The Myth of Motherhood

Which of the following mothers am I most like?

a) Madonna  b)

Something that has been on my mind a lot lately are the ways that
childhood and motherhood have been mythologized by our society. I have
thought about this a lot since having my own children.

Even though I got married young, I did not have kids right away. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have kids ever.
My own mom, bless her heart, seemed often overwhelmed with us. She was
a SAHM (stay at home mom) for most of my childhood, and I think she
felt the pressure to take that role. She had no identity outside that
of being "mother." Her mother had never been "allowed" to have a job.
When my grandmother was in her early fifties she accepted a part-time
job at a Christian manufacturing company as a secretary, against the
wishes of my conservative, sexist grandfather.

I recently came came across this article in Slate. The Real Myth of Motherhood:
Reconsidering the maternal memoir-cum-manifesto

by Ann Hulbert explores the plethora of mommy memoirs and books that
critique motherhood myths, all meant to give the "real" perspective of
motherhood versus the "American Mother Mystique" propagated to us by
both the liberal left and the religious right.

Hulbert writes:

If there is a "myth" of motherhood these days, it is
that mothers’ experience has been relentlessly, and romantically,
mythologized. In print, at least, the opposite is the truth. Over the
course of almost half a century now, women writers have been busy
crafting a withering corrective to official versions of motherhood . .
. Speaking from their conflicted hearts and hearths, non-prime-time
mothers have been issuing challenges to the tidy dogmas and dramas
dispensed by experts, preachers, politicians, advertisers, and TV

I can agree wholeheartedly with this analysis. I have lived it
myself. Both as a child growing up with an unsatisfied SAHM, and later
as one myself. I attended a school-district sponsored Early Childhood
Family Education classes (or for some, it might be "Mommy & Me" or
another version of the Voice-of-Parenting-Education-God curriculum)
with other SAHM’s. Often, the topics of conversation seemed so
self-indulgent and it was evident a few of us weren’t quite satisfied
with our entire identity defined solely through motherhood. It’s
difficult to admit it,though, because it is not a choice as much as a luxury
to have the time and resources to attend these kinds of parenting
classes or be a SAHM. It also seems ungrateful to acknowledge that it’s
sometimes damn hard.

Hulbert goes on to write:

Anne Roiphe acknowledged in Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World
almost a decade ago, highly articulate maternal memoirists are
inevitably "describing a narrow band of middle- and upper-class mothers
who have education and professions" (and often hail from urban or
suburban blue-state locations). . . the most obsessive, wrung-out
mothers seem to be the most affluent women, those with the luxury of
hiring nannies, panicking about private school admissions, scheduling
endless extra-curricular activities, etc.—with nothing telling them
when to stop—rather than women in a real financial bind.

I would add to Huberts assessment that these memorists and "motherhood myth" writers are also largely white.
So this makes me wonder – where are all the mothers of color writing
about their experiences of motherhood? And what about all the mothers
in poverty? Is this explosion of written expression saved for the
white, middle and upper class mothers only?

What does this have to do with adoption and social work?

Well, what happens when poor mothers and/or mothers of color express
feelings of ambivalence, frustration, or depression over their
experiences of motherhood?

They end up losing their children. By force. Because they don’t have
options or access to services that will help. Because they can’t afford
nannies, therapists or counselors, a formal education or laywers.
Because they don’t know how to get around "the system." Because someone
else has determined that their "ambivalence" about motherhood means
they should not have the "right" to parent. Because our society has a
hierarchy of determining who deserves to have the opportunity to parent.

I have known plenty of white and middle or upper class mothers who have serious problems. They are not the ones I see involved with Child Protection. Their children are not the ones who are adopted by other families.

Cooking Lessons


For the past six years I have been volunteering as a mentor through
a local adoption agency’s post-adoption program. Every year or two I am
matched up with a young woman who was transracially adopted. I often
get teens who are struggling with a number of issues, and my current
match is no exception. She is a lovely, sweet and ferociously
intelligent 16-year old. I really think she has a bright future ahead.

This past weekend, the two of us attended a "cooking class"
sponsored by said adoption agency. Fourteen of us mentor matches met in
the basement kitchen of a nearby church and watched two Korean women
make kimbap, bulgogi and chap chae. Mentee and I thought we would be
actually cooking, but it seems time and the opinions of the ahjumahs doing the cooking meant we watched from the side of the table instead.

Mentee and I had a good time anyway, just hanging out. But the whole
experience reminded me of another time I was "taught" how to cook
Korean food by a few bonafide Korean women.

