If you don’t think money plays a role in adoption…

CBC’s The Current just aired Alison Motluk’s incredible but disturbing radio documentary about a Jessica Allen, woman who thought she was carrying twins as  a surrogate mother and then discovered that one of the “twins” was actually her own child.

Allen only discovered one of the babies was hers after giving birth by cesarean section and not right away either, because she wasn’t allowed to see the babies after their birth. One of the twins looked different and the couple who hired her to carry their baby was from China and the Chinese government insisted on a DNA test before allowing the twins into China. It was then that the discovery was made that one of the male twins was the genetic child of Allen and her husband. Allen’s husband is black and Allen is white so the differences between their son and the Chinese couple’s son were pretty obvious.

You’d think the ethical thing to do would be to return the baby boy to his parents but no, the surrogacy agency insisted the parents pay them back for extra money Allen received for carrying twins, for a clothing allowance, for medical expenses related to her son, for the cost of child care, formula, a birth certificate, circumcision, the list goes on, before they would return her child. No money, no child.

But Allen and her husband Wardell Jasper were told that if they signed adoption papers, they wouldn’t have to pay the agency back for these costs because the agency had parents waiting to adopt their child!

The couple had to hire a lawyer and fight to get their own child back, which they did two months later. Had they not been able to afford a lawyer, they would have lost their child. Allen had turned to surrogacy to make money but also to help others. But nobody cared about her when her own child became part of the mix. She was legally contracted to only carry the child of a stranger and she says she followed every instruction given to her by the surrogacy agency.

A lack of money is probably, if you research it, the most common reason children end up for adoption. The general public thinks adoption is all about a girl or woman being in a position of power and freely choosing to relinquish a child, making a carefully-considered, informed decision. Look into the stories of people who relinquish children and you’ll find that they’re usually in some sort of distress.

In this instance, with the lines presumably being so clear (an accidental, unexpected pregnancy accompanying a surrogacy), it’s hard to believe that someone would even try to take the naturally-conceived baby of a woman doing another woman a favour and risking her own health by carrying a stranger’s child but at the end of the day baby brokering has nothing to do with ethics or morality. The baby becomes a commodity, the product of a legal transaction. Nothing else.

Allen and Jasper continue to fight for legal recognition that they are their own child’s parents because when their baby was born, it was assumed he was the child of the parents who contracted Allen to bear their child and those other parents are listed on the birth certificate as the legal parents.

You’ll find the CBC story about Jessica Allen’s nightmare experience and Motluk’s powerful radio documentary here. Do check it out!


I write because…

owl_first-issue_jan-1976I remember being eight years old and excitedly entering one of my stories in a writing contest for OWL, my favourite magazine at the time.

While my story didn’t get published, I received a really nice handwritten postcard in the mail, encouraging me to keep writing.

I write because I feel compelled to write. It’s almost as though I didn’t choose to be a writer. Writing chose me.

I don’t see myself as a literary writer. In high school I did very well in a Grade 10 English literature class, finishing in the 93rd percentile, But in Grade 11, I didn’t get great marks on short story assignments and I wasn’t my teacher’s favourite student. I didn’t impress her. My stories weren’t considered as interesting as those of my classmates.’ At graduation she gave me an award for being “most improved in English” or something like that. She said she issued that award to help me because I was planning to be a writer but I felt pitied and I doubted my writing abilities.

I had originally planned to become an environmentalist. But I was terrible at math and didn’t do well in science classes. I figured since I failed Grade 11 math and I didn’t understand it at all, my chances of ever realizing that dream were low.

So writing seemed realistic. I figured journalism would work since I didn’t need to be literary, I could just present the facts and I could play with words without worry and be creative in a way that suited me. After reading about freelance writing I decided that when I had children I could work from home and have more chances to spend time with them. I had no idea what that would actually be like but when I was 16 that sounded great.

Over the years I’ve had  a few editors (five out of 20, something like that) who’ve hated my writing style. I’ve been told I lack a voice and personality and that I should join a writing group.

