It was never meant to be

31 05 2010

Having just survived the ordeal of IVF, donor-eggs and surrogacy, our quest to be parents headed off in a different direction, although we did not know it at the time, as a couple, we had been mortally wounded by our IVF. We didn’t go off to Russia or Korea as many did, instead we chose to approach the adoption service in New Zealand. Tired, emotionally battered and mentally exhausted, we somehow convinced ourselves that we were superhuman and that as everything else had failed, perhaps we could lavish our love and affection on children who were less fortunate and needed new parents or parents for the very first time.

Children are very hard to adopt in New Zealand for a number of reasons. Unwanted pregnancies amongst those of New Zealand European ethnic origin are more likely to result in a termination, whereas with Maori and Pacific Island families, many unwanted babies are ‘cared’ for by the extended family. There are also many bureaucratic hurdles through which to jump, quite rightly, which are all designed to protect the interests and welfare of children, and test one’s desire and resolve (as if we needed that to be proven!).

At the time we started looking into adoption, we were told that we would only be able to adopt a baby from our own racial background. Therefore, with a waiting list of over 200 couples for every  NZ European baby that came up for adoption, it was going to be some wait. Unless a private adoption opportunity came along, the reality was we might never become parents, so in earnest we decided to make further enquiries.

I remember coming home from the office one day and my wife handed me a copy of The New Zealand Herald. She opened up to a section she’d circled and there I saw the silhouetted image of two young children with the caption above them ‘Can You Help?’ This advert had been placed by the Permanent Placements Unit, a dedicated group within the Child, Youth and Families Department (CYFs) who are responsible for the care, welfare and permanent placement of children who have so far, for whatever reason, proven difficult to place with new parents. If we’re honest – most people simply do not want children after their toddler years and even then that can be too hard. It’s not hard to figure why – children with fully developed personalities, that have been influenced by a succession of carers and the lasting effects of whatever damage has been done by parents who’ve been removed as Guardians, will probably have a few behavioural issues and so they’re not exactly not everyone’s idea of a recipe for success.

As you might imagine, having failed so far to become parents, our surrogate children were fur ones, four cats and two dogs, so the prospect of ready-made children, albeit with a ‘few issues’ looked appealing. We had a lovely home, in a nice location, with a local Decile-10 primary school nearby, my wife wasn’t working full-time, we were getting along, so the prospects looked very good indeed.

Having made contact with the department who’d placed the advertisement, we very quickly discovered that CYFs had a number of competing approaches to the management of child placement, and depending on which group managed the particular case history of the children, their particular modus operandi held sway – it felt like some sociological study was going on. One group advocated a view that for placement with a new family to be successful the biological parents of the children must only be granted minimal access to the children, perhaps as little as one supervised visit per year. The competing strand of thought however was one that believed in the importance of maintained contact with the biological parents, with supervised visits on a regular basis.

It was the more hardline approach of the two that we happened upon. The principal social worker with whom we initially spoke did not approve of childless couples becoming involved with difficult placements. Her view – which we disagreed with and thought she was being heartless – was that it would not be in anyone’s interests least of all ours, because we had no experience with children, let alone children with ‘issues’.  You can imagine our response, ‘how dare she tell us we cannot be parents to children in need. I bet she’s got kids. It’s ridiculous, all we want to do is love these little ones and some bureaucrat is trying to stop us. Can you imagine that they’d want to deny these kids what we can offer them?.’  So ignoring her view we persisted, and as if by magic, the less hardline group began to wonder if we might not be ideal for a couple of siblings who’d so far missed out on a new start. We were sent on a CYF adoption/fostering day course and approved as potential adopters.

