My 9-year journey to motherhood

Mother’s Day is always a day of joy, reflection and a reminder of my very long journey to motherhood. The thought that it could take nine years never crossed my mind when I first started the journey.

In my twenties and early thirties, I was not even sure if I wanted to have children. Having grown up with a stay-at-home mom who always tried to make ends meet on a limited budget, I was determined to do it differently. I was focused on my career and had a hard time imagining juggling motherhood and work. I actually secretly thought that it would be a great relief if I found out that I couldn’t have children.

I was in my mid-thirties by the time my husband and I decided to have a family and I figured it could take some time to get pregnant – six months, maybe even a year? Having been a very healthy person all my life, infertility never crossed my mind. By the time we decided to grow our family through adoption, I approached my late 30s. Once again, I went into it single-mindedly focused on moving forward as quickly as possible. After consulting with an adoption agency, we chose to adopt from Haiti. By the time we completed the Canadian part of the adoption process, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake that killed 300,000 people. While some adoptions were fast-tracked in the aftermath of the earthquake, for those of us who weren’t yet matched with a child, the process stalled entirely. Once again, my husband and I questioned if we’d ever become parents.

And then, during the summer of 2010, Haitian adoptions resumed and our dossier was sent to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. At the time, the orphanage director had the ability to match children in her orphanage with prospective parents. So when we received a proposal a few weeks before Christmas of 2010 for a beautiful two-month old boy, we were overjoyed. We even hosted an open-house for our neighbors to break the news of our pending adoption and to introduce them to their “new neighbour”.

We planned our first bonding visit for January 2011 – a trip I was absolutely terrified to go on. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Haiti was a dangerous place to visit and people were discouraged to travel there unless it was absolutely essential. Well, meeting our son was essential so we went and spent a week with him at a hotel not too far from the orphanage. And then, two days after our return to Canada we received the news that he was very ill and was fighting for his life in a Haitian hospital. He survived but his diagnosis was dire. We took his medical file to SickKids, a well-renowned children’s hospital in Toronto, only to have the diagnosis confirmed and our Canadian adoption agency advising us that we would not be able to conclude his adoption. Later, we came to the conclusion that they partially gave us this advice because they were convinced that the little boy would not be alive by the time we’d finish the adoption. Devastated, we questioned if we were actually meant to be parents.

At the end of March 2011 we returned to Haiti to visit the little boy. We stayed at the orphanage with him and fed him with a syringe – one drip at a time, like a little bird. Somehow, both my husband and I were hoping for a miracle, but when we saw him upon our arrival at the orphanage, we were completely devastated. During that visit, we spent a lot of time with the orphanage director who told us that if we were to continue with our adoption journey, she would match us again. And then we learned about our daughter – not yet born but already in need of a family. We allowed ourselves to be hopeful again. Our daughter was born on July 5, 2011. 38 days later we held her in our arms for the first time but it would take another 27 months and 10 more trips to Haiti before we brought her home. The hardest part was leaving our daughter behind after each visit, not knowing when (or if) we would bring her home. I wrote about the difficulties in my post “Coming Home”.

But in the end, we did bring her home in November 2013. If anything, this journey taught me the power of love and perseverance. Today, I am thinking of all the moms out there who are waiting for their child to join their family – maybe a child not yet born or a child in a faraway country – and wish them lots of strength in their journey to motherhood.

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Identity

DCS_0293My daughter is only six and has not started to talk extensively about her identity yet, but sometimes I wonder how much she thinks about it. For most adopted children, at one point in their lives they will start searching for their identity – wondering about their origin, their genetic background, why they are not with their biological parents. I wonder sometimes when I see my daughter lying in her bed in the morning after she wakes up – clearly in deep thought – if she is thinking about her identity. I am preparing myself for more questions and my husband and I have started to talk more about her background with her.

One of my family’s advantages is that we know the identity of our daughter’s birth mom. We actually saw her almost every time we visited our daughter in Haiti while waiting for her adoption to be completed. During that time from 2011 – 2013, our daughter’s birth mom lived at a group home run by our orphanage director called the Earthquake Relief House – a refuge for teenage girls. Unfortunately, we lost contact with our daughter’s birth mom shortly before we finalized our daughter’s adoption. Her birth mom left the Earthquake Relief House without our knowledge and without letting anyone know where she was going. My husband was able to track her down a couple of times over the last four years with the help of a young Haitian man, but we did not have a way to connect with her directly. Having met her and having pictures, as well as a name and a birthdate, will help us greatly once we want to reconnect with her or our daughter wants to see her.

