children in foster care so that each child has a proper travel bag in which to store and transport their personal belongings.  Kerry will ether pick up any donations herself, and she will also have scheduled drop-off locations throughout the year where she will arrange for pick-ups of people’s donated travel bags.

We are very proud of Kerry for seeing this need first hand, and creating this opportunity for people to donate suitcases, backpacks and totes for such a worthy cause.  Kerry has already put a lot of time into this, and she has collected 150 bags in less than two months since she began this project.  She has hopes of this growing quickly through social media, and believes that Totes of Hope will be able to provide travel bags for many youth in foster care. 

If you have a travel bag(s) that you wish to donate, you can contact Kerry at

More …

Category: Foster Care

A Memoir by Jenna: The Story of a Korean American Adoptee

A Memoir by Jenna: The Story of a Korean American Adoptee
By: Jenna Simpson


While it was never a secret that I was adopted, it was easier for me to believe that my life began not in the distant city of Pusan, South Korea, but instead in an airport terminal.  Sure, I sometimes envied my friends who could rattle off the particulars about their mother’s pregnancy.  Or recount the dramatic events that transpired before their delivery.  I liked my story, though, because it was unique and mysterious.  It featured me as a 6-month old flying over the Pacific Ocean to be embraced by a couple in JFK who longed to start a family.  Through the power of adoption, I gained the most devoted parents who have loved me unconditionally since that day.


Taken minutes after I met my parents, Jeanne and Mark, on December 4th, 1987 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It was love at first sight!


The day before my college graduation in May of 2009.

Recently, though, I realized that I never allowed myself to grieve for what I lost as an adoptee.  At 25, I recognized that I never fully explored the feelings of rejection and confusion that often accompany adoption.  Only now have I started to feel sad that I may never have the answers to certain questions:  What does my birth mother look like?  Did she hold me in the hospital before handing me over?  Is she passionate, fiery, and emotional like me?  Or is she quiet, reserved, and tranquil?  Does she think about me often or did she repress all memories of her pregnancy and adoption plan?

          I developed the ability to keep thoughts like these in check.  I felt that because of the limited information my adoptive parents were given about my birth history, I had no choice but to fight off these feelings.  Like most overseas adoption stories in the 1980s, it was shrouded in secrecy and stigma.  It would have been too painful to wonder about the first 6 months of my life, knowing I might never have an answer.  At an early age, I learned to respond to difficult questions with a smile.  Kids on the playground would ask me: Where is your “real” mom?  Why did she abandon you?  Don’t you want to find her?  Are you sad that she didn’t want you?  My adoptive parents thankfully provided me with the tools to handle situations like these.  I would explain to my inquisitive peers that not all families look alike and that my birth mother’s decision came from a place of love.  Even adults asked questions, triggering my Rolodex of canned responses.  Don’t you wish you had a picture of your birth mother?  Yes, absolutely, I would say.  If I were you, I would want to know every detail about my birth history.  Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. Afterwards, I would either brush it off or feel guilty that I didn’t respond the “correct” way.

          At the time, I felt like I was doing a good thing by not dwelling on my past.  I didn’t want to overwhelm my adoptive parents.  They were always open about my adoption, but it was not worth dredging up questions that might cause them to feel powerless.  I also didn’t want to feel angry toward my birth mother so I instead compartmentalized most of my emotions, preserving them in an airtight box to be left on a shelf.  Despite my adoptive parents’ attempts to integrate elements of Korean culture into my life, I wasn’t interested in exploring that obscure part of my past.  Like every child, I wanted normalcy and a sense of belonging.  I did not want my adoption to define who I was so I reduced it to an insignificant thing of the past.  


Me on my first birthday in my parents’ backyard in Rochester, New York. In Korea, it is a tradition to place a child in front of a table full of objects, such as books, musical items, and money. The child is encouraged by spectators to pick one of the objects. It is believed that the first object selected will foretell their future. If the child picks money, he or she will become wealthy. If they pick up a musical instrument, he or she will be talented in the arts. I choose the book. As fate would have it, I found myself 18 years later in the middle of nowhere Ohio at a small liberal arts college where I read the works of great writers and poets


Taken after my youngest brother Trevor’s college graduation from SUNY Fredonia in 2013. To the right of me is my fiancé John (28), my brother Trevor (23), and brother, Ryan (25).


