Taking a chance on love

Suddenly, we would be allowed to adopt a baby -- if we could accept the very real possibility that, one day, he would be mentally ill.

Published December 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

My partner, Louise, insists that the whole baby thing was always on the agenda, that we first discussed it only a few weeks after we met. Strangely, I have no such recollection. The conversations about foreign travel, career ambitions, the house we would buy and renovate -- yes, I remember those with utter clarity. But I don't recall any mention of a baby.

That was back in 1992 and as it turned out, the year that followed was filled with our careers, travel and adventure. We took time off to travel through Africa; returned to London and bought a new house to fix up; spent our excess wealth on dinners out and spontaneous weekend trips to Paris. Life was a dream come true.

Well, at least from my point of view. For Louise, all of this indulgence was what she called our extend-a-moon, short for an extended honeymoon -- a necessary period of exclusivity and romance that had nothing to do with real life and would end once the baby thing was sorted. She was on the 40 side of her mid-30s. Time was short. Decisions had to be made.

When pressed, I had to admit that I had always imagined my life with children in it. I just hadn't ever given any serious thought to precisely how those children might be conceived. Through my teens and 20s I had serious relationships with men, although they were never quite as serious as the ones I enjoyed with women. In my mind's eye, I suppose I imagined a lifelong partnership with a woman but a fling somewhere along the line with a willing, able and totally perfect specimen of a man to provide my designer baby. In other words, I hadn't really thought very realistically about it at all.

Louise felt strongly that the biological father should be completely and utterly anonymous, which, barring a one-night stand blindfolded, pretty much ruled out having sex with anyone. Artificial insemination with known-donor sperm wouldn't help since her main concern focused on the difficulties that would be introduced into our relationship by the intrusion of a third parent, and if the donor was known then there was always a chance he'd be on our doorstep every Saturday morning with a football under his arm.

Better a father who is unknown, she argued, than one who interferes -- particularly given that I would have no biological connection to the child and he would. It all sounded potentially problematic for Louise who, early on, dismissed the possibility of finding a suitable donor among male friends.

This proved to be the first and perhaps highest hurdle for me to overcome. It wasn't so much the thought of Louise and me heading off to the sperm bank that got to me, although I did find the idea pretty distasteful. My reservations were all to do with what the child might feel 10 years down the road.

It was one thing for us to protect our relationship from a meddling sperm donor. But was it fair to a child to deliberately, for our own selfish reasons, deny him or her any knowledge of the biological father? I thought it was more than selfish and unkind. I thought it was wrong.

I was in turmoil. I wanted to believe that I could live with whatever Louise felt was the right decision for herself and her biological baby. But I would be this child's other parent and I would always have to bear some responsibility for these important decisions.

More than that, I was worried about any child that I might decide to have. I already knew that Louise would not happily accept my preferred method of impregnation, with a man I cared for, or even loved. Help. How does one integrate that fact into a happy, committed lesbian relationship? If I loved a man enough to want his baby, she would say, I should just marry him.

Louise's 40th birthday came and went. We had been together for three years and we were in a stalemate. The baby issue had been discussed so much that the only thing I knew for sure was that we both wanted one. Beyond that, everything seemed unworkable. I thought a lot about life, my future and the potential for happiness in a relationship with a woman who had critically different ideas from me. I loved her with all my heart. But on a sunny day in August 1995, I decided to leave.

The separation was short-lived. When it came down to it, I preferred to forget about having children rather than to live without Louise. Miraculously, Louise felt the same. The issue was dropped. We went back to lives filled to bursting with careers, travel and over-expenditure. Until we heard the news. It was April 1996 when we got the call.

Louise's first cousin up in Scotland, Emily, was pregnant. Under normal circumstances this would, of course, be cause for celebration. But the circumstances were not normal; they were very worrying for the whole extended family. Emily suffers from schizophrenia. Her husband of many years, Nigel, is also mentally ill -- although no one is quite sure of the exact nature of his illness. It has been variously diagnosed as schizophrenia, manic-depression and a personality disorder.

