My Adoption, the Making of My Mum

My Adoption, the Making of My Mum

By Yahna Fookes   |  

In 1983 at just 25, Pippy Fookes started to adoption process. In late 1987, they flew to South Korea to pick up their first daughter, Yahna. Here, Yahna interviews her mum on her experience and matrescence.

Matrescence is the physical, emotional, hormonal and social transition or journey where a person becomes a mother. The word itself, hums a gentle authority. Matrescence echoes the idea that one does not have to give birth to become a mother. The birth of a mother is so much more complex than just physical labour, and if you are reading this, a mother yourself, you’ll understand that motherhood is really a ‘labour of the soul’. Motherhood also looks, feels, smells, and sounds so different to each of us, and our individual journeys to become one are even more unique. Stepmothers, adoptive mothers, mothers in waiting, solo mothers, co-parenting mothers, foster carers, mothers who lost their babies, we are all mothers. There are so many of us moving in the same place, sometimes unknowingly.

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Earlier this year, there was an outcry to reinstate IVF in Victoria after it was suspended to free up health resources for COVID cases. The pressure of mums and mums-in-waiting, sharing their stories and the devastating effect suspensions would have for women going through the IVF process, caused the cancellation to be overturned by the government. This triumph was, to me, an example of how the community of mums are really at the top of an ecosystem. In recent times, the IVF process has gained broarder representation on mainstream media. Lena Dunham wrote for Harper's Bazaar about it, influencers share their journeys social media, and the population's understanding of how IVF works is gaining clarity. Conversley, when I tried searching for adoptive stories, resources were lacking. On top of the search were the Australian biographical film Lion, Brad and Angelina and some cute 1990’s footage from the final season of Sex and City where Charlotte and Harry adopt their daughter Lilly from China. There is also, dissappointingly, a still common notion that adoption is easy.

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Adoption is not easy, and has become less common. Just 334 children were adopted in 2019-20, 37 of them international adoptions despite 18 million orphans globally, who have lost both their parents and 40,000 children within Australia living away from their birth parents for over two years, unlikely to return home. Like IVF, the path of adoption is a waiting game. It takes patience, trust and sitting in a painful space of unknowing. It is the tale of one mother sacrificing their baby and another taking the vast responsibility to mother it like her own. Two versions of matrescence, equal in weight. To tell a story of the reality of adoption with reverence, I asked my own mother, Pippy Fookes, a country girl from Kingaroy QLD, who, at the tender age of 25, started the process of adopting her first child (me) from South Korea.

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OK Mum, tell us a bit of your journey to becoming a mother, was adoption something you had always envisioned

"I had always known I wanted to be a mother. Both my brother and sister were a bit older than me, so I had already been very close with my nieces and nephews. Not long after I had married, I had a miscarriage, and for the next couple of years, though we kept trying to conceive, nothing was happening. There didn’t appear to be any medical reason: the diagnosis given was 'non-specific infertility'. I’d gone to school with adopted neighbours who’d grown up in a loving family home. My husband had two adopted cousins. So adoption didn’t have negative connotations for either of us. When we moved to Canberra in July 1983, the time felt right to investigate what adoption pathways were available to us. I had had investigative surgery and tried fertility drugs, but the chances of me falling pregnant didn’t seem to improve with either, so we felt that we needed to be proactive if we were to begin our family."

What was the interview and adoption process like? Give me the ins and outs...

"Not long after moving to Canberra, we contacted the ACT Department of Welfare, and began the arduous process of adopting a child. Local (Australian) adoptions were taking many, many years, and international adoptions were being completed much more quickly, and of course, there was no option to be on both lists at the same time. We chose to be assessed for an adoption from South Korea, because the information we were given suggested that the process was quick, efficient and the children were very healthy and happy.

We were told that after we’d applied, that there was a mandatory cooling-off period of 12 months before any assessment began. We found this requirement condescending and ridiculous, a symptom of a government department not in favour of adoption. Our dealings with that department over several years confirmed our original assessment.

Over the course of the next year we contacted the ACT Adoptive Parents’ Association, and met some wonderful people and their beautiful children, from India, Korea, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Colombia, Brazil and Taiwan. Some of these families were returning for their third and fourth children, the process apparently becoming easier to cope with after the initial experience. We learned that not all adoptions went smoothly, that not all the children assimilated easily, and that not all the children were healthy. The constant was that all of the children were loved, and all had families, and most of them worked the rest of it out eventually.

After the 12 months had been completed, and surprisingly, hadn’t changed our minds by the end of it. The assessment began in late 1984, and we were surprised when what seemed to be a teenage girl turned up for our first interview. We dutifully answered her questions, all the while wondering how this child could be assessing us on matters with which she clearly had no experience. But we smiled and played the game, because we were doing what we had to do. We knew we were going to be good parents, we just needed the opportunity.

We were interviewed about our financial status, our attitudes to adoption (really?), and our understanding of what parenting involved. We had to provide character references and undergo a psychological assessment and police check. We had our house assessed to make sure it was safe enough in which to raise a child. We filled out form after form after form, feeding the machine of the bureaucracy. But we recognised that all these checks were actually a good thing, putting our prospective child’s welfare first. We kept playing the game until we were successful, and finally approved to adopt.