In 2011, I stumbled upon a Craigslist ad and everything changed.  The ad listed an opening for a paralegal position at an adoption agency.  The timing was perfect.  I was close to finishing two years at a grueling law firm in D.C. and was desperately looking for an escape.  I had no experience in child welfare but I felt certain that I could add value to the organization as an adoptee.  During the interview, my prospective supervisor asked me if I thought the emotional aspects of adoption would impact me as an adoptee.  I answered honestly: No.  Little did I know my assertion would be far from the truth.

          During my first year at the agency, I witnessed a coworker help countless adoptees navigate the intimidating search for their birth parents.  A memorable case involved a 15-year-old adoptee that hoped to reunite with his birth mother despite his deep-seated fears and anxieties.  Understandably, he was scared that his birth mother wouldn’t want anything to do with him.  He worried that his search could disrupt her current life.  When I heard about his case, I admired his bravery.  I have the same exact fears.  He moved forward with his search after weeks of preparation.  To his surprise, he was able to reconnect with his birth mother and learned that she celebrated his birthday each year with a cake.  His story, as well as dozens of other successful “search and reunion” stories, ignited a desire within me to search for my birth mother.


Me and my team at Adoptions Together, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland. The girl to the right of me in the white sweater is Beth Stahl. She is the social worker who facilitates search and reunion cases for the agency.

In the summer of 2012, I reached out to Spence-Chapin Adoption Services, the agency in New York that facilitated my placement in 1987.  Within a few days, I was having conversations on the phone with the Korea Program Coordinator, Ben, about beginning my search.  The process was simple and straightforward, he explained.  It involved submitting a couple of basic forms.  Even so, I dragged my feet when filling out the paperwork.  At first, I chalked it up to being busy but I knew deep down it was my fear of the unknown.  What if my birth mother doesn’t want to know me?  What if, when I meet her, she doesn’t like me?  What if I don’t like her? I remember thinking this search could turn my life upside down and I wasn’t sure whether I was emotionally prepared for that.  I could reunite with my birth mother and find out she is happily married with children – and that might hurt me.  Or, I could meet her and secretly dislike her and then feel guilty about it afterwards.  What if I found out she was assaulted by my birth father?  Would that impact my self-perception?  Would I feel obligated to keep in touch with her forever?  It was the first time I had ever let myself ask these kinds of questions. 

          I sat in my office one night, overwhelmed by the endless possibilities.  So, I called my fiancé to vent.  His calming advice could do nothing to suppress my insecurities.  A deluge of emotions poured out of me that I had not allowed myself to feel for 25 years.  I had so many questions that needed to be untangled and examined under a microscope.  I realized, though, that my birth mother was 71 years old, and that I might not have much time.  After spending an hour crying at my desk contemplating “what if” questions, I filled out each form and submitted them to Ben.  That night, I cast my dreams into the vast universe, hoping that an affirmation would fall from the sky onto my lap.


My Grandpa and I in Rochester, New York on the day I officially became an American citizen.

A few weeks later, I received a call from Spence-Chapin.  It was Ben.  He greeted me in his normal, soothing voice.  I sensed an uncomfortable pause, though, after we exchanged hellos.  Before he could tell me the news, I realized she was no longer alive.  He informed me that she had passed away in 2006.  The wheels began to turn in my head while we spoke over the phone.  She must have passed away while I was a freshman in college.  She was only 65 years old.  Had I known something was wrong, perhaps, I would have tried to reach out to her sooner.  “Was she sick?” “Was it an accident?”   His response crushed me. “I’m sorry but I can’t give you any more details.”  It was because of the stringent adoption laws in Korea.  She was my birth mother, though.  I felt entitled to this information and wondered if it was all sitting in a file on his desk.  For a minute, I even wondered if I could bribe him for answers. Was it cancer? Or was it unexpected? Were her other children there to comfort her?  Shouldn’t I have access to my medical history? In that moment, I felt like my search came to a screeching halt. 

