A mother’s limitless loveThe saying goes that blood is thicker than water, but for Lee Bok-sun, 63 ― foster mother to 118 children over the past 22 years ― the youths she has cared for are like her own flesh and blood.
“If I had only one wish, it would be to run a motel big enough to house all the kids that I have taken care of over the years, and have them stay for a night. And I mean all of them,” says Ms. Lee.
She has cared for her current foster child, five-month-old Min-jong, since he was 40 days old. A plump and chubby baby with curiously huge, bright eyes, Min-jong was born prematurely, but is now looking robust and healthy. She wipes saliva from his mouth and lulls him tenderly.
“He eats a lot. I mean, more than you can imagine,” Ms. Lee says. “And that has made him solid.” Min-jong gurgles and smiles a lot, but his focus is scattered from one end of the room to the other.
She puts Min-jong in his pram. “I bought this pram myself for 300,000 won ($260). I call it the ‘Holt limousine,’” she beams. Min-jong smiles as she scratches his head. “It is to make him amused. It’s a trick I learned. You scratch their heads and they will giggle endlessly.”
An affable grandmother with a soft, calming voice, Ms. Lee is something of a legend among the foster mothers at Holt Children’s Services, Korea’s oldest adoption agency. Not only has she been foster parenting for more than two decades, she remembers each and every one of the children she has taken care of.
“Ms. Lee takes care of her foster kids with genuine love and affection,” says Lee Soo-yeon, of Holt’s foster care division. “The majority of foster mothers quit after two to three years, but she has been with us for more than 20 years. This shows how dedicated she is.”
She keeps a list of all 118 children, including their names, dates of birth, genders, dates of arrival and departure and where they went after they were adopted. Ask about the child she cared for from, say, January to June of 1982, and she responds almost instantly.
“Oh, Lee Dae-jung, of course I remember the child. From the orphanage,” she says. “He was suffering from malnutrition when I took him in at age four. I made him stay outdoors more to get a breath of fresh air, and fed him heartily. I heard he was adopted by a rich French family, but I haven’t heard from him since. Yes, I pray for him.”
The children who were sickly seem to stand out in her memory. “I took care of a few disabled children. I remember Lee Eun-gyeong, who had Down’s syndrome,” she says. “I took her to Yonsei Severance Hospital several times for physical therapy. She had such lovely big eyes that followed me everywhere. She used to love listening to English tapes. I wonder about her... At first I was afraid to take care of a disabled child, but then I thought, if I didn’t, who would? Later, Eun-gyeong was adopted by a family in Oregon in the U.S.,” recounts Ms. Lee.
She never worried about the kids who were adopted into American families. But when a couple in Norway adopted one, she panicked. “That time, in the early 1980s, was the height of the Cold War. I found Norway on the map, and it was right near the U.S.S.R.,” she says. “I was afraid that Norway might be hit by some disaster.”
Ms. Lee attends early morning prayers every day at a local church, bringing her list with her, and prays earnestly for all of the children. That is why she remembers even those who only stayed with her for a couple of days.
Ms. Lee began foster parenting in 1981, around the time she moved into the neighborhood where Holt is located. Her children were fairly grown-up, the youngest in elementary school, which made Ms. Lee want to do something in her spare time.
She had heard that the agency gave money to those who would take care of children before they were sent to adoptive homes, so Ms. Lee decided to try foster parenting. The first child she brought home, a day-old infant, was taken back by his biological mother a mere five days after his arrival.
Her next child, a two-week-old boy, stayed for seven months before a Korean family adopted him.
“When the second boy left, I felt an immeasurable sense of hollowness,” she says. “I became half-crazy, crying my eyes out because I missed him so much. Then the Holt people told me to take in another child, which would make the separation blues go away. Soon I found myself singing lullabies instead of weeping.”
Since then, she has cared for children ranging in age from a few weeks to five years. Some stayed for only a few weeks; some, for whom it was difficult to find a home, stayed up to a year.
The pain of separation was worst after one child left and before the next arrived. “I was delirious with grief from parting with them,” she says. “I would just spend hours walking around Namdaemun, and at home I would sniff their cotton diapers, their socks, because I missed them so much.”
Holt provides about 400,000 won per month to foster families, but Ms. Lee says she always felt bad about taking the money. “I felt guilty taking money for taking care of my kids, but then I thought, pastors at churches receive money from offerings. Surely I could use a little extra to give these kids better stuff,” she says.
Ms. Lee’s two sons and her now-retired husband, who was an adminstrator at the Korea Bible Society, were more than thrilled to have toddlers in the house. Now, her two grown sons, who are married with children, bring their broods to her home to play with the foster kids. “To my own grandkids, I am an awful grandmother,” Ms. Lee says. “When they cause a mess or disturb my foster kids, I tell them to get away. I find myself giving the foster kids priority.”
Among the six score children she cared for, fewer than 10 have ever came back to visit her. But she says that doesn’t make her sad; she only prays that they will be OK.
Five years ago, Holt organized a trip to the United States for foster mothers whose foster children had been adopted there. In a two-week, four-state journey, Ms. Lee met up with another seven of the children, who she says are “living happily in loving homes.”
In all these years, she has never met any of the children’s birth mothers. But she has heard that they were mostly unwed mothers.
“When I look at these kids, I think, there must be some women in this world who are silently suffering: mothers who have had to give up their own children,” she says. “And when I think of the mothers, I can’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of sorrow for them. Nothing is more painful to a human being than having to give up your child or losing your child.”
The retirement age for foster parents is 65, but Ms. Lee says she wants to continue until her limbs feel weak and worn out.
“I love every one of these kids. They are my life. I am going to continue being a parent until I am fired by Holt,” she says, laughing heartily.
by Choi Jie-ho