Anne and Tom (as I shall call them), were a brother and sister of 9 and 7 respectively. They were living apart at different foster carers, having spent almost their entire short lives in and out of care. Their mother (35) had effectively neglected and abandoned them and was unable to cope. Their father (65), was separated from their mother, was a convicted paedophile who had fathered some 17 children to an assortment of mothers, with a lifetime’s ambition to have sired at least 20 children before he died. He was a friend of the children’s maternal grandfather, and it had been suspected though not proven, that he may have been grooming Anne. A court order had placed an exclusion order around Anne and Tom, forbidding the father from visual contact with children under any circumstances. Meanwhile, regular ‘supervised’ access with Anne and Tom’s  mother occurred weekly.

The team of social workers managing these children’s care, were of the view that with their professional help, a couple such as us without children could indeed provide a workable permanent home solution for these two children who had expressed a wish to stay together. The Department was more than willing to separate the children, each was of paramount importance as individuals apart rather than as siblings together. However, their preference, which we agreed with on an irrational and sentimental level (and I think this was more me than my wife) was to see if we could provide a home for both of them.

So, over the course of the next three months, we were screened and interviewed by the social workers who visited us at home and interviewed us in their offices. Very slowly, we and the children were being brought together, first in an exchange of photographs, then in an informal introduction, at the homes of the carers.  Those initial meetings were heart wrenching. Other children who were being cared for would approach you and say ‘are you going to be Anne’s[Toms’] new daddy? I am going to my new parents soon as well’. Except the ones who were not being allocated a new mummy and daddy would keep their distance, play on their swings or with their toys, with such a look of sadness in their eyes, it became quite hard to even look at them.

What struck us was the consciousness and awareness that these children had about their situation. They were all ears, listening for snippets of information and hopeful news of a bright new life with a new mummy and daddy or perhaps yet another move, another foster parent, another start without hope. You could sense, touch and feel the insecurity, the weariness, the wanting to believe what adults told them but holding back, just in case they were disappointed. Their eyes would follow you, scrutinise you and assess whether you were nice or nasty, friend of foe. One little boy asked if he could come home with us – that

The foster parents did an amazing job, keeping these little one’s clothed, fed and cared for with all of the issues of personality and psychology that each child presented. Anne was not particularly bright and quite a lot more serious than her brother. She’d obviously spent more time in and out of care and seemed more institutionalised by her experiences. She had seen babies come in for immediate care prior to adoption and had witnessed older girls of 14 or so with babies of their own, come into her foster homes. She  had adopted an admiration of their lifestyle and was happy to state very clearly that her goal in life was to become a mum as soon as possible. Tom meanwhile was quite small chap for his age, but he had a thirst for life,  a good sense of humour, an enquiring bright mind and wanted to be vet when he grew up, demonstrated clearly by his love of animals.

Over the course of the next three months or so, we went from visits to see the children at their foster homes, to-day trips out together , to weekends where they’d come and stay, until finally the social workers believed the time was right, that enough bonding had occurred for a complete transfer to living in our house as members of the family. We were wrapped, very excited and couldn’t believe that this was happening. The children were seemingly okay and we thought we could do it, whatever happened. What was also exciting for us was the thought that we would be entering a new world of parenthood, that involved schools, school projects, after school sport practice, swimming etc., I was even thinking that I’d join the school board. Our lives were about to change for good and for us, that change couldn’t come soon enough.

As part of our preparation, we set up Anne and Tom’s bedrooms… new beds, toys, books, clothes. For the first time I went into the Baby Factory to pick up a car seat booster because Tom was so small. I remember thinking that people would see this in my car and know I was a dad…I felt proud. Oh, and another first was to go inside a Pumpkin Patch store, I’d never had cause to do that before and had always wondered what it was like – my exclusion from huge tracts of everyday life for many people was coming to an end. My wife had put a lot of effort into preparing for the arrival of the kids, indeed, we’d gone to a lot of expense to make sure that they felt comfortable and dressed well and wanted for nothing. Maybe we went overboard, but for us, this was what we’d been waiting for. They were very special little people who deserved, for just once in their short little lives, to be really spoilt and made to feel special.

