Why don’t you just adopt?
How many times have I been asked this question? I’ve lost count. I always feel like I have to justify myself.
When my mum heard that our final IVF cycle had failed she sent me a link on international adoption. I don’t think she meant any harm by it. She was just trying to fix me. To fix the unbearable situation in which I found myself. To soothe the intolerable pain which she was feeling for me.
Ok, I thought. So biologically I am dead, but I can still have a chance at being a mother. I couldn’t stop crying after the final cycle, I had to take a couple of weeks off work. I occupied myself by focusing on hope for the future. I had recently seen a patient who was unexpectedly pregnant, didn’t believe in abortion, and said she wanted to give the baby up for adoption. Maybe that did still happen in the UK? Let me tell you, it doesn’t! Nobody willingly (or reluctantly with much heartbreak) gives up their baby any more.
I researched adoption and found out that in the UK they like you to be at least 1 year post your last IVF cycle. This was a convenient excuse to tell my family, who were enthusiastically encouraging me to apply. It was March 2013, a couple of weeks before my 40th birthday. I knew my age was against me. My husband, though he looks 10 years younger, is 14 years older than me.
To adopt from Russia, the combined parents’ age must be less than 90. We were already 94! Why don’t you foster? Did I have to explain myself to my well meaning colleague? That it would break my heart to look after someone else’s children and then have to give them back.
By the time I went back to work I had convinced myself that adopting was still an option, but that I should concentrate on coming to terms with not having my own biological children first. As if it were that easy! I went for the magic bullet – prayer ministry. So I apologised to God for not trusting him enough to let me get pregnant naturally. God, I’m sorry I took things into my own hands and went for IVF. If I’m sorry enough, will you give me a miracle baby?! I read stories about women who had conceived naturally after IVF. Maybe if I just had enough faith…
It didn’t happen, of course. God had other plans. He just never told me what they were.
The following Christmas I had no progress to report to my family. In January we sent in the initial enquiry form. And heard nothing. I thought that was a bit strange, so after about a month I phoned up and they said they’d never received the form. We were both really stressed at work. We decided to put it on hold.
Fast forward a year, and I felt just a little bit further from my grief. A bit more robust. Can we apply again? By this time my husband’s daughter was 15 so we thought she wouldn’t feel so displaced by us adopting. She lived with her mum anyway.
I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension. It was January. Perhaps we’d celebrate next Christmas with a child of our own. I filled in the form. It got through this time. We were allocated a social worker. She came round and scared my husband to death.
It was weird. She seemed to warm to my husband but not to me. I thought she didn’t like me. I was very open with her. This was the only way I could become a mother. She said, you know adopting is nothing like having your own baby? I kind of knew, but had been kidding myself that maybe it would be just the same. She dispelled any illusions I had. We would not be able to adopt a baby. No babies are given up for adoption any more. Children who come up for adoption are forcibly removed from their birth families by the court. It can take a long time to get an adoption order. At least 6 months, sometimes years. Why would anyone forcibly remove a child from their family? What trauma must that cause everyone involved? Could I live with knowing that my adopted child had been forcibly removed from a mother who had been unable to care for them? More on that later.
They prioritise adopters by age. The younger your combined age, the more likely you are to get a younger child. The social worker strongly advised us to apply for an older child as she thought our chances of getting a child under 2 were vanishingly small.
I know all about attachment. I know that the older a child is when he/she is removed from an abusive or neglectful environment, the more difficulties they have. I also know that children who are not adopted before the age of 2 are likely to have been subjected to all sorts of difficult things. I also know that my health is not all that robust. I suffer from recurrent depressive episodes, often brought on by stress. My husband was also going through terrible work difficulties at the time. Would we be able to cope?
We asked the social worker for some time to talk it through. We did, and decided that we would not be able to cope with adopting an older child. I called the social worker to let her know that we would take our chances in the lottery for under 2s. She said she’s ask her boss if that was ok (citing my husband’s age as an issue – you can imagine how that made him feel). She’d get back to us. We waited…and waited…and waited.
Three months later I finally managed to get hold of her. She hadn’t wanted to upset us with the news that we would not be able to adopt a young child. Could we up our age limit a little? Under 4 maybe? My heart sank as I foresaw the conversation I would have to have with my husband. This was ageist, unfair. Why were we being discriminated against?
I met up with a colleague who had adopted a 2 1/2 year old. She said she wouldn’t want to adopt a baby anyway, as you don’t know what developmental problems they are going to have. She encouraged me to apply for a child under 4, but to request as young as possible. She also warned me to read between the lines on all the reports, and also to consider taking a child with an illness, as it could be something as innocuous as eczema. I relayed this in a passionate plea to my husband, who bravely acquiesced.
When I phoned the social worker to tell her we wanted to apply for a child under 4, she asked what had changed. I explained that we understood the realities of the situation and that this was my only hope of being a mother. I could sense her concern on the other end of the phone.
Had we also considered concurrent adoption? That’s when you foster a baby while the case goes to court to decide whether adoption is the right thing. You have to take the baby for regular meetings with the birth mother. There is a small chance that the baby will be returned to its birth family. I wanted to be able to do it, but then where would we be? Would I be a mother? No, I’d be fostering. It would break my heart to have to explain that this child may or may not eventually become ours. Knowing my luck it would be one of the few cases where the child ends up going back to the birth family. I couldn’t take such a risk. My heart was too fragile and broken already.
