I started going out with my husband, Gary exactly 20 years ago. Only a few days after we started going out, I had the talk that I was dreading. “Gary, there is something I have to tell you. I can’t have children.”
Almost 30 years ago, I found out that I will never be able to become pregnant. I was 17 years old at the time and it was an absolute bombshell. I never thought about infertility at high school and I suddenly had to face it at such a young age. The doctor was extremely blunt giving me the diagnosis with a total lack of bedside manner and I was not given any counselling. Needless to say, it greatly affected my studies. I did not do as well as expected in my VCE exams later that year.
My husband, Gary and I started the process of overseas adoption in 2005, three years after we were married. Initially, we were planning to adopt a child from China. At that time, China was a very popular overseas adoption program in Victoria due to the one-child policy there. A few months after attending the first information session, I had a patient who was a 21-year-old Korean adopted woman. Sue and her mother told me about the South Korean program. The South Korean children are relinquished by their unmarried mothers as there is very limited financial and social support for these women. The children live in foster homes and are much loved and wonderfully cared for. This contrasts with many of the Chinese children. In China, the majority of the children live in orphanages before coming to Australia.
The adoption process was a very challenging and long process. There were numerous social worker assessment visits, annual police checks, medicals and blood tests. Gary and I answered 100 questions about our childhood, families, issues with infertility and our relationship with each other. One of the questions was “How is your sex life”? Seriously, no-one’s business. We also had to obtain our original birth and marriage certificates. Gary and I joined the Korean Adoption Families or KAF and met other Parents in Waiting and started to learn Korean.
A huge hiccup in the process occurred when the Korean overseas adoption program closed in 2006 as the South Korean Government were trying to encourage more local adoptions. Gary and I changed to the Chinese program, were reassessed, filled out even more paperwork and our file were sent to China in January 2007. Gary and I started to learn Mandarin. The following year, there was a change in government policy in South Korea and our file was finally sent there. It was such a rollercoaster.
Our social worker rang in December 2008 to tell us that we were allocated a 5-month-old boy. We called him Benjamin Jeong Levin. Benjamin’s middle name, Jeong is his birth mother’s surname. Yet again, there were more forms to get filled out and witnessed that had to be sent to the adoption agency in South Korea and the Australian Embassy in Seoul.
In March 2009, Gary and I went on the trip overseas that truly changed our lives. We flew to South Korea to meet Benjamin 3 times over a 10 day period and bought him home on the last day of our trip. Benjamin’s foster mother, Mrs Lee had already looked after 65 children and is amazing. Gary and I spent Purim at Chabad Seoul and the South Korean Jewish community was so welcoming and excited for us. I changed my first poo nappy at aged 37, 10,000 metres above ground on Cathay Pacific.
Gary and I investigated converting Benjamin through the Melbourne Beth Din and found the process too difficult, daunting and challenging, particularly after all we had gone through. The requirements were much too religious particularly for Gary who was told that he would have to go to Shule every morning until Benjamin’s Bar-Mitzvah. The Orthodox conversion process is not sympathetic for different Melbourne Jewish family’s circumstances such as adoptions and surrogacy.
Gary, Benjamin and I joined the wonderful Kedem Shule who embraced and welcomed Benjamin as a member of their community. Benjamin was legally adopted at the County Court of Victoria in June 2010. Prior to the legal adoption, Benjamin could not have any elective surgery, the department had to be advised if Benjamin was taken to hospital and Benjamin could not leave Victoria without written permission.
It was very daunting arriving at the County Court with all of the security. The presiding judge, his honour Judge Geoffrey Chettle had adopted a son called Benjamin over 30 years ago and he certainly appreciated the significance of this day for us. Judge Chettle said that legalizing adoptions was his favourite part of his job. Then again, everyone is happy and want to be in his court which is certainly unusual in the County Court. Benjamin became an Australian citizen on the day of the legal adoption and received a Victorian Birth Certificate with Gary and my names as the parents not long afterwards. After Benjamin was legally adopted, he had a Brit Milah under General Anaesthetic, a Mikvah at St Kilda beach and was converted through Temple Beth Israel.
Benjamin goes to Mount Scopus in Burwood and is really happy there. He started at FKI in South Caulfield and made some wonderful friends and their parents have become our lifelong friend. Benjamin is very proud of being Korean and open with his friends that he is adopted. He occasionally gets asked questions about his background and why he looks different such as why is your nose flat and eyes are small? Are your parents your real parents? Benjamin answers the questions appropriately but it is certainly challenging for him. The school and teachers have been wonderful. We give the teachers information about overseas adoption and what language to use at the beginning of every year.
The highlight of our year is the Korean Adoption camp. Families from all over Victoria meet at the same campsite every February in Philip Island and eat Bulgolgi and Kim Chi together. The kids are all from the same background. However, the parents are different. We are Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Korean, Maltese, Jewish and Anglo Saxon. The connection is very special for the kids as well as the extended families.
Gary and I made some truly wonderful friends from KAF and Mt Scopus and are privileged to be parents to a remarkable, creative 10-year-old boy. We are so lucky to be a Jewish Australian Korean family.
This speech was delivered by the author at Shesh, an initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women.