Not many years ago, I worked as a freelance entertainment journalist, traveling around the world to interview movie stars -- believe me, it sounds a lot more glamorous than it really is. I had just published my second novel and was talking to my cousin, Jack. He heaved a melodramatic sigh. "I want your life, Karen," he said. Laughing, I told him he was nuts.
In truth, I wasn't laughing. I wanted his life. Or, rather, I wanted what he had and what seemed to be eluding me: children and a loving spouse. Every woman who reaches her 40s and is still single and childless has to live with a chiming biological clock. I envied friends who were happily child-free, because I had always planned to be a mother, yet despite several long-term, live-in relationships, my options were fading. I felt like the slogan on a popular T-shirt here in New York: "Ohmigod! I forgot to have a baby!"
Except I hadn't forgotten. That was never so painfully true as when I sat in the office of a renowned fertility doctor and received bad news. "Your chance of getting pregnant is about one per cent," he said flatly. "That's a 99 percent failure rate. Your chances of having a baby using a donor's egg are excellent, but there are no guarantees. If you want guarantees, I suggest you adopt."
That was the beginning of my journey to Emmanuel.
I thanked the doctor for being blunt - which I wish my idiot gynecologist had been when, years before, she blamed my shorter cycles on my having gone off the pill, not on the obvious, I know now, signs of deteriorating ovarian function -- and walked home in a blur, mourning my lost opportunities and the babies I would never have.
I'll spare you details of the anguish, but there was no point wallowing in it when there were other options. I somberly went to an infertility/adoption symposium in March 2000 and met with the representatives of adoption
agencies. For a single American over 40, infants aren't readily available (unless you're a movie star) and I decided upon Vietnam. Their orphaned infants are often adoptable quite young and are usually well looked after, considering their impoverishment, and the younger you can adopt, the easier it is to undo any health or other problems. And, mostly, it felt right. I told only my very closest friends, not even my parents. The process was so stressful that I did not want to talk about it.
I signed with an agency
and began the tedious process known as "the paperwork". First you must pass a home study, where a social worker
visits you and assesses your suitability to be a parent. Before that happens, you must submit to rounds of fingerprinting, police checks, child abuse checks (I had to list every address I'd lived at in the past 27 years), New York State checks, US government checks and financial appraisals.
My dossier revealed more about my professional, personal, financial life than I knew existed. It was upsetting to be so exposed.
When the social worker arrived. I braced myself for hours of squirmingly personal questions, but was instead pleasantly surprised. She was very sympathetic and, before she left, she looked at my oversized walk-in wardrobe and said, "You know, you could turn this into a room for the baby." Her words were reassuring, as the paperwork was churning along exceedingly slowly.
By February 2001, I received my approval from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. With that, my dossier could be completed, with gold-seal notarized letters from my doctor, accountant, the police department, and application forms and photos of my house and family, with copies of all my identity
papers and finances. When all in order, I ecstatically sent it to my agency, who told me I would have a match with the little girl I had requested within a month or tow. I spent the weekend on cloud nine.
Until the phone rang on Monday afternoon. Right after they'd sent off my dossier, my agency decided to close their Vietnam program, due to problems with potential baby trafficking. I was devastated -- it was akin to a mental miscarriage. It would also cost thousands more dollars to re-do the paperwork. Once I'd stopped crying, I logged on to the internet and my life-saving support group, APV, Adoptive Parents from Vietnam, and posted a desperate message asking for recommendations of other agencies. Within two hours, I had received 35 messages from compassionate parents.
On May 25, 2001, the good news arrived, "There's an adorable little boy for you in DaNang."
I can't begin to describe what a surreal experience it is to see the face of the child who is meant to be yours floating into focus on a computer screen. This baby was staring at the camera, with a red rash on his delicious apple cheeks, looking like a contemplative Buddha. He had been named Thanh Sang, had been abandoned at the gates of the orphanage and he was absolutely gorgeous, with a rosebud mouth, large round eyes and light brown hair.
I still had to wait for the results of the baby's blood tests, but I was told to expect to travel in two to three months. I was numb. My belly was not bulging and my hormones weren't going crazy, but I was still going to be a mother. So I did what many prospective mothers do: I told my mum, who was thrilled to pieces. And I cleaned the house.
The waiting was torture, so I threw myself into trying to finish the novel that I have been working on for years. I bought new carpets and scrubbed cupboards and ruthlessly threw stuff out. I bought some toys and clothes. Yet, until the travel date was known, I still didn't believe I would soon be a mum. Even when I had my ticket and knew that the wonderful novelist and The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Maggie Alderson would be joining me in an act of supreme friendship -- I still didn't believe it. Overwhelmed by anxiety, I only started to tell people about Emmanuel the week before I left. It was completely bizarre. I was getting on a plane by myself and coming back a mother.
