Marleen and I met over Instagram and connected over the fact that we’re both raising young South African kids thanks to transracial adoption. Although there are many stories of unethical international adoptions hitting the news these days, I have all the time in the world for parents who adopt internationally when its the best match for the kids involved and when the parents truly make an effort to expose their kids to their South African culture. This July they’re coming over for a holiday with their full extended family, so say please give them a friendly welcome if you see them. Thank you for sharing your story, Fleerackers family!
Tell us a bit about yourself and your family
We’re Tom, Marleen, Ruben Phelo and Analene Tshwarelo. We’re a happy family of four living in a small suburb of Antwerp, Belgium. Tom is a head of programme at Karel de Grote University College and I’m a coordinator at a high school. Ruben Phelo is our eight year old son with Capetonian roots and Analene Tshwarelo our little “bloem” (which is the Dutch word for flower) from Bloemfontein.
Ruben was only 4 months old when we got the call on a totally unexpected moment. It was July 2010 and our adoption agency told us there wouldn’t be any new referrals until the World Cup would be over, because it’d be too hard to arrange flights and accommodation on a short term notice during the World Cup. On top we were on the fourth place on the waiting list – who would expect a referral when there’s three more couples before them? So when I saw the name of the adoption agency on my cell phone, I even considered not to take the call and call them back the next day – what could be so urgent that it couldn’t wait? So glad I didn’t do that!
Although we started a second adoption procedure merely six months after we brought Ruben home, we only got THE call for the second time 5.5 years later. The waiting period for Analene was long and stressful. South-Africa had ended the cooperation between Abba Adoptions and our Belgian adoption agency in 2013 and it took over 2 years to establish a new partnership. Analene was 19 months when we cuddled her for the first time. Time has flown ever since and now we can hardly imagine we’ve been waiting that long.
(Quick note: Marleen just taught me that in Belgium it is customary for women to keep using their maiden name after marriage, but that the kids always take their dad’s surname. So interesting!)
Did you always know that you wanted to adopt?
Tom and I are high school sweethearts – we met 23 years ago at school and we’ve been inseparable ever since. We got married in 2005 and we wanted to start a family soon afterwards. As we knew from the beginning that having biological children would be quite a challenge for us, we immediately considered adoption. In Flanders, the first step in the adoption process is some sort of “preparation program” where you learn all about attachment and the relationship between the adopted child, his/her birthparents and yourself as an adoptive parent; about the legal aspects of adoption and about the countries you can adopt from. As soon as we learned about the adoption process in South Africa, it was clear that our child(ren) would be little South Africans.
Did you use an agency or did you adopt through Child Welfare? What would you recommend?
We had to adopt through an adoption agency (we had no other options) and I can’t imagine doing it any other way – I don’t think we could have done all the paperwork without the help of our adoption agency.
What was the hardest part of the process?
The waiting! The waiting period during Ruben’s adoption process “only” took 7 months, but it felt like ages, although it was nothing compared to the waiting period during our second procedure. The waiting process for Analene was long (5,5 years!) and frustrating. For more than two years we didn’t know whether South Africa would establish a new partnership with our adoption agency and whether we would ever be able to adopt a second child. Our adoption agency did whatever they could to speed up the process, but they couldn’t do much either… Once the new partnership started, it took another year to get it up and running. At a certain time, we almost lost all hope, but we’re very glad we carried through.
Tell us about your first night together as a family.
I’d like to say it was wonderful and unforgettable, but the truth is diferrent: most of all, it was overwhelming and confusing. Ruben had been looking forward to being a big brother for so long and now his little sister was finally there. He wanted to play with her, but all she wanted was to sit on my lap and hide behind her teddy. Tom cooked dinner, but we didn’t really know what Analene was used to having for dinner or how much she would eat.
Analene fell asleep as soon as I put her to bed – she must have been exhausted after so many new impressions. She slept pretty well, but felt uncomfortable in the morning. We took her with us in our bed and she clung to me, not paying any attention at all to her daddy or brother.
Our first night with Ruben was most of all clumsy: I remember us putting him to bath and spending 15 minutes to put on his PJ’s.
What is your funniest adoption-related family story?
During our adoption process, we had regular meetings at the adoption agency with the other families on the waiting list. One of the families appeared to live only a few kilometres from where we live and after we both got our referrals and came home with our boys, we soon became best friends and now Ruben and Thomas grow up together and often pretend to be twins.
The funny thing is that exactly the same thing happened while we were waiting for Analene, with a family who lives only a few streets away, so now Analene’s got her South-African BFF next door, too!
But the funniest thing about having to adopted children of the same age in the same small town, is that people are often confused by who’s who – I once was in the supermarket when I heard someone talking to Analene, calling her Tessa (the name of the other South-African girl). When I turned around to see who was talking to my girl, the lady realised I wasn’t Tessa’s mum and she looked all confused to the little girl in the shopping cart – she clearly hadn’t expected to meet another adoptive toddler in the supermarket!
Do you celebrate ‘adoption day’ with any traditions?
Oh yes, we do! “Ruben day” and “Analene day” are as important holidays as their birthdays – they’re both lucky to celebrate their adoption days during our summer holidays, so we always have the day off. They can decide themselves how they want to celebrate Ruben or Analene day. Last July, Ruben invited his best friends to the movies. They both feel very lucky to be celebrated twice a year. We’ll let them decide if they want to continue celebrating as they get older.
Advice for the screening process?
Just be yourself and keep the faith. It’s sometimes hard to keep on believing that everything will turn out alright, but eventually it will!
How can friends and family best support those adopting?
By listening to their stories, by celebrating every step forward on the waiting list and sharing their frustrations when the waiting period becomes too hard.
Top tip for doing life as a rainbow nation family?
Enjoy every second of it! If it hadn’t been for our children, we would never have had such a strong connection to South Africa and now they are our perfect excuse to visit South Africa as often as we can. We need to keep them connected to their home country, right?