Not everyone is as fortunate to have that level of information. Recently, I have come across the story of Judith Craig Morency,  a Canadian social worker who was adopted from Haiti as an infant in the early 1980s by a couple who lives in a Toronto suburb. Judith talks about her experience of being raised by white parents in a Huffington Post Article. Approximately 10 years ago, she traveled to Haiti with the hope of finding her birth family. This trip was documented in AdoptedID. The documentary provides an intimate insight surrounding the complexities of transracial adoption.

Adoption language

adoptionlanguageAdoption comes with its own language – words or phrases we should and shouldn’t use. The use of words can be powerful and sometimes indicate how someone really feels about adoption. I am generally forgiving when people use the wrong terminology. Just like with a foreign language, I would not expect to travel abroad and have everyone speak my language. I apply the same principal to the use of people’s adoption language – as long as I know that their questions or comments come from a place of genuine interest for adoption or honest ignorance.

Ignorance can be a surprise – never assume that people know just because they are educated

Luckily, in my experience, I had very few instances where I was offended by the words or terminology people used. Interestingly enough, the biggest “offender” is my family doctor. She has known me for 15+ years – including the entire time during my adoption journey. When it comes to adoption, she manages to say the most surprising things. Some of her comments over the past couple of years included “You know you have to tell her she’s adopted!” (Keep in mind: I’m the white mom of a black daughter…). In another instance, nearly 4 years after I brought my daughter home, she asked me: “So does she call you mom?” These trips have actually become a family joke … and I’m awaiting her comments with a sense of humor and anticipation.

Controlling our own language and responses

As an adoptive parent, I had a lot of training that prepared me for adoption, including the proper use of adoption terminology. For example, I know to say “birth mother”, when describing our child’s biological mom or that an “adoption plan” was made instead of the biological parents having given up their child for adoption.

Equally important for adoptive parents is being prepared for the use of inappropriate adoption language and questions. We have little control over what people say and the questions they ask. What we can control, however, is our response to it. Insensitive or inaccurate remarks about adoption can have a negative impact on our child’s self-esteem and they will be watching us closely when we respond.

Most adoption moms will be asked at one point or another if they were the child’s real mom or what happened to their real mom. Instead of screaming out “I’m the REAL mom”, I take a deep breath and answer by saying that “My daughter’s birth mom” or my daughter’s “tummy mommy” (when responding to a child) was too young to take care of her and was an orphan herself. This is part of my vocabulary today, but I didn’t know the proper terminology until I started my adoption journey.

Sharing of resources with people who spend a lot of time with our child:

Resources on the proper use of adoption language can be shared with people who are close to our children, including family members, friends and teachers. The list below includes a number of websites and documents with respect to adoption language and terms:

The Adoptive Families Association of British Columbia came up with an Adoption 101: for teachers pamphlet and also has a list of positive adoption language that can be easily shared.

Adoptive Families also put out a list of words and terminology to use or stay away from when talking about adoption.

Canada Adopts! features a comprehensive list of adoption terms on their blog.

 

This is Us

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Last night I finally watched episode 10 of “This is Us”  – the mid-season finale of one of the best TV shows ever produced. Of course, as a multi-racial family that came together through adoption, it feels like the show was written for us.

As expected, the mid-season finale did not disappoint. The episode, which was part of a trilogy, featured Randall, the family’s black adopted son.

What resonated most with me in this episode was the flashback to Randall’s final year in high school as he gets ready to apply to a number of universities. He asks his dad to take him to Washington, DC to tour Howard University. An ultra-bright, high achiever, Randall could go to any university he chooses. We actually see him initially working on his application for Harvard, but he gets really excited when he reads about Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC.  As Randall and his dad arrive at Howard, Randall instantly feels a sense of belonging.

Throughout his tour of the university campus, his smile never leaves his face. A friend from back home gives him a special tour, while his dad Jack does the official campus tour. At one point, Randall asks his friend “So there are no white people here?” to which the friend replies: “Well, technically no, aside from the math kids, the national kids and the soccer team.”

Jack, on the other hand, tries hard to hide his feeling of being out of place. When both Jack and Randall finish their respective tours, they meet up again. Randall briefly hesitates when the time comes to introduce his dad to a couple of the kids he just met. Back in the car, Jack says to Randall “You know you hesitated – right there with those kids, when you introduced me.” Randall is a bit surprised that his dad noticed and responds: “I know I hesitated – but not because you are white. I hesitated because you are old.” He clearly tries to make light of the situation – largely to make his dad feel better.

Jack, while enjoying his son’s humour, decides to address the subject and tells his son that he gets it. This allows Randall to open up to his dad and tell him that most of his life, he has felt kind of off-balance. Always being the only black kid around made everything more complicated for him.

Their conversation inspires Jack to take Randall to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on their way home. Jack tells Randall that when he came back from Vietnam he was off-balance. “I was out of place in every place I went,” he tells Randall of his experience after the war. I love how Jack is able to relate to his son without diminishing his son’s own experience. He knows that he will never fully know what it’s like to be Randall, but he is able to relate to his son.