News of the pregnancy was so traumatic to poor Nigel that he tried to kill himself. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital from which he then tried to run away. The pressure of being a father was too much for a man who was chronically unemployed and, given the state of his mental health, was clearly barely able to cope with life.

Emily, meanwhile, was pleased with the news of her pregnancy. It transpired that it had not been an accident on her part. She wanted to be a mother, and she was prepared to go through with it regardless of the difficult circumstances in which she would be forced to raise her child.

My first reaction on hearing the news was to blurt out, without a second of thought, "Hey, why don't we adopt the baby?" It was intended as a joke, or at least that's what I told everyone later. But once the words were out, there was no erasing them from Louise's mind. As is her way, she saw an opportunity and went for it.

Of course, it hadn't even been decided yet that the baby should be adopted. It was merely an assumption that everyone in the family was making, if in fact there was to be a baby at all. It was early enough in the pregnancy for Emily to consider an abortion. Louise's parents -- who have been surrogate parents to Emily since the death of her own -- drove up to Scotland to argue the case. Emily wouldn't hear it. She wanted to keep this baby.

Meanwhile, Nigel's condition deteriorated. He was back at home but was clearly suffering a breakdown. He became completely paranoid about the world outside his front door. He refused to bathe or shave or wash his hair. His skin became encrusted with dirt, his hair matted. He looked frighteningly like Charles Manson, and his talk of murderous dreams furthered the impression that this man was not fit to be a father.

Some in the family suspected a clever ploy to win sympathy and avoid responsibility at the same time. But the longer his hair grew, the more those suspicions faded. It wasn't possible for anyone to keep up an act like this for so long. And anyone who did was clearly mentally ill anyway.

Emily's mental health, too, began to worsen as being pregnant meant she was unable to take the powerful drugs that help her maintain control over what's going on inside her head. She and Nigel dragged each other down, spiraling into their paranoia about the evil spirits in the water supply and killer radiation emanating from the television screen. Emily became convinced that the bump that was growing in her belly was really a fibroid.

In October, Emily was sectioned into a psychiatric hospital. A few weeks later, she was transferred to another hospital where doctors performed a caesarian without her consent. Chain smoking had weakened her placenta and eight months into the pregnancy it had collapsed. The doctors ignored Emily's wish not to have surgery in order to save the baby's life.

Sweet baby James was born Nov. 2, 1996. One month premature, he weighed only 4 pounds. Photographs of Emily holding him in the hospital are a reminder of the terrible state she was in at the time. She was disturbingly thin; her face was drawn, her complexion gray.

James remained in the hospital for six more weeks, during which time the local social-services department decided that he would not be released into Emily's arms but into foster care. A good family was found for him locally so that Emily would be allowed to see him under supervision, at least until a decision was made as to his future.

By now, the saga up in Scotland had completely consumed Louise's family and Louise herself was following each development as though her own life depended on it -- which in a sense it did. Although I freely admit I was the first to suggest adoption, I hadn't yet agreed to proceed with such a thing and secretly prayed -- for entirely selfish reasons -- that Emily and Nigel would make a dramatic recovery so the issue need never be discussed beyond the hypothetical, which was where it still was.

I am not proud of this, but I have to confess to being scared to death of James. With one parent diagnosed as schizophrenic he had a 10 percent chance of developing the illness himself, we were told. If both were schizophrenic, then his chances jumped to nearly 50 percent. I didn't know how well I could cope with that.

My own cousin was schizophrenic and, after much torment, killed himself at the age of 33. Another member of my immediate family has suffered from depression for much of my life, at times torturing the family with talk of suicide. Mental illness is something I have experienced and I didn't know if I really wanted to invite it back into my life, or perhaps more importantly, if I was emotionally equipped to deal with it.

