As an adoption social worker, Ashley Jochum helps facilitate connection and support among adoptees and their families. In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, she shares a letter she wrote to her own birth mother and reflects on the process of grieving through re-authoring her story.

Ashley (far right, in her father’s arms) was one of ten girls adopted at the same time from an orphanage in Hunan, China, by families across the United States.

A Letter to My Birth Mother

Dear Birth Mother,

I’ve often wondered why you gave me up. When I was younger, I had thought perhaps it was because you didn’t want me. After all, I wasn’t a boy. As I got older, I became more interested in the surrounding circumstances. Learning more about the one-child policy, perhaps it wasn’t even your choice at all. My thinking changed from “Why was I given up?” to “What were the choices – or lack of choices – that made keeping me not possible at all?”

I have always wondered how I came into this world. The birthday given to me was December 21st, 1995, but the orphanage said that my abandonment date was January 14th, 1996. Was I born naturally? How much did I weigh at birth? Did you hold me? What did that feel like? The burning question that has always lingered in my mind is… if my abandonment and birth dates are true, what happened in those 24 days after I was born?

When I was younger, I would look at the weather to see if it was snowing out – searching for some reason for why the dates were so far apart. The burning thought that I may never know is that maybe you tried to keep me for 24 days, and then… did it get too hard? Did government officials find out about me? Were you forced to give me away? Whatever the reasons are, nonetheless, I am forever grateful that you let me live despite the social shame, guilt, and difficulties of concealing a pregnancy during that time.

I can only hope that you would want to know what has happened to your daughter in the years after. I want you to know that I was adopted by a lovely Caucasian family in the United States that gave me a place to call home. I graduated from Messiah College and received my master’s degree in social work, where I help families who have adopted both domestically and internationally become stronger through increased connection with one another. I have even helped other families and children finalize their adoptions. I feel it is perhaps because of my lived experience of adoption – and your choice to bring me into this world – that I have a special connection with those children and their families.

I often wonder if you would be proud of me. I often wonder about the traits that I have inherited. Where does my hardworking attitude come from? What language or dialect do you speak? Do I have any other siblings? How often do you think of me? These are the questions surrounding every fiber of my being when all is quiet at night, and I am left with my own thoughts.

Words are not enough to express my gratitude for the life you have given me to write these very words and be here today. I have been given opportunities that I most likely may not have had, had I grown up in China. I have a mother and father who love me very much, but I can’t help but hold a special place in my heart for you, in hopes of one day finding you to tell you how much I care.

As I look towards the future, I am learning to be OK with not being OK with never truly knowing you and the wonderful person you are. I like to think that many of my innate characteristics about myself come from you. There is a deep pain at the idea of never getting to meet you and show my appreciation of the life you have given me. After all, you most likely risked your own life and future to give birth to me, your daughter.

I thought you might be interested to know that I am now married to my husband, Seth, for about five years. We are thinking of starting our own little family soon, so you will hopefully be a grandmother soon. It pains me to know that the closest thing to having my own flesh and blood is to have a baby myself. I hope you smile and know that I am loved when you read this. I pray that we may meet again one day.

Love,
Ashley

Ashley with her adoptive parents and husband, all smiles on graduation day.

A Reconnection with Myself

The idea to write this letter first came to me when I read the book, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love, by Xinran. I wanted to write a response to all of the birth mothers wondering where their daughters had gone. When I first started writing though, I became extremely emotional, waterworks and all. Turns out I had never actually taken the time to sit in the uncomfortable before.

Growing up, I kept a journal and wrote in it fairly consistently. But I mainly recorded what happened day to day, not how I really felt deep down. Throughout my adult life, I’ve always continued to go go go – preparing for the next thing, working hard, getting ahead… running away from feeling the pain and grief of not knowing who my birth family is. 

I do not know if I will ever fully get over this feeling of loss. However, I don’t want to bury this pain so deep to the point that it limits my wellbeing and capacity to be the best wife, mother, and friend I can be. As my husband and I look towards the next stage of life of having our own children, whether biologically or through adoption, it is important that I give myself the time and space to grieve the loss of my birth mother, prior to becoming a mother myself.

Now that I’ve finally put these words to paper, I feel a strong sense of relief, like a weight off of my shoulders. Taking the time to write this letter – a tangible expression of how I feel – has brought me one step closer to gaining a sense of closure. I feel a lot more in touch with my emotions, how I really feel about my birth family… and I actually wish that I had written more letters to my birth mother growing up. I would have liked to see how my questions about her have changed over time – and how my perspective of myself has grown too.

A Message to Your First Family

If you’re an adoptee reading this, I hope you will feel encouraged to write your own messages to your birth parents or first family. Re-authoring my life story has helped me to better understand why I was adopted. I hope this process can be healing for you as well.

Your message doesn’t have to be a letter like mine. It can be a piece of artwork or something that represents how you feel about your birth family. There isn’t a “correct” format – grief, loss, and hope look different for each of us. Just do what feels natural to express what’s on your heart. What’s important is allowing yourself the time and space to be present with your thoughts and feelings.

Here are a few guiding questions to help you get started.

  • What would you like your first mother to know about you?
  • What questions have you ever wondered about your first family?
  • What hopes and wishes do you have for your first family?
  • Who has been a big support for you in your adoption journey?
Ashley at her wedding in 2018 with friends
Of the original ten adopted together from the same orphanage in 1996, Ashley has stayed in close touch with seven of her “crib mates” and their adoptive parents. Until the pandemic, they have reunited every year for 22 years and, of course, the joyous occasion of Ashley’s wedding!

An Invitation to Reflect in Community

It can be cathartic to explore these questions together in community. If you would like a supportive space to express yourself, I’ll be hosting a free workshop on Tuesday, November 29 (6:00 pm PST / 9:00 pm EST) with My China Roots on Discord. It’ll be an open time for adoptees to come write and draw messages to our first families together. To join, register on Discord, then RSVP in the #events-rsvp channel.

If you feel inspired to try this activity on your own, I invite you to share your creations with me via email at ashleykjochum@gmail.com or on Instagram @ashley_jochum. I am compiling a collection of letters and artwork into a book about our challenges as adoptees grappling with race, identity, and belonging. I would love to connect and hear your story!

What would you like to ask or tell your first family?

Explore your adoption story in community 💌

Ashley Jochum

Ashley Jochum is a Chinese adoptee adopted from Hunan province by her loving parents Michael and Frances Karpiak in May 1996 and is married to her wonderful husband, Seth. A social worker with a BSW from Messiah College and an MSW from Widener University, she is dedicated to serving adoptees and their families through permanency services in Pennsylvania.

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