          I mourned a loss that was different from other losses I had experienced.  I lost the chance to know my birth history.  I lost the opportunity to meet my birth mother and show her the person I had become.  I would never know her name or be able to hear the sound of her voice.  In the months leading up to my search, I started to picture myself riding in a van with my adoptive parents to my birth mother’s home in Pusan.  We would be ushered through a door by one of my birth siblings and greeted by an older Korean woman with a round, cherubic face.  She would have tears running down her wrinkled face and say something profound like: “Not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you.”   And despite any language or cultural barriers, we would understand each other.  For the first time, I would recognize my face in someone else’s.  My almond-shaped eyes and chubby cheeks would mirror hers. 

          It was hard to fathom this dreamlike sequence I had envisioned would never play out in real life.  At the same time, I felt a huge sense of relief.  While I consider myself to be a fairly strong person, I cannot say for sure that I would have been emotionally ready to handle any curveballs.  What if I reached out to my birth mother and learned that she was not ready to have a relationship with me?  Would it ruin her marriage or her relationships with her children, if I suddenly resurfaced in her life? 

          As time moved on, questions like these began to fade away.  Nevertheless, my desire to visit Korea only grew stronger.  I reached out to Ben once more to learn about opportunities at Spence-Chapin for adult adoptees.  He encouraged me to apply to their annual month-long program for adoptees that wish to return to their birth country.  I would spend a week on my own in Seoul and then travel to Naju (a city in the Southwestern part of Korea) where I would stay at a “Baby Reception Center” to help care for infants that were placed for adoption.  I applied as soon as I got home that night.  Perhaps, this is what the universe had in store for me, I thought to myself as I mailed off my application.  I waited patiently for the cosmos to answer my prayers.

Taken from the plane shortly after departing from Baltimore on May 29, 2013.


          A few months after submitting my application, I found myself on a plane full of Koreans heading towards Seoul.  I remember naively thinking to myself:  Where did all of these people come from?  It was the first time I was part of what people call “the visual majority” as an adult.  I chuckled at the ridiculousness of it all.  I am surrounded by Korean people on a runway strip in Baltimore.  While we waited for our plane to depart, I furtively watched a team of stylish flight attendants stow people’s luggage away with more elegance and grace than a ballerina.  These women are flawless, I thought to myself.  My clumsy American gait and wavy hair is going to make me stick out like a sore thumb once I get there. 

          In a way, my predictions were right.  While store clerks and cab drivers appeared puzzled by my inability to speak Korean, numerous people would ask me if I was Japanese or Chinese.  Even after straightening my wavy hair and buying dark-rimmed glasses to match the voguish women of Seoul, I often felt out of place.  For the first time in my life, I was straddling two worlds.  On one hand, I was surrounded by people who physically resembled me.  To the eye of an unseasoned tourist, I blended in.  To insiders, though, I felt self-conscious about my tan skin and wavy hair.  I constantly worried that any minute someone was going to pick me out of the crowd and “out” me to everyone.  They would point their SPF-moisturized finger in my face and scream in Korean: “IMPOSTER!”  And, sure enough, I would stand there, mortified and confused, as the crowds dispersed around me.  My paranoia dissipated as time went on.  The people I met on my trip were welcoming, which made it easier for me to embrace myself in Korea.

I tried to experience everything with an open mind and open heart. 


Taken during a bus tour in Seoul. It is of a woman meditating in Jogyesa (Temple). If you look at the windowpane, you will see colorful lotus lanterns in the reflection. These lanterns are displayed each year around May to celebrate Buddha’s birthday.

I tried to not be so hard on myself.  Each time I felt out of place or alone, I reminded myself of my journey and all of the people in my life that were supporting me. 


I got my hair cut and styled by a woman who was apparently not a fan of my normal curly hair. Check out the signature peace sign, by the way! ; )

I ate to my heart’s content.

I soaked in all the views.

I said “yes” to every opportunity that came my way.


My fellow adoptee traveler, Nicky, and I wearing traditional Korean dresses before attending a tea ceremony.


Friends serenading me on my 26th birthday in a karaoke bar in Geoje.  

