A Day For Forgotten Moms of Korean Adoptees

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May 7, 2012

May is a month of quasi-holidays in South Korea. Saturday was Children’s Day and Tuesday is Parents Day. Teachers’ Day is coming up and so is Couples’ Day.

Amid this month of days that promote Korean ideals of family life, the government in 2006 designated May 11 as Adoption Day. The idea was to raise awareness of – and promote adoption by — Korean families.

A less-talked-about element behind Adoption Day is the hope by government officials to reduce South Korea’s reliance on international couples to adopt children from Korean orphanages.

But even less talked about than that goal is the fact that most children put up for adoption are the product of relationships between men and women who don’t marry. And the shame over that is heaped most heavily on the woman carrying the baby.

That’s why, for the second year in a row, several groups that promote the rights and welfare of single moms (unwed, divorced, widowed, you name it) have banded together to declare that Adoption Day also be recognized as Single Mothers’ Day.

They hope to raise awareness that the problems that lead women to give up their babies for adoption could be solved if the government and society in general provided more support to them.

Of the children who are legally adopted domestically, about 92% are born to single mothers. And undocumented adoptions, which are believed to occur at three times the rate as official ones, virtually always occur because the child is born out of wedlock.

The concept of Adoption Day – while laudable in the sense of promoting a potentially better life for children – has been difficult for parents who give up their children and for the adoptees themselves.

Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean adoptee who grew up in the U.S. and returned to South Korea in 2004 and has worked here ever since, said the awkwardness came up at a dinner she attended a few years ago with other adoptees and advocates of single mothers.

Lori Askeland
Jane Jeong Trenka, president of Truth & Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, in Seoul.

“The connection is the 92% of adoptees, the fact that most of us come from single moms,” she said. “So instead of celebrating the separation of our families, we should promote the preservation of our families.”

Ms. Trenka is the president of Truth & Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, or TRACK, a group that advocates policy changes to support adoptees and the families that give up children for adoption. Among the groups that, with TRACK, are promoting Single Mothers’ Day is the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, whose founder Richard Boas discussed his goals with the Journal last year.

At the core of the adoption debate is that South Korean policymakers are focused on the symptoms of the issue (for instance, a still-high rate international adoptions) rather than its causes (the welfare of the families putting children up for adoption).

“The international community agrees that the best thing is for a child to be raised by his or her own family, then the second thing is domestic adoption and the third thing is international adoption,” Ms. Trenka says. “Korea is playing around with number 2 and number 3, while we’re asking that they look at number 1.”

“If we know that, of the documented adoptions, that 92% involve single parents, then there’s a pattern here,” she added. “Since we agree that the best thing to do is be raised by mom, why don’t we do that?”

TRACK is being joined by several other organizations in sponsoring a day-long seminar at the National Assembly on Friday to discuss issues faced by single mothers.

The Single Mothers’ Day program comes just a week after the publication of the Korean-language edition of a book called “Outsiders Within,” a collection of essays about transnational adoptees that Ms. Trenka co-edited.

She said a long-term goal of the groups involved in the Single Mothers’ Day is to change a cultural bias that says a family is only a mother and father together.

“If you think that adoption is the right answer [for children from single mothers], then you assume something about the mothers,” Ms. Trenka said. “You’re assuming that she is incapable of caring for her own child, that she is not deserving of support and that she is somehow not quite fully human.”

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