Almost a Family

After years of trying to conceive, we decided to adopt. But the uncertainty was just beginning.

Jen Wick Studio

I've come to believe that conception occurs for adoptive parents the day they see their child's photo. In the hours following that moment, rapid cell division happens in the brain as they imagine a big, glorious life for a little human and they tell themselves, yes, this will be my child.

That's what happened to my husband and me last year at a coffee shop in Hillsboro off of Highway 26. Among the first to try to adopt through our agency's new program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we thought we were just checking in with the adoption agency director and getting a few details of the process before it started. We didn't know we'd see pictures of two children: little Marie-Louise, age three, and David, age two. Even as we told the director we'd need more time to discuss our final decision to adopt these children, privately, we already knew we would: conception.

For my husband and me, then both in the twilight of our thirties, the false starts had added up over what we call the “infertility stress years”: two years of trying (and failing) to have a baby; a battery of tests for both of us; then, for me, surgery, a round of hormones, and three tries at artificial insemination. Nothing worked.

False starts had been the norm, too, for Marie-Louise and David. Both had been discovered abandoned, too young to produce their own names, in separate parts of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. Kind strangers brought them to the same small orphanage, where the director chose names for them. For more than a year, no adoptive parents emerged for the children, despite their age and good health. Orphanage staff felt they belonged together, even though they were not biological siblings: Marie-Louise, older than David by about a year, had decided she was most definitely David's big sister. My husband and I wanted two children. Would this be a new start for us all?

Before our decision to adopt, near the end of the infertility stress years, swayed perhaps by others' success stories, my husband and I prepped for in vitro fertilization. Blood tests, scans, and literature would ready us for a procedure that, for a thirty-eight-year-old woman, had only a fifty-fifty chance of success. For months, I pored over every page of the thick IVF packet. It detailed the expensive, invasive process; the decisions we'd be forced to make; and the contracts we'd have to sign cementing those decisions. I couldn't shake the facts: embracing IVF meant we'd have to draw a line concerning when life starts.
My husband could see the pained look on my face. “If you don't want to do it, we won't do it.”

I responded in my usual way: “Let me think about it a little more.”

Worse than my squeamishness over how doctors would pull a bunch of mature eggs out of my ovaries, I couldn't stop visualizing what would come next: growing our embryos in a petri dish—or was it two? I couldn't remember. It was all so dizzyingly sci-fi.

Regardless, I knew once our embryos existed, we'd be starting something we couldn't stop. Following our legally binding contract, doctors would place a specific number of the healthiest embryos inside me. They'd either attach and I'd be pregnant, or they'd die and I wouldn't be.

We'd need a legal plan for the remaining embryos. Most IVF couples choose to either freeze them to try again later or destroy them. If we wanted to, we could actually lock them in a freezer, forever avoiding any decision, or donate them to other hopeful parents-to-be. How many potential new lives with our unique genetic stamp would we end up with? No one really knew. None of the choices felt right, so we ultimately chose not to pursue IVF. But the scans to check my uterus, preparation for the procedure, brought up, again, the possibility of cancer in my uterus. A second surgery and more tests later, we had peace of mind and a new resolve to try adoption.

The day we saw pictures of Marie-Louise and David, we started thinking of them as our kids, orphans no more. They already had us wrapped around their little fingers. Once home, work all but forgotten, we called the agency. Within an hour, we'd withdrawn tens of thousands of dollars from our account. Within two hours, my husband had driven the twenty-three miles to our agency's office to hand-deliver a cashier's check.

With the money, the legal process to adopt them could start. We'd already spent five months to get approved by Oregon to adopt, then another five waiting for our surprise in the coffee shop. Most of that time, we'd waited to be matched with children in another African country. But international adoption programs were disintegrating there, so our agency welcomed us into their new program.


At home, we displayed Marie-Louise's and David's pictures prominently on our refrigerator. I blazed through our agency's required-reading list of more than a dozen adoption books in three months. I got to work painting their rooms with trees and animals.

At home, we displayed Marie-Louise's and David's pictures prominently on our refrigerator. I blazed through our agency's required-reading list of more than a dozen adoption books in three months. I got to work painting their rooms with trees and animals. Friends threw us a shower. By then, my husband was forty and I was thirty-nine; most of our friends already had kids and were more than ready to give us their barely used everything.


Congratulations flowed in from friends and family. With mixed emotions, I showed the kids' pictures to my widowed mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease in an assisted-living facility. Every subsequent time she'd see them, the adoption was news to her, and she'd get excited all over again.

It wouldn't be long, though, before we learned that the process of starting a family through adoption would inflict a new kind of aching, sometimes stabbing, pain. When nearly four months passed with no new photo of David, we began to worry. Why had we received a new photo of Marie-Louise, but no new pictures of our son? It turned out the explanation was a simple mistake of two boys at the orphanage with the same name, David; orphanage staff had made a mistake with the first picture, pointing the photographer from our agency to the wrong boy. The boy in the picture—the one with the piercing eyes, the one we'd loved for four months—had actually never been our child. That David had been in and out of the hospital, and not present when the photographer came to take subsequent photos.

By then, we were well into the legal process of adopting the David who was Marie-Louise's best friend: a healthy, quiet boy whose picture we quickly received soon after the mix-up was discovered. By then, I already had tickets to travel to Congo to meet the children and forced myself to reconcile with the error. With an unsettled heart, I slid the picture of our first David into its original envelope. I couldn't bring myself to throw him away.


Our first foray as a family was truncated, rushed, wrapped in yearning for more time that we couldn't have yet. It made no sense either to me as a new mother or to the children.

I had two brief visits with the children during my four-day stay in Kinshasa. I met them in a way that adoption experts informed me was best for everyone: short visits accompanied by people the kids already knew and liked, people who could facilitate a casual, it's-no-big-deal meeting. Yet despite the plan, it was everything but “no big deal”—the first meeting was surreal, awkward, warm—yes, joyful—and far too short. Marie-Louise stared at me, up and down, with laser-sharp eyes, examining what felt like every hair on my head. David, as gentle in person as he appeared in his photo, hung back more. But both kids warmed up quickly. They tried on my sunglasses, Marie-Louise posing like a movie star with her hands on her hips. Both sat in my lap for pictures and showed off counting to ten in English with a little help. Both sweetly took off their shoes so I could trace the outlines of their feet on pieces of paper. The second visit lasted just long enough for Marie-Louise to greet me with “bonjour, Mama” and sit in my lap, enjoying my sunglasses again, and for David to cry soft tears, overwhelmed. Our first foray as a family was truncated, rushed, wrapped in yearning for more time that we couldn't have yet. It made no sense either to me as a new mother or to the children.


Still, buoyed by our lawyer's enthusiasm to move forward on our case, we were hopeful that we could bring the children home by Christmas. Just three months to go, I thought, as my plane lifted off over the night-darkened jungles of Congo.

But two days later, back in Oregon, we received the sucker punch: The Congolese government had halted exit visas for all international adoptees. Officials said the suspension could last a full year while they investigated possible abuses in international adoptions. All adoptive parents, regardless of how long they'd waited, or how far the cases had progressed, would be punished on behalf of an unscrupulous few.
Several weeks later, Congolese courts granted our adoption decree, deeming us Marie-Louise's and David's parents. To be fully legal, finalization stamps would be necessary, and those would come soon, we were told. Once we had those, even if the DRC wouldn't allow exit visas for us to bring them home, we could at least go to Congo as their parents.

But then, just days after Christmas, Kinshasa came under attack by rebels in an attempted coup, and dozens were killed in the violence. The city shut down for weeks in fear of another uprising, and our precious adoption decree and all of our supporting paperwork sat inside a locked office: unstamped, unfinalized.

Congolese officials are sticking to their yearlong exit visa ban, and it looks like it will last even longer as we wait now for new adoption laws to be written and passed, despite the US government's urging that the ban be lifted soon for all the children who already have adoptive parents waiting. And so our children, alongside hundreds of other already adopted Congolese children, wait for their new families to start.

When my husband and I see families—which is everywhere we go, it seems—we ache for that life. A life that is so close. A life we can't give up on. Even if it doesn't look like it to outsiders, we have two children: a boy and girl, now three and four years old, who are old enough to know they have parents, but too young to understand why we can't all be together.


Family, Public Policy, Global and Local


5 comments have been posted.


kaya | February 2015 | Indonesia

Colleen, I really enjoyed your story and journey to become a family to David and Marie Louise. It is just a matter of time, so please don't give up. Both children are waiting to unite with you and your husband. It's hard to wait but soon you will all be together. My late husband and I adopted a beautiful baby from Bolivia in 1993. Now she is 21 years old and a student at PSU.

Mary Jane | September 2014 | Portland

Colleen: Having adopted our youngest daughter from DRC and watched the long wait that has unfolded for so many families, many who spent time in Kinshasa with their children, this resonated deeply. We have a group of families from the Pacific Northwest who gather together several times a year with our Congolese children, and it is my sincere hope that we will meet your family at one of these gatherings soon.

Ginny | August 2014 | Oregon

As a foster child,I feel for the David and Marie Louise ,and pray that soon you can unite permanently as a family ,I feel like I met them thru conversAtions with Dave and Anita,they are proud grandparents and want so much to love them,keep the faith and don,t give up.

Ira and Connie Sunderland | August 2014 | Punxsutawney pa

Colleen, your words are perfect and beautiful, though painful indeed. Precious photos of little Marie-Louise and David grace our home. We can't wait to meet them in person, hug and kiss them, and spoil them. Love you and Thad! Grandma and Granddad McCracken

Anita McCracken | August 2014 | Brookville, PA

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