The Making of a Family

Five heartbreaking years trying to conceive. Two rounds of in vitro fertilization. One miscarriage. Fifteen months of paperwork. One big surprise. How our not-so-instant family came to be.

CF_0506_MakingofUsThrough our bedroom window I watched my husband, Jason, assemble a swing set in our backyard. In one hand I held a positive pregnancy test, in the other my passport for a long-awaited trip to China to get our daughter, Ruby. I took a moment to survey the organized mess of baby gear and adoption paperwork, which still had to be packed for the journey, before I marched that test stick across the lawn and smacked Jason in the back of the head with it.

After more than five years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive, including two rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and one miscarriage, we had happily decided to adopt. Then came that positive pregnancy result just 17 days before we left to pick up our daughter – a shock because, even with medical assistance, our fertility specialist gave us only a five per cent chance of conceiving. But it happened, and in seven months’ time we went from zero children to two under age two, three weeks before Christmas.

It all started when I turned 30 in 1999 and Jason and I officially started trying to get pregnant. I was naive enough back then to think that it would happen on the first attempt, which, of course, it didn’t. It didn’t happen on the second, third, fourth or fifth try either. After 10 months we were worried and decided to talk to a doctor. A fertility specialist wouldn’t even see us until we had tried for a year, so, after two more fruitless months, we booked the earliest appointment we could get – still another six weeks away. Meanwhile, I became a slave to all things fertility-promoting. Someone said the scent of lily of the valley boosts sperm quality…I bought a can of lily of the valley room deodorizer and saturated my husband’s pillow with it. Someone said to shove pillows under my bum for at least a half-hour after having sex to let gravity help the sperm swim…I did that, too. I was just that desperate.

When we got our fertility diagnosis, it wasn’t good. We would not be getting pregnant without some assistance. Even though we had a feeling we’d need help, Jason and I were flattened when our fears were confirmed. We started our first round of ivf that spring. The process required a hormone injection in the leg every day for about a month, given to me by Jason, plus a 7 a.m. blood test at the clinic to monitor my hormone levels for seven of those days. My arms were bruised and sore from the tests, and even today my legs have tiny freckle-like scars from the daily shots. For most of the cycle I stayed positive, though, despite having a big phobia of needles. Frankly, I would’ve taken 20 shots a day if it meant having a baby. But when we found out that it hadn’t worked, we were devastated. I wondered if this was a sign that Jason and I were not meant to be parents. With its roller coaster of drugs and tests and ultrasounds, I thought, Why didn’t the clinic offer grief counselling, too?

The day after that disappointing news, I received an email from my friend Heather who adopted her beautiful daughter from China about 10 years ago. She was so moved by the entire adoption experience that she stayed closely connected to Children’s Bridge, the Ottawa-based agency that made it happen. She was emailing out of the blue about triplets that were up for adoption in Ontario.

The timing of this email seemed so strange that Jason and I took it as a sign that this baby-boy trio was meant to be ours. We found an adoption practitioner who was willing to do a speedy home study for us, and within days we were at our first of several appointments with her, talking about our marriage, our family, our hopes, our everything, praying that the birth mother would choose us to be the boys’ parents.

Looking back, I think it was the financial reality of raising triplets that made us rethink becoming an instant family of five. Our home study was done, and we had the stamp of approval from our adoption practitioner. But once the adrenalin wore off, it just didn’t feel right. To this day I still think about those boys, whose faces I never saw, who gave us our first glimmer of what it feels like to be “expecting.” I am grateful to them for pushing us into the mindset of adoption. Before them, it wasn’t even something we could contemplate.

Another year went by. We watched from the sidelines as friends raised gorgeous children and announced second pregnancies. Our marriage had become stormy at times as Jason and I struggled with our purpose in life. In my journal I wrote: “I’m giving up the belief that if I pray hard enough, do the right thing enough, stay positive enough, Jason and I will have a baby.”

On a mission to do something we couldn’t do if we had a baby, we booked a three-week vacation to South Africa to visit some of Jason’s family. The day we finalized the arrangements, my period was late. I took a pregnancy test. The result: positive. When I told Jason, it was like an out-of-body experience. We cried together for a few minutes, frozen with joy. I’ll never forget that day. The grass looked greener, the sky looked brighter, everything glowed with the happiness of this most unexpected news.

