[I wrote Hunting Good Will while waiting to bring our son Will home from Guatemala…. sometime in mid 2000. We finally came home with Will on September 11, 2000, one week before the Sydney Olympics began and one year before 9/11. Today he turns 14 and I thought it was a good time to revisit my thoughts and feelings at the pivotal time in our lives. Will is a handsome young man now, sweet and gentle and liked by those who know him. Enjoy a little traipse down memory lane with me…]
It was a cold and rainy Friday night in 1997. I had scurried into the North Ryde Community Centre which, on this particular, evening was the venue for an infertility support group meeting. A small group of us were circling each other nervously around a cluster of fold out chairs, a card table piled with the standard-issue tea, coffee and biscuit provisions, and a long trestle table piled with books, pamphlets and videos.
So as to escape making small talk I studied the stacks of books and brochures, blindly leafing through tattered volumes covering topics which ranged from pregnancy by astrology to the ethical implications of IVF. My attention was drawn to a simple black and white brochure featuring a beaming family comprising a Caucasian mum, a Caucasian dad and three impish, dark-skinned boys.
I picked up the brochure and read through it while I waited for the guest speaker to start. It seems too cute to say this now, but even at that moment I knew that somehow the topic of the brochure – Intercountry Adoption – was going to touch my life. At this stage my husband and I had only recently launched our leaky dinghy onto the treacherous waters of the Infertility Ocean.
At this time we were swirling helplessly through the Natural Fertility Straits. Each day we consumed our body weight in vitamins, minerals and stinking concoctions “specially” brewed for us by our natural fertility guru. My husband was undertaking lengthy and expensive treatment to lower his lead levels which were deemed responsible for his low sperm count and therefore our child-less status. We were exhausted, broke and struggling to maintain our optimism. Sex as recreation was starting to become a mythical concept and terms such as ovulation cycle and cervical mucus became part of our everyday parlance.
I took the brochure home for my husband, hoping it would encourage in him the same surge of hope that it had brought about in me. He was not impressed. He was quite sure that given “enough” time all would be well and our biological child would arrive in due course. The problem was not our childless-ness, it was my impatience and my negative attitude. If I could only “believe” that all would be OK in the end, it would somehow be so.
So we kept rowing. The water conditions changed semi-regularly: we had periods of calm and periods of storm. We threw in the towel on the natural fertility guru and tried our luck with the assisted reproduction guru. We were out of the mamby-pamby, warm and cuddly arena and into the realm of laparoscopies, unpronounceable drugs and exploding ovaries.
I smiled bravely as we sat through meetings with important, though kindly, specialists who were our guides into the mysterious world of GIFT, COSI and IVF (we had more acronyms thrown at us than an IBM representative at a NASA conference). Finally, I sat with the nurse whose job it was to instruct me on the battle plan. She went through the details and handed me a handful of paperwork which would allow us to embark on our first “cycle” of COSI (Controlled Ovarian Stimulation with Intercourse/Insemination). As I walked out of the office that afternoon I knew I wouldn’t be back.
It is hard to say now, even with hindsight, what made me so certain that assisted reproduction was not going to be the way for us. But it was very, very clear to me that afternoon that I would not return and that I would not subject myself to the physical and emotional stresses which ART promised. I had very briefly dipped my toe into those murky waters many years ago with my first husband and, despite my honest belief at the on-set that we could at least “give it a try”, I realised at a very deep level that my sanity and our relationship would be unlikely to survive the particular kind of torture which is assisted reproduction.
My husband, while initially stubborn (I preferred to call it unreasonable), was surprisingly easily persuaded by my (constant and unrelenting) arguments and “suddenly” we were sending a cheque to the Department of Community Services for the Adoption Information Package. We had anchored our dinghy in the deceptively calm waters of the Intercountry Adoption Inlet.
Sometime later I was on a tram in Melbourne with my mum and my sister. While we rattled our way from the city to the shopping mecca of Chapel Street, I attempted to explain why we (OK, OK – I) turned our backs on assisted reproduction (and the possibility of “our own” biological child) and had instead chosen the tricky, uncomfortable and previously unconsidered (at least by our families) course to not only an adopted baby, but one from a foreign country and an unknown background.
The essence of my answer can be broken down into two parts:
“I know I can battle bureaucracy, but I don’t know if I have the strength to battle my own body”.
“Morally and ethically it just doesn’t sit right with me to spend untold thousands for the privilege of possibly having a biological child when there are already many children in the world who have no-one to care for them”.
OK, that’s pretty damn simplistic – but when it comes down to it most things in life really are! The bottom line was (and is) that I felt, deep down inside, that I just wanted a child in my life. A child to love and care for and, well, parent! I simply knew that I could love the child in my life as much if they were adopted as if they (unluckily for them) shared my questionably competent genes.