As the mom of a black daughter, I would love to always make her feel like I can relate without ever “white-washing” her experience. I know that some people’s response is to ignore the difference and pretend that we are all the same, all colour-blind. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes we can make as transracial parents. Race might not matter to me, but it surely matters to Randall and my daughter.

Coming home

Homecoming-on-the-bus

November 27 is my family’s most celebrated day – it’s the day we brought out daughter home to Canada.

The weeks leading up to our November 2013 trip, our 13th trip to Haiti, were some of the most stressful in my life. Four months earlier, we went to Haiti to be with our daughter on her 2nd birthday. It was a bitter-sweet week for us. We got to spend time with our little girl at a Port-au-Prince hotel but really, she was supposed to be home with us, celebrating her birthday with our family and friends. Our adoption journey had once again hit a stand-still. Every time we talked to our lawyer in Port-au-Prince, she would tell us “Next Friday”. Next Friday was the day we were supposed to make further progress but next Friday never came. On that 2nd birthday trip, we had to return our daughter to the orphanage twice. After we dropped her off the first time, we went to the airport just to see a major storm rolling in. All flights were cancelled for the next two days so we asked our driver to take us straight back to the orphanage. We could sense our daughter’s confusion when we picked her up to take her back to our hotel. When we had to bring her back to the orphanage for a second time two days later, I felt such despair that I told my husband I would not be able to go back to Haiti until we would finally bring our daughter home. How can I explain to my 2-year old why I keep abandoning her over and over again?

A few weeks later, we drove to Ohio to visit the orphanage director who was visiting from Haiti. During that trip, we asked her if we could switch lawyers and go back to a lawyer that was very helpful when we had problems with our daughter’s legal guardian 1 ½ years earlier– another snag that almost derailed our adoption. This lawyer, who had proven to be effective in the past, had a lot of power, which frightened me. Yet we needed him more than ever. So later that summer we engaged him to finalize our adoption. After paying a 50% up-front fee he went to work – or so we hoped. We had little contact with him over the next two months until one day in October, when he contacted us and demanded the second and final installment of his fee. I made the mistake of telling him via e-mail that according to our agreement, we would pay the second installment once the adoption was finalized and we had our daughter’s passport. Within minutes, I received an e-mail back telling me that I was not calling the shots and that he would drop our file in a second if we didn’t pay. My husband literally ran to the next Western Union to transfer the funds.

Discouraged and frightened, I almost did not contact our lawyer when we returned to Haiti a few weeks later – a trip I thought I wouldn’t go on. On November 18, we left for our 13th trip to Haiti. The second day there, we decided that we had to see our lawyer for an update and reached out to him. The next day, he showed up at our hotel unannounced with a very stylish assistant in tow. He placed all the documents that were initially prepared for us in front of us, demonstrating how they were full of mistakes. He then pulled out all the corrected documents and told us that he would get our daughter’s passport the following day. And by Saturday, we could take our daughter home. I still remember that moment vividly. My husband jumping out of his chair and running to the nearest washroom, and me being in total shock with our daughter in my arms, thinking about how I would tell my work that I’m going on parental leave.

The next days were full of activity. Our lawyer did everything he said he would do and showed up with our daughter’s Haitian passport a couple of days later. In the meantime, we contacted the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince to see if we could meet with them that Friday to get our daughter’s one-way entry visa to Canada. We also needed to get Haitian Social Services’ (IBESR) final approval the following Monday. In a country where every little step can take months, it’s an understatement that we tried to accomplish a lot in a matter of days. Being optimistic that we could pull it off, we got tickets for me and my daughter on the next direct flight to Montreal for the following Tuesday – the only weekly direct flight to Canada from Haiti. Our daughter did not have a Canadian Passport yet and could therefore not go on any of the connecting flights via the United States.

Within a day, we had our appointment with the Canadian Embassy. Knowing that one day we would need them, I had reached out to them a few months earlier to establish a relationship. This was helpful when we needed a last-minute appointment. I still remember how we anxiously waited in a room after the embassy employee took all our paperwork. When she came back after what felt like hours, not only did she present us with a one-way entry visa to Canada for our daughter but also a letter stating that she was now officially a Canadian citizen.  I have rarely been more grateful and proud to live in Canada.

My husband ended up leaving on his scheduled flight the next day in order to get our house back into order. He started a small renovation project in our second-floor bathroom, which turned into something much bigger. When we left on our trip to Haiti, the upstairs of our house was a construction site. He now had the task to put everything back together in a matter of a few days when our daughter and I would come home.

