To Houston and back. Emily Westbrooks shares her new family’s epic adoption story.
If I close my eyes, I can picture exactly where we were sitting in the Blue Bar in Skerries one January afternoon when we finally decided to leave Ireland (temporarily) in order to start our family. We’d ended up in Skerries at the end of an aimless drive around the countryside, hashing and rehashing our dreams of being parents and our limited options for making that happen.
We sat at the bar, knees tucked in together over glasses of wine and Dublin Bay prawns. My husband, Michael, looked at me and said, “Let’s do it.” With an anxious clink of our glasses, we began what would turn into a three-year journey to Houston, Texas, to adopt our children.
When we made the decision to pursue adoption, we’d been trying to start our family for several years and had already gone through a battery of fertility tests. In an impersonal ten-minute meeting with a fertility doctor, we were informed that IVF was our only guarantee to have children.
Difficulties in Ireland
I promptly burst into tears, wishing there was some other option, one that was less riddled with needles, less laden with uncertainty. We had always talked about adoption, assuming we might one day add to our family a bonus child; but with our limited options, we began discussing and researching whether we could start and build our family this way.
Unfortunately, we quickly realised that the country we loved, and where we were saving every penny to buy a home, would make that nigh-on impossible.
In an initial poke around the internet, I quickly found an article by Rosita Boland in The Irish Times, detailing just how difficult adoption in Ireland was, from the minimum four-year vetting process to the scarcity of domestic adoption, to the increasingly limited international adopting country options.
Adoption in Ireland, whether domestic or international, was and is still functionally impossible. Some couples manage to get through the maze, but the sheer number of potential obstacles is mind-blowing. We quickly learned that adoption would not be a viable option for us here.
Crossing the Atlantic
My husband and I are very grateful that we both hold dual passports – American and Irish – which meant there was another wild option for us. We could pick up our lives, move to America, and adopt over there. We would eventually return to Dublin, possibly as a couple, but hopefully as a family. It wasn’t an easy decision; building a life somewhere takes so long and we loved our jobs, friends and family in Dublin. But we were filled with hope at the possibility of finding our son or daughter, so we took a flying leap across the ocean.
Michael took a career break from his job as a secondary school guidance counsellor, and I planned to continue to write and blog from wherever we ended up. We had Irish friends in Houston who had adopted their son, Michael’s godson, there ten years ago, and they encouraged us to contact their agency.
We set about moving out of our apartment, putting our belongings in storage so that we could spend the foreseeable future in Houston. We packed all our warm weather clothes into two suitcases and arrived into the dripping 40 degrees Texas heat in August of 2015.
A baby girl
We found the most walkable neighbourhood, hoping it would remind us of the Dublin we missed, rented a tiny apartment, and Michael quickly found work in a high school nearby. I began ticking off the mountain of paperwork with our adoption agency, and we attended the requisite CPR, first aid and parenting classes to prepare for an impending baby.
I was superstitious, though, and refused to buy a single item for a baby until I knew it was going to be ours. In retrospect, buying a car seat and a few onesies would have been prudent, because just six weeks after we arrived in Houston, our agency called. I pulled into the parking lot of a garden centre and listened as the head of our agency said, “There’s a baby girl, and we think she’s your daughter.”
Michael and Emily's daughter Maya
She texted me a photo of the most perfect baby girl, just six pounds, three ounces. Our daughter. Six hours later, she was in our arms. The NICU nurses told us they had been praying for a family for her; they said she cried until we came.
Three years later, there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t say to one another, “Can you believe she’s ours? Can you believe our plan worked?” We are overflowing with gratitude at the honour of being chosen to be her parents, her forever family, and it is not lost on us how lucky we were to have had the option to move our lives to find her.
When we moved to Houston with this wild and unlikely plan, I couldn’t let myself think it would actually work, for fear of the disappointment of returning back to Dublin empty-handed. When Maya arrived, we quickly realised she wasn’t supposed to be an only child and began pursuing a second adoption before returning to Ireland.
A few months after Maya arrived, our agency called and asked if we would be able to take a foster baby for a few days while they found a long-term foster family for her. We couldn’t have said yes fast enough to the agency that made us a family, and we brought home the first of several foster babies we would care for over the next year.
We loved those babies as hard as we could for as long as we had them and experienced a mixture of grief and joy when they returned to the biological family or were moved to long-term foster families.