Now let me back up a little. Not being able to fall pregnant and produce a child the “natural” way is a peculiar state of affairs. I’m not particularly comfortable with the terms “infertile” and “infertility”. They have negative, medical connotations which imply illness or some sort of “condition”. It is especially difficult when there is no distinct and obvious reason why, as a couple, you can not conceive. This is known as “unexplained infertility” and those who have heard this term directed in their general direction know how mind-bogglingly frustrating the situation it describes is.
You see, when your infertility is “explained” you are faced with two possible scenarios. Scenario One involves an identifiable problem which is curable (or at least the doctors give you hope that it is). This allows the couple to focus on doing whatever is necessary to “fix” the problem – usually this means surgery and/or drugs. Scenario Two provides the couple with the initially heart-stopping news that there is no cure for their type of problem and they have no chance whatsoever of conceiving a biological child together. With this scenario the couple are then faced with an intersection with many potential roads ahead: childlessness, adoption (local or intercountry) and its variants (including donor egg and/or sperm and surrogacy, which is starting to sneak onto the Australian landscape) and fostering.
Without minimising the impact of the two scenarios described above on the couple and families involved I want to talk about what happens when you do not have a clear and distinct label which to hang upon yourself. When your infertility is “unexplained” all and sundry decide that you are simply “doing” something wrong and you are barraged from sunrise till sunset with sage advice guaranteed to result in an offspring. Suddenly friends of friends are suggesting sexual positions which they know worked for their second cousin who tried to get pregnant for 12 years. You get told to not think about “it” (how exactly do you do that?), to relax, to exercise, to go on holidays, to change jobs. Because well meaning people have the need to say something, anything, to fill in gaps in conversation or simply to disguise their discomfort with your misery they tell you to stop worrying, to put the whole thing from your mind, and to just be patient. Everyone knows someone who mysteriously fell pregnant after XX amount of years of trying. (See the later section on adoption where this story morphs into one where the couple get pregnant as soon as they adopt.)
Because there is nothing wrong with you as a couple you are left in limbo. Sure there are avenues you can explore (such as “natural therapies” – been there – and “assisted reproduction” – almost done that). But if the former does not help and the later is unpalatable it is very hard to make a decision to move onto the other options. For a start your family and friends have a hard time supporting a drastic decision such as adoption – after all “there’s nothing wrong with you”.
So, after infinite eons of living with uncontrollable weeping spells in the toilet approximately once a month; of being prodded and poked (my husband is more than happy to relate the cotton bud story); of spending the gross national product of half of Eastern Europe buying one bag of organic vegetables; of grinning inanely at friends and family spouting yet another bizarrely inappropriate suggestion; of stopping mid-step at shopping centres, and starring, heart filled with agonising grief, as yet another pregnant teenager strolls past, pushing a toddler in a stroller, we took a step which felt truly positive.
But if I thought that adopting was the safe or easy or predictable or controllable way of creating the family we so desperately wanted, it wasn’t long before a wave of reality knocked me off my feet and left me gasping for breath, with a mouthful of sand. One thing did immediately improve – I stopped worrying about conception and the relief was pure bliss.
Adopting is kind of like competing in a steeplechase… you run a long and exhausting course with the occasional additional challenge of various hurdles (some of which seem insurmountable). I don’t want to go into the nitty gritty of the actual process… those who’ve been through it are painfully aware of the details and those who haven’t been don’t need to bother about the tedious minutiae. Suffice to say that it is all simultaneously intensely boring, intensely personal, intensely important and overwhelmingly dangerous. Like walking through a minefield we were constantly aware of the potential for a wrong step, of saying or doing the wrong thing and being judged unfit to parent our imaginary child. Logical thought has a very small role to play when anxiety and paranoia take centre stage.
Hindsight allows the luxury of being able to laugh at some of our adventures in Pre-Approval Land. Like the time when my dear husband developed a case of painfully-truthful-itis and “admitted” to smoking the occasional joint at the occasional party to our not-so-pokerfaced social worker during that first, oh-so-nerve-wrecking interview. Or the time when my dear husband told the social worker that sometimes I got angry or upset (moi?) and he didn’t always know what to do about it. Punishment? March down to the marriage counselor’s office and don’t come back until you know what the hell is wrong with you! Easy to laugh now, but the gut piercing fear, the mind-numbing certainty that we were going to “fail” kept us awake through the night on more than one occasion.
Then there’s just the plain old bureaucratic stupidity of having to wait for weeks, patiently ringing the local police station every evening, to get our fingerprints taken for our criminal record check. The only fingerprint kit is out the back where the prisoners are and they can’t take good, law-abiding citizens like ourselves back there to mix with the riff raff, now can they! And then not only having to do this once but twice and then having them produce the wrong report and having to wait yet another excruciating day. Laugh? Well, no we didn’t really!
Suddenly things moved quickly. One moment we were breathing sighs of relief that we had apparently survived the social worker assessment process and therefore stood a good chance of being approved by DOCS and the next moment we were changing countries (from Bolivia to Guatemala) and arriving at a BBQ for “Guatemalan families”. The speed of events jumped from slo-mo to fast forward in the blink of an eye. We were only just recovering from the phone call letting us know we had achieved the official DOCS’ seal of approval when we got the call saying there was a four and a half month old baby boy waiting for us in an orphanage in Guatemala City.
