A Dutch woman travelled to South Korea because she wanted to find her birth mother. She ended up on a television show about reuniting people. A call was put out for her mother, who phoned in and the pair were reunited. They did not have a language in common and so Hosu Kim, a sociology and anthropology professor based in the US, was called in to interpret for the show. Kim wrote about her experiences on the show as part of her new book which is all about the transnational adoption of Korean babies.
The producers of the television show deliberately scripted the reunion, and Kim noted that the experience of the birthmother was falsified in several ways for the sake of television. The show made it seem as if the birth mother – or, the virtual mother as Kim likes to call her – recognized her daughter’s face as soon as she saw it on the screen and called in at once. In fact, it was a friend of hers who recognized her name and who contacted the show for her. On the day the reunion was screened, the producers called the mother.
Emotionally, the narrative of the show was that the mother had been longing for her daughter all this time, that ill health and poverty had forced her to give up her daughter to a better life, and that she was delighted to be reunited. But the truth was not like that, it was more ambiguous. The mother had been married at the time of the birth and it was never really clear why she had chosen to leave her baby behind in hospital. She has five other daughters, and they had never been told about the other sister. The conversations that Kim helped interpret after the screening of the show she described as “confusing, frustrating, and unsatisfying”.
Kim describes two imaginary cultural figures of birthmothers:
The first figure is of an elderly, sacrificing mother who awaits her adopted child’s eventual return in order to reclaim her motherhood; the second figure is of an unmarried, sexually irresponsible woman who has no viable option except to relinquish the child to adoption.
You know, when I first read this, I felt angry and indignant at the idea of women being judged as too irresponsible to keep their children. How outrageous! Why, if those mothers did not have sufficient emotional, social and economic support to raise their children, then it was the fault of society in general! As Hrdy and others have explained, the work of raising a child is simply too much for a single person. There needs to be a team (a village!) backing her up.
But, you know, while I am still a mother of young children, retirement seems just a stone throw away, really, and young women seem like a different generation. It occurs to me that in societies without strong government welfare, the work of caring for young, irresponsible mothers and their offspring would have fallen to people like me! To middle-aged, middleclass women who lived in the area with their own children. We would have had to cough up money, food, babysitting time, concern, just to get those babies through to school age without any disasters. And we would have resented it! There’s enough work for us to do already without irresponsible young women not taking enough care to avoid pregnancy in the first place! Hmm. Obviously, the situation is quite different nowadays because of abortion, contraception and government benefits. It’s none of my concern whether people get pregnant or not. So I have the luxury of being liberal minded.
Television is all about selling a story, and Kim writes in an engaging way herself. Still, there’s something very intriguing about the idea that we’re all culturally and politically invested in stories of individual mothers. I’m not Korean, and Kim lost me a bit when she talked about Korean history and culture, but I definitely felt invested in how the story of this birthmother was framed. Her story is my story! Except of course, it isn’t even remotely my story. So why does it feel like that?