The desire to parent a child was the driving force that led us to adoption. We both came from “traditional” family structures with a mother and father plus siblings. I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of our nation’s capital amidst a diverse shifting population in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. It felt like a small town rather than a huge metropolitan area it is today. My spouse grew up in the small capital city of the great mountain state of West Virginia. Our childhoods were peppered with the cultural shifts revolving around union strikes, textbook controversies, protests, and riots of that era. Our parents provided us with stable relatively carefree childhoods despite those challenging times. We never believed parenting was easy, but we wanted to have children in our lives and hopefully provide some of the same happiness and stability our parents provided to us.
Through the assistance of Adoptions From The Heart, we have been fortunate in adopting two beautiful daughters. We may not look like the typical traditional family like our families of origin, but otherwise, we are as typical as other two-parent households raising children. Our family consists of two moms with two daughters through adoption. We participated in both the International and Domestic Adoption programs offered by Adoptions From the Heart. Our first daughter, Emily, was born in Vietnam, lived the first part of her life in an orphanage, and became a part of our family at the age of four months in October 2000. Our second daughter, Ella, was born in the state of Delaware and became a part of our family soon after birth at the age of two days in April 2006. Ella is an African American. As the girls like to say, their two moms are “sooo” white. Parenting has provided us with a different perspective on the world then if we had never parented a child. Adoption and parenting children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds add yet another layer to the equation. Of course, we would never have experienced any of that without first having the opportunity to adopt and working with such a professional and caring organization to that end.
Exploring International Adoption
In thinking about Adoption From The Heart’s 35th Anniversary, I have reflected on what led us to adoption. Although my spouse and I discussed having children, we initially did not consider parenthood as a possibility as a same-sex couple in the early 1980s. However, as time passed it became clear, in paraphrasing Bob Dylan, the times were “a-changin” as others in our orbit expanded their families with the assistance of medical professionals and fertility clinics. We celebrated the births of their children as they led the way in West Virginia. At that time, we did not know anyone who had pursued adoption and believed that it would not be possible for us. However, optimism has a way of pushing you forward. In reading the Charleston Gazette, I saw an advertisement for an open house for those interested in domestic and international adoptions that were being held at a local hotel. Not knowing how we would be received we attended the session offered by Adoptions From The Heart and gathered the information for adopting from China. At a subsequent appointment, Gina steered us to the Vietnam program as it was quicker and a better fit for our family. Throughout the adoption process, Gina and the entire Adoption From The Heart’s team were very supportive while we worked out way through it.
The international adoption process seems daunting in hindsight. The paperwork to comply with three governments makes filing a complex tax return seem easy by comparison. Looking at the travel journal kept during Emily’s adoption, the main stressors stemmed from completing the paperwork within the time needed to complete the adoption before then end of the calendar year. When you get on the merry go round you best be ready to ride! As with any complex process, following the checklist is imperative. Even so, there were times when we thought the entire process would derail. For instance, obtaining the initial approval from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) caused quite a bit of stress when my spouses’ last name was misspelled, and her fingerprints could not be located. After multiple telephone calls to the INS and Senator Rockefeller’s office, the issues were resolved. Sometimes the process was moving too quickly when we were asked if we could travel earlier than planned, but we declined because we could not get all the loose ends together that quickly. Then, in August 2000, we received our match with our soon to be daughter, Emily. The tiny black and white photograph with a laboratory report written in French and Vietnamese was immaterial to our decision process since once we saw her, we were in love. We accepted the match immediately! Feet first with faith drove us to this moment. Just as we thought we could breathe a new batch of paperwork needed to be completed just as our travel date moved up to October 19, 2000! October 19th is a significant date for our family as it is the anniversary of our Commitment Ceremony as a couple and reaffirmed with our marriage. Random coincidence that we traveled on that date on our way to Vietnam to meet our new daughter!
Off to Vietnam!