Still, at this point it was possible for me to push the whole subject out of my mind since, as far as social services were concerned, the first priority had to be an assessment of whether or not there was any chance at all that -- given a bit of time -- Emily and Nigel might recover sufficiently to make it possible to hand baby James over to them. Teams of psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers and social workers became involved in the case.

In January 1997, when James was not even 3 months old, Louise and I traveled up to Scotland. Ostensibly we were visiting Emily and Nigel to see how they were faring and to offer our support. But secretly, Louise wanted to meet James. A social worker ferried him from his foster home to Emily and Nigel's house each day to spend an hour with his natural mother.

These were the circumstances in which we first saw him, a little bundle of blankets with a pink face being passed into his mother's arms for his daily one-hour dose of bonding -- enough for him to recognize her but not enough to cause him any trauma if there had to be a total separation. Nigel was in the kitchen next door for the duration of James' visit. Emily told us that Nigel had held James once, but found it so traumatic that he hadn't done it since.

It's true, as Louise was quick to point out in the train on the way home, that Emily looked as though she had never held a baby before in her life. She was awkward. But that was more than compensated for, in my view, by the love in her eyes. Surely any mother who chose to get pregnant and who so obviously adored her baby should not be living under the specter of forced adoption as Emily was. Couldn't social services do more to offer her full-time support? Aren't there places that mentally ill mothers can go? Do they necessarily have to give up their babies? It all seemed so scandalous to me.

I was relieved to discover that mothers like Emily do not necessarily have to give up their children. Soon after our visit, a court decided that Emily was fit enough to be James' mother and, with support, she would be allowed to keep him. But there was a proviso: She had to leave Nigel. The court decided that Nigel -- who had recently muttered some murderous thoughts about James to a psychiatrist -- was not only unfit to parent James, he was a potential danger to him and should not be allowed to see him. In effect, Emily was given Sophie's choice. It was James or Nigel. She could not have both.

I was staggered by the speed with which Emily made her choice. She would stay with the man she married. James would be put up for adoption.

In May, the court made that decision final, and the issue about whether or not Louise and I should put ourselves forward for adoption became real. I still had deep reservations. Did I feel OK about adopting a child who was forcibly taken from a mother who loved him and wanted to keep him? Could I cope if James himself became ill? Could the additional pressures of being the son of gay parents be a potential factor in his chances of becoming schizophrenic?

I had so many questions, but for the most part they were kept down by the great tidal wave of Louise's enthusiasm. I agreed that we should make inquiries to see if, as a gay couple, we would even be eligible, since it wasn't a given.

As it happened, there was (and is) a ban on adoption by gay couples in England. But it also was (and is) true that social services had an obligation to try to place James within the extended family first. And, there were no legal barriers to adoption as a single parent, regardless of sexual orientation.

Upon learning the rules, Louise was ready to audition, even if she had to do it, legally at least, as a single parent. When she inquired about the possibility, she was surprised to learn that other family members already had been contacted. Even Louise's parents had been called in the search but had failed to mention us as potential parents.

As liberal as her family is, there was not immediate support for the idea of our adopting James. Far from it. Her parents' conservative view of gay and lesbian parenting was one obstacle. Louise's sister was more concerned about the potential for interference from Emily and Nigel -- two loose cannons -- in our lives. Forever.

Louise was not deterred, and I did not stand in her way. One Saturday morning in May, we strapped ourselves into our car and made the five-hour car trip up to Scotland to pose one question to Emily and Nigel: Would they support our application to adopt their baby?

It was the longest five hours of my life. Louise said I looked like a deer caught in headlights, and more than once asked me if I wanted to turn back. I couldn't answer because I didn't know. Instead I stared blankly at the long highway ahead, glimpsing my life as I knew it disappearing in the rearview mirror.