We tiptoed through the next four weeks, willing that pregnancy to stick. Every time I’d go to the washroom, I’d be afraid to see spotting. Not wanting to risk anything, we decided to ask Jason’s brother to take the trip to South Africa in my place. The day we asked him, I miscarried.

My sister came with me to the ultrasound that confirmed there was no longer a baby growing inside me, and with that loss came days so dark I have blocked them from my memory. Jason and I made – and enjoyed – that spectacular trip to South Africa, but the grief weighed on us like a refrigerator strapped to our backs. That fall we decided to give IVF one last try. And when that attempt failed, too, we were again mourning the loss of the family we would not become. Jason and I made a pact not to talk about anything baby-related until the new year.

I reconnected again with Heather, and we had many long conversations about adoption and infertility. Perhaps because it’s the kind of day a person thinks about family, it all clicked on Christmas Day 2002. My paternal grandmother is Chinese, we had already completed a home study and I knew for certain that the child we so longed for was in China. I knew it in every cell of my body. On New Year’s Day, Jason and I made the best decision of our lives: we contacted Children’s Bridge. We were going to China.

IVF had been a roller coaster, but we were totally unprepared for the emotional ups and downs of the adoption process. It was a classic case of hurry-up-and-wait as we rushed to get our police checks, medicals, letters of reference and other essential paperwork complete. The faster we got our paperwork done, the faster our dossier would get to China and put us in line to be matched with a baby. At that time, the wait to be matched was around a year. Our file was in progress as SARS hit in 2003, putting all of us waiting to go to China in a holding pattern. But on March 10, 2004, Heather phoned me at home. I didn’t know it, but months earlier she asked Children’s Bridge if she could be the one to phone us when the time came. “Congratulations,” she said, “you’re a mom.” She told me to get a pen and paper and, slowly, gave me all of the details she had about our daughter. In shock, I wrote everything down. I didn’t cry. I just wrote.

An hour later, we were looking at an emailed photo of our daughter. That’s when it really hit me, and all I could do was weep. She was beautiful and tiny and familiar and looked so vulnerable. If I could have walked to China at that moment to get her, I would have. But it was still six weeks until we’d be travelling there, so I printed several copies of her photo and taped them all over our house so I could see her face wherever I was. I became consumed with the hope that Ruby would have an inner calm about her, a knowing that we were her parents and that we would be coming for her very soon. We didn’t know it at the time, but three days after receiving her photo, Jason and I conceived her brother.

It was April 12 and my period still hadn’t come. Jason kept telling me not to waste the money on yet another pregnancy test, that it was just the stress of the upcoming trip that was making it late. That’s what I thought, too. We were blindsided by those two lines in the window because there had been no medical intervention – it was just a statistical long shot that came to be. We didn’t tell anybody except Jason’s mom, partly to protect ourselves but mostly to keep the attention on our most deserving daughter. In the days leading up to our trip, I went for blood work every other day to ensure that my hormone levels were rising. My morning sickness lasted all day, which made sense because, unlike the first pregnancy, my hormones were indicating a viable pregnancy. Jason’s mother came with me to my first ultrasound, just days before our trip. This time the mysterious kidney bean growing inside my body actually had a heartbeat.

The years of disappointment hardened me against the feelings of joy I should’ve had at that time. Instead I thought about how difficult it would be to miscarry now that I’d seen this baby’s heartbeat. Three-quarters of my suitcase to China was packed with the biggest maxi-pads I could find because I was so sure I would lose the baby on the trip and I didn’t think I’d find protection absorbent enough in Beijing. I spent the first half-hour of every morning in China on the bathroom floor vomiting up the soda crackers I forced into my body. Recently, I found out that two of the women in our travel group guessed that I was pregnant. I imagine my face’s green hue of nausea gave me away.

On May 7, Jason and I and a dozen other couples gathered nervously in the third-floor conference room of our hotel, like wallflowers at a Grade 8 dance. In a peaceful chaos, babies were carried into the room one by one and handed to their parents. The sounds of the babies crying and parents weeping and the chatter of Chinese nannies and adoption officials was beautifully deafening. It was the soundtrack that marked the end of a very long wait for both the babies and the parents. It was a room full of two-becoming-three, and it was the most important place I have ever been in my life.