Travel plans were meticulously coordinated with the Vietnam program facilitators, Paul and Sandy, through Adoptions From The Heart. Ten families traveling from different locations in the United States were to meet up in Seoul, the Republic of Korea before proceeding on the same flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Our flight path was to take us directly to Washington Dulles International Airport, but instead, our flight out of Charleston was canceled and no other flights on that airline would allow us to meet our connecting flight at Dulles. However, we secured our seats on another airline with our luggage in tow that took us to Washington National instead of Dulles. Not ideal, but it beat delaying travel another day. Within minutes of landing, we were in a taxi on our way to Dulles, grateful it was not during rush hour traffic. Our travel day was endless as we traveled across the time zones on our way to Seoul. Tube time, no true morning, noon, or night… watching movies, periodically checking the location of our flight on the screen projected with our altitude and distance, envious of those among us better prepared for this journey. Our flight out of Dulles had been delayed, so our connection in Seoul to HCMC was in jeopardy of being missed! Time for another shout out to Adoptions From The Heart! We almost missed our connecting flight in Seoul, but for Paul and Sandy. As we departed our flight, Paul was waiting at our gate and quickly took us to the gate for our flight to HCMC. His wife, Sandy, and their three children were waiting refusing to board, somehow holding the flight that was otherwise fully boarded and ready for departure. We arrived in HCMC close to midnight, moving onward to our apartment at Norfolk Mansion with our new group of compatriots. Jet lag chased us throughout the day after journeying west across 13 time zones and the International Date Line while attempts of sleep failed. Emotionally, we felt exhausted while at the same time exhilarated by the thought of meeting our new daughter, Emily.
Saturday, October 21, 2000, in the early afternoon we received the first of many telephone calls from Sandy telling us to meet in the lobby, what to wear, and what to bring. A mixture of trust and faith at work in giving over what we perceive as control. We all gathered in the lobby before boarding vans for our seemingly endless thirty-minute ride to Tam Binh Orphanage. The streets were teeming with people on cyclos, mopeds, motorcycles, and a few autos all appearing to drive wherever they pleased in some uncoordinated chaos without mishap. Once on the grounds of Tam Binh, we were quickly ushered into a large lounge and without much time the babies were brought in one by one. Our daughter, Emily, was the second child brought in through the door. First thoughts, she is beautiful … wearing a cute blue and white striped “sailor” suit with yellow knitted booties. I held her first, but Roberta received the first smile as she held our new four-month-old daughter. Nine babies were being adopted by our group as we began the next phase of the process together. As I recall, Sister Hai spoke to each family privately for a few moments touching each child on their head. In speaking to the group, Sister Hai spoke of the importance of providing an education to these children. We left as quickly as we arrived, this time with babies in tow. Roberta and I spent the evening and next day in our apartment adjusting to caring for an infant while receiving tips from other families. Time spent getting to know each other and marveling over Emily’s endless smiles. Emily was very talkative with tonal babbling, which would soon disappear as she adjusted to learning the English language. We received a house call from a pediatrician, Dr. Nguyen Cong Vien, M.D., who examined Emily and prescribed topical medications for various acute conditions acquired with the communal living conditions.
Monday started in earnest with two official government appointments. The first appointment with the babies and Sister Hai for the Giving and Receiving Ceremony as each family met with the official individually where we signed documents and ended with Sister Hai congratulating the family. The second appointment was without the babies where one parent applied for a passport for their child. This was a bit tenser as the official could interfere with granting the application. During this process, I walked through it without any questions though one in our party was drilled a bit before being approved. Wednesday morning, we were one of four families with appointments at the US Immigration office at Saigon Center where we submitted all the essential paperwork we had been acquiring since we started this process. The American official reviewed the documents asking clarifying questions and looking at Emily to confirm her appearance. Thursday’s appointments included a stop at a vendor where Emily’s passport photo was taken on the sidewalk outside the shop, a medical examination at Cho Ray Hospital for Emily’s U.S. Visa application, and a surprise stop at the maternity hospital where Emily was born. After the weekend, Emily’s Vietnamese passport was ready. Tuesday, we had an appointment at the U.S. Consulate for an interview to obtain Emily’s Visa to enter the United States of America! It was Emily’s first Halloween, which we enjoyed as other families did “trick or treating” at our apartment complex. The Vietnamese staff kept wishing us “Happy Halloween” throughout the day.
