United With My Vietnamese Daughter
A single Australian woman becomes the mother of baby from Vietnam.
It was Sunday, July 19. I was at St. Aloysius church in inner city Washington DC, and it was the time before communion when we introduce visitors and new members to our church. I held my new daughter in the air amid a sea of upturned faces. Black faces, white faces, Asian faces -- the faces of true friends. "Joy, joy unspeakable joy," sang the gospel choir.
"This is Mary Mai Son Buckley, my new daughter who I have just brought home from Vietnam. My son, Louis, and I would like to thank you all for the prayers that kept us going these last few months". The rest was drowned in applause, and not a few tears.
It was a moment I had been anticipating for nearly three years. When the paperwork seemed impossible; when the bureaucracies of three countries seemed determined to stop this adoption before it began; when my own inertia fought against my will, I would imagine this moment at St. Aloysius.
I am an Australian diplomat, posted to our Embassy in Washington DC as public affairs counselor. I am a single parent with a six year old birth child, Louis. Until I came to the US, I had never thought of the possibilities of adoption as a way of increasing my small, happy family.
My son, however, had other ideas. He loves babies. And as his friends' families increased, he was always asking why he could not have a baby brother or sister. I love babies too. But my single parenthood status seemed to rule out any new additions. In Australia adoption is much more of a rarity than in the States. And adoption for single people is almost unheard of.
But I quickly made friends with people in Washington who had successfully adopted. One divorced woman friend had three adopted children from India, and seemed to be making a success of her family. I met others. In fact, I joined a Single Adoptive Parents' Association, based in Northern Virginia. Soon afterwards I made contact with an Australian who worked at a well regarded adoption agency in the DC area, the Barker Foundation. Barker invited me to some introductory 'groups' meetings of people who were considering adoption, and before long I was reading all the literature I could get my hands on.
I initially chose China as the best adoption source. I had read so much about the plight of the little abandoned girl babies, the victims of China's One Child policy where boys were valued over girls. Adopting a baby girl from China seemed to be a good solution to a world problem, as well as a way to increase my family.
As so many adoptive parents know the paperwork for a Chinese adoption is overwhelming. Every document has to be notarized, then authenticated by the notary's office, then stamped by the State Department, then returned to the Chinese Embassy. This takes a lot of time and energy, and can be quite expensive as well.
In the midst of my application, a problem occurred in China with international adoptions, involving the removal of responsibility from one government agency to another. The Chinese were also disapproving of families with children adopting more children. Added to the normal burden of paperwork was my status as an Australian diplomat.
I finally had all my paperwork ready and sent to China in the summer of 1997. Then came the long wait.
I occupied the gap left by an end to all that red tape by training for my first marathon. Marathon training is a good way to get ready for the adoption process. Both processes are all about increasing stamina, and about long, slow weeks and months leading up to a final short sharp process.
In October I ran the 26 miles in five hours 15 minutes. It felt very good. All the months of hard work paying off. And more importantly, there was a great sense of achievement. I felt that if a relatively unfit, unathletic person like me could finish one of sport's most grueling challenges, there was little I could not tackle in life.
But on the adoption front, soon afterwards the blow fell. Spence Chapin reported that the Chinese authorities had rejected my application because they were in the middle of negotiating an adoption agreement with Australia. While that agreement remained unsigned, they did not want to allow an Australian adoption, even though I was doing it under US law as a US resident.
Luckily, Spence Chapin came up with an immediate solution. They had just started a new program of adoption from Vietnam. Would I be the pioneer? I threw myself into a new frenzy of paperwork and sent off the Vietnamese application in January 1998.
Barely a month later the referral came. A newborn infant girl, Nguyen Thi Son, had been given up for adoption at birth. Would I be interested in adopting her? I was ecstatic. After all the years of waiting, finally a name and a real baby. My son started to believe in the process again. "Waiting is dumb," was his famous comment about adoption.
From February 1998 until July 1998 when I brought Mai home, there were many highs and lows. Adoptive parents know this period only too well. Constant worries about whether the baby was being taken care of properly. Buying clothes, only to worry that the sizes would be all wrong. Dealing with dozens of inquiries every day about when I would get the baby. Never being able to make plans because the travel advice could come any day.
The great comfort of this period was the Internet chat group Adoptive Parents of Vietnam, where I joined where adoptive parents of Vietnamese infants discussed various adoption issues each day. This was the lifeline. And I made many great friends through this network. Through the list, run by Rick and Allison Martin, (adoptive parents of Korean and Vietnamese children, and birth parents as well), I learned a great deal about Vietnam, about traveling in tropical climates, about what baby gear to take, what hotels to stay at, as well as medical advice.
Spence Chapin works with the Vietnamese adoption agency International Mission of Hope. IMH is run by the legendary Cherie Clark who has been involved in adoptions since the Vietnam War, and has several adopted children herself. I finally got the call from IMH in late June. Aware that time was running out for me, Cherie said come to Hanoi by July 1, and I could probably receive the baby, do the formal paperwork and be out of Vietnam in time to return to Australia by 31 July - my absolute deadline.