I don’t really remember the day that the kids arrived. For some reason, I think possibly because we’d been spending long periods together, it was as if we were on our own one day and the next, well, there they were. They were already familiar with us, with where they’d be sleeping, where they were going to go to school, et cetera. As far as we were all concerned, familiarity and routine was an important mechanism for making that big adjustment, for all of us.

It wasn’t long before we began to notice a number of interesting personality issues. We had a rather large lower garden which was ideally suited for a soccer kick-around with Anne, Tom and the dogs. So having bought my new football, we all ran down to the garden, prepared a goal and starting dribbling, tackling, scoring a few goals, playing football, but before we could get very far, one of the kids was in tears because the other one kept on scoring goals, and when we reversed the situation, both of them became quite hysterical. We abandoned this happy scene and went back inside.

I came home from work one day to find that Tom was in what can only really describe as a catatonic state, rocking backwards and forwards, screaming and wailing at the top of his voice. My wife has said that he’d been in this state for approximately two hours. Apparently, things went down hill when she had given too much attention to Anne, and this was the result. We had no idea what to do, so we ignored it. This was a regular occurrence with Tom, but seemed to lessen over time as his bond with Oliver, one of the black labs became stronger. What we noticed however, was that Anne revelled in the new-found attention she received because she was alone with us. It was at this moment I began to suspect that a devious mind could be setting about exploiting us, if we weren’t too careful.

One Saturday afternoon, I came in for lunch having been mowing the lawns and parked the ride-on at the back of the house, which had an ascending driveway to a flat area in front of the garage. As my wife and I sat and discussed events of the day, suddenly we witnessed Tom careering down the ever steepening driveway on my ride-on wrestling with the steering wheel. Anne came inside and just laughed, whereas I felt my heart leap into my mouth and chased him as fast as I could managing to halt the tractor before he and it went over the bank. Once I had stopped shaking and the adrenalin had subsided, I decided to speak with both children. The truth didn’t come out for a few hours, but it turned out that Anne had encouraged Tom to get on to the tractor, she’d then released the break and pushed him. This really was quite worrying if true.

More pieces of the personality jig-saw came together when we heard from the school that Anne had started stealing other children’s property in one of several incidents of the kind, and in an another she’d been caught defacing the writing books of classmates. She appeared to have no interest in school and found it hard to concentrate, but seemed to make friends easily. Whereas her brother was finding school intellectually fulfilling and he was doing well, found making friends difficult, if impossible. One activity in which they both excelled, which was fulfilling and rewarding for both of them was the Hilton Brown swimming school we took them to. Swimming was a simple activity with which they were both eager to be involved and strangely from which no competitive dissonance occurred. This we encouraged.

Meal times became a major issue for all of us. I found it very difficult to cope with what I saw as appalling table manners, bad posture, fussy eating and the like. I guess if you’ve developed a bond with children from the beginning some of these personality issues are easier to cope with. However, in my house were two little people who behaved at meal times as if they were main characters in The Lord Of The Flies. They had been used to what I can only describe as Dickensian arrangements whereby in some of their foster parent homes, the foster children had been fed first, a different, cheaper meal to that of the foster parents and their family. It really was as if there were urchins in the kitchen being fed gruel before a banquet was served to the Master.

Anyway, these were their experiences from which they had developed a range of behaviours: hoarding of food, lack of manners, no real control over the movments or proper use of a knife and fork, to name but a few, and this demonstrated the very clear fact to us both that nobody had ever taken an interest in teaching these kids the rudiments of civilised behaviour at the table.

I found this hard, very depressing and I am ashamed to admit it, I became very hardline about it to the extent that I began to nag and correct them all the time. Eventually, my wife decided she would feed the children before I came home. I was both surprised and saddened by my own intolerance, but their behaviour really disgusted me. I think in my own upbringing, my parents had taken a firm hand to us for breaking dining etiquette from washing one’s hands before sitting down (scrubbing finger nails) to holding a knife and fork properly, no elbows on the table, not eating with one’s mouth full, not speaking unless spoken to, not being allowed to depart before the meal was finished and then asking for permission to remove oneself. None of these ‘basic’ rules were being observed. Perhaps I was in the wrong but it was upsetting me.