Ho Chi Minh
During our free time, we were able to explore parts of historic Saigon. Saigon is a beautiful city with the scars of war but teaming with the energy of renewal. We wanted to experience Emily’s birthplace and share stories of that visit with her in the future. We were a typical tourist with shopping in the old Russian Market where we purchased embroidered table linens and clothing, including Ao Dais. We strolled through the Rex Hotel and wandered past the Hotel Continental. We enjoyed a group tour stopping at religious sites, including the Jade Pagoda, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Pagoda Vihn Nghiem. The tour also included stops at the War Remnants Museum and Ho Chi Minh Museum. A stop at a lacquerware factory resulted in many purchases. We shopped at a local grocery for a few items to prepare in the apartment. Our guides through this process provided a list of safe places to eat and foods to avoid during our stay (i.e. avoid ice, tap water, food stalls, or street vendors). One mistake led to temporary illness when ice was accidentally consumed. Playing it safe, we managed to enjoy some of the best food in the world and even tried sushi for the first time. Of course, we were introduced to excellent Vietnamese dishes that we have continued to enjoy after returning home.
We started each morning, sitting on the balcony with Emily watching the sunrise. It was beautiful with very little noise except for an occasional “noodle knocker” (soup vendor) walking down the street on the way to work. As dawn broke, we looked out on more people rushing by carrying more items than you can even imagine on their two-wheeled transports. The heat remained oppressive, yet we were adjusting to it as our journey was coming to an end with our return home. We remember taking Emily to Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral with the statue of the Virgin Mary behind the altar with neon lights surrounding her as we listened to the Mass in Vietnamese with readings in French and English. We remember the poverty amidst the hope of skyscrapers cropping up around the city. We remember the babies bundled up tightly despite or because of the heat. Vietnamese women approaching Emily on the street, making clucking sounds to get Emily to smile and saying “lucky baby” as they walked past. Remembering, the farewell Vietnamese dinner prepared by the chef at our apartment complex was a nice gathering for all the families before our long journey home. Throughout this time, we enjoyed just spending time with this little person in our life spending many hours lounging and napping in our apartment and staying up watching Emily sleep in her crib. We even introduced Emily to Monday Night Football and the World Series (New York Yankees beating the New York Mets) live via satellite television… interesting to watch in the morning instead of late at night.
Bringing Emily Home
On November 1, 2000, we began our longest day of travel in the evening as we flew from Emily’s birthplace to Seoul, to Boston, to Washington D.C., finally reaching home in Charleston, West Virginia on the evening of November 2nd. In Seoul, all the passengers stood up to give us their seats on the transport to the terminal. On the flight from Seoul, the grandmotherly passenger next to me gently slapped my hand as I made a poor attempt in putting drops in Emily’s eyes. In passing through US Customs at Dulles, a customs agent welcomed Emily and took our first family photo on U.S. soil. My parents, Emily’s grandparents, were the first family members to greet her in Washington D.C. as we waited for our connecting flight to West Virginia. Once we arrived in Charleston, Emily was met by her other grandparents and friends welcoming her home.
Exploring Domestic Adoption
The international adoption process was an emotional roller coaster that we could not have managed without the assistance of the folks at Adoptions From The Heart. We are grateful for the services and guidance provided while completing Emily’s adoption. Although it was daunting, there was so much support along the way we were energized to adopt another child. In pursuing a second adoption, we again met with Gina from Adoptions From The Heart to discuss the different programs. As a couple, we discussed how an open adoption would impact our family and in the end, we believed we could manage any challenges this may present. We decided on the African American domestic adoption program as a good fit for our family. The paperwork and requirements, less daunting this time, but still requiring a checklist to manage all the required documents and gathering of information. Similar to Emily’s adoption, fingerprinting, home study, etc. with the added twist of creating a profile of our family for the birth parents to review. We understood that the timeline was unpredictable. Emily’s adoption took about the length of a pregnancy from start to finish. Ella took a bit longer. We were in process waiting for a match for close to two years and were about to give up hope when we received a message from our contact, Gina, from Adoptions From The Heart.