During my time in Korea, I was able to let go of the insecurities that were weighing me down.  I forgave myself for missing out on the chance to meet my birth mother.  It was a hard pill to swallow, but I eventually realized that I was not ready to open that door growing up.  And that is okay.  I revisited my history on my own terms and at my own pace.

          I also made a concerted effort towards the end of my trip to care less about my appearance.  Growing up with Asian features in a predominantly white suburb definitely conditioned me to be self-conscious about my appearance.  And after years of developing a greater sense of confidence in the United States, I was shocked at how uncomfortable and out of place I felt in my birth country.  Throngs of slender women with pearlescent complexions would glide by and I would start to critique my body and the way I talked, walked, and dressed.  I reminded myself, though, that I look different because, well – because I am different!  I have Korean features that I inherited from my birth parents and I have facial expressions and mannerisms that emulate my American parents.  Rather than viewing myself as someone who aimlessly drifts between two worlds, I started to see myself as a unique and evolving combination of both.       

          Finally, instead of fixating on the things I lost as an adoptee, I reminded myself of what I gained from my journey.  I gained a deeper connection to my adoptive family who has been my rock since day one.  I grew closer to my fiancé, John, who, for the past 8 years, has held my hand through life’s exhilarating highs and turbulent lows.  I became more confident in sharing my story to close friends and coworkers.  I am more committed to my work as an adoption professional.   Most importantly, however, I have gained a deeper appreciation for myself.  Since my return to the United States, I have a renewed sense of self and am proud to call myself a Korean American adoptee.   



          When I learned the news of my birth mother’s passing, I felt as if I hit a dead end.  All of my pleas for answers were in vain, I told myself.  Eventually, though, I began to look at things in a different light and could see beyond the impasse.  Sure, I will probably never know my birth mother’s name or understand the full story behind her adoption plan.  But those hiccups did not hold me back from traveling to Korea where I learned some valuable lessons along the way. 

          The most important thing I learned was the value of self-acceptance.  Once I began to recognize and embrace certain parts of myself that I had kept on the shelf – my Korean heritage, my adoption story, all of the things that set me apart from my peers – I was able to fully appreciate myself as a whole.  I no longer felt the need to fill in any blanks or cover up any holes.  I might never have all the answers, but that’s life.  Like every other person on this earth, I am a mosaic – made up of different parts that give me character.

          My adoptive mother who is an artist often champions the Japanese notion of “wabi-sabi.”  It is a term that centers on the acceptance of impermanence and imperfection.  In his book Wabi Sabi Simple, Richard Powell describes it as something that “nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”  It’s often difficult to integrate this concept into my life.  I shudder at anything asymmetrical or lopsided.  I like clean lines and balance.  When I was younger, I would rip pages out of my coloring book anytime my crayon strayed over the line.   Nevertheless, as I’ve gotten older, I see why my mother is a strong advocate of this aesthetic.  She understands the inevitable nature of imperfection.  A plate with a chip is no less of a plate because of its chip.  There is a story behind that imperfection, which makes it beautiful.  


Even though my adoptive mom is white (half Irish, half Polish), people often tell us that we look alike because of our similar facial expressions, body language, and voices. It’s uncanny!

My mother also reminds me often that we cannot control the things that are beyond our control.  While this overused maxim inspires a lot of eye rolling from me, I know that it holds a lot of truth.  When I landed in Korea, I knew that I had control over my outlook.  I could maintain a tight grip on my boundaries to eschew vulnerability.  Or, I could let my guard down and embrace all of the parts that make me who I am.  I am grateful to have chosen the latter during my trip.  By embracing all of the pieces that make me Jenna, I was able to see beyond my losses and realize the invaluable things that I had gained along the way. 


