Friday 20 October 2017

'In a matter of just 10 minutes, I was, at long last, our children's guardian'

An Irish court last month granted a Clare woman legal guardianship of her and her partner's twins in a high-profile surrogacy ruling. In exclusive extracts from their new book, Fiona Whyte and Seán Malone recall some of the landmark moments of their journey through IVF, adoption and surrogacy

Precious gifts: Seán Malone and Fiona Whyte with their children Ruby and Donal. Photo: Eamon Ward
Precious gifts: Seán Malone and Fiona Whyte with their children Ruby and Donal. Photo: Eamon Ward
The children's surrogate mother Shobha
Without a Doubt

In November 2013, Fiona and Seán arrived back in Ireland from India with twin babies born to an Indian surrogate mother using donor eggs. Their journey ignited controversy when it was documented in a 2015 RTÉ broadcast, Her Body, Our Babies. Since then, the couple have fought to have Fiona's parentage of the twins recognised by Irish law. Here, Fiona tells the story of meeting the twin's surrogate mother, Shobha, days after their birth

Our miracles, Donal Fintan Malone and Ruby Darina Malone, have their birth time recorded as 2.41pm, with Donal first out followed closely by Ruby.

I recall Seán saying some time later to me that the minute he saw them he instinctively knew we had a boy and a girl. He doesn't know how or why, but he just knew. My mother's prayers had been answered and our journey home to her would be somewhat easier for that. There was nothing between here and home now, only paperwork.

****

The children's surrogate mother Shobha
The children's surrogate mother Shobha

[The babies were taken to ICU and ] I was led into a small annex where I was required to remove all jewellery, wash my hands, put on a gown, hat and mask. Then I was brought in to spend my first moments with my son and daughter.

Swaddled tightly in white blankets with only their little faces peeping out, they were tiny but perfectly tiny.

Donal was slightly darker in complexion and presented a mop of black hair, while poor petite Ruby was as bald as a coot. I had the iPad with me to take some photographs, but all that went completely out of my head as I just stood there gaping at them enthralled.

I couldn't touch Donal who was inside the glass bubble of an incubator. He was rigged up to IV lines, and oxygen and feeding tubes were taped down into his little nose. As Ruby was only there for observation, or more likely just to keep him company, I was allowed to touch her. Stroking her little face, I talked to her, welcoming her to our world and telling her all about our family waiting at home and her brother in the next bed.

****

We talked a lot about Shobha: what she had done for us, how she had made it possible for us to have Donal and Ruby and what she had sacrificed for her family. We wondered if she was okay. We needed to know she was, but we were not permitted to visit her. The policy of the clinic and the hospital was that intended parents were not allowed to see the surrogate mother once she was admitted to hospital.

During the pregnancy I had sent gifts to Shobha, for herself and her family, so before going out this time, I bought some gifts to bring with me, in the hope that we might get to see her. If not, I always had the option of leaving them at the clinic for her, but the problem with that was we didn't know if she would ever visit the clinic again.

We felt she was probably still in the hospital given that she had a section, but we didn't know for sure. We decided to find out if she was still in hospital and if so, which ward.

With my bag of gifts under my arm, I went to reception on the ground floor to ask if Shobha Dinesh Pandey was still an inpatient. The receptionist confirmed that she was and even, more surprisingly, told me she was in room 105 on the fifth floor.

I thanked her and headed straight for the fifth floor. I tried to figure out how I was going to handle being stopped and questioned by security. The worst that could happen was I would be turned away. We had worked out that the general layout on each floor was the same, so I had a rough idea where the bedrooms were located and where security would be. As the lift came to a halt, I tried to look casual, took a deep breath and headed straight for the double doors leading to the ward.

For all intents and purposes, I looked as if I did this trip every day. I was hoping to escape scrutiny by looking as if I knew exactly where I was going. However, the stern-looking security man stepped towards me and said something in Hindi. I smiled at him and kept going while at the same time pointing towards the bedrooms.

He didn't shout, but he raised his voice authoritatively behind me, stopping me in my tracks. The game was up. As casually as I could muster, I turned, smiling at him, and said, 'I'm visiting Shobha Pandey in 105', and then I turned back nonchalantly and continued walking towards the doors.

With my heart pounding in my ears, I listened for his voice again or worse his footsteps behind me, but nothing happened. Just as quick, I was through the doors walking towards the nurses' station. I glanced back, half expecting to see him hurrying towards me ready to evict, but nothing, the doors were swinging closed.

Still not out of the woods, I saw a number of nurses busy working and writing at the station. Would they stop me or question me? Staring straight ahead, I continued on towards the rooms. As I passed the station, some of the nurses glanced up curiously. This was more about how I looked than anything else.

