After five years of unexplained infertility and relentless medical treatments, Dave and Phoebe Atkinson made the brave decision to pursue parenthood through adoption. The outcome was a dream come true – a precious son.
Being a mum was my plan A. In fact, it was my only real plan. My life’s main aspiration has always been to be a great mum. As the youngest of four kids in a close-knit family, having a large family of my own seemed like a given.
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A year of trying to conceive and no sign of pregnancy took us straight to the doctor. Friends who had also suffered along the infertility journey advised us, “Don’t wait, get the ball rolling.” And so began our story of unexplained infertility which, over five years, would be marked by six rounds of chlomiphine, one round of IUI and three cycles of IVF, resulting in eight failed embryo transfers.
I will spare you the details, but when you start on the fertility process as a husband, it’s easy to feel a bit like a spare wheel. Nevertheless, I was determined that this was a road we would walk together. I sat in appointments, looked at ultrasounds, transported samples, administered injections, and learned more about pregnancy than any man needs to learn in a lifetime.
And every time we headed home from the hospital, we left with hope, thinking, “Surely this time will be the last. This nightmare could all be over in a matter of days.” But, for us, for some reason, it wasn’t. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point the hope was replaced by fear, anger and disappointment. It almost felt like hope itself had become the enemy.
During this time, around the two year mark I think, I began to opt out of different aspects of life. I hated the feelings of jealousy and resentment my infertility caused towards those dear to me. Friendships suffered. I stopped making the effort. I hated how immature and rebellious it made me feel. I reprimanded myself – “You should be doing this better. Be the bigger person here. You can be more mature than this.”
But grief has its own rules and time frames and the emotions wrought through grief are messy and ugly. You can’t go around it – you’ve got to go through it. During this time I needed something to change, so I retrained and began a new career. My job seemed like one of the few things I had control over, but even a career change couldn’t fill the void.
After five years, it had all become so hard that we made the difficult decision to stop medical treatment. I had arrived at surely one of the loneliest of places. King Solomon wrote, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” It is true.
Dave was a steadfast anchor during those years when weeping endured. I knew he was dealing with his own grief, but I made sure he knew about mine and helped me carry it. Why is it that we hurt those we love the most when we ourselves are hurting?
A friend once told me that as much as I tried, I could never truly relate to Phoebe’s grief and her struggle to become a mum. The remark annoyed me at the time, but I can’t deny that she was right. Phoebe was facing a disappointment that spoke not only to her hopes and dreams for the future, but to her very identity. I also longed to be a dad, but over those years, my longing was overshadowed by the pain of not being able to rescue Phoebe.
My pain was in watching the girl I fell in love with lose her confidence, her optimism, and her joy.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I began to climb out of the lonely place I’d been in for so long. A wise counsellor asked me earlier in our journey if I might consider, “What could be in God’s other hand?” Frankly, I didn’t care. I was only interested in the hand that held a conception. However, at some point there was a tide change and my thinking shifted from, “Conceiving a baby is the only thing that will make me happy,” to, “Perhaps there is another option.”
Several years before this, my mind had already started to drift to other possibilities for our future. However, as ready as I was to explore other options, Phoebe was not. For most of my life, I have been able to find solutions. I pride myself in being able to see a dozen ways to solve any problem. But month after month, I had to face the fact that this was not a problem I could solve. That being a loving husband to Phoebe meant doing the most simple, but profoundly difficult thing I have ever done – to sit and be with her in her pain.
However, as time went on, and as that hole got deeper and deeper, I doubted whether I was doing the right thing. Even now, I’m not sure I walked that line well. Perhaps I should have encouraged her more to focus on the positives, perhaps I should have encouraged her to get out and find other things to focus on. Nevertheless, I am glad that throughout it all, we did it together.
A conversation with a dear friend who had herself struggled with infertility and had considered adoption became a significant part of our thinking. She said what had helped her was accepting that more than conceiving, being pregnant and giving birth, she just wanted to be a mum. Adoption was one means of fulfilling that desire. I couldn’t argue with her logic. I relayed this conversation to Dave in the car on the way to an Easter holiday.