When Ruby was brought in, Jason and I recognized her right away. She was serene as her big brown eyes scanned the room, trying to make sense of it all. When I held her in my arms, both she and I started to cry. I ran my fingers through her sweaty, fine hair and said, “Hi sweetie, I’m your mommy.” I passed her to Jason and watched as he kissed her on the lips, and then I cried again at how tiny she was in his arms. We found a quiet spot together in that room and let Ruby pick Cheerios from our hands as we sang lullabies to her. At long last we were a family. In the days after receiving Ruby, I journalled: “Going home will be good but I know enough to value this precious time in the hotel room, just the three of us… I didn’t expect to like parenthood this much… This experience has changed our lives profoundly. Ruby is a gift beyond value.”

On our last day in China I threw out the maxi-pads I never needed after all. We landed in Toronto and were greeted at the airport by a crowd of loving friends and family who stormed the sliding-glass security doors to greet us, holding signs and video cameras and tissues. The day after Ruby’s first medical checkup in Toronto, I went for another ultrasound. This time we got photos and undeniable proof that, yes, there was a baby growing in my womb, while the one that was growing in my heart sat beside me in her stroller. We finally shared our news once I was 3H months  along.

My actual pregnancy was “boring” and “textbook” according to my ob/gyn, but Jason and I wouldn’t relax until we actually had this child in our arms. At my second ultrasound we chose to find out the gender of the baby: a boy. And then, on December 4, 2004, after 33 hours of labour, our son, Jet, was born. When I held my intense little boy for the first time, the only words out of my mouth were “he looks just like Ruby,” which he did. The early days with Ruby and Jet are a blur. I felt terribly guilty for only having seven short months alone with our daughter before Jet was born. The guilt was unnecessary, though. Jason and I had given Ruby the ultimate gift: a living doll. As I write this, my one-year-old is doing his Frankenstein pose for the tv, waving bye-bye to Dora as my 2-1/2 year old brushes his hair and fights to outfit him in a flashy barrette.

I still don’t know the scientific reason why I got pregnant when I did, but on a spiritual level, I believe that it’s because my children were meant to be siblings. The truth of the matter is that we would not have had one without the other. Maybe Jet wanted to be a part of that first family hug in China.

Misconceptions

You’ve probably heard about a couple like us who conceived after adopting – after all, these are stories people love to repeat. But there’s little evidence to support the theories about how the two are linked.

Myth #1 Perhaps the most common myth is that the couple relaxed once they decided to adopt a baby because the pressure and stress of trying to get pregnant was eliminated. “You hear of this frequently enough. However, there are hundreds, thousands that adopt and a subsequent pregnancy does not ensue,” says obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Michael Virro, an infertility specialist and director of The Markham Fertility Centre in Markham, Ont. “I personally don’t think stress plays a major role in infertility. Minor, yes, but not a big part.” A 2003 Heidelberg University medical faculty study found that psychological factors affecting fertility are generally overrated; it said that about five per cent of fertility cases are linked to stress, in contrast to the 10 to 15 per cent often quoted. As the study notes: “Spontaneous pregnancies following adoption…are the absolute exception. The association of stress and infertility in humans is still unclear.”

Myth #2 Another favourite folk tale is that adoption is somehow a cure for infertility. That’s a particularly tough one for couples to hear, according to Resolve, the U.S.-based National Infertility Association: “First, it suggests that adoption is only a means to an end, not a happy and successful end in itself. Second, it is simply not true.”

Numbers game Exactly how frequently people become pregnant after adopting is the question. Some experts peg it anywhere between three and 10 per cent. That would mean that, despite long odds, around three to 10 couples out of a hundred will eventually conceive after a long time trying, whether or not they’ve brought a baby home from China or elsewhere in the meantime. We were given a five per cent chance of getting pregnant, and while that sounded like impossible odds, we were simply fortunate enough to be one of the five out of 100 couples (with similar fertility challenges) to conceive. CF

One response to “The Making of a Family”

  1. Kim Wampler says:

    Thank you for sharing your family’s story. We are 7 months along in our “actual pregnancy” and our precious son whom we adopted in 2009 is spending the day with Grandma today. When we received our lab results and successive ultrasounds showing an “unremarkable” fetus of normal size, weight, development, etc…we immediately felt humbled and awed at how our Sam would get to be a big brother. We knew we were an exception to the myths about adoptive families and also believe, too, that Sam and his little brother are spiritual siblings.

    Your writing is heartfelt and I am so grateful to have found your article! My husband and I ask for patience and compassion every day to respond with kindness to those who say things too far removed from our family’s experiences.

    Thanks again…continued blessings and good will to you!

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