I’m not sure what to make of such criticism. I’m not a ‘hey look at me’ kind of person. Because of my news journalism background and leanings I’m not always comfortable putting myself in the articles I write. I was taught that stories weren’t about me but about the people I was covering or profiling.

I write because I enjoy sharing people’s stories, exposing injustice, informing people. I write because writing helps me get my thoughts and daydreams out of my head.

Inherited kidney disease – carriers’ guilt?

kidneyimageMy 21-year-old nephew is ill, his kidneys failing. We’ve known for years this would happen eventually. Alport Syndrome, the kidney disease in our family, is relatively rare. But it progressively damages the tiny blood vessels in the glomeruli of the kidneys (the kidney’s filtering system in the basement membrane of the kidney) to the point that eventually they can no longer filter wastes and extra fluid from the body. It’s caused by a mutation in a gene for a protein in the connective tissue, called collagen that progressively affects the kidneys and may affect the eyes and ears. In my family, we don’t know of anyone whose hearing was directly affected by Alport Syndrome and while a number of us wear glasses, it’s unclear whether this is because of Alport’s.

My nephew’s situation hits close to home because my 19-year-old son has the same disease. Besides worrying about my nephew, his situation has me thinking that we could be in the same position in only a few years.

When our sons were born, neither my sister nor I knew we were “carriers” for Alport Syndrome, which in our family is the “X-linked” transmission type, passed down by mothers to sons. We discovered our connection to Alport’s when my nephew was three years old. He’d contracted an illness and doctors were checking his urine to see if the infection had cleared. They noticed hematuria, microscopic amounts of blood in his urine. A doctor asked, is there kidney disease in the family?

Of course there was. It wasn’t in my mother’s immediate family but two of my great aunt’s three sons died of the disease. Other relatives had it. We didn’t know much about it but what we’d heard was scary.

My sister and mother had their urine checked for hematuria. I was urged to do the same. It was shocking for my mother to discover her daughters are carriers. She feels terrible about it.

Over the years I’ve felt sad that I brought two sons into this world with this disease, not because of their existence but because chronic kidney disease is no fun. Yet I don’t think I should feel guilty about being a carrier or not knowing that one of my X chromosomes had a “defect.”

I hate the disease and what it does to the affected male members of our family but I don’t hate my genes if that makes any sense. The disease is just one small part of my DNA and my family’s DNA and it doesn’t define who we are.

The men in our family affected by Alport’s who died in their 40s didn’t have access to the incredible medical care available today. As I understand it, my relatives received kidneys from cadaver donors. I don’t know what kind of screening was done to make sure the transplanted kidneys were a match for their bodies but as I understand it, they underwent more than one kidney transplant throughout their lives. Undergoing dialysis, experiencing their bodies rejecting transplanted organs, taking powerful medication and having many kidney transplants was hard on their bodies.

Today a young person experiencing kidney failure may receive a kidney from a living donor. Doctors do blood tests to see if a donor’s blood type is compatible with the recipient’s and if it is, further blood tests (tissue typing and cross-matching) are done to ensure a match. A living donation means better donor organ survival rates, there’s less waiting and the recipient may even avoid dialysis.

Until now it’s been a waiting game for my son and nephew. We knew they had the disease but their kidneys were healthy enough. Besides visiting nephrologists and receiving prescriptions for blood pressure medication to take pressure off the kidneys, there’s been nothing to discuss.

Now my sister is caring for my nephew and it’s a crash course in hemoglobin, potassium, phosphate and creatinine levels. She knows all about the renal diet, different types of dialysis,  the location of the MUHC’s three dialysis centres and which one to take my nephew to and when, that blood transfusions are a bad idea for a person who needs a kidney transplant, the list goes on.

I’m sorry I don’t have any relatives to talk to about this disease. I’m sure the cousins who died would have wanted to live a lot longer than they did. I only met them briefly but from what I remember they were intelligent, interesting folks, hard workers who made the most of their lives.