I was 30 years old the first time I ate Korean food. As if my
tastebuds reclaimed past memory, the kimchee did not taste too spicy or
garlicy; I loved it from the beginning. Today, one of my favorite
meals, any time of the day, is a bowl of rice and kimchee.

I am aware that eating Korean food, or even learning how to make
Korean food at home, does not make me more "authentically" Korean, as
if there is such a thing. And my past experience with learning how to
cook Korean only served to make me feel more as if I’m just playing at
what it means to be a Korean.

Several years ago I wrote about this paradox in the following essay, which was later published in Korean Quarterly.


"I understand . . . why so many Americans of various
ethnic origins have chosen, over the last generation, to adopt a
one-size-fits-all “Asian American identity. . . In a way I envy those
who choose to become wholeheartedly Asian American: those who believe.
At least they have a certain order to their existence. I, on the other
hand, am an accidental Asian. Someone who has stumbled onto a sense of race and wonder now what to do with it."
Eric Liu, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker

A big bowl of steaming rice sits before me, another batch is cooking
in the rice cooker. Seolmei instructs me on the fine art of seasoning
the rice. A small grater distributes round, roasted sesame seeds over
the top of the rice. “Keep it in the freezer” she says. A drizzle of
dark, rich sesame oil, a dash of salt, a sprinkle of vinegar. Mix it
well and set it aside. Bong is opening the packages of sliced scrambled
egg, pickled radish, carrots, spinach and imitation crabmeat.

The seaweed is laid on the bamboo mat, and rice is spread on the
lower half. Like a typical American, I put on way too much. “No, no,
like this” they scold, scraping the excess off. We lay the strips of
crab and vegetables on the bed of rice, roll the end a little and
squeeze. Roll some more and squeeze.

On the first day of my son’s pre-school Parenting classes, they
arrived together. They are Korean. I know this, not because I
understand what they are saying, but because I recognize the names as
Korean. During parent-sharing time, Seolmei hesitates, apologizing for
her English. Though heavily accented, we all understand her. All the
other mothers go into brag mode, describing our kids, their ages, what
we do for fun in our spare time. Seolmei says, “I am so lonely. I miss
my family.” She begins to cry. No one knows what to do or say. I hand
her a tissue, but don’t know what to say either. After class, she and
Bong huddle together, gather up their kids and leave quietly. All week
I think about her and worry. I feel bad for not saying anything.

The next week I hand each of them a Korean Quarterly. I know nothing
about them, whether they are involved in the Korean community here. It
is the only thing I feel I can do, to let them know there are other
Koreans here in the Twin Cities.

“I’m Korean too,” I tell them, and their eyes widen in recognition.
“I’m adopted though, so I don’t speak Korean.” I give them my phone
number. “If you’d like to get together, the kids can play. If you’re
really brave, maybe you can try and teach me a few Korean words.”

That is why they are here now, in my kitchen. That is why we are
elbow deep in rice, seaweed and vegetables. We are making kimbap, the
Korean version of a California Roll. I already know how to make it.
They misunderstood; I’d said it was the only Korean food I know how to
make; they thought I was asking them to teach me how to make it.

They arrive at my house with everything: rice cooker, rice, seaweed,
all the vegetables thinly sliced, crab meat and eggs, scrambled and
sliced. They are surprised that I have most of the ingredients we need.
They “ohhh” over each item I pull from my cupboards. I have nori. I
have sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. I have a bamboo roller.

As we begin the preparations, inhibitions fall away and
personalities peek out. Bong is outspoken. Although I have everything
needed to make kimbap, Bong corrects me. “This seaweed is Japanese. Use
Korean” she says. “Your rice, it is too long.” She gives me a big bag
of short grain rice. Seolmei is more sensitive with a sneaky sense of
humor. The first kimbap I make is crooked. Instead of being in the
middle, the ingredients are lopsided. “Who made this one?” she laughs,
holding the offending kimbap. I show them the scrapbook I made of my
trip to Korea two years ago. They are excited to see that I’ve been to
their hometowns.

Seolmei and Bong try to teach me the words for each item we use. I
dutifully repeat, trying hard to get the pronunciations correct and I
fail miserably. All my small attempts to be more Korean seem completely
inadequate now that I have two genuine Koreans in my kitchen. I will
always be a kyopo, a foreign-born Korean. Trying to be Korean is like
being a little girl playing dress-up with my mother’s prom dress; it
doesn’t fit, but I can see little glimpses of what the future will look
like, once I begin to grown into it.