My wife and I argued about this – she said I was being a ‘bloody stuffy pom’ about the whole thing because children didn’t need to behave like little adults. I argued that I thought dinner behaviour formed the basis of a civilised family upbringing and blamed their behaviour on the seeming laxity and informality of New Zealand, where manners as I was taught them, not just those at the table, were in short supply. We disagreed fundamentally and were getting personal.

This became an incendiary issue for us. It would be true to say that tensions were beginning to mount between us generally as well. She would be spending her whole day, when she had other stuff to do, doing what mums do – running their little darlings around all over the place and as a consequence not achieving very much. To acclimatise yourself to this with children from birth is far easier than that ‘invasion’ that takes place where suddenly your time is held hostage. We’d been a couple alone with our animals for so long, our peace and tranquility, our civility was being disrupted. We had not envisaged what changes we need to make ourselves to accommodate this invasion. It was far harder than we had ever imagined.

Another odd thing happened for me. These kids in spite of all that were bonding, and bonding fast. We noticed they were calling us mum and dad, which was great, and on their school stuff, they were using wanting to use my surname – and chose to register under my family name. I was astounded. However, almost at the same time, Anne stopped wanting to associate with me. She wouldn’t talk to me, she’d grunt and walk away or she’d behave stupidly like a very immature child would. In talking this through with our social worker minders, they dared to suggest that the problem could actually be mine. I was affronted. How on earth could this problem be of my making? The next suggestion was that I should possibly get some counselling, to resolve ‘your problem’ with Anne. A chasm was beginning to open up for me. I was losing the faith.

A series of visits to their mother set us back each and every time. Immediately after their return to us, from what we were assured were supervised visits, the children began to wet their beds for almost two weeks after, and in general, their demeanour was pretty sad, disoriented and confused. It was at this point that we were being asked to consider Guardianship of the children as a prelude to full adoption. I remember thinking that there were a few legal issues to be resolved first, not least the rights of access for both parents. It was very clear that the children were being upset by going to visit their mother each and every visit. The balance of equality where one child was being treated as no more important than the other, was being disturbed by the habitual preference of their mother for Tom, to the virtual exclusion of Anne. This had significant side effects on their relationship under our care and we wanted these issues dealt with and a permanent solution sought.

At this point we sensed drift by CYFs. We were promised legal intervention one moment, with a very clear plan of action about how access was to be permanently limited, but almost as soon as we were agreed on the plan, a delay occurred and it fell by the way side. Assurances, and yet further assurances were given, but still nothing was done. Somewhere out there was a father who wanted access to his kids and would fight for it; and in another place was an incompetent mother, whose rights were being super-imposed over the welfare of the children.

Then came the revelation that Guardianship would almost certainly allow us a way to enshrine new access rules, perhaps more closely aligned with how we thought things should be organised. It was almost as if they had suddenly found a panacea that was now being dangled in front of us and to this day, I am still uncertain how disingenuous they were being. Guardianship entails legal responsibility for all aspects of the child’s life. In that regard, any action brought by a parent was a legal cost that we would have to bear. At this point, I could see strong warning signs flashing up in front of me, I suddenly felt that we were pawns in a bigger game. If they could remove these children from their care, to us, then statistically, the matter was resolved – a problem situation had been moved off the books. What’s more, they would no longer have to fund any legal case arising from parental demands to see their children, thus saving a pretty fortune from the budget.

