John Hennigan’s home in Hanoi has been full of laughter, babble, and sometimes crying, ever since baby Liam arrived. Over the past 6 months, they’ve experienced many firsts together, including Liam’s first Vietnamese wedding where he got to wear an ao dai (Vietnam’s traditional long dress), Liam’s first plane ride, and his first steps on his own. John’s feelings as he watches his adopted son grow are just like any other parent’s. “Watching him walk independently was…I think a lot of parents go through this…they just sort of like to see that," he says, "Now he starts to run and God, it’s so hard to keep up with him because I need a lot of energy. But I was just so overwhelmed and excited back then.”
|John cheers on Liam's first steps. (Photo: John Hennigan)
Before witnessing Liam’s first steps, John had to go through 8 months of constant effort and uncertainty regarding adoption procedures. He had wanted to be a father since he was in his twenties, but he never imagined it would be possible for a single man to adopt a child, either in Vietnam or in South Korea, where he lived for more than 7 years.
Then last May, a friend showed him the picture of an abandoned baby with a cleft lip, who was given the name Pham Dang Son by the caregivers at an orphanage in Hai Duong city. Looking at the picture, John immediately felt as if the baby was his own son. John recalls the first time they met each other last September: “The advice given to you when you see the adopted child for the first time is to stand back and observe and not approach straight away. I planned to do that, but when I walked into the room and saw him, I saw a smile on his face. I didn’t really think about the advice and just went over to him, played with him, and lifted him up. And he was very happy.”
|Cutie little Liam. (Photo: John Hennigan)
The adoption procedure was like a rollercoaster, as John needed to get the approval of both Irish and Vietnamese authorities. In addition to basic documents, he had to provide evidence that he could take care of a child financially, physically, and mentally. One day he would think he had everything ready, only to find out the next day that something else was missing.
At the same time he was getting in contact with Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization that provides free surgeries for children with a cleft palate. On September 29, Dang Son had his first operation at the Vietnam-Cuba hospital in Hanoi. John was there every single day after work to take care of him. When Dang Son got discharged from the hospital and returned to the orphanage in Hai Duong city, John visited him every weekend, come rain or shine.
|John takes care of Liam after his first operation. (Photo: John Hennigan)
Finally, on January 28, 2021, John was officially approved to adopt Dang Son. He renamed him Liam and brought him to his home in Hanoi. For the first time, BVIS granted a male teacher a two-month “maternity leave”. Liam was going through a grieving process, as leaving the orphanage was leaving behind everything he’d ever known. He cried during the whole trip to Hanoi, and for the first two days he woke up every 1 to 2 hours and refused to drink milk or eat food. John made a decision to ‘cocoon’ him; feed him, lull him to sleep, and not introduce him to any friends or family. After three weeks, he saw the first sign of a special bond between them. “When I introduced him to my friends, he interacted with them very well and was also looking for me," he shares, "The test is to leave the room when a friend is here and see if he reacts. The minute I went to the toilet, he was shouting for me. That’s a good sign that the attachment is good and strong at that point.”
|Liam celebrates his first birthday with his daddy. (Photo: John Hennigan)
Since John and Liam started their journey together, Liam has had his second surgery and has recovered perfectly. They celebrated Liam’s first birthday in May, and had their first vacation in Nha Trang city. The first-time dad has received lots of support from his co-workers, friends, and family in Ireland, especially his sister who has a baby the same age as Liam.
Their story also made headlines on news outlets in Vietnam and Ireland, including VnExpress, VietnamNews, VTV3, Daily Mirror, and RTÉ Radio1. Following the media coverage, John has received messages from many strangers wishing him and Liam the best of luck in the future. Families who are considering adopting or have a child with a cleft palate have been inspired by John and Liam. John says he has found all the attention overwhelming, as he considers himself just an ordinary parent. “I’m grateful for all the positive messages," he says, "If people can get inspiration from my story then it’s wonderful. I would love to see an increase in domestic adoption in Vietnam. And if I can help support them, absolutely!”
|John's received lots of support from his friends and family in taking care of baby Liam. (Photo: John Hennigan)
In the far future, John plans to take Liam to Ireland to explore his hometown and culture. But for the time being, he wants Liam to develop bilingually and absorb Vietnamese culture in his early life, so he has hired a Vietnamese nanny to talk to Liam in Vietnamese. He also hopes that Liam’s biological mother will get in touch with them, and they would love to build some sort of relationship with her. John considers Vietnam a very big part of his and Liam’s life, and will make sure that part follows them wherever they go.