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The Trauma of Parental Separation Can Last a Lifetime

I experienced it firsthand

Loey Werking Wells
Jun 18, 2018 · 5 min read

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When I was a baby I was separated from my parents. The details of the story are lost, but I do know that when I was just days or weeks old I was left in a box on the steps of a police station in Seoul. I’ve always assumed my mother voluntarily left me, given the circumstances.

But what were those circumstances, exactly? They are part of a story that faded away, like the note I imagine might have been pinned to my blanket, never to be read, only dreamed of.

From there I was put into an orphanage. In fact, that’s where I got my last name, Kim: it was the name of the head of the orphanage at the time. All of us babies were given his name. For the year I lived there, I didn’t thrive, and in fact I barely survived, because I was in an impoverished institution within an impoverished country. A wave of smallpox swept through the cribs and most of the babies around me died. I wasn’t spared the disease — I’ve got the scars to prove it. Eventually I became so malnourished I couldn’t lift my head. At that point someone intervened and I was sent to live with a foster mother. I’ve been told that moving to her house was probably what saved my life.

At 12 months old I was unable to sit, lift my head, or track objects with my eyes. While I may or may not have made attachments in the orphanage, I most certainly did when I lived in foster care. I started to learn Korean. Twelve months later I was adopted and taken from my foster home, the only home I had ever known. I was put on a plane to come to a new country, with new sounds, smells, and sights.

I screamed during the entire flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

My parents were new at the parenting thing: I was their first. They didn’t expect me to scream when I was put in bed, and only calm down when someone slept beside me on the floor. I screamed when I drank milk (people didn’t know much about lactose intolerance, which is rampant among non-whites). I screamed whenever my parents left me in the house, whether they were feeding the horses, moving the watering hose, or picking up the mail. We had a floor-to-ceiling window in our living room, and I would slam the glass and throw my head back and howl whenever they left, even if it was for just a minute.

It’s almost embarrassing how little doctors and parents knew about child development back in those days. How little they understood the deep need humans have to form attachments, and how important it is to do so at crucial points in our development. However, I think most of us instinctively understand that babies thrive with loving and consistent caregivers, and that when they lack sufficient care, the damage can be foundational, leading to effects that wind through one’s life, flaring up in unexpected ways.

You might look at me and think that being unable to form attachments early on didn’t screw me up too much. I’m educated, went to college and law school, have a close group of friends, have been married for decades, and even raised a fairly awesome kid.

Then you might think, maybe those kids — you know, the ones being separated from their parents right now, the ones whose parents are seeking asylum — well, maybe they’ll be okay.

Maybe. But it’s more likely they won’t. It will depend on how their story ends — how long they are separated, if they are ever reunited with their parents, and what happens after.

It was after I had my own kid that the residual trauma of being abandoned and moved from place to place reared its ugly head. I could not let my daughter out of my sight. Granted, many parents are like that — it’s got to be an evolutionary protection — but for me there was no separation from my kid for months, even years. I felt driven to protect my child to an extent that seemed almost pathological in safe, pleasant Portland. Having experienced the ultimate danger as an infant, I was damaged.

But perhaps I’m not that unusual. Most parents have an unwavering instinct to protect their children. That’s why they pull them out of burning buildings, why they leave everything behind when bombs destroy their neighborhood, why they send their kids on ahead with a note and a home-cooked lunch when they’re in a dangerous, lawless situation and know they have no power to keep them safe. That’s why they risk their own lives to find asylum for their children. The Muslims in Syria, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the battered women in Mexico, and the teenagers in El Salvador all know that staying still is more dangerous than anything they can imagine might happen to them if they leave.

Children are hurt every day, in every country. We know that. We live with that. But I think what resonates with Americans now is that the current crisis at the Mexican border is not the result of a natural disaster or another government. It’s happening on our watch, under our government, and it’s an issue of a difference of opinion. Opinions about who should be American and who shouldn’t. About which laws to enforce and which to ignore. About where empathy begins and morality ends. So many of us feel desperate to change the situation, but we sit by, jaded and hopeless.

But not all of us. There are those who cheer this on because this is what they wanted when they voted for Trump. They want that wall, they want America white and mono-cultural, and they believe stopping immigration at any cost is righteous. They are the heirs of those who slaughtered Native Americans, bought slaves, enforced Jim Crow laws, and burned down black neighborhoods.

The children and their parents in the news today will live or they will die. But our souls, our dignity, our own freedom will be haunted if we do nothing.

We’ll know because the screams will be too loud to ignore.

Freelance writer and author of screenplays, short stories and articles. I've traveled to over 40 countries and have a hard time passing up the local dessert.

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