We discovered almost at the same time that the ‘supervised’ visits that CYFs had been organising with the mother, were no such thing. The CYFs driver who had dutifully picked up the children from us, and was supposed to have stood guardian during the entire visit, to observe, witness and control the meeting, had been dropping them off and disappearing, leaving an incompetent mother and her highly fragile children to their own devices. It was no wonder then that Anne cried several times at the prospect of meeting her mother, and even refused on a couple of occasions to meet her. We told her we were obliged by the law to make sure she visited her mother but that we’d be there when she returned. It was horrific and very emotionally charged. An apology was made to us, the driver was removed and supervised visits were suspended to a less regular frequency – from every two weeks to once a month.

I now felt we had been exploited, lied to and put in a very difficult position. None of what they’d promised in terms of resolving the parental issues was anywhere near to closure. Psychological assessments of the children were going to have to be conducted to assess what treatments, counselling and special needs they might have ongoing. Whilst a child psychologist was attached to us, again, we felt no course of action was being taken to resolve deeper issues – yet still I was being advised to seek counselling.

I had finally had enough and came to a private conclusion. I had to tell my wife that it wasn’t working for me. It was much harder than I thought and I wasn’t coping. This was something the CYFs team would need to know. We met with them, I told them what I was thinking and they listened politely and suggested that I went to speak with a retired senior social worker (who happened to be the husband of the child psychologist). So, we met, and to this day I am still uncertain why he told me the story of a boy he had placed at the age of 7. His biological mother was a drug addict, his father unknown, his brother was serving a prison sentence. His adoptive parents were strong Christians who had sent him to private school where he excelled in sport, academic study and had learned to play a musical instrument. He had learnt much about morals and ethics and was looking forward to Varsity and a legal career. In addition, he had gained a wonderful, loving family, a great lifestyle, and his new parents loved him dearly. One day though, he asked if he could be allowed contact with his real mother who by this stage had recovered from her addiction. During that visit, his brother returned home having served his time in prison. By now this young man was 14 years old, and had enjoyed the best of life for the last 7 years, but he went back to his adoptive parents and in the presence of this social worker asked if he could be returned to the care of his mother. His wish was granted. That couple were devastated.

I went home and discussed all of this with my wife. It really was the final straw. We could find ourselves being abandoned by CYFs to fight as many legal cases as the father chose to fight and within seven years, both kids could turn round and ask to be re-homed with their mother. I believed we were going to have our hearts broken, but in any event, we were being played for fools and I had had enough. I then made a fateful decision and gave my wife an ultimatum, it was either me or the children.

Matters moved quite quickly once we had conveyed our tearful decision to CYFs. It was agreed that we would go away as planned at Easter but without the kids to my in-laws, and when we came back, if we felt the same way (or rather if I felt the same way) we would then decide on the next course of action. It was a very trying time and my wife’s mother who had loved the kids as her own grandchildren, for such a short period, was very upset at the thought of losing them. I had never seen her cry as long or as hard as she had on this weekend.

We came back to Auckland and by this stage, my wife had agreed to send back the children into care. CYFs made arrangements for Anne and Tom to continue their stay with their temporary respite carer who had looked after them whilst we were away. However, there was one last twist in all of this. As a responsible, decent human being, of course I recognised that it had been my inability to cope with all of this that had brought the dissolution of this arrangement, and therefore it was up to me and only me to tell the kids. We had discussed what form this would take with CYFs in advance, and at this stage it was as if all of their wishy-washy indecisiveness had gone and they were suddenly decisive and clinical in their approach. There was at no time a sense of cooling in our relationship with CYFs, but there was pressure to resolve matters fast.

