Choosing to adopt
All parents can identify with the anticipation of expecting a baby. But adoption can add even more stress and excitement to the waiting game. Mike and Victoria Davy share their story with Ellie Gwilliam.
You were the most beautiful thing Mummy and Daddy had ever seen
The moment we first met you
Eight years of anticipation
Waiting for our little Gabrielle
A promise spoken long ago
A dream now reality
A story we can tell…
This is the first page of a hand-made picture book, lovingly written and illustrated by a dad to commemorate his little girl's arrival at her new home. It is a true story, cherished by the heroine, and kept pride of place in the playroom of her family home.
This particular chapter is a joyous, heartwarming read because it's the delightful fulfilment of a dream. The prelude, however, about how Gabrielle came into this family, is a tale of painstaking patience and a heart-rending wait.
Mike and Victoria Davy married in 1994 and settled down to pursue their flourishing careers and enjoy their DINK (double income, no kids) lifestyle. While the disposable income and no-need-for-babysitters existence provided some satisfaction, the inevitable ponderings of "there must be more to life than this" set in.
But for Mike and Victoria, the obvious next step proved elusive as they were faced with the harsh reality of infertility. A failed IVF treatment and recommendation not to try again left the couple with limited options. The couple was determined not to let the pressures of infertility undermine their relationship. Victoria remembers, "We invested time in self-awareness. We were on a journey, and if it ended with us not having a child, we at least wanted to be better people. We focused on what we had, not what we didn't. Infertility was not going to be our story; it is not our identity, nor am I a barren woman."
The next step was far from obvious, and while Mike and Victoria pondered life as a childless couple, a friend told them they would make wonderful parents and suggested they put themselves forward in a private adoption case. Another couple became the adoptive parents of that particular baby, but Mike and Victoria were prompted to begin their own adoption journey and, unsure of where else to start, they googled "adoption in New Zealand".
Adoption remains a misunderstood procedure in New Zealand and public perceptions often reflect the traditionally secretive atmosphere surrounding what should be a celebrated method of forming families, "a beautiful thing" in Mike and Victoria's words. Child Youth and Family (CYF) have worked hard to shift attitudes towards adoption and this is reflected in the growing popularity of open adoptions.
CYF is the governing body for all adoptions in New Zealand. Babies and couples can be suggested for adoption matches, as in the case where Mike and Victoria were originally approached, but all legal adoptions must be registered, with prospective parents first meeting a lengthy list of pre-requisite checks.
International adoptions are an option for some, and as they monopolise media coverage they are often at the forefront of people's minds. They are even more time-consuming than local ones, and so most international adoptions involve children rather than babies.
While there are many wonderful prospective parents wishing to adopt, there is a surprisingly low number of children adopted in New Zealand every year. Over the 2009-10 year there were 60 New Zealand children adopted by non-relatives. These stats make for a long wait for couples like Mike and Victoria. Officially, the journey starts with a phone call to Adoption Services at CYF. The next step is a two-hour Ways to Care information session on transition fostering (short term), Home for Life (joining a foster family permanently), domestic adoption or inter-country adoption.
Prospective parents then apply to CYF to be considered for adoption. Applications include full disclosure of medical history, finances, police checks, character references and interviews with social workers. It's a lengthy and thorough assessment, which, based on Mike and Victoria's experience, can take one to two months.
Applicants are then invited to attend the Ways to Care Preparation Programme, two separate days of in-depth information and workshops on the adoption process and what adoption means to a family. The first-hand stories from people representing all parts of the adoption process are raw and emotional. Mike and Victoria are still visibly moved as they talk matter-of-factly about what must have been a challenging few days. CYF consider these workshops a vital part of the decision-making process for applicants, and Mike and Victoria agree, saying it's very important to dedicate enough time to the processing of emotions in order to confidently put a hand up for adoption and know it's for the right reasons. Investing time in self-awareness, they insist, is also paramount in preparation for the lengthy wait.
An assessment is then undertaken by CYF, including a visit to the applicants' home. This assessment should be within 90 days of the applicants deciding on what type of fostering or adoption they want to do. With all the initial checks in place, Mike and Victoria were approved and assigned a social worker.
Once approved, prospective parents put together a CV-like profile detailing who they are as individuals, as a couple, their parenting philosophy, and how they would raise a child. Mike remembers the angst over writing their profile and the rather nebulous and naïve nature of their answers when, in reality, they had no idea what parenting would actually be like. His advice to anyone pondering their profile is, "Just be authentic. At the end of the day, just put in what's important to you."
Profiles are put into a pool and birth mothers are then given a compatible selection from which to choose parents for their baby. They can make their selection at any time of their gestation or, in Gabrielle's case, even after they have given birth. A birth mother's selection may be based on a profile in general, or on one specific thing that catches her eye - it might be your aspirations to put all your children through tertiary education, or a particular t-shirt you were wearing in a photograph.
"It is out of your hands, you need to trust that the right person will be in the right place at the right time," says Mike.
Prospective parents might have their profile drawn from the pool and included in a selection presented to a birth mother any number of times before they are a birth mother's final choice. Here begins the waiting game, made all the more challenging by the fact that as prospective parents with a profIle in the pool, you can be notifIed every time your profIle is pulled. This is by no means a guarantee of fInal selection however, and after multiple unfruitful "profIle pulls", Victoria rang their social worker to say they'd had enough. "Don't call us again until we have a baby."