By the time I arrived in the stifling heat of Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam, after a hellish 30-hour journey, I had met some of the other adoptive parents. Ken and his wife have two biological sons and two daughters adopted from Vietnam as little girls. He and 14-year-old Nick were there to pick up a five-year-old boy. Travis and Sandy were there for little Hannah. We chattered nervously as we were greeted by Madame C, our in-country facilitator
, then I checked into the New World Hotel and waited for Maggie, who soon arrived. I went to bed so jet lagged I didn't know where I was. My last night on my own. I was gong to see my son in the morning. He was nearly six months old. I had just turned 46. I was too shattered and freaked-out to sleep.
We got up on Sunday, August 26, at 4:15 a.m. to go to the airport for our 6:15 flight to DaNang, a large center to the north. At the hotel, we weren't given time to unpack before being herded into a van. We'd been told we were going to see our children for a few hours, and be given them on Monday. On the way, though, Madame C announced we could keep them. As in forever. Maggie and I looked at each other. My heart started pounding. I honestly can't remember much more than the thumping of my heart. I think I was in profound shock. It's amazing how your brain can shut down when your life is about to change unutterably.
We turned onto a dirt road, then into a field. There were a few buildings, and it took a minute to realize my baby was inside one of them. I fumbled with the camcorder as Maggie and I stumbled across the field. A small tree was festooned with pieces of plaid cloth. Maggie called it "a nappy tree in a baby garden." Then I saw one of the caregivers holding my baby, and they called out his name. Despite seeing only that photo and a one-minute video, I knew instantly the precious cupcake was mine. I took him in my arms and kissed him. He looked up at me, his face somber, as if thinking, "Who the hell are you?"
Can't say I blame him. I handed him back to the caregivers who had looked after him so faithfully, as we'd been asked to let them spend a last hour with their charges. The baby rooms was small but scrupulously clean, although there were no screens and it was full of flies. There was only a narrow bed for the babies to crawl on and hey slept together in hanging cradles. I was showing two of the caregivers the suitcase full of baby clothes that I had brought when Maggie came to me in tears. Ken and Nick were kneeling with their new son, whom they'd named Scott. Except no one had told Ken or the agency that Scott had a sister, a much older brother, and a mother, who were all there. It turned out that the mother was seriously mentally ill and a ward of the state. It was so devastatingly painful that I couldn't watch. I played with some of the older kids, one of whom kept pointing to himself and then to me. "Take me, take me," he mimed. I could only imagine his heartbreak, seeing all these foreigners swoop in for the infants and leaving the older ones behind.
So when people ask how I felt when I was first given my son, I tell them it was both the most wonderful moment of my life, and one of the most traumatic.
Eventually, we signed papers and went back to the hotel. When I took off Emmanuel's nappy, for the first and only time, he screamed in terror. Just for a few minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I quickly mixed some rice cereal with pear juice, as I had been warned that the babies would be constipated and, when he gobbled it, a look of utter bliss spread across his features and he instantly stopped crying.
They told me at the orphanage that he liked to eat and they weren't kidding.
Emmanuel was also dehydrated, so Maggie and I cooed over him and filled him with fluids. Then, because we didn't know what else to do, I put him in the sling and we went to the market to buy the formula. I literally could not believe this beautiful boy, staring wide-eyed at a world he had never seen before, was mine for good. At around 6 p.m., he fell into an exhausted sleep and I watched him for hours, panicking that he might stop breathing. He slept soundly until 3 a.m., when he woke whimpering for his bottle -- orphanage babies often don't cry, as they've learned that their needs won't be met if they do -- and I thought, "Wow, I have a baby who can sleep through the night." Was I wrong!
Emmanuel had been given a bottle in his bed every few hours so, for him, the teat was his equivalent of a mother. After that first night, he woke faithfully on the orphanage schedule, which meant that I slipped into stupor of sleep deprivation. Yet he was an engaging, curious baby and the look of rapture on his face when he saw me there as he awoke filled me with so much love it was almost unbearable.
At 5 a.m., we would site by the Han River and watch the fascinating parade of locals take their morning constitutionals: walking, jogging, doing tai chi, playing badminton, and nearly everyone stopped to exclaim over Emmanuel in delight. The Vietnamese love babies in a demonstrative way that is an anathema in the West. Every time we went to a restaurant, the staff would cuddle and feed our babies so we could eat. Not once during my stay did I see anything but delight that we, the foreign intruders, were taking their children to our country to give them a chance to be educated and have a home. The most audacious Vietnamese grannies brazenly stuck their hands in his nappy to feel his testicles. Others shook their heads, saying, "No Vietnam, no Vietnam." Meaning his huge round eyes were not like theirs. Emmanuel certainly didn't look like any of the other Vietnamese babies, but whoever his Caucasian father was made no difference to me. I was simply thankful he was mine.
After the official Giving and Receiving ceremony (the local officials "give " us the babies and we "receive" them) by Vietnamese law I was then permanently responsible for Emmanuel. I soon had his Vietnamese passport, and we flew back to Ho Chi Minh City. The next day, we had the mandatory check at a large hospital.
I was told Emmanuel weighed 18 pounds (8.1 kg), which I knew was wrong (he was barely 13 pounds, 5.8 kg), but at least he was basically healthy. Hannah had intestinal and sinus problems, and another couple's daughter was older than Emmanuel, yet unable to hold up her head. I had been expecting a baby who was developmentally and emotionally delayed, and instead was astonished at his energy and mobility. Once he was given some space to move, he took off. All he wanted was to see the world.
Next, we went through the daunting security at US Immigration for our interviews. The official who interrogated me was cold and abrupt, and I suddenly realized that if he claimed there were irregularities in my paperwork, Emmanuel's visa would be denied. I never felt such panic in my life; only when I found out Emmanuel was approved did I breathe again.
Then Maggie had to return home and, as we walked her to the lobby, I cried. She'd done me an enormous favor and I didn't want her to go -- partly because the daunting task of being a single mother lay ahead.
We arrived home on Sept. 7, 2001. Four days later, downtown New York exploded. My apartment is only 4 km from the World Trade Center and I watched it tumble, numb with horror, the baby playing obliviously at my feet. What kind of world had I brought him into?
All I could think about were Emmanuel's immediate needs, so we hurried to the bank for cash and to the market for nappies and formula. Outside, a massive cloud of smoke hung in a peerless sky and dust-covered shell-shocked people were walking home. "You're so lucky you have a little one now," a woman told me, as she passed.One Year Later
Has it been easy? No. Has it been worth it? Yes.
When I first got Emmanuel home, the pediatrician said that he was severely underweight, with salmonella in his gut, and rickets, a vitamin D deficiency, which caused his legs to bow. He needed to eat and, as he'd spent the first six months of his life not being mothered, I wasn't about to have him "cry it out" at night for his bottle, as many well-meaning friends advised.
So have I slept? Barely. My little bundle of locomotion sits quietly only to watch his beloved Where the Garbage Goes video or play with his trains, and he's still a restless sleeper. Which means that all other aspects of my life suffer. It's hard to have a social life when you collapse form exhaustion 10 minutes after your child does. I marvel that I used to enjoy Manhattan's nightlife. It's even harder to date when your emotional energy is directed to your child. "I need someone to dote on me the way you dote on him," one guy I dated complained.
I have to admit I have lost it a few times, mostly from utter fatigue. Emmanuel used to think it was hilarious when I cried. Now he doesn't. He gets terribly upset if I shout or get angry. I have got to keep my moods in check around him.
Since I'm self-employed, if I don't write efficiently, the cash flow disappears. I blame it on Mummy Brain. What used to take an hour, now can take days. Yet, as a single mother, I must work. My Tibetan nanny, Sithar, has been absolutely marvelous, and I can be with Emmanuel when he needs me. Yes, I get terrible pangs of guilt that I can't be a full-on mum, but my overheads have doubled.
Emmanuel has had chronic ear problems and infections, and endless colds and misery. I've been assured his immune system will improve as he adjusts to American germs.
I consider myself absolutely the luckiest woman in the world. Emmanuel and I are profoundly attached and I am deeply in love, and so whatever personal headaches I have disappear whenever he says, "Mummy coming outside! Manuel too!" He is, as everyone tells me, a delightful and engaging child. He verbal ability is precocious, and he's been signed to a modeling agency after being "discovered" on an aircraft.
This toddler, who came from abject poverty in the middle of the jungle and had never seen a car, loves anything that moves. Everyone in our neighborhood greets him on our morning walks and if Emmanuel sees a street-sweeping truck or a cement mixer, his joy is boundless. My mother said she's rejuvenated, and my sister Julie, who lives in my building, is his special aunt.
So Emmanuel has a large extended family who visit regularly, and we go out to galleries, parties and dinners together all the time -- as long as we can leave early. He's so much a part of my life that I can't imagine being without him.
My profound happiness shows on my face. All the years of waiting, hoping and despairing about having a child have disappeared. Every day, I thank the agency and the people of Vietnam who let this foreigner take home one of theirs. And, once again, I offer a prayer of eternal gratitude to the person who carefully wrapped Thanh Sang in a blue cloth nappy, red jumper, blue wool socks, a hat and a brown towel, and left him at the gate of the orphanage so that he could become my blessed, beautiful son.