How I Learned to Be Good Enough

After years of infertility, my foster son taught me to be brave, to move on, and to see myself as enough

Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

I first met him on a dreary, dark, cloudy winter afternoon in the sterile reception room of the Noarlunga Centre Families SA office in Australia. A woman was at the counter speaking to a worker, who was protected behind glass. She was arguing in slurred tones about her visitation rights. She seemed to be willing herself to remain calm and focused but an edge crept into her voice, which was struggling to form full sentences.

We waited, Leon and I, until they said we could sit in the family room. “Family room” was a generous description — it was more like a waiting room with a red couch and some old, soiled toys in one corner.

We’d seen just one photograph of him, a curly-haired boy with blue eyes. I thought the scan might have picked up a coffee stain on the original because there was a small, latte-colored smudge beneath his left eye.

But to tell you this story, I really need to go back 15 winters.

I was in another office, this time a reproduction center. The doctor was talking about the poor quality of my eggs. I saw those eggs in my mind’s eye, like seeds floating in a pomegranate, looking up at me apologetically.

Your eggs are not good enough. You are not fertile enough. You are not young enough. Not woman enough. Just not enough.

And you: Your sperm are a bit lethargic. Some have two heads and two tails. They’re simply not good enough. Not strong enough. Not man enough.

“But we’ll try again,” he sighed, resigned like he was offering a poor consolation prize. Here are your winnings: two weeks of daily hormone injections, some ovulation retardant, a nasal spray, and some mighty mood swings. Congratulations.

Then, he was watching TV. I was in the kitchen, staring into the fridge at the vials and the sharps.

Will you sit with me while I do it? Watch me?

Why would I want to do that?

Rage is powerful. I don’t know about you but it starts in my belly, feasts on my hormones and disappointment, and grows until there is no room left for it and commando crawls up to my throat. I screamed.

He put his hands on my shoulders, roughly, and said, “Calm down.” I pulled his hair. We were like kids on the playground and we caught ourselves in an illusory mirror so we laughed at our foolishness, then tumbled onto the couch. Then we cried.

When two of my brave eggs managed to split into two and then four and then eight, they called me in.

Will you come with me?

I’m working.

Rage.

So there I was in a room on a chair with nothing on my bottom half, feeling the cold whoosh under the plain, white sheet. My feet appeared comical, stuck up in the air, resting on stirrups at eye level in a pair of rough socks. I should have worn new ones.

The doctor appeared.

“Let’s get started, shall we?”

His head bobbed up and down between my legs: up over the sheet, now back down like a bearded puppet master checking on his audience before the show is about to start. Here, can you hold this? It’s the ultrasound and he wants me to press it into my abdomen where he’s smeared the gel.

“The husbands normally do this part,” he says with apology in his voice.

Rage.

The eggs went in. They stayed there for a couple of weeks but must have decided the accommodation was not up to scratch. I have an inverted uterus, which must get bad reviews on Womb BnB. Eventually the eggs left on a painful morning just like every other month, amidst the sickly, thick blood of menstruation.

I still have their photos somewhere, those two embryo figments of my children. They would be teens by now.

Then I feel the lump. It’s in my right breast.

“It’s probably just a cyst,” says the doctor. “Let’s check it out.”

But it’s not a cyst; it’s cancer.

I tell the reproductive doctor about this new happening.

“How are you?” he asks.

“I have breast cancer,” I say.

“Well, no one told me!” he says, indignant.

I am no one. Not good enough. Not well enough. Not lucky enough. Not human enough. Not enough.

I start to cry. He observes me objectively, like a sample through a microscope. “We have counselors right down the hall to the left. Perhaps you should make an appointment on your way out?”

Attending to emotions is clearly not in his job description.

After a few winters have passed, we start talking about adoption. We apply for China. There is a nine month wait but there are a lot of unwanted girls in China. The adoption services counselor says we must attend workshops. The presenter in these workshops cannot spell and he blames his teachers. I’m a teacher. He says he wishes he could have had a more robust conversation with us but we are being judged and watched. It’s a forensic examination of our personal histories. Are we well? Are we stable? Are we happy? Are we having enough sex? Are we strong in a crisis? Are we enough?

After 18 months, we demand to know what is happening. The worker regards my tears and says, “This is a long and arduous process. If you can’t hack this, you need to consider your suitability as a parent.”

Not strong enough. Not controlled enough. Not enough.

After six more winters, we get the letter: China says if you have one speeding ticket, you will be disqualified from the process of adoption.

Now we are not law-abiding enough.

Have you ever tried scream therapy? My neighbors must have wondered what was happening that day. I slaughtered a wild beast and ate it’s remains. And I washed it down with fine wine, lots and lots of wine.

“China doesn’t want to lose face so they change the rules to make it more difficult,” they tell me. “There’s nothing we can do. It’s a diplomatic issue, you see.”

But I don’t see.

I went to the press. I went to the minister. I scaled and climbed that jagged cliff of wrath and regret. I screamed at God, “I hate you!” I threatened to jump off. I made a fuss. But this will not do; no fusses can be made. Fit parents do not make fusses.

So here we are back where I started, in the family room. Leon had made sure he wasn’t working that day and he held my hand. He was here with me. With us.

Then the boy walked in. He was three-and-a-half years old, wearing jeans and a Spider-Man jumper many sizes too big. He had rolled-up sleeves, rolled-up jeans, and sneakers. He beamed at us. His teeth were jagged and black but I was already in love with him. The coffee stain beneath his left eye remained, a big, latte-colored tear making its way down his face. It was a tattooed droplet containing all of his and our grief and happiness, in one wise birthmark.

He made a beeline for the Dora doll in the corner. It was a plush toy as big as he was.

The worker explained: “This is Karen and Leon. One day you might call them mum and dad.”

We took him for a walk. He tossed the Dora as he walked. We bought him some snacks and a drink and we tried to chat. We understood about every fourth word.

Now, on this winter day, let me explain:

They will say, “You are so good to take on a kid like that, with an addict for a mum and special needs. It’s not easy.” Or, “He’s so lucky to have you.” Or even, “Don’t you wish his mum would just overdose or something, so you could adopt?”

And when they say this, I will look at them. I will take another sip of wine. I will contemplate that ruby liquid that could have so easily swallowed me up. Then I will hear it, softly at first, a familiar refrain of Beyonce singing “Ave Maria.”

“I know the cost, of a losing hand (there) but for the grace of God go I…”

It is this boy who took my tired, old hand in his chubby grip and led me out. It is he who showed me the way, became my GPS for the soul, and allowed me say to myself, finally:

“You are enough.”

Writer. Reader. Teacher. Thinker.

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