           Near the end of my trip, my chaperone Ms. Kang casually asked me during dinner if I wanted to visit my birth city.  This question made me feel tense and anxious.  My natural reaction was to formulate a list of reasons as to why it was a bad idea to go.  It could dredge up difficult feelings.  Was it worth driving through a big city without any specific destinations?  In my adoption papers, the typewriter ink bleakly reads “A Hospital in Pusan” next to the space where it asks for my birthplace.  There are a dozen hospitals in Pusan and who knows if the hospital I was born in still exists.  Perhaps, I can come back with John or my adoptive parents when I feel more settled.  I laid my chopsticks on the table and turned my focus back to Ms. Kang who was waiting for a response.  Before I could change my mind, I agreed to go.  What if I had let my fears influence all of my life decisions?  I would have never applied for my job at the adoption agency.  I would not have searched for my birth mother or returned to Korea as an adult.  I refused to let my fears stop me from visiting a critical part of my past.          

          The next day, Ms. Kang drove me up and down the streets of Pusan.  “Take pictures of your birth city, Jenna,” she instructed.  Your birth city, I thought.  I dutifully obeyed by snapping photos of buildings and random passersby on the streets.  A vibrant fruit truck parked in front of a pharmacy.  A congested stream of traffic inching along a steep road.  Tall office buildings with signs emblazoned across their fronts, advertising age-defying cosmetics and Samsung gadgets.  My hour-long photography session was interrupted by a shocking update from Ms. Kang.  She explained to me that she had reviewed my adoption records earlier that day and found the hospital where I was born.  “Do you want to see it?” she asked over the hum of traffic.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  Just when I had started to let go of my lost puzzle pieces, I was offered the chance to revisit a landmark from my past.  With tears streaming down my face, I responded: Yes, of course. 

          We drove up to the hospital.  It was small and pristine and sat on the corner of a busy intersection.  When  Ms. Kang and I stepped out of the van, an elderly nun emerged from the shade of a nearby tree and walked towards us.  The nun and Ms. Kang conversed for a few minutes before guiding me into the hospital gift shop.  The nun pulled a book down from a shelf and flipped to a photo of the hospital in the 1980s.  “It was founded in 1964 by a priest who wanted to serve the poor,” Ms. Kang told me after the nun spoke.  I gazed at the photo, contemplating what would happen if I walked off the premises with it.  Ms. Kang soon gestured me towards the hospital entrance.  In single file, the three of us marched through the lobby to ascend a flight of stairs.  The nun explained to Ms. Kang (who then translated for me) that the second floor was where women used to deliver infants in the 1980s. 



As I peered down the hallway, I wondered which room I had occupied as an infant.  It was the most surreal feeling to walk through a place that I had been 26 years ago.  I felt like I was in a movie scene that I wanted to preserve in time forever.  I remember wishing that I could just shout directives at someone through a TV screen: “Hey, you!  Yeah, you, over there, sitting on the couch. Could you rewind this scene for a few seconds and then press pause?”  I needed more time to absorb everything around me.  Alas, I was not able to travel back in time or press pause.  I obediently followed the nun and Ms. Kang down the flight of stairs to tour other parts of the hospital.  But the memory of that moment remains so vivid in my mind that I am able to replay it often.    

          So, do you remember when I told you that my life began in an airport terminal?  Yeah, so maybe that wasn’t really what happened.  I was actually born in a hospital located in Pusan, South Korea.  It is the place where my story officially began.  It is the place where I spent my first minutes on earth.  It is the place where I shared moments with my birth mother before we parted ways.  And it is a place that I can revisit in my dreams or in real life for the rest of my life.  To most people, a walk through a hospital sounds like the antithesis of romance.  But for me, it was a sacred moment that allowed me to understand my past. 

  Me in front the hospital where I was born in Pusan, South Korea.


          When I returned to the United States last year, I was determined to write about my experience in Korea.  Sitting down to write out my thoughts, however, proved to be a far greater challenge than I had anticipated.  I could not believe that after all of my intense soul-searching, the hardest part would be in the quiet moments after my trip when I tried to make sense of everything.  So I slammed my computer shut and walked away from writing for a while.  I became immersed in my job at the agency, focusing my attention on deadlines and projects.  I distracted myself with graduate school papers and reading assignments.  I also started planning my wedding with John after we officially became engaged in May.