We arrived at the house where the child psychologist/social worker was already with the children. They were so pleased to see us, but I think my wife was already overcome by emotion. I gathered the children together and asked them to listen to what I was about to say very carefully. By now, their eyes were staring, looking all over the room at adult faces behind me, wondering what on earth was coming – they looked anxious. Then I told them “We want you to know that you’re both very, very special children, and because you’re special, you need a special mummy and daddy. We have tried to be special for you but we just don’t feel that we are good enough. So we have asked the [name of the social worker] to find a new mummy and daddy for you both. We know you’re going to be upset, as we are, because we all shared a dream of being a family together, but sometimes dreams don’t always turn out right. You deserve another chance but we need you to know, it was nothing you said or did, it was us, we didn’t feel we could look after you properly. We love you dearly, and we will miss you…”

At that, the children cried, and as I looked around me, I was the only adult who wasn’t crying either. I was emotionally exhausted and quite upset but I had held it together. We said our goodbyes and left very quickly. A week or two later the children came back and picked up their things, they had moved on. We understand that several months later that they found a new mummy and daddy, but that is as much as we were told. Contact with CYFs stopped almost immediately, we were no longer in the inner circle and our emotional and psychological well-being was not their concern (and I am not sure it ever was).

I think that the period we are talking of  from start to finish was about one year, where the children lived with us for a little over six months. There were tender moments, but we were not encouraged, me particularly, to have any physical contact with the children through fear of allegation. In my mind, I could not understand what kind of relationship or bond could be developed between child and parent without physical interaction – it was ridiculous.

After this, for weeks after, my wife was an emotional wreck and behaved pretty much as if she really did hate me. She rightly blamed me for making her childless and for ruining her life. Perversely, I felt extremely and instantly relieved and though sad about having dashed those innocent hopes and dreams, I knew that this was the right thing to do. Years later, my wife thanked me for saving us as individuals from this situation. We had acted in good faith, we had been naive to say the least, and our motives had been totally selfish, on the back of all the pain, hurt suffering and an overwhelming sense of wanting to be parents at any cost. We had narrowly escaped being sucked in by a ruthless system that has no conscience. The principal social worker, who had taken the hardline view had been right all along – she really did know best.

Not long after, we moved. My wife had fallen out of love with our lovely house and was being haunted by the memories of Anne and Tom. Our quest to become parents was at an end. She quickly adopted a policy of reconciliation with being childless, but I continued to struggle, silently, about not being a dad. We bought a 15 acre lifestyle block, some goats, some cattle and some chickens and another two dogs and tried to bury our loneliness, bereft of children in the company of animals. Unfortunately, the reality was that the vacuum between us couldn’t be filled, and our marriage was effectively on hold until one of us worked up the courage to call it quits.

With hindsight, we should not have embarked on this journey. We did it for the wrong reasons at a time when in all probability our capacity to make far reaching, high impact decisions, was hugely impaired. If we had waited to recover from what we had previously endured from IVF, a clearer, more rational mind would probably have made a very different decision. We should probably have accepted that as a couple at least, as far as parenthood was concerned, it was never meant to be.

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2 responses

1 06 2010
Jill

Hi David

I must congratulate you on being so open and vulnerable to share your journey. It’s one I can only imagine – and I’m a mother – as I have no comprehension on the emotional toll all this must have had on you, your wife and the children involved.

From where I sit, I recognise how challenging it has been to have a stepparent feel connected and part of our family. It has taken it’s toll and been with great costs and benefits to us all. At times the battle scars have been deep – yet the upside has seen us relish in life as a family too.

We have a long way to go in our community to support. Supporting supporters and of course, the much needed protection of our young – lets not start on our elderly either!

Thank you for sharing!
J

2 06 2010
alisonfi

What a painful experience. Our own battle with our recent loss is nothing compared to this. I think the pair of you were incredibly brave. It is a natural not a selfish desire to want to be parents, but you were facing a ‘system’..just that, a ‘system’. Most people have to learn to cope with their own children and the trials of becoming parents and all that this brings. Your own experience was mitigated by clinical bureacracy and examination. On top of what had already passed with the IVF. I hope that sharing this has in some small way helped you to piece it all together so you can move on from this in any way you can, find comfort in one another and enjoy the love you share. To have made it through all of this and to have done what you did is an example of just how wonderful a couple you must be and how much you love one another. Something that will hold and carry you through life no matter what.

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