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Updated: Mar 16, 2021

A girl. The disappointment washed over her body. She couldn’t keep a girl. This had been her greatest fear for the last nine months. Being unable to know the gender of the human growing inside of her had caused her incredible anxiety and distress since the day she had found out she was pregnant. When she couldn’t sleep at night, or found herself preoccupied with worry during the day, she would silently hope and pray that she was carrying a boy. She had heard every whisper and what was thought to be private conversations between her husband and his parents and knew the only way she would be able to keep this baby, is if she gave birth to a boy. However, as she held her tiny, beautiful daughter in her arms, her heart objected the thought of not keeping her with all its might. How could this small being be considered so wrong? She also knew though, that the law hung rigidly over her head. She needed to have a boy, it was her duty to do so. So, while she held her daughter close to her chest, she quietly cried feeling defeated with no other option, but to give her up.

A few days later, she bundled her daughter in layers of clothes. It was cold in January, too cold. She held her daughter against her own bundled body and moved quickly through the unpopulated early morning side streets. Soon the streets would be bustling with people and she couldn’t risk being seen. Swaddled in a thick blanket, she laid her sleeping baby down, and kissed her one last time while her tears rolled warmly down her cold cheeks. She held back her sobs and stepped away from her child. She hurried around the corner where she would wait for someone to notice her daughter and take her away.

This story is not true. However, it’s the story I had concocted in my head of the possible emotions that were felt prior to my birth and the actions that were taken the first few days of my life. I didn’t allow myself to think about my birth mom growing up. I had a loyal allegiance to my adoptive mom; she was the only mom I had ever known, she was my family. Even with being content in my life and my family growing up, I couldn’t help creating these stories that would weave together in my imagination. Stories that answered the burning question I forbade myself from asking: Why? Why did she give me up? The one child policy over the years had become an answer I felt strongly dissatisfied with. For many years now, I’ve wanted to fill the gap of my first few hours and days with my birth family so badly, and I’ve wanted to know what other factors played into the decision to give me up. I don’t have a child yet, but the thought of having to relinquish my unborn child stirs up immense pain within me, and I wonder often was it painful for her?

When I was in China this past Christmas doing a heritage trip with my family, I got to piece together parts of my story that I never thought I would have had the opportunity to do. At the orphanage that I spent the first seven months of my life in, I went through my slender file and found the address of the police station that someone had brought me to when they found me on the street. With my family, we followed that clue an hour outside of the city that I originally had believed I was born in. Driving into the actual (smaller) city that my documents said I was at least found in, was different than the setting I had made up in my mind for so many years of my life. In the big van that we drove, we passed by people sitting on stools in the street that reminded me of step stools children use to reach the sink to wash their hands or brush their teeth. These people sat behind their vegetables that were for sale, which laid out on straw mats, gnats hovering closely above. Some people had fish in buckets of water that made me think of the buckets my sisters and I had made sandcastles with when we would go to the beach. While there was no more information that I gained at the police station, the officers were kind enough to tell us which street I was most likely left on. As the evening turned into night, I walked down that street with my family wondering where I might have been left. Reality slipping into the chronicles I had so thoughtfully created. As I walked silently with my sisters trailing behind me, I wondered to myself if my birth mom was somewhere close by. Suddenly, I was consumed with sadness that even if she were, we wouldn’t know each other.

While on that trip I learned more about what the conversations may have looked like leading up to my birth. I also learned who may have been involved in the decision to give me up. Our translator told me that because of the one child policy sometimes birth fathers would threaten to leave their wives if they didn’t give a girl up. She told me that twenty plus years ago, the only job that women felt they could do was be a wife and being a wife meant obeying one’s husband. I was also told that sometimes birth parents would not want to give up their child, but grandparents were more adamant about the child needing to be a boy. Thrown into our translator’s explanations to me were stories of poverty as well, including the possibility that perhaps birth parents already had another child and could not afford to pay the fee that raising a second child would require. Even with gaining more information than I ever thought I’d get, information that would lead me to create even more stories in my mind, it wasn’t enough and I felt myself craving more. Sadly, I suppose that will always be the case.

With each of these stories it’s important to pay attention to the details, or lack thereof. What I have run into over the years with my own stories and hearing stories from other adoptees about the “blanks” in their own lives, is a stream of excitement in creating these narratives. It’s important to pay attention to who is in our stories, who isn’t, who are the bad guys, and what are the emotions felt by each person in the storyline. For me, for example, I’ve never incorporated a birth father into my tales. I clearly had one, but for some reason it’s always really only been me and my birth mom in my head. Exploring that further for myself and why that may be would be interesting to investigate. Perhaps we make up these accounts in the first place and embellish them with drama and forbiddingness because it makes things more exciting; it makes the truth less painful. Perhaps it feels better to brainstorm all the potential possibilities of what could have been at that time, rather than settling for the dismal truth of our circumstances.

When I was in college I sat across from my therapist on her couch and told her about another story that I had recently come up with. There’s a technique called free association in therapy, in which a client says whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly it may seem or feel and the therapist warmly yet neutrally allows the free stream of thought to unfold, waiting to draw attention to the latent meaning within the words. In this case, I began to tell her my story and continued to fill in details that seemed fitting to me. It was the story of my birth and it went like this: My mom lived in a poor village where word got around easily. An unplanned pregnancy was disgraceful and so my mom hid her growing belly under baggy clothing until the only choice she had was to not come out of her home. When my mom went into labor she had to be silent and secretive. She went out into the fields and had me. She was all alone. As she held me that night after my birth, fireworks went off in the distance. My mom held me close to her and cradled me under the lit-up sky. It was just me and her for at least that moment in time and she was calm and happy, so was I. I remember when I finished that story, my therapist looked at me and said, “Emma you do deserve fireworks.” I teared up and nodded my head. Those words that my therapist uttered to me after that story have never left me and all I know, is she was right. I did and still do deserve those fireworks. Wrapped up in that sentence held what I had been longing to hear, that my life and my existence matters and that I am worthy.

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