We had breached the topic I hadn’t been ready to talk about earlier, and for the first time in five and a half years a glimmer of hope pierced through the darkness. As we began to discuss our new decision to investigate adoption with family and close friends, hope grew, and we began to get excited.
Nine months of pregnancy was not to be our pathway into parenthood. Instead we found ourselves filling out forms and sitting in a series of CYFS workshops thinking, “Is this really going to be our story?” Numbers and statistics became important. How many adoptions were there last year? What might our chances be?
Our growing excitement was also punctuated with fears of the ‘what ifs’ and unknowns. We did what we could to address our concerns. We talked to people who had adopted, who assured us that the moment the baby is in your arms, nothing else matters anymore. Could it really be like that for us too?
We spoke to social workers in the field and made good use of our counsellor. We were, in some ways, reassured by the knowledge that the journey into parenting a biological child can hold the same sorts of anxieties. There are no guarantees. Reflecting on the truth that a child is not an extension of one’s own ego, also encouraged us. We reminded ourselves that to be parents is not about enhancing our lifestyle, but about having the opportunity to nurture an awesome little human being as they grow into all they can be.
At last, with all the workshops and paperwork and research, there was something practical I could use my skills on. Having completed the necessary requirements, we began the task of putting together our adoption profile. Initially everything seemed so crucial – what photos should we include? What information is going to be the clincher that will cause a birth mother to choose us? However, our social worker advised us that we weren’t trying to match every birth mothers wish list – just the right one.
With our profile completed and submitted, we began a new round of the waiting game. But this time it felt different. I followed blogs of women who had adopted and was encouraged by their stories, even though we had no idea how long we might be waiting for.
Another dreaded Mother’s Day rolled around, but this year, in light of our new direction, it didn’t feel so despairing. It came and went without so much thought from me. Little did I know I was already the mother of a darling little three-day-old boy.
Three months after we had submitted our profile, I was sitting at work when I got a phone call from an unknown number. It was our social worker, who said to me, “This is the phone call you have been waiting for.” I think I genuinely went into shock, and we stayed silent on the phone for what felt like minutes. I drove straight to Phoebe’s workplace and told her.
And probably most profoundly, we had to make the mental shift from parenthood being a source of pain, to being a wonderful and joyous reality in our lives.Her reaction was much like mine – disbelief, shock and the question, “Who is this little person we are about to call our son?” The more practical question that arose was, “How do we prepare to be parents in just four days?”
Phoebe resigned from her job that afternoon. We called a lawyer to arrange the legalities. We called our friends and family and many tears were shed. Our sister-in-law created a list of items we needed and shared it across our group of friends. Amazingly, within a couple of days, we had a fully-stocked nursery, ready to go. Our main focus, however, was to bond with our soon-to-be son, Harley, so we visited him at his carer’s house as many times as we could to feed and bath him.
Harley’s ‘gotcha day’ dawned. We ate breakfast out and marvelled over the reality that our lives would be forever changed in just a few hours. The world felt so different. It held the hallucinatory quality of a dream. Yet everyone ate their breakfast as though it were just another day.
At the carer’s home, Harley’s birth mother placed him in my arms, and just like that, Harley was our son, we were his parents and nothing else mattered. There were so many tears. We kept the name his birth mother gave him, to honour her and what she did for him. We also chose to have an open adoption, and we hope Harley’s birth mum will be a part of his life as he grows up.
Almost a year on, though still unable to conceive, we no longer struggle with the feeling of life being on hold. In fact, sometimes it feels more like it is on fast forward. As proud parents we can’t help but gush over how perfect Harley is. Handsome, strong, and determined, he never ceases to amaze and amuse us – whether he’s bringing us a book to read, pushing his Tonka truck across the lounge, or watching grandpa mow the lawns.
The mundane has become the sublime. Just like every child, we know Harley will have his own challenges and questions as he grows up, and we will we face these together with him as they arise.
After five of the hardest years, I honestly don’t think we could be happier. Life before Harley seems a world away. We could never have imagined this would be our story, but we could also never have guessed just what a beautiful gift we would receive from God’s other hand.
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