Now this was an unarguably magical moment for us but to be honest it took me a while to “feel” anything… the term “shell-shocked” comes to mind. Despite the cerebral knowledge that we were finally going to be parents it was very hard to separate the “business” side from the emotional side. Up until that point (and we weren’t finished yet) the adoption process had involved a great deal of photocopying and form filling-in and now there was an actual baby involved, which really threw us for a while. The name Wilfredo Carrera became a magical incantation and the three dog-eared photos of him holding out his arms to the camera became our own personal religious relics, shown reverently to anyone who would stand still long enough.
So now here we are, as I am writing this we are almost at the end of the seventh month of waiting for Will. After the initial rush of preparing yet another round of paperwork to be sent to the Guatemalan Courts everything stopped and the “real” waiting began. For those of you who are parents let me put it this way: your child is taken away to a place half way around the world; you are not able to contact them in any way; you rely on the vaguest of reports, sent at totally random intervals, for snippets of information about their welfare; you can ask questions through a third party but they are rarely answered and never with the sort of detail you need; you know that they will come back to you but you don’t know when and this depends on a whole series of undecipherable steps and mysterious people whose roles are never quite explained to you.
Then you are left to your own devices, surrounded by the same family and friends who were so full of wisdom earlier in your life. Well they are still around and they still have no clue as to how to actually help (here’s a clue: there is no help to be had, nothing you can say will lessen the impact of the situation, just “be there” and keep your damned useless advice to yourself – doh!). Almost everything you heard before is reprised in the key of adoption (OK, except for the sex positions – even the thickest of advice givers realise there is no connection there). “Just relax”, “why don’t you enjoy this time together”, “have some nice weekends away”, “enjoy those sleep-ins, you won’t be doing that much longer” and my all-time favourite “just watch, you’ll get pregnant as soon as you bring this baby home, that’s exactly what happened to my third cousin’s butcher’s next door neighbour”. Aaaaargh! Are these people completely demented? Was their sensitivity nerve surgically removed while they were having their lobotomy? Do they not have the tiniest of inklings about human nature? Of course, these are rhetorical questions!
For me the only “help” is information. While on the surface I manage to maintain a semblance of normality… working, socialising, running a home… the undercurrent of my thoughts is constantly focused on finding out anything and everything I can about our baby, about the orphanage, about Guatemala. I call our case worker at DOCS and the head of our parent group so often I am waiting for the police to turn up to slap an AVO on me, with the condition that I do not call those numbers again. My saviour has been the internet (a bountiful source of every possible type of information) and the Guatemala Adoption Email List which has connected us with over 500 families world-wide who have gone and are going through exactly what we are going through. That connection has not only proved to be invaluable to my mental health but has also had the tangible result of “meeting” a cyber-buddy who, when visiting his own son-to-be in the orphanage where our baby is, was kind enough to take some photos of our darling Will (which he sent to us) and also write us an objective report on his well-being.
By far this has been the hardest stage. Everyday we count ourselves “lucky” to have got to this point so “quickly”, many others are not so lucky. But the wait is painful in a way which I can not describe and it can not be eased. Temporarily some distraction will catch our attention and for a millisecond we will think about something other than our baby sitting alone in an old cot in an orphanage far away. For the most part, however, we think about him from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep. I guess this is “normal” parent behaviour anyway.
We will call our baby boy Will Carrera. Will is a “shortening” of his birthname Wilfredo. But it also means a lot more than that. When I saw the film Good Will Hunting I was impressed with the story of a young man who was able to grapple with his own demons and to “discover” himself and his own potential through the love of his friends, his “adoptive” family. It may be whimsical but somehow I imagine our own Will finding his place in life surrounded with the love and care and support that we, his family, will shower upon him. The noun “will” means “deliberate intent” and that is exactly how this little boy has come to be part of our family.
There is no real end to this story, but there will be a next step… the day we get the phone call letting us know to book our flights to the tiny, civil war-torn country just south of Mexico… Guatemala… where our son waits for us.
… Hey we are back, have been for 5 months! What was all the fuss about? Our trip to Guatemala was the most exciting, exhausting and eye-opening experience of our lives (but that’s another story). Now we have a beautiful son … the fabled Will is home and it feels like he has always been here (who was that demented woman who wrote all that other stuff?). Yes, the wait was long and painful but it was forgotten the minute Will was in our arms (it’s corny and you won’t believe me until you experience it for yourself, but it’s true!).
Will was 16 months old when he finally came home. He was not a child who took well to orphanage care and he is tiny and quite severely delayed in most of his motor skills. But he is full of life and fun and he’s so very cheeky and loveable just when he’s at his naughtiest. He is literally the light of our lives and charms all those who cross his path. We can not imagine our lives without his joyful presence.