ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) always strikes me as such an ironic acronym for something which can be so utterly clinical, so totally without soul.
It had been a long time since our last active cycle of ART. We had decided to take a break, to get on with the life we’d put on hold – to travel, to play, for me to be committed to my career so that I could again enjoy the self-confidence that holds your right hand whenever success holds your left. I wanted to feel whole. I needed weeks and months and years to pass without having to count days, have blood tests, inject myself, ride the crests of hope and weather the troughs of despair.
Remarkable stresses are associated with undergoing ART, physical, emotional and financial stresses, and whilst many couples find that the experience binds them irreversibly, many more begin to drift apart. Countless marriages don’t survive and ours had begun to show signs of strain.
Despite each couple having one specialist to oversee their treatment, it was possible, in the programme we undertook, to have every step of the procedure performed by a different member of the IVF team. Sometimes we saw three or four different doctors in a week, none of them my own choice. None of them knew us or the story that made us unique. We felt like statistics. It was time to stop.
So I changed my direction. I moved into a new and challenging job. I made new friends. We worked on our marriage. And we left the last batch of frozen embryos to wait. We dubbed them The Cryogenic Carlsons (my married name) and made jokes about having the super-race on ice.
Back then, counselling was mandatory for all couples on the infertility treatment merry-go-round. One session of it. One hour of counselling before undertaking that journey into the wasteland. More was available, but we were never invited to use it. No one suggested it may be time to get off that mad carousel, they merely encouraged us to try a different horse, or another tune, put another coin in the slot and go around again.
No one spoke to us of the possibilities for happiness in a childless marriage or of alternative roads to parenting. We were unaware of the waiting lists and the age requirements for local adoption. We had no idea what was involved in fostering a child or what permanent care meant. The newsletters from the IVF support group we had joined seemed to be full of the success stories of others, or ads for meetings of the sub-groups – like the one for people whose babies had died. Maybe I wasn’t listening, but there just didn’t seem to be a voice speaking to us. There was no middle ground.
Then, one day, unexpectedly, a very familiar voice reached me. It was my mother’s voice. She walked in to our home one Friday night and placed a small, neatly clipped square of newspaper on the family room table. It was an advertisement for an information night to be held by state’s intercountry adoption services. We were very interested.
A phone call plus an information night later and our lives were changed forever. It didn’t matter that we were almost 40. It didn’t matter that I was infertile. Certainly, there were still rocks to be climbed – the process would not be quick or cheap – but we were assured that if we stuck it out, at the end of the journey there would be a child.
So we began to traverse the wasteland leaping from rock to rock: education groups to warn us of the problems and discuss the issues associated with parenting a child born in another culture; medical checks; financial checks; police checks; four written references from friends and family members declaring that we would make suitable parents; answering some 200 questions about our appearance, personalities, backgrounds, courtship, sex life, faith and attitudes – in writing; producing a family tree; visiting families with children adopted from overseas; meeting members of the communities of migrants from the various countries from which it is possible to adopt. We even had to do a project, just like we used to do in Primary School, to demonstrate that we had some knowledge of the country from which we had finally chosen to adopt.
Then came the home visits from a social worker to check out what we’d written about ourselves and conduct a safety audit on our home. Her task was to decide whether we were suitable parent-material. In our first lives, both my partner and I were teachers. Ironically, the young woman assigned to us had recently married one of our ex-students, now here she was writing a detailed report card on us.
We wanted our baby to be as young as possible and of the countries whose orphans and relinquished children are acceptable to our government, Korean adoptees are generally the youngest to arrive in Australia. At the time, around sixteen South Korean babies, mostly under six months old, were being allocated for adoption by Victorian families each year. So, we knew that in our year’s batch, there would be other like-minded families for us to befriend, other Korean adoptees to grow up beside our child. That was important to us. Families with children who do not look like their parents are both the same as and different from other families. It’s helpful sometimes to be with others who understand entirely.
Eventually we were declared acceptable potential parents. Then came the paperwork specific to Korea. Then, the wait.
Waiting to be approved and then allocated is a long, challenging and intrusive process but after the indignities of ART, for us it was never really painful. That exhaustive series of checks and cheques was both draining and frustrating but this time it was certainty rather than hope that kept us going. We were confident, at last, that at the other side of the desert was our child. All we had to do was jump through the hoops … and wait. And this time we could do all the travelling together, my partner and I. Everything that happened, every intrusive question, every uncomfortable procedure was performed on us both, not just me.
We had to bite our tongues when people with biological families pontificated about how appropriate it is that the adoption process be so complicated. Easy to say when your decision to have a family was made in the privacy of your own relationship. Easy words to mouth when no one is scrutinising your life, your feelings, your thoughts. Now, years after the process, I can agree with them – but for reasons different from theirs. All parenting requires perseverance, patience, faith. Parenting adopted children has added challenges.
