The Alternate History of Susan Chung: One Woman’s Quest to Find Her Birth Parents

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 23 2013 9:00 AM

What to Expect When You’re … Adopted

My search for my birth parents began when I got pregnant.

Pregnant Woman.
For an adoptee, does getting pregnant change your desire to learn more about your birthparents?

Photo by iStockphoto/Thinkstock

I was born to Korean immigrants in Seattle, and my confidential or “closed” adoption at the age of 2 months severed all ties between my birth family and me—until I set out to restore those ties a few years ago. Though I was always curious about my first parents and their reasons for giving me up, I had been focused on other things—going to school, graduating from college, finding a job, getting married. But after years of wondering, I finally had a compelling, undeniable reason to look for my birthparents, a reason I thought about night and day (and every time I caught a glimpse of my expanding waistline in the mirror): I was expecting my first child.

I fully expected my life to change when I became pregnant. But the strong desire to find out more about my original family was not something I had anticipated. After a lifetime of trying to convince myself that blood connections were unnecessary, at least to me personally, I was just months away from meeting my first biological family member. I couldn’t deny how closely our lives and our histories were already entwined; as an adoptee, I had almost no way to comprehend it. I could no longer believe that my biological connections weren’t of great importance, responsible in many ways for the person I became. My daughter and I had yet to meet, but I knew that we were connected; that I was a part of her. The deep love her father and I felt for her—had my birthparents felt that way about me? Even if they hadn’t, shouldn’t I know why, and what happened to our family that made my adoption seem necessary?

So, in between work and childbirth classes and endless discussions with my husband about the merits of various baby names, I began the search for a suitable intermediary. Finally I found Donna, who seemed to possess good intentions and a willingness to proceed slowly and respectfully with my birthparents. I sent her requested $500 fee and a notarized form authorizing her to petition the court for my file.

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She called two months later, when I was in my third trimester, to announce that she had found my birth family and could forward a letter to them as soon as I wrote it. “Did you know that you have five sisters?” she exclaimed. “The social worker wasn’t sure, but she got the impression that your parents might have wanted a boy, not another girl.”  

I felt irritated with her for sharing such hurtful speculation at the very start, but it also made me snort—after five daughters, I thought, my birthparents should have recognized a clear pattern when they saw one. “What else does it say in the file?” I asked.

“Because you were born over two months premature, the doctors told your parents that you might be deaf or blind, or have other serious disabilities. Your parents seemed worried about what people in their community would think if they brought home a baby with special needs. They thought it would be easier if they told everyone that you died at birth—that appears to be what they told your sisters.”

Alone in my room, I gripped the phone tightly, my head whirling. Years ago, when a friend asked me if I had an “idealized” view of my birthparents, I had scoffed and said no. Yet now, confronted with notes from my unearthed adoption file, I realized that my imagination had nonetheless cast my birthparents as courageous people who made a terribly difficult decision out of love, as many birthparents do. Over the years, as my adoptive parents shared snippets of information culled from the attorney who handled my adoption—your birthparents were recent immigrants; they worked 14 hours a day and had no health insurance; the doctors told them you would struggle all your life—I had used these facts to bolster my view of them. I pictured defiantly strong people who made the decision to place me for adoption so that another family could provide the care I needed should the doctors’ predictions prove correct. It had never occurred to me that their decision might also have been motivated by the fact that I was a girl—a girl whose potential health problems could prove embarrassing to them.

Hearing the intermediary read my adoption file over the phone left me doubting my birthparents, doubting their intentions, for the first time. Did they give me up because I wasn’t the son they’d hoped for? Would they have been embarrassed to have a child who was deaf or disabled? I thought about my own daughter, not yet born or named but very much wanted, and felt disappointment well inside of me.

Eventually I realized that Donna was still waiting for me to say something. “Is there anything else I should know before I write my letter?” I asked. I was no longer certain I wanted to write it—perhaps no answers were better than ones I might hate.

“Just one more thing,” she said. I heard paper rustling through the phone. “There’s a name here. Your parents chose it for you before you were adopted.”

“A name.” My heart thumped once, hard. “What is it?”

“Susan.”

Susan. I didn’t know many Susans. I was sure that I didn’t look like one. But it was the name my birthparents had chosen for me—the name they gave me in the hospital.

With tears in my eyes, I tried, as I had many times before, to imagine myself in their place. I tried to imagine being parted from my own daughter, a thought too painful to consider. If I were giving up the right to raise my child, if I knew I might not see her again after her birth, would I bother giving her a name—one she wasn’t going to keep? Would it help, somehow, to remember her by name?

Maybe my parents would have preferred a son instead of a daughter. Maybe they felt ashamed for having a child they couldn’t keep. But as I thought about them, and my own baby whose birth I looked forward to with so much excitement and hope, I felt sure that my parents would not have named a child they didn’t love.

I said good-bye to Donna and hung up the phone, fingers already roving over my laptop keys. A quick search told me that the name Susan meant “lily.” I wondered what it had meant to my birthparents. 

I’ll have to ask them in my letter.

I opened a new file and began to write.

Nicole Soojung Callahan is a graduate student in the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. 

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