Then, out of the blue on a Tuesday afternoon in March 2007, some 15 months after originally being approved for adoption, Victoria answered a call from their social worker to announce they had a baby girl.
Gabrielle's birth mother had chosen Mike and Victoria's profile and wanted to meet them in person. Gabrielle was two days old and once her birth mother had confirmed her choice of Mike and Victoria, they were able to meet their little girl, who was to spend the next 10 days with a CYF-appointed caregiver. Success was in sight, but this was not yet a guaranteed run. There is a compulsory 12-day stand-down period after a baby's birth, where birth mothers have the right to change their minds - 12 days where adoptive parents are often allowed contact with the baby, but still face an excruciating wait. Mike and Victoria would visit little Gabrielle every afternoon and spend the evening with her - bathing her, feeding her, falling in love with her.
Could they allow themselves to bond? Victoria recalls, "We made the decision to be in, boots and all. If we had to grieve, then we would have to grieve, but we would deal with that later."
Finally, the surreal phone call came, their daughter Gabrielle could come home. Before that, prospective parents are told not to invest too much emotionally. Setting up a nursery, for example, is not recommended. So Mike and Victoria didn't, and had nothing ready. No parenting books had been read, no antenatal classes attended. No luxury of maternity leave to prepare house or headspace for the life-changing little person that was about to cross the threshold of their home.
Some hurried shopping resulted, but donations from people in the couple's church, and even complete strangers who knocked on the door having heard the story, meant that Mike and Victoria soon had an abundance of baby paraphernalia and were able to bless several other families with the overflow.
With a closed adoption (where the birth mother chooses to have no further contact with her baby and the adoptive family - as is the case with the Davy family), there is little support for families after adoptions. A social worker visited and observed the family throughout the first year, and visits by Plunket and a midwife were helpful. But Victoria says the early days with their newborn were challenging. Without pregnancy hormones providing a post-natal boost, Victoria remembers the stress and the shock of the first few months, mixed with feelings of being completely besotted. After such a long wait, the actual transition into parenthood was extremely quick. The type of coffee group support enjoyed by parents who have babies at the same time was impossible to find.
CYF provided advice on bonding, such as Gabrielle being held only by Mum and Dad in the first month. CYF also recommended treating Gabrielle as they would treat someone they had just met, patiently and sensitively assessing any non-verbal cues.
Mike and Victoria agree that repeatedly having their profile pulled, but not being the final selection, was one of the hardest parts of the journey. That, and needing a competent lawyer who could see to all the legalities of adoption in the rushed time frame allowed.
Another challenge was other people's attitudes towards adoption which were often unhelpful.
"I found this quite hard," says Victoria, "because she is our child, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
"People feel sorry for birth mothers, when in fact they are heroes making courageous decisions, and Gabby has an outstandingly happy and loved life because of her biological mother's decision."
There is always a dilemma over how long to stay in the adoption pool and the question, "Do you give the process a finite end?" Mike and Victoria have their profile in the pool again, as they wait in hope for a sibling for Gabrielle. Gabby prays every night for a little sister, encouraged by her parents' faith and realisation that there is, in fact, nothing else they can do.
Much of a child's identity is tied up in their parents, so an adopted child is likely to encounter issues in this area. Fortunately, Gabrielle's godmother is herself adopted, and a treasured resource for her insights on what issues need to be addressed and when. A parent's role of enriching their child's sense of who they are is all the more vital for Mike and Victoria. Gabrielle frequently asks Mike and Victoria to tell her the story of "how you loved me when you first met me". She identifies herself as "God's special gift to Mummy and Daddy", "which is what we tell her, because it's true", says Victoria.
In addition to celebrating Gabrielle's birthday, the Davy family celebrates her Homecoming Day, 12 days later. On Homecoming Day they celebrate as a family, with an activity of Gabby's choice, and dinner with her choice of menu and a Homecoming Queen crown on her head.
Mike and Victoria say adoption is not only a viable option, but a brave and admirable decision on the part of a birth mother, and life-enhancing for all involved. Four years later, the fact that Gabrielle is adopted is not something the family thinks or talks about much. Their daughter is an amazing child - bubbly, social and extroverted who lights up the room. Daily they feel blessed to have her and daily Gabrielle is well aware of how her parents feel. There are jokes about potential "princess syndrome", but an unspoken recognition that that is a cross they will more than happily bear.
Books for children
- We Belong Together, Todd Parr, Little, Brown & Company, 2008
- Motherbridge of Love, Xinran Xue, Barefoot Books Limited, 2007
- God Found Us You, Lisa Tawn Bergren, HarperCollins, 2009
- I Wished For You, Marianne Richmond, Marianne Richmond Studios, 2008
- Flora's Family, Annette Aubrey, QED Publishing, 2007
- A Sister For Matthew: A Story About Adoption, Pamela Kennedy, Ideals Children's Books, 2006
Ellie Gwilliam would like to thank the Davy family for sharing their story and thanks also to Debbie Sturmfels, Manager at Service Support - Care and Protection, CYF, who provided information for this article.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 13 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW