Fiona experienced 11 years of infertility and failed treatment before she, and her husband, decided on adoption after IVF. Their little boy was six when he came into their lives and at the time of writing he has now just turned nine.
I have never actually been woken up by a bucket of ice-cold water being thrown directly over me in the small hours of the morning, but having been shouted awake from a very deep sleep by my adopted six year old boy bouncing directly onto my stomach at 3 a.m. in the dead of night, I imagine these two experiences feel pretty much the same.
The difference is in the former there is little of merit in an icy awakening but in the latter there is monumental joy because, at long last – because you have adopted after years of infertility – you’re the mummy and it’s you who is caring for the child, and you who is doing the parenting just like every other ‘natural’ mother or father around the globe.
In such moments, the means by which you acquired the child matter little whether you are giving the hugs after a nightmare, desperately searching for the ‘sick bowl’ as it dawns on you your child is about to vomit over you, or forcing yourself out of a warm bed to change wet sheets after a ‘little accident’.
These times – unfortunately they are repeated frequently in the primary years – will remind you time and time again … you are a mother or father and the primary caregiver for a very precious child all of your own, who looks to you for guidance and protection, love and nurturing, entertainment and maintenance all of the time.
Thus through adoption, and becoming the ‘forever mummy and daddy’, you definitely get to have all of the practical and emotional experiences that ‘natural’ parenting brings. You will be involved in washing and dressing, tooth-brushing and hair combing. If you have a boy, and he’s anything like ours, you will never be able to match up a pair of socks again!
Becoming a parent through adoption
Through adoption, you come to share in the love, frustrations, happiness, laughs, irritations, sadness, disappointment, extreme joy, tenderness, anger and worries experienced by all mums and dads.
You even get your ‘birth experience’ when you first set eyes on your child for the first time, and where you feel, for a few days around the time you take your young adopted child into your home, the centre of everyone’s attention and very special and privileged.
Shortly before we acquired our child, I threw a ‘Baby’ shower, just like other new mums, even though our boy would be 6 years old when he came home with us. We were even able to enjoy a baptism where we gave our son, then 6½ , a new middle name (chosen by all of us) and he participated, fully conscious (unlike a newborn!) in the ceremony. We also chose godparents – something I had dreamed about for years and years when I was infertile and desperately hoping I would be able to announce a pregnancy.
You will be able to share in the highs and lows of seeing your child develop and learn new skills. In fact in this context, you will come to realise that genetic children are by no means the ‘perfect’ ‘mini-me’ that you assume they will be when your desire to conceive is cruelly thwarted by infertility and you are trying to accept the idea of adoption to move on.
Perhaps the one lesson that adopters learn even more quickly than genetic parents is: the process of parenting is, in some (but not necessarily all) ways, mostly about the child, not the person who conceived it. Thus for every natural dad disappointed because his son lacks his football skills and is interested in music instead, there is an adoptive father humbled by infertility and consequently delighted in any of his son’s blossoming interests or talents. In addition, just as there are plenty of young natural parents discovering with joy that their child shares their own artistic inclinations, so too are there lots of adoptive mums and dads who are experiencing similar things.
In the light of all of these things, by adopting after infertility I have found that no-one at all needs to know your ‘secret’ if you do not wish them to.
If you adopt a child you instantly become an insider in that club you have so longed to join for so many long and arduous years during your infertility journey. When you enter it, there is so much joy so much of the time.
What’s more, the other parents whom you associate with are unlikely to view you as anything other than an exhausted, harassed mum or dad just like them! Often they are very complimentary about your choice if you disclose to them; and indeed few have seemed to be interested in the tragic medical struggles that led me to the decision to adopt and thus they seem far more irrelevant to me than they originally did.
As a result of all of these experiences, whilst I have never ever forgotten my infertility, I no longer identify myself primarily as an infertile – I am definitely a mum first and foremost.
Adoption after IVF
Infertility matters much less than it ever did when you felt yourself to be completely entwined within the tentacles of its evil clutches. Yet, there are some feelings perhaps unique to formerly infertile then adoptive mums and dads that I experienced that took me by surprise.