With help from the list members and my doctor, I packed a swag of pharmaceuticals including Amoxillin antibiotic powder for infants (I needed it, and shared it with another family so bring plenty), Elemite scabies lotion (not needed, thank goodness, so donated to orphanage), cream for excema (another family needed it), Desitin diaper rash creme, Tylenol baby drops, Motrin for babies, decongestant, vaseline for baby's dry skin, baby soap. I took allergy pills for myself and I needed them (a lot of us found the first few days were very sneezy). I took malaria pills (Larium) before I went and during and after the visit, although I don't strictly think I needed them. I also had shots for Hepatitis B before I left.
I took a fold up pram that served as a crib a McLaren pram. I checked it through to Hanoi from Washington and I found it very useful to settle the baby. She liked being wheeled back and forward when she was going to sleep. Also took a baby snuggli which was useful for carrying her around the streets. It made us hot and sweaty but the baby was used to that and she would even sleep in it..
I stayed at the Claudia Hotel, 60 Hang Dao in the old part of Hanoi. I cannot praise the staff of this hotel too much. It was very reasonably priced - after twelve days the bill was only $427 US. This included daily washing and ironing, diapers and formula which they got in for the hotel guests, many meals including deliveries of Baskin Robbins ice cream. This price also included two tours - one of Hanoi and one south of the city of the Tam Coc caves. The tours were organized by the hotel staff, who arranged transport and meals as well. They met us at the airport, and were as involved in the children's welfare as family would have been.
I had to wait six days from July 1 to July 7 in Hanoi before getting the baby. The officials in the province she came from were not ready to sign the papers for that time. It was a difficult time... Luckily the hotel was full of families in the same predicament and we had some good times exploring the city, and having meals together. Hanoi is a wonderful city once you get used to crossing the roads. The traffic is anarchic, but mostly composed of motorbikes and bicycles, so not too threatening. There seem to be no rules, except toot your horn as you go through intersections at top speed. It is a miracle how few accidents there are.
Hanoi is full of beautiful old buildings from ancient Buddhist and Confucian pagodas and temples, to French colonial mansions so five or six days can be very well spent as a tourist. I recommend the water puppet show, the turtle pagoda, the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh's monument, any concerts featuring Vietnamese instruments (very lively, and sometimes haunting music). You can also pay $8 and spend all afternoon around the pool of the beautifully restored colonial Metropole hotel.
On July 7 myself and two other families finally got the call to travel two hours' north of Hanoi to Thai Nguyen to receive our children and to sign the formal adoption papers. Two hours driving through scenic paddy fields, boys on buffalos, strange narrow concrete houses, beautiful hills in the distance.
When we arrived in Thai Nguyen we stopped by the side of a road, and suddenly a case worker walked from a side street carrying a beautiful looking child. It was my daughter. I had had about two minutes to prepare. But luckily the other families caught the moment of greeting on camera. Mai is a beautiful, calm and intelligent child. And she greeted me without complaint as if she had always known me.
She was not very happy with her formula and as soon as we got back to the US I put her on soy formula, which was warmly welcomed. The lactose formula made her nose run and she got a few rashes, as well. Many Asian children cannot tolerate lactose so it may be wise to start them on soy straight away. I wish I had read more about this in advance.
The baby settled in with me very well. She woke in the nights a fair bit in the first week, seeking reassurance, but soon settled down. She is a very inquisitive, alert little thing, and very much enjoyed our outings around Hanoi in the snuggli, or in the pram, or even one day in a van and on a sampan to the Tam Coc caves. (Don't forget to take umbrellas when you go on that trip - the sun is very hot, and there are frequent thunderstorms.)
The high moment of the adventure was introducing Mai to my son, Louis. Every emotion crossed his face at that moment, but delight ruled. He can't get enough of her company, and she is very much at home with his roughhouse behavior. This makes me think that her foster family was a large one, with many children. I asked the agency whether I could meet the foster family and/or the birth mother, but apparently this was not possible in my case, as they did not want to meet. I am very lucky however to have the name and address of the birth mother, and a very moving note in her handwriting (translated from Vietnamese) explaining why she was giving up the baby for adoption straight after her birth.
As we head off to Australia for the start of a new adventure together, I have been pondering on what I would have done differently if I had had the time over. Firstly, I would not have become so impatient with the wait. In retrospect it was all meant to happen this way, and there is no point making yourself unhappy when waiting is inevitable. Secondly, I wish I had taken more reading material to Hanoi. Books are hard to come by, and I soon ran out. Street hawkers sell pirated editions of Grahem Greene's book about Vietnam, the Quiet American. This is a very interesting read. It is an insight into the period of French rule in Vietnam. It is also an interesting insight into Graham Greene's odd views of women.
I would have started Mai on soy formula from the beginning if I had known more about lactose intolerance. And I would have bought more Vietnamese handcrafts. These are very cheap, and very beautiful, and all your family will want them. I suggest you take a lot of US one dollar bills - this saves changing a lot of money into dong. Dollars are used almost everywhere as well as dong. And things are very inexpensive. There are beautiful embroidery shops and you can have silk clothing made very well and cheaply.
I am glad to have read a lot about the place before going there. I wish I had had time to go further afield, and next visit I will definitely visit Halong Bay. I recommend seeing the film Indochine for a glimpse of this beautiful place. I found Vietnam to be a fascinating country. I enjoyed the people, the culture and learning about its history.
Amanda Buckley is Australian diplomat and single parent. She adopted her daughter, Mai, from Vietnam while she was posted to the Australian Embassy in Washington DC.
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