But four failed adoptive situations later, we knew something had to change if we were going to be able to adopt again. After many more tough conversations, we decided to stay a third and final year in Houston and change adoption agencies. Just two months after changing agencies, we got the call that we had been chosen to parent a baby boy who was due the next month.
Just two weeks later, we got another call that he would be coming early. Noah Michael arrived in August of 2017, exactly two years after we moved to Houston. He is exactly who we were searching and waiting for to make our family complete.
This past summer, we landed in Dublin as a family of four. Maya started Montessori just this autumn and we’re listening as her American accent softens. Noah took his first steps here in Ireland, and we celebrated his first birthday surrounded by family and friends.
A few weeks ago, we took them back to that same spot in Skerries where we decided to pick up everything and start the journey to find them. We didn’t brave the Blue Bar with a toddler and baby, but watching them run and crawl in the green across the road, with the sea and mountains in the distance, had us both in tears.
We are so happy to be home.
Before you leap…
Thinking of adopting in Ireland? Emily Westbrooks outlines the reality of the situation.
Many Irish couples share our dream of adopting, either to start or grow their families. Sadly, adoption in Ireland is still incredibly difficult and often a less viable and affordable option than fertility treatment for most Irish couples.
The vetting process by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency from whom you need approval before you can even start the adoption process, typically takes three years and is akin to climbing Mount Everest. You’ll attend informational meetings, be required to prove your medical fitness, including that you aren’t going through fertility treatments and that you have a certain BMI. You’ll be interviewed repeatedly, your friends and family will all be interviewed, your financial accounts and spending will be thoroughly combed.
Between each step, you’ll wait, sometimes many months, for approval or to begin again if you’ve failed that step. For comparison, most families in the US are able to be vetted in six to 12 months; in our case, we ploughed through the process as quickly as we could in two months.
If you are able to get approval from Tusla, your options are slim (and that approval only lasts for two years, although it can sometimes be extended by an extra 12 months; if your approval runs out before you are matched, you’ll need to begin the grueling process again).
Domestic infant adoption is all but non-existent currently. In 2017, there were seven domestic infant adoptions; after placement at birth, a birth mother has six weeks to reverse her decision to choose adoption for her child, after which period an adoption order can be sought to finalise the adoption.
When you turn to inter-country adoption, the numbers are only marginally more encouraging. Currently, Ireland co-operates with no more than ten countries for inter-country adoption; several have requirements that adoptive parents share the heritage of the sending country, and others have had no successful adoptions completed in the last year or more.
In 2017, 53 children were adopted into Ireland from a handful of countries, like Vietnam, China, and the Philippines. But it bears noting that of those 53 adoptions, the majority of those adoptions would have been toddlers or children, and many programmes, like the China one, only place children with medical needs, from albinism to cleft lips and palates, to much more significant disabilities like heart defects or Down Syndrome.
Only one of those countries, the US, allows couples to adopt infants – and only then at an estimated cost of €80,000 plus a 12-week stay in the country. In 2017, nine babies were adopted from America. The remaining countries typically have long waiting lists and offer only the option of adopting toddlers or older children, a prospect that takes a special kind of family situation – and a special kind of potential adoptive parents.
In order to embark on the long journey to international adoption, you must first wait for Helping Hands, the only accredited inter-country adoption agency in the country, to schedule a mandatory informational meeting, held a few times each year. The coveted spots in these meetings book quickly, limited by the size of the room the agency chooses. If you can’t get on the list for one of these meetings, you might wait another four to six months for your next chance to get to the starting gates.
If a couple was ready for the marathon of the application process and willing to welcome an older child (coming from another culture, typically with an extensive history of trauma and medical problems), the cost would likely stop them in their tracks. According to the Adoption Authority of Ireland, inter-country adoption costs between €35,000-€57,000. By contrast, both of our adoptions in the US combined cost less than their lower estimate, notwithstanding the cost of the international move it required.
Early in the adoption process, you are asked to choose which country from which you’d like to adopt; you may not choose more than one. Changing adoption programmes is very difficult, and you’ll only receive a declaration of suitability to adopt for one country.
Read more: 'Like puppies rather than people': The adoption scandal erasing identities'
Read more: 'I felt like I had failed': Michelle Obama candidly opens up about miscarriage and IVF
Read more: The reality of a decade of IVF: 'I felt like a little light had gone out in me'