One of the greatest blessings of the Korean adoption system is the foster mothers. Infants and toddlers are taken care of in private homes by foster mothers. The majority of these foster mothers, though not all, are women whose own children are grown. They take usually one or sometimes two babies into their home for anywhere from two months to two years. They often carry the baby on their backs in the traditional Korean carrier quilt. The infant may sleep in the foster mother’s bed. If not, she sleeps on a mat on the floor in the foster mother’s room. They bring the baby to the adoption agency at least monthly for a developmental and medical checkup, and sometimes weekly for a play group.
In Korea, after children reach about 2 ½ years of age they may go to an orphanage-type institution if they have not yet been adopted, but at least they have had the nurturing that makes an infant grow into a child who trusts people and believes he deserves to be taken care of.
Certainly this makes the separation hard on the children. One adoptive mother said she thought the foster mother had “let the baby get too attached”. But one adoptive father wrote in our agency journal some very wise advice:
“Try not to envy the foster mothers. Remember, the strength of the bond the child has with them is the strength of the bond they will come to have with you.”
This has been our experience. Our daughters really grieved for their foster mothers, but they turned to me in their grieving, clearly recognizing that that’s what mothers are for.
In contrast, at the same time that we adopted my older daughter, a friend adopted a child the same age as Meg. Her son came from an institution. She said he showed no grief whatsoever—there wasn’t much to grieve for, she said—but that he didn’t seem to differentiate between his new mother and any other person for quite some time. He is now doing just fine, as are many children from institutions, but in my mind there is no denying the benefits of one-on-one or one-on-two attention.
In fact, agencies in other countries such as China and Eastern Europe now have pilot programs in which some children are in a foster home while they await adoption. In Guatemala as in Korea, the majority of children are in foster care prior to adoption.
So on this Mother’s Day, I would like to salute the foster mothers. Though they earn a small stipend, for the women I saw, and sometimes for their whole families, this is much more than a job. They hold and talk to the babies, worry about them, love them–and set the stage for them to love and trust another.
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