I’ve spent 90% of my life being American, yet when I think
“American” I think of white people, and I don’t include myself. But
I’ve been in Korea. If I spent the rest of my life there, I would never
be able to call myself a Korean either.

Which country do I choose? The one who appeals to me by the basest
aspects of my nature, the one in whom I recognize myself, those who
come from the same dust of many trodden feet, the ones whose sorrow and
collective soul are the same as mine?

Or the one who has grown me from a transplanted seed, an out of
place plant without the ability to spread roots into this soil. The
best I can hope for is to thrive as well as I can in a borrowed pot and
borrowed soil – but that is all right. I can move myself around, as I
have in the past, and thrive anywhere. I’ve learned to do so.

I struggle to find a place for people like myself, for the person I
was not long ago. I don’t believe any of us are “Accidental” Asians.
That is like saying we’re a cosmic or physical mistake. Perhaps we are
hesitant or uncertain; the many of us spread out over the world due to
war, economic opportunities or adoption. Seolmei and Bong are living
the opposite experience as me; they are hesitant Americans. They want
to be Americans, but they don’t want to lose their Korean culture. They
know people here do not know much about Korea, that everyone thinks
Korea is poor, “like Mash-ee” says Seolmei, “You know that T.V. show,

“Americans” Bong asks, “They only know Hmong? They all ask, are you Hmong?”

I am a bit too American to make kimbap in the correct way. Each time
I make it different, depending on my mood and the ingredients I happen
to have in my kitchen at any given time.

Sitting at the table Bong, Seolmei and I taste the results of the
afternoon. I can honestly say that although I’ve used the wrong
seaweed, stored my sesame seeds incorrectly and left out the vinegar –
overall, I can not tell the difference between Bong and Seolmei’s
version and my own.

But I know that by rinsing the rice first, and using the short grain
instead of long has indeed made better rice for kimbap. Americans like
their rice Uncle Ben’s style – as individual as themselves, each grain
standing alone, fluffy, and apart.

I’m seeing the value of Korean rice – stuck together, bonded. Maybe
kimbap is like my America. In my world, each of us is the lone
ingredient. Spinach may be too bitter for some palates, radish too tart
and seaweed too salty. I may not think much of the thick, glutinous
white rice that surrounds us, but it does make our individual flavors
stand apart. We enhance the flavors of each other. Rolled together, we
can make a beautiful balanced dish.

An Open Letter to Jessica Simpson

Dear Jessica,

I heard the news that you are thinking about adopting a child from Mexico. I know you just got divorced from Nick, but hey, it’s time you moved on with your life. I can’t think of a better way to improve your image than to adopt a poor child from an orphanage in Mexico, who, unlike that stripper-groping-party-boy ex-husband will always love and adore you unconditionally, at least when you’re in town between movie premieres and shopping. And this way, by adopting first, you can make that sequel to “Dukes of Hazzard” without ruining your bootylicious figure.

Hey, like your idol Angelina, it might actually improve your celebrity “it” rating. Just do it now, so you can benefit professionally from it. Adopting kids of a different race hasn’t hurt the image of Nicole Kidman or Michelle Pfeiffer. They’re both considered serious actors. And Julie Andrews did it too – she adopted from Vietnam, and hell, she was Mary Poppins! Just don’t wait too long like Meg Ryan’s recent adoption of a Chinese baby – she’s been out of the spotlight for so long, it just looks desperate. And you’ve got to do it before Paris Hilton jumps on the bandwagon too.

Just think how much fun it will be to throw a Mexican-themed birthday party for your little tyke once a year, and be sure to invite Salma Hayek for a little celebrity culture. Maybe she could be your kid’s godmother! It’ll be a fun chance for you to kick back with some slammin’ margaritas and a mariachi band.

I’m sure your little one will always be grateful for the opportunity to be adopted by a big-time celebrity. S/he will be so proud of your extensive B-list movie career and that MTV show you were on with whats-his-name. Oh yeah, I guess you were a singer once too.

Life with mansions, exclusive private schools and the best designer baby clothes will be so awesome, I’m sure s/he will never think about that godforsaken country s/he left. And this way s/he can come to the great land o’plenty legally instead of having to wait fifteen years to cross the border with Juan and Luis.

Years from now, I’m sure s/he will be grateful that s/he was adopted by you, Jessica Simpson. Next to the Nanny and your maltipoo Daisy, I’m sure s/he will love you best!



