Love Far Stronger: A Mother's Courage


Photo courtesy of Joel L. A. Peterson

The photo is of my mother and me the day I was placed on a plane to go to America and to my adoptive family.

As Mother's Day approaches, I wanted to share a unique perspective that may shed a different light than usual on what it may mean to be a mother; on what it means to truly love beyond self, and how the duties inherent in motherhood can demand the most exquisite sacrifice.

Through social media, I've heard thousands of my fellow adult adoptees from Korea share their thoughts and feelings. Although many feel alone and isolated, the truth is we are not alone. We share much of our thinking and feelings -- our yearnings and demons.

It seems that the vast majority of adoptees are seeking and keenly hoping to learn the circumstances, the reasons surrounding their relinquishment, their adoption. It goes to the core of so many of our deepest human needs and what defines our identities, especially to ourselves.

It is a desire that is completely understandable.

But I'm not one of them. Because I know exactly what the circumstances and reasons were for my relinquishment and adoption, because I was there.

I am fortunate -- and grossly unfortunate -- in that I was old enough to truly know what was happening (by Korean age counting, I was going on 8.) I had been raised since birth by my Korean mother and lived with her until adopted away.

And she clearly explained to me what she and I were -- and would be -- facing in Korea, she as an unwed, uneducated, starvingly destitute sex worker and me as her pariah mixed race child. This at a time when Korea was a place of brutal, pervasive poverty and a society obsessed with racial purity.

Don't let the photo fool you, the adoption agency bought her and me all new clothes and had her hair done, so that we would look presentable. The photo was later mailed to my American parents, to let them know my mother had freely made the choice to relinquish me.

"Saying that she freely chose is astronomically an exaggeration."

Saying that she freely chose is astronomically an exaggeration of the meaning of freedom, of choice, of options for women in her place, her station, in her time.

She explained why she was placing me for adoption -- her hope and her love's burning, anguished wish that I might have a future that would be completely unavailable if I stayed with her in Korea.

She made this point very, very clear to me: It was her love as a mother, her hopes as a mother, and her duties as a mother that drove her relinquishment. She had tried so hard, had given all of her soul and had fought the scorn and ostracism of her world, only to realize that it was futile. There would be no future for me raised in her destitute, desperate world.

I was old enough to understand her words and her love, but also old enough to know that I was losing my mother. I understood that the day the photo was taken might be the last time that I would ever see the only human being who'd ever shown me any love.

The two hundred thousand of us who were adopted from Korea all have unique stories and our own separate, but thematically similar journeys -- all too often shockingly, unthinkably heart wrenching.

"A last resort surgery for a tragic and potentially fatal medical condition..."

I liken my mother's and my situation to me needing a last resort surgery for a tragic and potentially fatal medical condition. She had to make a choice where there were no good options. And she chose to have me put through the surgery of relinquishment and adoption that I might live. But she knew that she would have to watch the cutting and the blood up close; that the blood would surely indelibly splatter her. And she knew that there would be no anesthesia -- that I would be wide awake and fully aware through all the pain, all the gore.

And the surgery would take years and she knew that she would likely never know the outcome, only knowing that I knew that it had been her decision to put me through the pain. She only knew that I knew and would someday judge her.

She also knew that there were few agonies as exquisite and horrific and wrenching as knowing that she was the one causing her child the deepest of pain. Yet her love gave her a courage to face this certain, searing, unmitigated pain -- in both of us -- in hopes of an uncertain outcome.

Now that I am a father, I'm not sure I would have had such courage and strength in her place. I'm awed by a love big enough to have let me go.

When I look at this photo, I think this knowledge is clear in both our faces -- in our eyes -- the day my mother's strength had to be at it's most; the day the surgery began.

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Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, "Dreams of My Mothers" (Huff Publishing Associates, March, 2015).

"Compelling, candid, exceptionally well written, Dreams of My Mothers is a powerful read that will linger in the mind and memory long after it is finished. Very highly recommended." -- Midwest Book Review

Learn more about the author and his book at and on Facebook

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at