         My yearlong retreat from writing came to an end a few weeks ago.  My coworkers during lunch reminded me of the post I had secretly been avoiding.  Oh, THAT thing?  I thought, staring down at my half-wilted Caesar salad.  I must have completely forgotten about it!  Deep down, I knew it was time to revisit my story.  I was done with graduate school and felt ready to take on the world as a new social worker.  Later that night, I booted up my computer and began to feverishly type.  I reminded myself of the Japanese notion of “wabi-sabi.”  I embraced the imperfections rather than gloss over them.  I admitted my frustrations as an adoptee.  I was more honest with myself. 

          My trip to Korea was not the answer to all my questions.  In truth, it actually dredged up more questions.  Nevertheless, I understand that my story, like everyone else’s, is comprised of unfinished pieces.  I may never know my complete birth history.  Or have the chance to meet my birth siblings.  But I can appreciate the fact that my story is an evolving work in process.

          I will return to Korea someday.  Next time, I hope it is with John and my family so I can show them the art galleries and markets that are tucked away in various corners of Seoul.   We can traverse the country by van and take ferries to different islands just like I did with Ms. Kang.  And years down the road, I will take John and our future children to the hospital where I was born so I can tell them my story.  The story of how I came to know my past.  

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The Invisible Disability

Janice Goldwater, LCSW-C
Founder and Executive Director
Adoptions Together

For years, many professionals and parents believed that without facial features or a lower IQ, the impact of prenatal alcohol exposure was not severe.  Some thought that bright-eyed kids who exhibited highly impulsive and very challenging behaviors just needed more intensive and creative interventions from their stable loving parents.  Yet their parents were pulling their hair out with frustration!   We thought there was little that could not be understood within the parameters of early adversity, attachment, trauma and temperament.  We asked ourselves why some children responded so well to treatment, to the stability and attunement their parents provided, while others’ behavior and ability to function just seemed to get worse with each passing year.

Why were some children so able to function well one moment and be so out-of-control the next?  How can they struggle so much with cause and effect thinking and make the same poor choices over and over again?  Clearly, something was missing in how parents and professionals understood what was happening.  Could children with no facial features of alcohol exposure, no maternal reporting and a normal IQ have brains that were altered by alcohol use?

The answer is YES.  It is now widely recognized that depending on the gestational age at which alcohol is consumed, different parts of the brain/body are impacted.  In fact, for facial features to be altered by alcohol, consumption must have occurred between the 5th and 7th week of pregnancy.  Today we know that the majority of people who are impacted by prenatal alcohol consumption have no external manifestations and many of the difficulties do not surface until school age and beyond.  The list below includes some of the challenges that may occur when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy.

  • Learning difficulties
  • Problems with language
  • Lack of appropriate social boundaries (such as over friendliness with strangers)
  • Poor short term memory
  • Inability to grasp instructions – problems with math
  • Failure to learn from the consequences of their actions
  • Egocentricity – Concrete thinking
  • Mixing reality and fiction (truth telling)
  • Difficulty with group social interaction
  • Poor problem solving and planning
  • Hyperactivity and poor attention
  • Poor coordination.

Despite our new knowledge, prenatal alcohol exposure continues to be overlooked when children experience problems at home and in school.  When unrecognized, this Invisible Disability can become even more complicated as secondary mental health problems may emerge when affected children and youth try to manage expectations that they may not be able to achieve.

The good news is that when the impact of prenatal alcohol consumption is recognized, specific interventions can and do work.  Simply helping parents, therapists and teachers understand what affected children and youth may struggle with allows all of those involved to relate in the most enriching manner possible.

With the advent of brain imaging and a much greater understanding of how the brain works, it is incumbent upon all of us to educate ourselves so we can best meet the needs of our growing youth, including those who may have been impacted by alcohol.  Information is power.  The more we know, the more precise we can be in responding to the needs of others.

To enrich your understanding of the impact of FASD and learn strategies for helping children who may be affected, please consider a conference for professionals, parents and educators on April 29th:  Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD); Attachment; Trauma; Implications for Managing Behavioral Challenges.  For more information, please visit
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Tags: Conferences,FASD,Attachment,Trauma,Behavioral Challenges,prenatal alcohol exposure
Category: Foster Care
Category: Adoption