Lives in: Indiana
Nominated by: Maria-Jose Soerens
A few years ago the brilliant Susan Hall was a workaholic: a marathon runner with a doctorate of feminist theology who had built up and was managing multiple successful businesses in the mental health space.
This all changed when—after a long period of enduring unsuccessful IVF treatments—an opportunity presented itself to adopt a little boy in Uganda and Susan’s life was turned upside down.
Susan shared with us the story of her journey to motherhood and what to do when you are declared illegal in your son’s country and he is declared illegal in yours…yes, that really happened!
Who you were before your life changed completely?
I grew up on a really small farm in a very rural part of Indiana so I was a little farm girl but I always knew that there was a big world out there and I wanted to get into it. I wanted to see it. So when I was 28 years old I moved to Seattle.
By that point in my life, I had actually already started a shelter for women and children. I did that in Indiana in my mid twenties. But I was always scared. I always felt like a small fish in a big pond. When I got to Seattle, I grew into me, I became a business owner, in fact I had several business and I really felt like I was living the life of my dreams. I was my own boss. I was very happy in my life with the exception of wanting a little person…
What was that like growing up in rural Indiana? What stands out from that time?
It was a place of real innocence. I loved the really earthy experience of knowing animals intimately, knowing the earth intimately. It was safe but it was small. My family was deeply religious though and my dad had decided that girls who dress like women will act like women. So he had us (I have an identical twin) wear dresses everyday up through graduation from high school. So that was an othering experience for us in which it felt like he projected his image of what he thought a woman should be on to us—very demure.
On the other hand, I was a little spitball of a feminist and that was what really came to life in Seattle. I realised it’s ok to be a feminist. [Laughs!]
What was the day to day work in the shelter that you ran like?
Day to day I served several different capacities. I started being the in-home manager. So I lived there in my own little quarters in the house and ran some programs, like teaching life skills. I did what social workers do, which is, “Ok, let’s get you connected with a whole bunch of agencies that can help you get on your feet so that when you leave our shelter in six months you can actually make it.’
As much as I thought that I had my shit together before that, there is no contending with that kind of invasiveness to your life.
A lot of the women ended up all asking me to be there for the delivery of their babies. So I ended up being a doula. I helped deliver about 35 babies in the course of about ten years. Not as a midwife but as a support person. That was one of my favourite things that I was able to do because I just thought it was a miracle. Just staggering every time. I can’t believe a woman’s body can do that!
And then you find yourself years later longing for a child of your own. Do you think that there is a connection between experiencing the miracle of childbirth so many times and then wanting your own?
Absolutely. I definitely think that is true and I always wanted to do it myself. As a single woman I went through all the infertility processes. I went through the the in vitro fertilisations and all of that. I even went so far as to adopt frozen embryos from a couple that offered them to me but nothing would work. Nothing took.
Can you tell us a bit more about the experiences of trying to get pregnant, going through all these invasive procedures? What did you learn about yourself throughout this time?
Well, you know, I was a therapist in private practice and an entrepreneur. I was strong and all of that but what I had to reconcile myself to was the fact that I couldn’t just manage an emotional life, with a mind that was jacked up with a bunch of hormones. As much as I thought that I had my shit together before that, there is no contending with that kind of invasiveness to your life. Not just the hormones but the fact that I was going to the doctor sometimes three days a week to go and do what had to be done, blood draws and medications and all of that. It took a lot out of me. I really did feel like I had to give it every shot that I had, and I did, and so I respected myself for that but it was so grueling.
Was it worth it?
It was totally worth it, because it was such an important dream of mine. I’ll never regret that I gave myself every shot I had at bearing a child physically. It’s sad that I couldn’t have the experience of labor and delivery, but I know it’s something that I simply have to grieve, and I’ve accepted it. My life is still rich in so many other ways.
Of course, you have Emy! You ended up adopting Emy from Uganda but it wasn’t an entirely smooth process, was it?
Not exactly. When I got to Uganda, I have to say I was pretty naïve. Having done the things that I’ve done in my life from doing my doctorate, running marathons, starting businesses, I can do things very quickly and I can get things done and there’s not a lot that has stopped me. So I had this naïve idea that I could go to Uganda and jam through an adoption there in about two to three months. But it took five months before I could get to the actual point of standing before a judge and him saying ‘Yes, we’re granting you legal guardianship of Emmanuel…’
I feel like it’s my job to help Emy actualise and become absolutely everything he can be and wants to be.
I had thought I was almost home at that point, but then I had to do his visa interview with the US embassy in Kampala. My appointment was on the 17th of December, I arrived at the embassy and spoke to this woman in a cubicle who told me, ‘I am so sorry to tell you but you are not going to be able to bring this child into the United States because he is not eligible for a Visa.’ The crazy thing is there were three different laws that aligned such that he was ineligible for a visa to enter the US—had any one of those things been different, he would have been able to immigrate like so many other adoptive children do.
My life kind of blew up that day. I tried everything. Within a matter of days I had found a contact in the higher up state department but I knew by that point — I had talked to enough attorneys and enough representatives– that he really couldn’t come, they couldn’t just circumvent law even if they wanted to.