For example, in primary school playgrounds, recreation parks, nurseries, soft play centres and the like, you will probably encounter lots of pregnant women, pushchairs and babies, as mothers with 3, 4, 5, 6 year olds naturally extend their family.
When infertile, you could probably avoid such situations in social and professional settings if you wanted to, but with your own adoptive child in tow, you really cannot. Thus, you will be faced once again with a reminder of your own private tragic losses and if you are not prepared for this, it may well arouse powerful feelings which you either never predicted or thought you had left behind.
Furthermore, as you grow to love your adopted child or children with an intensity you perhaps never anticipated, more loss may well be highlighted for you.
First, your sense of loss of your own genetic child may be deepened further at some stage, and this can be very painful and possibly the final stage in your grieving process. For, when infertile, you have not yet experienced the real power of parental love; when you adopt, you eventually hopefully do. Such a situation is bound to make you question what ‘might have been’, for if it is possible to love an adopted child so strongly, one wonders what it would have felt like to have loved your own ‘flesh and blood’.
Second, when you love your adopted child, you can even additionally mourn the loss of his or her own babyhood as you are likely not to have been there to witness it if you acquired your child when they were between about 2-5 years old, as many people in the UK often do.
Moreover, it may well be that, like myself, because of your difficult and time-consuming infertility struggles and complex medical treatments, you finally came to motherhood relatively ‘late’ compared to other mums or dads. This may mean that you cannot easily extend your adoptive family in the effortless, convenient and timely manner that you see others – who naturally and easily conceive – doing. This realisation that you may have no more children even by adoption may also be a difficult phase through which to go and may well re-inflame older sadnesses and frustrations you thought had disappeared.
It is possible that if adoption ‘works’ for you, you may well worry even more about the safety and mortality of your child than all new parents do, and this is an unsettling feeling. I found myself feeling frighteningly conscious of the potential fragility of my dearly-loved little boy’s life and this has never really gone away. Often I would check his breathing when sleeping, and sometimes put my head on his chest just to listen to his heartbeat to confirm if he was alive. Even now, after three years of parenting, the potential for sudden, devastating loss is ever-present in my sense of joy at what I have gained.
Inevitably, adoptive parents must confront the fact that there is a complex web of family connections, and a past history of experiences associated with their child that will be brought into their new family unit.
Yet after being an adoptive mum for three years now, I have had plenty of time to ponder what these past experiences signify and what having ‘your own child’ really means.
There is no doubt for us that our adopted boy ‘is ours’ in so many ways. This is, in a practical sense, largely a result of the fact that he lives with us, he engages in our family routines and we attend to his needs night and day. It is also because, in the eyes of the Law, he is ours completely and totally, and shares our surname on his passport and adoption certificate.
It is also seen in more subtle ways. He uses some of our speech patterns and our words; he copies our mannerisms, observations and jokes sometimes and he’s acquiring our sense of humour – even though he was six years old when he came to us. He has taken on board some of our values. He now shares something of a past with us which is a particularly gratifying feeling.
He did indeed not come to us in the ‘traditional’ physical manner, ie through my own womb; but somehow, he’s now ‘ours’ because we do, altogether, make up ‘our family unit’ and it feels lovely being together like this. We share the highs and lows, the crises and celebrations of family life and it is these things that bring us all together and makes us one team.
By virtue of being adopted in the UK, it’s true our boy does have a past of his own and the time he spent with his birth parents ‘belongs’ to all of them. But that, and the act of his joining us, makes this past part of ours too. That time he was without us is something we cannot access, but we will experience the legacy of it as our boy gets older.
Whatever that means, it will be my husband and I, as our boy’s adoptive mummy and daddy, that help him deal with the implications of this as he grows.
Indeed as he gives us such joy, I cannot forget that he grew not out of my body but another woman’s. Although it would be easy to feel envy towards his ‘old mummy’ since she did ultimately give birth, I cannot but help reflecting on the fact that her pain upon loss of a genetic child was probably as great as mine at never having had one.
I cannot reconcile the two, but I can try to help ‘my’ little boy grow up to fulfil his potential and be the very best he can so he comes to terms with the many experiences that will make up his complex identity in his adult years. For the chance to do that I am very grateful indeed.