I guess if you get through security you're considered legit because no one stopped me or asked me who I was or where I was going. It had been all too easy really for me to breach security, and that was a sobering thought given the level of security there was supposed to be in place throughout India.

Beyond the desk, I turned left hoping to God the layout was the same on each floor. I couldn't risk wandering around searching for the room. That would definitely arouse suspicions. But sure enough, there were the bedrooms and straight ahead was room 105.

The door was slightly ajar. I knocked quietly, and gently pushed it open. It was a large enough room with two single beds. The bed nearest the door was empty but in the bed farthest away, beside the window, someone was lying with their back to me, hidden from sight by the covers. I whispered 'hello', and as the form moved under the covers and began to turn towards me, I realised my heart was still pounding. I recognised Shobha immediately.

She sat up as I smiled and whispered 'hello' again, moving closer to the bed to get a better look at her. She looked tired and drawn, but she smiled in recognition and I felt reassured enough to sit and pull a chair towards the bed.

Automatically I asked her in English how she was while pointing at her stomach. She couldn't understand me but intuitively she seemed to know what I was asking. She screwed up her face while pointing to her stomach and then her heart.

Her face was as open as a book, telling me that she was hurting. She held her arms as if holding a baby and rocked them to ask me how Donal and Ruby were. I smiled and nodded in reassurance that they were fine. I didn't want to cry but tears were close. I didn't know what else to say; there was nothing I could say.

Someone was at the door. One of the nurses had come in to check on Shobha, and they spoke briefly in Hindi. I expected to be asked to leave or at the very least I expected to be questioned, but the nurse just turned to leave the room. I seized the opportunity and asked if she spoke English, to which she turned back and nodded, saying she spoke a little English.

I asked if she would give us a few moments of her time to translate for us. She nodded again and stood at the end of the bed. Shobha told me her stomach was very sore but they were giving her medicine for the pain. She said she was happy that our babies were born and were healthy. She asked if we were happy, and I told her we couldn't thank her enough.

I told her our babies were doing really well and that we were due to be discharged the next day. I said how happy we were and how grateful we were to her. I told her we had named them Donal and Ruby, but omitted the fact that we had considered Shobha if we had a girl. Instead, I asked her if she needed anything, anything at all.

She shook her head. She didn't need anything, and she was being looked after by the staff. Her family had been in to see her and she was looking forward to going home to them, hopefully later in the week. Not really knowing why, I asked her if she would give me her address.

Without hesitation, she wrote it down. I haven't contacted Shobha, and I really don't know if I ever will, but I think of the future and I want it for Donal and Ruby in case they ever want to meet her.

If they do and we are alive, we will support and help them to find her. Time was up, and the nurse made a gesture for me to leave. Before I could move, Shobha took out her phone and took some photographs of me.

Then as I stood and moved awkwardly towards Shobha, unsure of myself now, she opened her arms to me and we held each other silently in understanding. We would never see each other again. I didn't hand her the gifts, instead I just left them beside the bed. They were nothing compared to the gifts she had given us. Walking towards the door, I looked back one last time and then the tears flowed.

****

In December 2016, we initiated the process to have me appointed a legal guardian of our children by lodging the draft proceedings with the District Court Office. We arrived in the District Court on February 16, 2017, at 10.30am. Our lawyer, Shiofra, said there was no guarantee we would come away with a result. The judge could decide during the hearing that it was a case for the Circuit Court given that this application was in relation to surrogacy and, as far as we were aware, it would be a first of its kind, and would, most importantly, set precedence. Or the judge could reserve his judgment for a future date - or maybe we would be refused altogether.

"Case number 19, FW and SM please." The judge confirmed I was the applicant and told me to take the stand. I was sworn in, gave my name and ­address, and answered Shiofra's questions one by one.

How long was I in a relationship with Seán? When were Donal and Ruby born? Where were they born? Was I present at the birth? Did I return to Ireland with Seán, Donal and Ruby? Have I cared for my children since arriving back to Ireland? Do we reside together at our home? All questions answered, the judge excused me and I returned to my seat to wait.

The judge asked Seán if he had any objection to my application … none whatsoever.

He started reading the order and I realised it was happening… and so it was granted. In a matter of 10 minutes I was, at long last, by court order, the legal guardian of our children. I couldn't keep the beaming smile off my face and everyone followed suit, the garda, Shiofra and the staff, while Seán was both smiling and teary-eyed with emotion...

Donal and Ruby are those Irish citizens - without a shadow of a doubt.

Without A Doubt: An Irish Couple's Journey Through IVF, Adoption and Surrogacy by Fiona Whyte and Seán Malone is published by Merrion Press

The book will be launched this afternoon in Hogdes Figgis on Dublin's Dawson Street at 3pm

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