The news of Ella’s birth came on the day when we had decided to move forward with a different approach. We were out of town visiting friends and took a photograph of our little family of three not knowing that our lives were about to change. We hit the road in separate vehicles for our return trip to Charleston. Emily was in the van with me. At that time, I never carried a cell phone and if I did, I never checked my messages. It was a different time. However, on this trip, I had my old flip phone with me. I pulled off in Cambridge, Ohio for a quick stop to check my voicemail. Surprisingly, there was a message from Gina from Adoptions From The Heart about the birth of a baby in another state who was available for adoption. Emily jumped up excitedly at the news … hoping for a baby brother. As I spoke to Gina, I noted details of Ella’s birth on a cardboard sunscreen from the van. We had to be in the state of Delaware within two days. The drive to Charleston was a blur as we could not get home fast enough. Nothing was ready for a baby. We were in a whirlwind of activity – unpacking, washing, packing, making travel arrangements, calling family. Crazy stressful in a different way than with Emily’s adoption. We had not decided on a name so that was a topic of discussion as we moved through the chaos of the moment. Our new daughter was to be discharged from the hospital in the morning two days after her birth. The drive from Charleston, West Virginia to Delaware took us through the night checking in very late to our hotel. This would be home for the next week or more while we waited on approval from the State of Delaware. We were so unprepared for our surprise arrival! Before heading to the hospital, we shopped for essentials including a car seat. As with Emily’s adoption travel, we were both exhausted and wide awake with excitement at the same time.
On meeting Ella, we had that same feeling as when we first saw Emily. Love at first sight. She was so beautiful and tiny as a newborn. Emily exclaimed, “She has black hair like me!” as Ella slept through our first meeting. Emily adjusted quickly to the new role of big sister. She then gave her new sister advice… “Go crazy in school!” Pretty good advice.
We quickly settled into our near-empty hotel entertaining a five-year-old with pool time while one of us pampered our newborn. Ella was so tiny she comfortably slept in a drawer we pulled out and set on the floor. Between appointments with Adoptions From The Heart, an attorney, and the hospital, we explored a little of Ella’s birth state. Once released from Delaware, we spent several days in Maryland where Ella was officially welcomed into the extended family by visiting with her Uncle John. We then headed home to West Virginia to settle Ella into her new life. She may not have traveled as far as her sister on that first trip home to West Virginia, but we certainly added more mileage to her travels early that summer as when we drove to Kansas to introduce two-month-old Ella to her family. This was only the beginning of her life travels with family and friends.
Our Daughters and Our Life
Circling back to our reasons to adopt, we hope we have provided the structure and foundation that will give Emily and Ella the tools they need to manage life in this world. So far, so good. Emily and Ella have been great friends since the start. They are social whirlwinds. Go crazy in school they both do… excelling in all areas of life with numerous friends, academic success, and athletic ability. They have their ups and downs, but they manage it all with guidance and support from family and friends. They have experienced life from a different perspective from their peers who live within their family of origin. We do not experience life as they do and will. However, they each have opened our eyes to the rich world of diverse cultures and many of the inequities of the world. In honoring their heritage, we have explored a blend of experiences. I received advice from a young Vietnamese woman I spoke to when Emily was about four years old about not having many resources in the area where we lived. Her advice was not to worry about it because Emily would find a way to connect to that part of her heritage when she needed it. As a teen, Emily expressed an interest, so we connected with a non-profit organization, Catalyst Foundation, that celebrates Vietnamese culture with adoptive families. Ella enjoys African American history and literature with a bent toward social justice. Like her sister, Ella finds ways to connect to her heritage. We support both our daughters as they explore the world.
Happy 35th Anniversary! We are forever grateful to Adoptions From The Heart in bringing our family together.
Irma, Roberta, Emily, and Ella