The truth was that I had spent the previous year since James' conception deciding not to decide, allowing fate to take its course. And now it had. If Emily and Nigel said yes, it would be very difficult for me to say no. We offered Emily the opportunity to keep her baby in the family, which meant that it would be an open adoption. She would be allowed to maintain contact. If James were adopted outside the family, the adoption would be closed and she would have to kiss him goodbye and hope that one day, as an adult, James would choose to find her.

We proposed that Emily and Nigel join us for dinner at a restaurant close to their home. This was a major trauma for Nigel, who rarely set foot outside the house and as soon as he did, he was taunted by local boys for being some kind of freak. At this point, the man had not washed, shaved or cut his hair for a year. At the restaurant he was jittery, afraid of the other people seated around us, disturbed by the music. Emily tried to comfort him.

I watched Louise attempt to spit the words out at various points during dinner. She kept bringing the conversation around to James and his future, then copping out. By the time coffees were being served, I knew she was in trouble. She disappeared into the washroom. I followed her in, and found her nervously repeating her question over and over again into the mirror.

When she finally got it out, it was Nigel who leapt on it first. "What a wonderful idea," he shouted across the table to his wife. Emily smiled broadly, and I knew at that moment I was going to be a mother.

It took six months for Louise and I to be vetted as adoptive parents by one of Britain's oldest adoption agencies. That was considered extraordinarily speedy by normal standards, but because it was an inter-family adoption its approval by the courts was all but certain.

Surprisingly, given that this was the first-ever gay adoption organized by this agency, the issue of our sexual orientation didn't figure in it much. The social workers were clearly very open-minded but they did make a point of asking us not to make "a big deal" out of it -- which presumably meant that we shouldn't go to the press with our story -- as, being a Christian agency, it might affect their funding. (It was necessary, of course, for Louise to be listed as the single adoptive parent).

One by one, as the vetting period went on, my doubts about the adoption began to fall away. My concerns about Emily's feelings were allayed by the fact that she had agreed we were the best possible option.

I also armed myself with as many facts as I could about schizophrenia, about James' chances of becoming ill with it and about how we might cope if he does. I satisfied myself that growing up with gay parents wasn't a factor. It's a genetic illness and the current thinking is that, although there are many possible triggers for the onset of the illness, the reality is, if James is going to be schizophrenic, it's already written in the cards. All we can do is give him a loving home that will always be there for him, even -- perhaps I should say especially -- if he does become ill.

In late October 1997, Louise and I received the call that we could come to Scotland to collect our son. It took three weeks to complete the transfer of care from James' foster parents to his new parents. We rented a small cottage outside the town in which he had spent his first year of life, visiting him for a little longer each day, taking on more and more of the responsibility. It was astounding how easy it all was. He was a mellow, adaptable little baby, and it didn't take long for him to fit right in with us and us with him. As soon as he appeared comfortable, we were allowed to bring him home.

The goodbyes were hard. Emily had a final visit. Under the rules of this adoption, she would be permitted to see James under supervision for two hours once a year. Nigel would also be permitted to attend the annual visit, although he hadn't shown any interest in James as a baby or in seeing him again as a boy or a man. We would exchange photos and presents on birthdays and at Christmas, but aside from that there could be no other contact. All of this could be increased if Louise and I agreed to it, but we decided to wait to see how things worked out. Ultimately, it seems important that James himself decides how much contact he feels comfortable with.

A few weeks ago we celebrated James' third birthday. I am happy to report that he is a healthy, handsome and absolutely normal boy in every way. Louise and I are both completely besotted with him. The adoption has gone even more smoothly than we could have dreamed possible.

Nigel's condition has improved and, much to our surprise, he decided to participate in James' last annual visit. As soon as he entered the room and saw James, he broke down and wept. We all did. A wall had come tumbling down. James, unlike a lot of kids, will grow up knowing that there are at least four grown-ups to whom he means the world.

By Jane Smith

Jane Smith is a pseudonym for a freelance writer living in London.

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Adoption Mental Illness Suicide