Around this time I was meeting regularly with a friend who had agreed to be one of my referees. She was scared for me, for us. She warned me that she would have to be brutally honest on the form and say that she was worried about how we’d cope with an older child who had serious attachment issues. A few of her friends had been down that road as she looked on with a mixture of awe and horror. Still, I pressed on.
The social worker explained that they would need to interview my ex husband and my husband’s ex wife. I asked why. It had been an abusive relationship. It was in order to see why the marriage had failed. Whether there was something in me that would preclude me from being a good adoptive mother. I was flabbergasted, not to mention insulted. I had had no contact with him since we separated 6 years earlier. Could I not get in touch? So I sent him an explanatory email, asking if he was willing to be contacted. He said ok, no problem.
The other thing they needed was a letter from my psychiatrist to say that I was fit to be a mother. Again, I fumed inside, thinking, how dare they?! I’d be a darn site better mother than many women who have never had to see a psychiatrist. I’d only seen him 3 times, and my health had been stable for 4 years. Still, they needed a letter. I had been discharged so I had to write to beg him to help me. To my amazement he did so with alacrity and wrote a very lovely letter which basically said that I was the most well patient he had ever had and that he had no qualms at all in recommending me for motherhood!
Obstacle after obstacle after obstacle was thrown in our way. The Disclosure and Barring service forms took ages. I even had to apply for one from France as I had lived there for a year when I was a student. You couldn’t make it up!
Whilst we were in this limbo I assessed a patient who had tried to jump off a bridge. Her son had been taken away from her at birth as during her pregnancy she had tried to cut him out with a knife, and she was deemed too unstable to care for him. He was being fostered whilst waiting for adoption. She had been given the chance to have regular meetings with him but had not been able to convince the social workers that she would be able to meet his needs. She was beside herself with grief. She just wanted her child and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t being given a chance to be his mum. I’m sure the story sounded very different from the other side, but my guts knotted in response to her emotion. How could I adopt, knowing that the birth mother was likely to be in this much pain? That was one of my most impactful patient encounters.
I put her pain to the back of my mind. The preparation course was coming up and then we could start the full application process. My husband was sleeping badly and having a lot of work stress. It was hard to get the 3 days off to go to the course. My family all knew exactly what was happening. He’s much more of a private person than me and didn’t want to tell anyone, including his family, until we had some certainty. I also wondered whether he secretly just hoped it would go away.
Nearly 10 months after we had started our initial enquiry, we arrived for day 1 of the course. My husband had hardly slept, and I felt nervous. There was another couple there of a similar age to us. She was infertile like me. There was a single mum who felt she wanted to do something worthwhile and adopt an older child. Wow! There was a lady whose friend had adopted a 7 year old who was now 12, extremely violent and vicious to his adoptive mum. He kept assaulting her and shouting at her that she didn’t love him, and that he hated her.
I was under no illusions about the sort of treatment children who came up for adoption had been subjected to. All kinds of abuse, some obvious, some hidden. I could see my husband’s face get more and more grave as we discussed sexual abuse (estimated at least 50% of adoptees), neglect, violence and their consequences. The most damaging is neglect. There are very few adoptees who have not suffered neglect, and its effect on attachment is devastating.
We had to get in to groups and imagine how a child who had undergone all this abuse must feel. Even those who are removed before too much abuse can happen are severely affected just by the fact of being removed from their mother. I felt sorry for the social workers. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The lady next to me was firm in her belief that there’s nothing a little bit of love can’t heal. I wished I had her faith.
An adoptive mother came to talk to us about her experience of adopting a sibling pair. My mum had been keen for us to do this as you are much more likely to get a match as siblings are harder to place. Trouble was, I was worried enough about coping with one, let alone two children. The lady was very frank. She spoke about the honeymoon period, then about how they had had to approach child mental health services because they needed help. She tried to put a positive spin on it but I could see the look of dread on my husband’s face, and almost feel his heart start to race.
The mood was sober when we left to go home. I was worried I’d been too negative in the group as I was the only one who had expressed my fears that I might not be able to meet the needs of an adoptee. Everyone else was so positive, so full of hope, so willing to take a deep breath and jump right in.
I think we barely said a word to each other that night. My husband didn’t sleep a wink. I mean not one wink. When I saw him in the morning he looked destroyed. He felt sick and couldn’t eat. He couldn’t explain to me what it was. But I knew. I knew that he knew that we couldn’t go through with it. We were just not strong enough.
We arrived early at the course and went to speak to the social worker. She was lovely. She said she had been worried about us and she thought we were making the right decision. That hurt to be told that. As if we were not good enough to take on the challenge. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. It was as if all the grief which I had put on hold, in the hope of a happy ending after failed IVF, bubbled to the surface and overtook me in a great big tidal wave.
At the end of the day, what I came to realise is that adopting is not about becoming a parent. It’s not a substitute for not being able to conceive. It’s about the child. It’s all about the child. It’s not about my need to be a mother, my overwhelming desire to give my unending love to a child. I felt that to adopt would require me to be entirely selfless. I don’t have that in me. I’m not strong enough to love a child who hates me, who breaks my heart over and over again. Maybe I could bear it if it were my own child. But not someone else’s.
Judge me if you like. But this is my answer to the question ”why don’t you just adopt?”