When IVF doesn’t work – Sharleen Abraham

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Since the late 1970s, In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) has offered an incredible opportunity for women and men, who, for whatever reason, have been unable to get pregnant on their own. Worldwide, more than five million babies have been born through assisted reproduction, but what happens when IVF is not possible? Two Tauranga women, who both work at The Gym, share their stories about the bleak realities of infertility and what inspired them to consider other parenting options which led eventually to the creation of their fabulous families.

Read the second cover story ‘When IVF doesn’t work – Anna Keogh’

Sharleen Abraham

Welcoming a first child into the home is a life changing experience for anyone, and especially so for adoptive parents who don’t usually have the nine months of gradual preparation time. Sharleen Abraham had a minute to take in the news that she was a mother, and a week to change her entire life!

Backtrack to the late 90s when Sharleen met Henry – both were communications specialists in the navy. They got together and started trying for a family when Sharleen was 22, accepting that conception may take a while as their work often took them in different directions. Time stretched on with no pregnancy and they realised their erratic schedules couldn’t be solely to blame. They sought professional help. Sharleen suffered from endometriosis and an infection had caused a blockage in her fallopian tubes – it ruled out any possibility of having children naturally.

At this point Sharleen was 27, and prepared to begin the long process of IVF. They waited over a year to get into the system and then things stepped up a gear – 30 days of injections and tests and finally the extraction of six eggs. Once fertilised (for them, fertilisation happened via Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection, ICSI, where one sperm is injected directly into the egg), only one was viable to implant.

“All our hopes were pinned on this one, and then a week later I got my period, but still had to wait a week to have the news confirmed by a blood test.

Every month for five years it had been a waiting game – is it this month?

No, so I would start to feel upset again and try to focus on something else. When friends are having babies and then second babies, you can’t help thinking, ‘why can’t I even have one?’

“We got in quickly for the second free cycle but none of our eggs got to the right stage, and even though they inserted one embryo it didn’t work. We were absolutely devastated. We planned to have a lot of children, and now we couldn’t.”

Changing tack

Sharleen and Henry had often talked about adoption and felt really comfortable with the idea, so as soon as their second round of IVF ended, Sharleen got hold of a social worker. Her timing was perfect – a two-day course was about to start and only two are held each year. They learned about the myriad of issues raised in an adoption situation, such as family dynamics, how the child might be accepted by extended family and how to connect with the biological family. In New Zealand, all adoptions are open – birth mothers choose who they want to give their baby to and both parties sign a contract agreeing how they will keep in touch.

“It felt like we had entered a world of people who totally understood what we had been going through all these years. It’s a process of grieving – you have to go through the denial before you can get to the acceptance part.

“The seminar helped us see the situation from the birth mum’s point of view, because even though it is her choice, she is losing a child. We learnt so much on the course and met life-long friends.”

Any concerns they’d had about open adoption were happily cast aside and the seminar motivated them to get started on the mountain of paperwork, counselling sessions, home visits, police checks and medical checks – an 18-month process. They could then write their profile book which helps the birth mum decide who will parent her child. It describes the adoptive parents’ beliefs, medical history, financial situation and parenting style – even how they were raised, as well as photos of house, pets, extended family and so on. Sharleen and Henry’s profile was chosen very quickly but the new parents had no idea until their baby was six weeks old.

Baby on board

Sharleen, then 31, was at work at Auckland’s Defence Technology Agency (she had transferred from the navy) when she took the unexpected call from her social worker. Twenty minutes later, with the blessing of her boss, she left and didn’t return for five months.

“The social worker said ‘you have a son; a mother has picked you and Henry to be the parents of her little boy’. I was shaking, I couldn’t believe I had a baby, and tried to take it all in over the phone. I get so excited thinking about it even now and this happened nine years ago! We didn’t have anything ready, not even an overnight bag, because we didn’t want to get our hopes up. It could have happened at any time, we just didn’t know when.

“My husband didn’t think he had heard me right when I told him; he couldn’t believe it. We met the birth mum the next day at the social worker’s office and as soon as we walked in she gave us the biggest hug. We felt a connection with her immediately, and she just said, ‘he’s yours’.”

The baby, Carter, had been placed with a foster family, and as soon as Sharleen and Henry arrived at the house that afternoon, he was placed in her arms.

“We didn’t know anything about babies, so for a week we just about lived at the foster mum’s house, learning how to feed him, change him and put him to bed. She was amazing and taught us everything. It was hard to leave him each day, but we had nothing prepared, so we went ‘baby’ shopping every day, until we could take him home.

“He was a gorgeous big, rolly baby and we bonded instantly. I was so excited and couldn’t believe he was actually mine. My husband is Māori and Carter is Pasifica and looked just like my husband did when he was young. People don’t even believe he’s adopted, and there’s never been a time when I’ve thought either of the children don’t look like me or that they’re not biologically ours.”

More good news

Carter was 4½ and the family had just moved to Tauranga from Auckland when, in 2014, Sharleen and Henry were chosen to be parents again. James was only two weeks old and prem.

“He was tiny, but healthy and happy and we had no trouble bonding. Now he’s on the go as soon as he wakes till the time he goes to bed.

“Like last time, we met the birth mum and heard her story. People often think it is young women who choose to give up their children for adoption, but that was not our experience. Both our birth mums are wonderful women who for various reasons did not want to raise another child. They gave us the most incredible gift. They were unselfish in making one of the hardest decisions of their lives.”

Sharleen and Henry have sent photos of the children to the birth mothers and while there is some contact they have not seen them again. “You can’t force the birth mum to keep in contact, but Carter knows everything and is very chilled about it all. He says, ‘I’m so lucky to be given to you’ and he’s happy to tell everybody his story.

“Adoption may not be for everyone, but for us, it’s been such an amazing journey. And oh my gosh we would love more kids. We’ve resubmitted our profile so fingers crossed we can be lucky again.”

Cover + Photoshoot Images: Charmaine Marinkovich Photography

Hair: Ephraim Ormsby, Ivy Hair

Makeup: Hair & Makeup by Chloe

Clothing: Magazine Clothing