Northern Ireland couple's 'journey of blood, sweat and tears' to adopt a Russian child
Nina Noddings and husband Rob adopted daughter Malvina from Russia. A new book tells their story. Stephanie bell reports
It took Nina Noddings two gruelling years to adopt her beautiful daughter, Malvina, from Russia and just five months to capture the highs and lows of the painstaking journey in an inspirational new book. In what is a must read for anyone considering adopting a child from overseas, Malvina The Special Little Girl Who Stole Our Hearts is a touching, yet practical, story of one couple's determination to become new parents.
Nina (45), who lives in Lisburn, has worked for various local charities, but has now given up her job to look after her daughter full-time - and write her moving memoir.
She describes her new book as "an adoption story of highs and lows, tragedy and love, despair and perseverance".
Both Nina and her husband, Rob (57), who is a dog control manager in Belfast City Council, have come through an emotionally and financially fraught journey to get little Malvina - a beautiful, mischievous, brown-eyed six-year-old.
Little Malvina was abandoned as a baby by Ukrainian gypsies and spent the first two years of her life in a baby home in St Petersburg.
She was two years and nine months old when her parents adopted her and took her first to the Cayman Islands, where they lived at the time, and then to Northern Ireland, where Rob was born and the family has now settled.
The couple had to support their new little girl through emotional and physical issues as she adapted to her new life outside an institution.
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Today, little Malvina is a confident and well-adjusted, happy child preparing to settle into her P2 year at Moira Primary School.
Nina, who has written her book under the pen name Nina Harper, wanted to share their story as a record for Malvina and also to highlight the issue of international adoption.
Many people are put off overseas adoption because they fear it might be too difficult or complex.
And while it was a difficult process, the couple saw first-hand the great need for adoptive parents in Russia and hope that the book will encourage more people to consider it.
Nina says: "International adoption has undergone many changes in recent years, many of which are positive.
"There are thousands of children in need of permanent families.
"If anyone is considering adopting, we hope this book will perhaps give them the confidence to consider adopting children from across the world.
"Bringing an adopted child into your home and providing love and support will help them to be the best they can be, and to reach their full potential.
"And that is the best reason of all."
Rob, who is from Banbridge, moved with his parents as a child to England, where he met Nina. The couple, who have been married 18 years, lived in England for a number of years before moving to the Cayman Islands.
Rob is a father to three grown-up children, Robbie (33), Hayley (32) and Micah (27).
Nina says she had no desire to have children of her own and instead was happy to devote her time to her step- children.
That all changed quite suddenly when she turned 36 and was surprised to find herself developing strong maternal feelings.
However, in a tragic twist, the couple discovered they couldn't conceive naturally and what followed was a tough three-year series of failed IVF treatments.
"I didn't want children at all and I fell in love with Rob's three children and that was enough for me," says Nina.
"I couldn't describe it, but when I turned 36, something clicked with me and it wouldn't go away. It was a slow burn, but it became all encompassing and I really wanted to have a child.
"Rob and I discovered we couldn't conceive naturally and we never did get to the bottom of why.
"We started IVF in 2007 and had seven rounds of it. I got pregnant on the sixth go and lost it six weeks in.
"After the seventh time, we both felt that financially and emotionally we were done with that. It was an exhausting and emotionally draining rollercoaster."
The couple decided on adoption, but because they lived in the Cayman Islands, found it was going to be very difficult, legally, to adopt a child from home, so they decided to look overseas.
It was a journey into an unknown world of complicated red tape, which saw them rule out a number of countries based solely on the many legal hurdles they would have to overcome.
Nina explains: "I do cover it in my book, but for example in Bulgaria, it takes seven years to adopt a child and as we were older parents, we felt we just didn't have that time.
"We had no idea how to go about it and just googled at the start for information.
"We tried to work with a few overseas adoption agencies, but that was a nightmare, too, and eventually we found a great agency, the Russia and Eastern European Adoption Association, and a wonderful woman, Larissa Mason, who was a great support to us."
Over the next two years, the couple sold their home and used credit cards to help fund the huge adoption costs, which totalled around £32,000.
Before they could be considered for adoption, they had to have a home study report prepared, which involved a detailed inspection over six months by social workers of their home life to establish if they would make good parents. Once accepted by the Cayman Adoption Board, they then had many more obstacles to overcome in the Russian legal system to get little Malvina.
Finding their daughter was also a tough part of the process, as Nina explains: "We had to fill in a form stating the colour of eyes we wanted, the colour of hair, whether we wanted a boy or girl, what age etc and it felt a bit like shopping and it didn't sit very comfortably with us.
"It just didn't feel natural, yet it was an essential part of the process to match you to the child you wanted.
"They then sent us videos of four kids, which included a set of twins, and we were to watch the videos and pick a child, which again felt very odd, but was an essential part of the process."
Naturally, Malvina was one of those children and the couple were surprised how they knew instantly watching that short video of what was a very frightened little two-year-old that they had found their daughter.
"This little thing popped up on our screens and took my breath away. She was beautiful and she looked so unsure and so wary at first," Nina says.
"Then a couple of minutes into the video, the camera zoomed in on her face and there was this little frown which said, 'Get out of my space'.
"I thought instantly she's got courage, she has guts. I just knew that little girl was going to be my daughter and, thankfully, Rob saw what I saw."
The couple were allowed to visit Malvina in her baby home for the first time in April 2014, when they got to spend three hours with her in two one-and-a-half hour sessions each day for three days, watched closely by staff from the home.
"I was worried that she wouldn't like us. She walked into the room in this pink dress with pink and yellow tights," she says.
"More than anything, I didn't want to scare her.
"We had a little bear with us and books and clothes for her and it was very intimate and personal.
"Most of the staff in the home were female, so she was a bit wary of men and Rob backed off and sat down to play with her.
"She was quite bossy and was soon telling him what to do and she has had him wrapped around her little finger ever since that moment."
Due to regulations, the couple had to wait until October 2014 before they could take their little girl home.
When that day finally arrived, they were handed Malvina and told she had to leave everything, including her clothes behind.
It was a jubilant and emotional experience taking their little girl from a government-run home - where she shared a room with 15 other children - into the world for the first time.
Even her car journey to the airport was a first for the two-year-old, as was her flight to London to meet family members and then on to her new home in the Cayman Islands.
The book covers the emotions the couple felt on getting their little girl home and also details the lengthy legal process and what was involved.
There were challenges, too, for little Malvina, as she struggled to settle into a new world and learn to trust and develop confidence.
Nina adds: "Malvina is a different person now and so am I. She has taught me a lot about myself.
"Rob and I have learnt a lot about each other, too, and for me to finally have a child who calls me mummy and reaches for my hand is something I never thought would happen to me.
"I just sit and watch her and when she says, 'Mummy, I love you', it is the best thing in the world.
"So many people give up, but we are living proof it can be done.
"It really has been a journey of blood, sweat and tears, but it was worth every bit of that.
"If I can help anyone who is thinking about adopting overseas, I will and I have set up a Nina Harper Facebook page and Instagram account to reach out to others."
Malvina The Special Little Girl Who Stole Our Hearts by Nina Harper is available on kindle and paperback from Amazon.co.uk