Right now a kidney transplant from a living donor is my nephew’s best bet. Thankfully his odds are excellent. A number of people have offered to donate a kidney and when his body is stronger and a match is found, he’ll receive a transplant.

My sons and nephew are blessed with amazing medical care and there are all sorts of potential cures on the horizon for Alport Syndrome and other kidney diseases.

I don’t know what else to do but learn more about Alport Syndrome, talk to people living with it or whose loved ones have it and prepare for when my son’s kidneys fail.  I’ll raise funds and give to groups such as the Kidney Foundation of Canada, whose staff and volunteers have already helped me tremendously with information and support, and the Alport Syndrome Foundation, an incredible organization that not only helps people living with this devastating disease realize they’re not alone, it advocates for people and funds research to find a cure to end Alport Syndrome forever.

Our bizarre experience transferring an RESP from Investors Group



Last fall our financial advisor at Investors Group told us he was leaving. Not long after, a letter arrived saying our account was now “orphaned” but folks were doing their best to find us another advisor. Eventually, another advisor took over the file for my son’s Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) but no one bothered to inform us.

It didn’t matter anyway. I was pretty fed up with Investors Group and in spite of news about a phase-out of Deferred Sales Charge (DSC) fees for existing DSC accounts, I still wanted out.

My boyfriend is pretty happy with his financial advisor and we liked the guy so in early December we started the transfer process. I figured it would take a few days, maybe a few weeks.

When we set things up, we explained a quick transfer was crucial because my son is attending university and would need the money to pay his tuition by the end of January.

Without going into detail, I’ve investigated things and I’m feeling angry and frustrated with the whole situation but also bewildered since the transfer is still not done and tuition is due on Jan 31st, plus my son needs his textbooks now and I’m going to have to borrow money if the situation is not resolved very soon.

Here’s a timeline of what’s happened with our file, based on my investigation:

  • Dec. 2:  opened file with new advisor
  • Dec. 8: new advisor’s company set up our new mutual fund with new company
  • Dec. 9: Investors Group does a trade for the money in the RESP
  • First week of January: I follow up with new advisor’s company and am told transfer is not complete.
  • 2nd week of January: New advisor’s company phones. Someone from support staff says Investors Group is one month behind with its transfers and is refusing to go any quicker. Maybe if I call Investors Group that would speed things up or I could request the funds so my son has his money?
  • After hearing from the new advisor’s office, I phoned Investors Group’s local office and tracked down the guy who was handed our file. He says the new advisor’s office should have phoned him first and not dealt with Investors Group headquarters. Says he’s handled transfers and they take three days to complete. I relay this to the woman in my new advisor’s office and give her his phone number.
  • Apparently, a cheque containing my son’s RESP funds was sent by Investors Group’s headquarters in Winnipeg to the new mutual fund company in Toronto by snail mail on January 12th. It still hasn’t arrived.
  • On Friday (Jan. 20) the new mutual company says if they don’t see the cheque soon (they said they scan their mail and would know if it had arrived), they’ll ask Investors Group to cancel the cheque and reissue. They’ve apparently sent Investors Group several “notices of delay,” to no avail.

When we’ve dealt with the new advisor there’s been a lot of badmouthing of Investors Group for having such a slow process but when I’ve phoned Investors Group they’ve been helpful except for the bit about mailing all of our RESP money in an old-fashioned cheque via Canada Post by regular mail, no tracking whatsoever!

I don’t feel like anyone in this whole mess really cares about me or my son and the problems we’re having accessing the RESP money. There’s no one proposing a solution. (UPDATE: On Monday, Jan. 23, a customer service rep from Investors group offered to have the original cheque cancelled, reissued and sent by courier to Toronto but it would only get to Toronto next Monday or Tuesday. This was way too close to the Jan. 31st deadline for me and I decided to borrow money instead. The cheque has still not arrived and it’s unclear when this situation will be resolved). No one is forwarding the funds so we can pay for tuition and books. And because I’m not getting many updates on what’s happening, I’m looking into it myself.