The following Monday, the orphanage director hosted a final farewell party for our daughter. We had cake and the kids sang “Bon Voyage, Sophia” to the tune of Happy Birthday.

Homecoming-cake

It was a beautiful celebration and at the end, the orphanage director suggested that we should go downstairs to the room our daughter shared with approximately 20 other kids to take a picture with her in her bed. When I tried to put her down, she clung to me so tightly that I was not able to put her in her bed. She was determined that she was not going back there.

Homecoming-room

The next day I woke up very early to the familiar sound of Haitian roosters. I knew that it was a crucial day and I needed to be strong and alert. This was the first time that I travelled the streets of Port-au-Prince by myself. Although I used our regular driver, I always felt nervous as soon as we left the hotel grounds. That morning, my last memory as we drove away from the hotel was us waiving good-bye to our daughter’s best friend from the orphanage and her Canadian mom, who went to Haiti on a one-way ticket determined not to leave without her daughter. None of us knew when we would see each other again.

Once at the airport, I was able to get our boarding passes without any problem. However, at the next “check-point” a person of authority took our entire exit file that our orphanage director had put together. Not knowing if this was part of the process, it felt rather unsettling. Only when we finally boarded our plane, did I feel some relief. Clearly, once in Montreal, no one would turn us away due to our paperwork, or the lack thereof, especially since we had a letter stating that our daughter is a Canadian citizen.

By the time we landed in Montreal and made it through immigration, it was almost 11 p.m. Our daughter was still awake, as we walked through the doors into the waiting area of the airport. My husband and his family had been waiting there for a few hours … and it finally hit me: “WE DID IT”.

homecoming-welcome-home.jpg

 

 

 

The Power of a Support Network

Haiti-Family-Summer-2017
Going through the adoption process can be an overwhelming and lonely experience and often, well-meaning friends and family try to help, but don’t fully understand what it’s like. Many of us heard the stories of someone else’s adoption gone wrong or how their friend’s friend got pregnant as soon as she started the adoption process. While such comments are usually well-intended, they often add to our feeling of being overwhelmed and isolated. This is one of the reasons why having a support network within the adoption community is crucial. Ideally, it’s a group of people who experience similar situations as they go through their pre- and post-adoption journey. If you have adopted as a single parent, find a network of other single adoption parents; if you belong to the LGBTQ community, find an adoption support network within that community and if you have adopted transracially, find other transracial adoption families. This is not to say that you shouldn’t find support in the larger adoption community as well.

My family was very fortunate to find the most amazing support network while travelling to Haiti every three months over a period of 2 ½ years. During those trips, we spent a week with our kids in a hotel with at times over 20 other families, all spending precious time with their kids while waiting for their adoptions to be finalized. Our hotel was surrounded by concrete walls, topped with barbed wire and we rarely left the hotel during the week we were there. The families, who live all across North America, are still part of our larger support network through Facebook, and we see many of them once a year at a reunion that our orphanage director hosts in Ohio. But there are four families who live within a 100 km radius of Toronto. We actually refer to each other as our Haiti Family. We celebrate Christmas, Easter and our kids’ birthdays together, and go away on a short vacations each summer. Our kids, who spent the first years of their lives in the same room in a Haitian orphanage, get very excited to see each other and we parents are equally excited to spend time together.

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For many adoption families, their adoption journey does not come with an instant adoption network. Fortunately, there are many groups that you can join, or agencies you can contact for help. For families in Ontario, you can reach out to The Adoption Council of Ontario, join Adopt4Life or similar support networks or start your own group through Meetup, for example. For families adopting internationally, your agency should be able to put you in touch with other families who are going through the adoption process or have completed it. You can also find a comprehensive list of support networks on the Canada Adopts! website.
Finding or creating that network will allow you to connect, feel understood and provide a different level of support and understanding.

This post was originally published as a guest post on Canada Adopts!

Wanted: Black friends

The only time in my life when I felt that I didn’t have enough friends was in my 20s. After a five-year long-distance relationship, I moved to Toronto from Austria to finally live on the same continent as my husband. I remember lying in bed crying one night while my husband reassured me that it won’t take me long to establish a new circle of friends.

Since then, I have built an amazing network of friends who mean the world to me. Friends I met at work, in our neighbourhood, through adoption and more recently, through my daughter’s school. And while I’m extremely thankful for my friends – I wish I had more black friends in my life.

These days, more than ever, I would like nothing more than to add diversity to my circle of friends. But how do I tell the inspiring and beautiful woman, who lives one street south of mine that I would love to get together for coffee? Or the confident black couple who I pass frequently in my daughter’s school as they drop off their two children?

While most friendships are based on something that connects us, something we have in common (like our work, a hobby or our children), why does it seem insincere wanting to become friends with the people who have one thing in common with the person who matters most in my life: my daughter’s race.