Adoptee radar

The first day we were at “Tiki Tina’s,”
I saw two cute little biracial toddlers, one just over a year and the
other I’d guess as two. They were watched closely by a teenaged white
boy, but every time the waves splashed they ran to their white mothers’
sides. Okay, I thought, maybe they aren’t adopted. I know I have the tendency to think that every brown child clinging to a white parent is adopted. My cynicism was soon rewarded, however, when “Daddy!” showed up.

(One little, two little . . . )

The next morning, I saw those same two families in the breakfast
room, but they were not alone. First, family at the table right next to
us had a little Asian baby.

(three little adoptees)

Two tables down sported a white, gay couple with their two Asian
boys. In the line for the breakfast buffet we passed two more
school-aged Asian kids with their white parents.

(four little, five little, six little adoptees, seven little . . . )

The count was at 7 kids and we hadn’t even finished breakfast.

Geez, I whispered to John. “I didn’t realize Duluth was such a haven for transracial adoptive families.”

“Do you always keep count?” asked Lucie, always there to remind me that “little pitchers have big ears.”

“I guess I just always have my radar on” was my poor and unsatisfactory explanation.

of course, here I am at the water park with my kids, enjoying some very
latent quality time (since all my quantity time lately has been school
and field work), and I still can’t stop thinking about all these
transracial adoptive families. It might have something to do with the
little notion that I’d brought along Cultures of Transnational Adoption along as “fun” reading.

I’m feeling like a protective, mother hen, trying to gird her
hatchlings for the cruel world that might lie ahead. I’m wondering
about these adoptive parents – what motivated them to adopt children
racially and culturally different than them? What are they doing to
prepare these children for life as an “other,” in their own families
and in the world at large? Do these parents understand the role they
are playing in the systems of geo/social/political and economic
reinforcement that perpetuate the flow of “deserving” (meaning both
actual orphans and “social orphans”) children from certain designated
countries to privileged, white families in the U.S., Canada, Australia
and certain parts of Europe?

Or are they merely thinking about the day-to-day life of parenting,
with the diapers and the naps and the help with homework and the soccer
team and where to take them to for spring break?

Whenever I talk to adoptive parents who are planning to adopt
transracially, I always ask how many of them are planning for their
kid’s future educational needs. Hands shoot up in the air. When I tell
them That’s the same kind of foresight you need to plan for your child’s future racial and cultural needs
there is usually silence. I find that when it comes to adoptive
parents, most of the concern is on the short term – the next five to
ten years. Somehow, a lot of adoptive parents forget that the little
cute kid they adopted from China or Guatemala will grow up some day to
be an adult – as Dr. Jaiya John reveals in his book “Black Baby White Hands: A View from the Crib,” his parents thought they had adopted a little brown teddy bear, but he grew up to be a big, black grizzly.

Are these adoptive parents ready for us to become adults?

As we walked towards our car on Tuesday night for dinner, we saw a
family come out of the hotel lobby. Three little kids that looked to be
Guatemalan with their white parents.

(eight little, nine little, ten little adoptees, playing at the water park!

Mamazine: “Experiences in transnational adoption”

Shameless plug alert: my brilliant friend, Kim Park Nelson, was
interviewed for, an online magazine. Love it, love it,
love it! Please check it out! Experiences in Transnational Adoption: An interview with Kim Park-Nelson

Some of my favorite quotes:

" . . . it’s becoming more and more clear that parents
are sucked in to the cultural and social conflicts of adoption just
like adoptees are. Their function is often different from
adoptees—white, middle-class, empowered—compared to adoptees,
non-white, poor, less empowered in society."


"What’s going on in transracial adoption is a microcosm
of society. Groups in power are often not open to critiques. It can be
hard to talk about racism with white people . . . Often they’re
unwilling to be accountable, because they feel they didn’t and don’t
personally commit racist acts. It’s less empowered groups that see how
change will improve their lives."

(This reminds me of what happened at Ji-In’s web site, when adoptive parents took the comments we adoptees made personally.)


"An attempt to keep kids in contact with their birth
cultures is the current trend, and I have really mixed feelings about
it. Right now the "cultural education"is so tokenized . . . Here’s the
other thing about culture camp—it’s not like contemporary Korean at
all. It’s Orientalized, the tea ceremony, fan dancing, nothing about
contemporary Korean life. Unfortunately, a lot of predominant
stereotypes end up being passed on to adoptees."

This part resonated a lot with me based on my experiences of late:
"Multicultural understanding of adoptees is far from done. For
instance, I’ve noticed that adoptive families of young Chinese
daughters can be very self-righteous, with an attitude that they’ve
learned from what adoptive families of Korean children did ‘wrong.’"

Kim, you said it better than I could. Cheers to you!