By this time it was late 1985, and my husband had been posted to the UK for a year with the RAAF. We left Australia with the expectation that we would soon be contacted by the Welfare department when they had allocated us a child, and we would fly to Korea and return with our baby to the UK. But this isn’t what happened.

After six or seven months with no contact from Canberra, we rang them to see what was happening. ‘Absolutely nothing’ was the response they gave us. They had decided to do nothing until we returned from the UK, because they weren’t sure of the process they’d have to follow to have us take the child to the UK. There was the added complication that the UK at the time didn’t recognise any international adoption, so it could have been very tricky. After many very expensive phone calls (this was the pre-internet, pre-email world) we requested the department reactivate our case so that we could be allocated late in the year, and return to Australia via Korea with our baby.

Around the end of September 1986, we received an envelope from the Welfare Department in which were two colour photos and a couple of translated pages about little Hong Jeong Soon, born on the 1st September in Ch’ung Chon Nam Do province. Although we were being asked if we wanted to adopt this little bundle, I felt there was absolutely no way we could say ‘no’. I fell instantly in love with her large almond-shaped eyes, the mass of black hair sticking up at an angle, and the sweet rosebud lips. The accompanying report was full of information about her early development. I can still remember the sentence: “She babbles well and feeds well.” Some things never change.

We wrote to confirm that we would pick her up on the way home from the UK in the first week of 1987, and again, nothing happened. As the date for our departure approached, we still didn’t have approval to return via Korea to pick up our baby. Again, many phone calls later, approval was finally given, rather begrudgingly as I remember, and we were able to make our travel arrangements. We thought all the bureaucracy were behind us. But we were wrong."

So all up, how long did it take?

"From our first application at the end of 1983, the process took a little over four years for us to meet our little Yahna."

What was it like when you finally arrived in Korea?

"When we landed in Seoul, it was -8° and there was snow everywhere. We hadn’t been to Korea before, but we’d learned a few phrases from a book and it was enough to get us to our hotel safely. We met Yahna at the adoption agency that afternoon for about half an hour, though her foster mother didn’t seem too keen for us to be there. Having earlier been completely smitten by two grainy photographs, we were ready to be her parents right then and there, but we had to wait until just before we were leaving to take her with us or even see her again.

We spent the weekend soaking up the sights of the city, eating unbelievable food and trying to immerse ourselves as much as we could into our daughter’s culture of origin. Both of us felt that we’d made the right decision, and we couldn’t wait for our dream to become real.

However, when we arrived at the Japanese embassy on Monday morning, it was closed for a public holiday and we needed a Japanses visa to get home (our flight was via Japan). So the next morning, we packed up from our hotel, and I headed out to the adoption agency and my husband headed for the Japanese embassy to get Yahna’s visa. Our flight left in the early afternoon that day.

I arrived at the adoption agency, and was met by an agency official, and Yahna with her foster mother. For the whole time I was there, I wasn’t allowed to touch Yahna. The ‘handover’ would only occur at the airport, when our flight boarded. It was so frustrating, to finally be so close to her and yet still so far away: it was agony. And, this being a pre-mobile phone world, I had no way of contacting my husband to find out whether or not we were even going to get Yahna’s visa. I wasn’t sure if we’d get to the airport and the flight would leave without us, and me still not being allowed to hold my new baby.

When we arrived at the airport, all I had was our baggage, and two companions, one of whom was hoarding my daughter. My husband wasn’t there. I checked in, and we waited.

About twenty minutes before check-in closed, my husband arrived, he and Yahna checked in, and finally our flight was called. I resisted the urge to snatch Yahna from her foster mother, took her in my arms properly for the first time, and we boarded the aeroplane. The agency had provided us with a small bag in which were a few disposable nappies (instructions in Korean), a bottle of made-up formula, a bottle of barley water, a tin of formula, a change of clothes and a pink sling. Everything we might need for the next six hours before we arrived at our ryokan in Tokyo with a starving baby. But that’s another story."

Why do you think adoption is important to society?

"Adoption is an alternative that should be considered as much as IVF, surrogacy or any of the other alternative mechanisms by which egg encounters sperm. There are many thousands of families that want babies, and many thousands of babies who need families. The success of adoption programs around the world over many decades has shown that the maternal bond doesn’t need a blood relationship in order to be formed and sustained. What’s often overlooked is that providing you meet the requirements for adoption, the risk you’ll not end up with a child is extremely small. Some adoption programs are still very affordable. However, we have an adoption process that still needs work: it’s often long, arduous and emotionally draining, and much more like a labour than it needs to be. In whichever way your child first comes into your arms, the rewards thereafter are the same."

Pippy's recommendations for people considering adoption

" I'm not very comfortable offering advice, but here are some opinions I'm happy to share."

  • Be patient: unless you’re an A-list celebrity, adoption isn’t a quick fix. It will probably take years.
  • Use your patience time wisely to prepare as well as you possibly can for your adopted child.
  • Do what you have to do to get through the adoption process. You’re going to have to jump through hoops, so you might as well become good at it.
  • Hold on to your perspective and your sense of humour, as you will need both of them.
  • It doesn’t take long for ‘your adopted child’ to become just ‘your child’. You will be her mother, and she will be your daughter. Even if she decides to go and find her birth mother, you will always be her mother, and both of you will feel that way because the maternal bond links you, one to the other.

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