If you’re leaving Investors Group, my advice is to budget a couple of months for a transfer. And be careful about transferring because I was charged DSC fees. Apparently, if your money is in a DSC fund, the fees apply for seven years from the last day you made a monthly payment, something I was never told.

I wish I had withdrawn my son’s tuition money before beginning this transfer. I had no idea it would be such a nightmare.

I’m calling Investors Group tomorrow to find out exactly where that cheque was mailed. If it went to the wrong address, I will track it down!








Birds & (coffee) beans

30-Day Writing Challenge- Day 9


Blackburnian Warbler — Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada — 2005. (Mdf Wikimedia Commons) This little bird is among the species that spend their winters in Colombia.

How shade coffee is adding to Colombia’s bird habitat

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great resource if you have bird-related questions or care about birds. They’re always sharing interesting tidbits about different bird species and bird behaviour. Today their email newsletter points to a fascinating article by Gustave Axelson that was originally published in Living Bird Magazine, about how in Colombia shade-grown coffee “sustains songbirds and people alike.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Among 42 migratory songbird species known to overwinter in coffee plantations, more than half (22) have significantly declining populations. The morning cup of coffee has the power to directly help, or hurt, migratory birds. It’s an old refrain that’s been sung by Scott Weidensaul in his classic book Living on the Wind; by Canadian scientist Bridget Stutchbury in Silence of the Songbirds; and by the late, legendary Russell Greenberg at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, who helped create the Bird-Friendly coffee certification for birder/coffee drinkers who want to support habitat with their cup of joe.

If you’re looking for Bird-Friendly coffee, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has put together this handy list.

I’m biting my nails

30-Day Writing Challenge – Day 8

I’m in shock. If the predictions are right, for the next four years our good neighbour to the South will be led by President Donald Trump. Or should I say Voldemort?

How is this even possible?

At a high school reunion in May, one of my classmates who was visiting from California mentioned wanting to reclaim her Canadian citizenship. Though her mom was Canadian, my classmate was born in the United States and gave up her Canadian citizenship when she was 16. She wanted to get it back because she and her husband were seriously thinking of moving back to Canada if Trump gets elected.

I wonder what they will do now.

I think Clive Thompson, a  Brooklyn-based Canadian freelance journalist, blogger and science and technology writer, wrote this script to deal with election night-related anxiety. I think he’s got the right idea.

So does cartoonist Matthew Inman , who runs a humour website called The Oatmeal.


Some blogging inspiration

30-Day Writing Challenge – Day 7

I haven’t been the most consistent of bloggers. I started this blog when I wrote for OpenFile Montreal and we were asked to have a blog and a Twitter account to promote articles. When I stopped writing for OpenFile I kept this blog. I wrote for Urban Expressions and when that died, continued writing for community papers (I still do today).

Since leaving Montreal and NDG I’ve been losing connections to my old haunts and because I’m not writing about NDG much, I’m losing readers. I’ve felt sad about this loss and the changes I’ve experienced lately.  I don’t live in a walkable part of the world and I don’t know this new neighbourhood as well as NDG. I’ve felt quite depressed and I’ve been tempted to kill this blog because I feel I’ve lost my bearings and I have no idea what to write about sometimes.

Yesterday I watched a 2014 talk on YouTube by one of my favourite bloggers, Natalie Lue, who’s based in the U.K. and is known for a blog called Baggage Reclaim.

While her blog offers people advice on self-esteem and relationships, what amazes me about Natalie Lue is her track record. She’s been blogging for over 10 years and manages to keep at it. She’s even turned it into a successful business.

I don’t expect to turn this into a business but who knows? Maybe I’ll find a focus for this blog and blogging will come easier and make more sense to me. The takeaway I got from Natalie Lue’s talk is whatever I write, I need to be authentic.

Here’s the talk, in case you too are looking for inspiration.