You see I don’t believe that being fertile should come with the automatic right to have children. Having children is a privilege that too many people abuse. But saying so tends to offend or invite empty agreement from people who have never considered parenting in that light. To my mind, there is no greater privilege than being chosen to parent someone else’s child. And doing so is complicated. Very.
Just to make sure that I didn’t become too complacent during the anxious wait for allocation, it became obvious that my endometriosis, the base cause of my infertility, could no longer be either treated or ignored. The only course of action was a radical hysterectomy. So back to hospital I went and I must say, there was a strong element of relief amidst the many other emotions coursing through me.
Just a week after the surgery, as I lay uncomfortably on the couch staring blankly at the horror that is daytime television, our social worker phoned. She was going to bring us two small photos of a baby boy who was six weeks of age and as much information about his birthparents as was available. We had 24 hours to decide if we wanted him.
It took about a millisecond.
It’s hard to explain to others how it feels to become so attached to a photo of a child you haven’t met that you keep copies of it all over the house, in your wallet and sleep with it by your bed, but for the next 12 weeks, while yet another batch of documents was completed both in Australia and in Korea, those photos of our son were all we had.
The baby had to pass health tests and be issued with a Korean passport. When an Australian adopts a child from overseas, the process cannot be finalised until the child has become an Australian citizen. For that to happen, the child must be a resident for over a year. Before that, he/she is technically and legally considered to be under State care. So for the first year, our child’s passport and medical records were all kept under his Korean name, not the name we gave him. (During that year, more checks and reports are done. At the end of that year there is another set, the final word. Only after that can you proceed to finalise the adoption.)
So it was nearly three months after we saw and fell in love with our small photo of Jong Koo that we took off for Seoul to meet our son. In Korea, babies destined for intercountry adoption are fostered. In one photo, our little boy was propped up on his foster mother’s lap. Throughout all the next anxious waiting time, we had no further information about his development, or pictures of him, but we knew he was being cared for and loved in a family environment.
His remarkable birth mother had relinquished her illegitimate son so that he could have the sort of safe and comfortable life she knew she could not give him. His remarkable foster mother had carried Jong Koo in a sling and slept beside him for three months, fed him when he cried, nursed and nourished this tiny boy. Now, unremarkable James and Wendy were going to take him from her and bring him back to Australia to be Finn Andrew Jong Koo Carlton. We felt humble as we wondered if we would even recognise him.
There was absolutely no mistaking either Jong Koo or his foster mother. We knew them the instant we set eyes on them that hot day in the Eastern Social Welfare Society office in Seoul. Anxious for the baby to make a good impression, the foster mothers are often reluctant to hand their small charges over to the crying strangers, the overwhelmed new parents. They don’t want the babies to cry too. And that first meeting lasts only an hour or so, it’s like having an interview with your new son or daughter, just enough time to check each other out. Then the baby returns home with its foster mother for the next few days until yet more documents are completed.
Most Australians who adopt from Korea collect their child from the Adoption Agency the day that they fly out. Just hours before their scheduled flight, they go and collect a baby sling, a change of clothes, a bottle, a small tin of formula… and their baby. Then they board a mini-bus which takes the new family to the air-port. For these new parents, the first real experience with their baby is an international flight. It’s nerve-racking.
We were honoured to have been invited to collect Jong Koo from his foster family’s home the day before our return flight. His foster mother had asked all the neighbours, who knew and loved him, to meet us and to say good-bye. She had also organised for the family priest to come and bless the baby for his life in Australia. She had prepared a small banquet of fruit and sweet cakes. Her kindness was palpable. Just as she had welcomed Jong Koo into her home and family, so too she welcomed us.
His tearful foster mother showed me how Jong Koo liked to be held. The social worker translated for her as she told me when he cried and how often he took a bottle. Then she handed me a small album full of photos of my son’s first four months of life, the part in South Korea —the part I had missed. And we both wept.
Already this small boy was loved by three mothers. I am lucky number three.
At journey’s end, I can honestly say that I had to traverse that wasteland my own difficult way. I had to give ART my best shot. I had to take my own time to realise that what I longed for was a child, not a pregnancy. Mothering means so very much more than giving birth. Being a family is not easy. It should never be taken for granted.
I feel sorry for those who mistakenly believe that their children are extensions of themselves. Or worse still, those who are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t imagine loving a child who is not made in their own image.
And I have a ready response to all those who say to me, “Well, you did it the easy way, didn’t you? You didn’t have to go through the pain of childbirth” – which is something often said. To them I reply, “I suffered my own pain – a radical hysterectomy was a very minor part of that pain. And I had to miss the first twenty weeks of my son’s life on earth. Would you really trade your child’s first months to avoid childbirth?”
But as for childbirth, time and love conspire to dissolve the memory of pain. So you do it all again. Finn now has a little sister, Lara – born Ha-yeong. She is the rose beside her brother, the towering sunflower in the garden of our family.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem