Our rocky road to parenthood, via India

Sarah Salmon with daughters Sophea, 6, and Jasmine, 5.
Sarah Salmon with daughters Sophea, 6, and Jasmine, 5. Photo: Edwina Pickles

When I tell people I lived in India for several years, they look at me with awe. They revel in my exotic stories and laugh at my funny anecdotes. But when I tell people I underwent fertility treatment in India, they look at me as if I am mad.

"Why didn't you fly back to Australia?" people ask. "What was it like?"

This is what it was like.

A paint-flaked sign hung lopsided above the fertility clinic's entrance. Flies from a nearby pile of festering garbage chased me through the doorway. Ear-splitting toots of passing rickshaws and trumpeting truck horns bellowed through the entry. Fellow patients swarmed a chipped counter, their bodies shoving and their arms waving medical papers under the receptionist's nose. Once I had completed the fierce battle to register, my name was inked into the dog-eared appointment book and the receptionist nodded towards the crowded waiting room: "Sit." 

What if I can't have a child? I asked myself. This was my third round of intrauterine insemination (IUI) at the clinic. If this round failed, my husband and I would need to discuss alternatives. But it will succeed, I tried to convince myself. This month will be the winning month.

Anyone who suffers infertility knows that the competition to succeed at conceiving creates volumes of stress. Emotions soar from hope one minute, to fear of failure the next, to the lows of let-down. The added trials that came with an Indian fertility clinic increased my crusade to Olympic proportions. I did not want to drag out the race any longer than necessary. I needed to win gold.

IUI is a supposedly "non-invasive" fertility treatment, a milder version of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), but what followed was far from mild: a trip to the gynaecologist's clinic with my husband's "washed" sperm in hand; an attempt to ignore the medical instruments sitting in a cut-off milk carton beside the procedure bed; a needle the length of a chopstick puncturing my the wall of my uterus; and the tightness of my throat as I tried to ward off tears.

There were no windows to allow natural light. Draping myself in the threadbare robe that hung from a rusting metal wall hook, I lay on the bed's yellowing sheets. Staring at a cobweb hanging from the ceiling, its threads heavy with dust, my fingers clenched as a cold, phallic ultrasound wand was shoved inside me.

The doctor interrupted my thoughts: "Talk to your gynaecologist about IVF."

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And that was it. All my hopes of IUI success crushed with a single sentence. My dreams of a biological child were shattered, because I knew I was not ready to be a contender in the IVF game. While I could fly home to Australia for treatment, or go somewhere closer, such as Singapore, a shiny clinic and a doctor's soothing bedside manner would not change the odds or cushion the pain. I knew too many stories of friends who have ridden the emotional roller coaster of infertility.

A friend from Sydney took out a second mortgage to pay for ongoing IVF treatment. She eventually gave up. Another did 17 rounds without success. My colleague's wife turned into a hormonal demon during treatment, and all she got out of it was a body full of drugs. A friend got lucky the first time around, but no one knows who will be rewarded and who won't. It's like playing Russian roulette and I am not a gambler.

While I questioned the meaning of family, images of India's child beggars and orphans haunted me: their drawn eyes, the sadness etched into their faces. I had met abandoned kids, with soiled clothes and runny noses showing the scars of their past. I had touched the matted hair of a young girl in a children's home, hair that cried out for the hand of a mother. Why wouldn't I take one of these orphaned children out of the equation?

I could nurture a life rather than create a life. Didn't it make more sense to give a child a loving family rather than trying for a biological child month after month? I wanted a baby, but IVF wasn't the only option.

"Let's adopt a child," I said to my husband.

"Okay," he said.

It was as simple as that. It was just a different way of forming a family.

I began the adoption process with a light heart, swallowing books on transracial adoption and researching attachment and bonding issues. But some friends and family members were less assured.

"Can you really love a child that's not your own?" one person asked.

"I'd try IVF," said another.

"But you won't know the child's bloodline."

"Do you know the developmental risks of kids from orphanages?"

I learnt to shed these dead comments. My husband kept me swimming in an ocean of naysayers; buoyant despite the swells of paperwork and waves of red tape.

The unpredictable current took us from India to Cambodia, but the journey was worth it when it brought a baby girl in with its tide. My eyes brimmed with tears the moment I saw her big possum eyes. She was adorable. I smiled when she gazed up at me. I felt the warm wash of love caress my body when she giggled. I went from being a childless woman one day to a besotted parent the next. I couldn't love my child more.

I can now tell all those naysayers that it makes no difference if your child is adopted or biological. It is the same kind of love. When my baby smiled, my heart ballooned. When my daughter woke in the night, I held her hand and stroked her back, easing her to sleep. When she started to walk, I hovered over her like a gangly mother giraffe.

Adoptive and biological parents enjoy the same precious moments. They face similar struggles. People can look at my adoptive family - I now have two adopted daughters, Sophea, 6, and Jasmine, 5 - and see for themselves that having an adopted child is not inferior to giving birth to a child. The meaning of family is love, not DNA.

This article first appeared in Sunday Life.