So the fallback was to stay there with him and get my own residency in Uganda so I could care for him there for two years and then in two years I’d be eligible to try and file for a Visa for him again which would take another year. So I rented a house and bought a houseful of furniture in Uganda, sold my house back in the states, my car, I shipped my dog to my sister in Indiana, closed everything down in my life, closed my counselling practice and sold one of my businesses and tried to set up life there.
The story is still ongoing today but the gist of it is that I fought and fought. I struggled to get a work permit and then the Ugandan government at one point declared me illegal and tried to fine me $300,000 for overstaying my visa – making myself illegal in my son’s country of residence and him illegal in mine. When this happened, my friend Maria-Jose was actually the one to point out that that was grounds to ask the US to reopen Emmanuel’s case. On March 17, 2014, Emy was granted residency in the US and I was escorted out of the country and flew through Doha to Philadelphia and onto Indianapolis, where I kissed the ground upon my arrival.
But life had changed over there hadn’t it? And you had to leave a husband behind?
That’s right. The most unexpected thing happened while I was in Uganda. The day after I arrived, I met Fred, who was working for the woman who had been fostering Emmanuel for the previous two months. We stayed with her on her compound, and I didn’t really register him at first because my eyes were solely on my new baby, but as the months carried on, I began to appreciate how gentle he was with Emmanuel and how kind he was to me. Not to mention that he’s very good looking and very smart! Our attraction was mutual, but we didn’t act on it until I knew I was moving to Kampala for the next few years. And then we were inseparable! Unfortunately, we’ve had trouble with getting him a US visa as well, so 1.4 years later, he is still in Kampala. We are hoping for good news whenever the Department of Homeland Security completes our paperwork review and all the hoops one has to jump through to immigrate to the US.
Wow. What a story. It is a happy story ultimately but the challenges just seemed to keep piling up there for a while. What does motherhood – this thing you have fought so hard for – mean to you? What do you think the role encompasses?
I kind of think of it as a twofold kind of thing. I feel like it’s my job to help Emy actualise and become absolutely everything he can be and wants to be. I just feel like it’s my responsibility for him to be a good citizen of the world and to look out for the other people in the world and be a loving, caring human.
The heartbeat of my life is that there should be no marginalised peoples.
I do see his childhood and being a mother as transformative for me. This is shaping me in a different way then anything else could have. I have a whole different kind of growing up that I’m doing.
No one’s life travels in a usual or expected direction really, but prior to everything happening in your life you had a PhD, you were running marathons you had several businesses and a successful career. You had to shed all of that to make all this possible, and so where have you landed? Do you think you’re going to get back on that path or is it a different life that you see for yourself now?
Such a good question. I just told my sister earlier today that I work entirely differently now because I always used to work with an urgency and I think some of it was a fear and some of it was just the excitement of entrepreneurialism because I loved it and it was a high. I was a workaholic. I worked all the time. I was tired.
By the time I went to Uganda I was done with being a workaholic but I didn’t know how to get myself out because I had all these businesses. Now obviously my life looks very different. It’s hard for me to let myself have a smaller life with very little required of me but I have learned to enjoy it and now I think that’s healthy. It’s healthy for me to know that when I pick up my son at daycare each day there’s no more work to do, that it is time for me and him. I make dinner every night and do laundry and typical stay at home mum sorts of things.
It strikes me that you are fearless, that you’re an incredibly brave woman. Is there anything that you’re afraid of?
Oh yeah. That’s the one thing that I’ve realised in unpacking this whole thing from Uganda because I did feel really fearless before and then I came out feeling afraid of just about everything.
In fact I’m getting some really good psychological care now to help with the PTSD that was developed in Uganda. Every time that I hear now from USCIS (United States Citizenship & Immigration Services) I flip out because I worry they are going to tell me this time that they’re not going to let my husband come here. It’s entirely possible. At any point they can do that. We’ve been thoroughly jacked around in terms of the spousal visa. I had to go back to Africa actually just in December and remarry him to get a different marriage certificate because they wouldn’t take the previous one.
And you think the fear has come from the PTSD from these terrible experiences as opposed to the massive life change that is becoming responsible for such a vulnerable small thing? You think that it’s one as opposed to the other?
I do. I definitely feel like when I found out about Emmanuel I was aware of becoming more cautious automatically, I realised I couldn’t make crazy choices anymore. I’ve got a little person that’s dependent on me and that changes everything so there’s definitely an element of that but most of my fear now is from trauma. There’s lots more that happened there while I was there. Crazy shit. So I’m sorting that out and working on becoming safe again, having my feet underneath me and navigating the world again.
Lucky last question. What do you think we should be talking more about as a society?
The heartbeat of my life is that there should be no marginalised peoples. It was feminism for me for a long time and now I’m thoroughly into race issues and immigration issues. I’m deeply impacted by seeing how people are marginalised and made to fit into particular places and social orders..
There are all these hurdles erected to keep people living within the confines of the country of their birth (which is such an arbitrary thing when you think about it), and I wonder why are we all so desperate to keep people in their place…and who benefits from that? So I want us to be talking about that, about how do we make a level playing field and truly love one another and our differences in spite of our history.
Things I Love
Egyptian Cotton sheets