I don’t have a mystical bone in my body. I was raised in an almost mercilessly rational and logical household where the rules of debate applied at dinner table discussions. None of us believed in heaven or astrology or fortune tellers or homeopathy or reincarnation or any preordained destiny. The Ouija board was stupid game that no one played. Horoscopes were not even read, much less discussed. As a result, I never had that feeling that things happened for a greater reason or as a part of some master plan. With one major exception.
There is no way I can look at my daughters and not feel they – and we – were meant to be, however much my rational mind tells me that coincidence and timing were the only relevant factors in our coming together. Intellectually, I knew that had we postponed our original decision for another six months, Mitzi could be growing up in Portugal right now and Lily in Kansas. But I simply can’t think that way and I can’t explain why.
So as I write about our adoption process, I am writing about our roads to Mitzi and Lily – exactly those two girls, who were meant to be sisters and meant to be our daughters. It is somehow fitting that those days and weeks were filled with blind trust and leaps of faith, with moments of near despair and resurrected hopes. With jumping through hoops and bending rules. Nine months of adoption labor pains.
Once you decide to adopt, labor immediately sets in. Its duration can be anywhere from months to years, but the bright side is that, as a couple, you share them. Our labor began in an office of a social worker in the district government building. For many couples, this is also where the process ends. Once they hear about the complexity and invasiveness of it all (the bureaucratic hurdles, the parenting courses and psychological tests, the home inspections, the waiting periods . . .) they already begin to think twice about starting the process. In some cases, the couples are discouraged from the get-go by the social worker. We were very lucky to have a wonderful woman assigned to our case who ended up doing everything in her power to help us and to expedite our process. This was especially important because I was already 38 years old at the time, and as we heard in that first interview, the average waiting time for domestic adoptions was 6 or 7 years. We immediately changed course toward foreign adoption.
At that time, Austria had not yet signed on to The Hague Convention regulating intercountry adoptions, which meant that no agencies were allowed to set up shop here. The only foreign adoptions allowed were those that went through diplomatic channels i.e. India, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. And for us, that meant doing it all on our own. Now years later I am really happy about that fact (a topic for a later blog entry), but at the time it was a bit daunting. We ruled out Vietnam because of my citizenship (though that was probably unfair of us) and we ruled out India after hearing that there was a waiting list of more than 100 couples already. We called the Ethiopian Consulate and set up an appointment.
We found out there that there had been a flurry of Ethiopian adoptions in the 1980s during the famine, but then almost none in the 15 years since. But- just a month earlier, a family in Tirol had adopted a baby girl. The Consul showed us a picture of the baby and gave us the phone number of the family. He told us that we had to go through the whole process of certification for domestic adoptions and then do it again with the Ethiopian government offices - with the help of a local representative whom we should hire and give our power of attorney. He showed us a list of Ethiopian attorneys and promised his help when we got to that stage.
On the drive home from that meeting, my husband and I decided finally that we were going to do this. We had our second meeting with the social worker to find out what we had to do and called the family in Tirol - the first of what would be many many calls leading to a lasting friendship. This was the first link in what would become a large network of adopting families, with each one helping the next couple to come along. At this point, though, there were only three of us families the one in Tirol and a second one in Vienna who was just a bit farther along in the process than we were.
The following months were filled with interviews and a four-weekend adoption and fostering course – half of which was devoted to reflecting on our motivations. There were about 10 other couples participating and a lot of them seemed to resent having to do so. And many of them were only feigning interest in fostering. Secretly they were hoping that this would be the quicker route to adopting. The psychologists giving the course were very skilled at revealing these couples and getting them to see that fostering is a whole different ballgame. It is social work, where adoption is not. The ultimate goal of fostering has to remain reuniting the child with his/her biological parents. Yet the couples talked about these (purely imagined) parents as if they were Enemy #1. I never found out how many of these couple actually got the official permission to foster, but I am guessing not many. For me the greatest gift of this course is that it got me and my husband talking again. The years of childlessness had made us silent on the subject, but in those 4 sessions, the dam broke.
And then there was the paper chase: resumés, birth and marriage certificates, proof of income statements, police record (or lack thereof, I should say), academic degrees, letters of recommendation, proof of citizenship, medical histories, statements of motivation, a home study written by the social worker . . . All of these had to be submitted along with certified translations into either English or German. Ka-ching! (That is supposed to be the sound of cash register swallowing our money.) Then the whole package, including our freshly issued adoption permission had to notarized. Ka-ching! Then the notary’s seal had to be certified by the provincial courts two of them. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Then the courts’ seals of approval had to be certified by the foreign ministry. Ka-ching! And finally, the foreign ministry stamp of approval had to be certified by the Ethiopian Consulate Ka-ching! By this time, our file had 76 official stamps on it. We handed it back to the Consul who would send it to Addis Ababa to our representative along with our power of attorney and a down payment for her services. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching!
And then . . . nothing.
Up to now, we had been kept busy. Not only with our jobs and house renovations, but with all of the paper chasing, stamp collecting and networking. Our constant efforts to see all this as theoretical were fairly successful. But once the file was in Addis, it became unbearable. The fears that something would go wrong or missing, some mistake had been made, some trap fallen into . . . they haunted us. Unlike pregnancy with its assured due date adoption remains an iffy proposition up until the moment you have that baby in your arms and the court approved adoption contract in your hands. And before that happens, you dont want to make any preparations, because . . . what if something goes wrong? So, no baby room is decorated, no baby clothes or bottles or diapers are bought, no baby shower planned. You don’t want anyone even asking you about how its going. It’s wait and see time. You hope. You trust blindly. You hang there in midair in your slow-motion leap of faith.