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‘The other side of adoption’
Sixteen years ago Rose Johnston got the best Mother’s Day gift ever: a baby boy adopted from Korea.
Zack Johnston was just 4 months old when he joined Rose and Craig Johnston and their daughter Katie Johnston two days before Mother’s Day in 1995.
This year, Rose Johnston is compiling a book of letters from adopted Korean children to their birth mothers — a way to give back to the Korean women who give up their children and never know if they are loved or how their children feel toward them.
In June 2010, Zack, Rose and Craig Johnston traveled with a large group of blended families to Korea as part of the Korean Ties Program.
“It was the first time we’d seen so many families like ours,” Rose Johnston said.
It was visiting a maternity home called Esther House that really opened the eyes of the Johnston family, especially Zack Johnston, to what these women go through in giving up their babies.
The greatest fear
Zack Johnston said he wasn’t sure what to expect during the trip to Korea or Esther House.
“I was very confident that my family created who I am,” he explained. “But going back to connect with my birth country was good.”
He was adventurous in trying Korean food, including silkworms, raw octopus and sea urchin.
But he was shocked when he learned, while speaking to the pregnant women at Esther House, that their greatest fear was that their child would feel shame and hate them for giving them up.
Zack Johnston said he went into the experience not knowing what his birth mother went through and preparing himself emotionally not to be accepted by her. Instead he found the birth mothers were fearing rejection themselves.
“It rearranged my thoughts on the whole thing,” he said.
Rose Johnston said speaking through the group’s translator, Younghey Noh, the mothers were asked what they hope for in giving up their unborn child.
“They hoped their child would be loved as their own,” Rose Johnston said.
‘The other side of adoption’
In December 2010, Rose Johnston was diagnosed with breast cancer and stopped working to undergo cancer treatment.
She needed a project to focus on and the women at Esther House came to mind.
“I wanted to give peace to those who needed it,” she said. “I wanted to calm the mothers’ fears and make them know the kids love them and live good lives.”
Many of the families who traveled to Korea together remained in contact and after talking to her son she decided to compile a book of letters and photos to send to the pregnant women at Esther House.
It would be called “The other side of adoption.”
Korean adoptees from ages 10-28 wrote letters about how they felt about being adopted, how they felt toward their birth mother and how they felt about their lives in America. Parents added picture collages of the children growing up to add to the book.
Younghey Noh, the translator who accompanied them on their trip, agreed to translate the letters into Korean.
“Some are a few paragraphs, others are multiple pages,” Rose Johnston said. “They are affirmation from the children and address the difficulties and successes of being bicultural and their feelings toward their birth mothers.”
Letter to an expectant mother
Zack Johnston offered to share his letter, written to the expectant mothers at Esther House.
“My name is Zack and I am a Korean adoptee,” he begins.
His letter acknowledges the opportunities he’s had because he was adopted and his gratefulness to his parents for raising him the best they could.
During the trip to Korea, he began to understand what being Korean meant and for the first time he felt he was actually Korean, he wrote.
The trip to Esther House was emotionally overwhelming because of the connection he felt with the women and the worry he saw on their faces.
“After this, one of the most emotional experiences I have had to this day, I thought about the woman that gave birth to me, a woman that I have not a single memory of or a name to call her by, and I felt sorry for her,” he wrote. “Before I never considered how hard a decision she had to make. Even having not met her, I hope that she can live without shame, and if anything, I felt remorse at the fact that I couldn’t comfort my own birth mother or assure her that I am well.”
Zack Johnston’s letter, along with all the others, are being compiled and will be sent to two maternity houses in Korea, including Esther House.
This Mother’s Day, Rose Johnston is reaching out to the mothers who give women like her the best gifts ever.
Reach Amanda Winters at firstname.lastname@example.org.