Issues to Consider In International Adoption

Wondering if international adoption is for your family? Here are some questions to ask yourself before getting started.

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Deciding to build your family through adoption is a huge milestone– choosing international adoption only increases the magnitude of this decision. To help decide if international adoption is right for you, explore the issues raised by these questions:

How do I feel about not being genetically related to my child?

This is one of the major stumbling points about adoption (whether domestic or international) for many people. Many people take great comfort in knowing that a part of themselves will live on, seeing genetics as a key to immortality.

Do you feel a strong need to see the past in the future? Is it important for you to be able to say, “Little Johnny has great-uncle Edgar’s jug ears!”? If so, you will need to resolve these issues before embarking on any form or adoption, whether domestic or international.

On the other hand, can you see beauty in all children, regardless of race or ethnicity? Do you believe we are all children of the same Creator? Do you believe all the Earth’s children hold the key to the world’s future? If you can honestly answer yes to these questions, you may be a good candidate to adopt internationally.

Can I help a child of international adoption create and maintain a positive identity with her birth culture? Can you give your child an appreciation for– and pride in– the country of his birth? Are you interested in learning about another culture? What are your opinions of the cultures of the countries open to international adoption? Even though internationally adopted children become “Americanized,” they will probably look different than their peers. Researchers have shown that the happiest and best adjusted children of international adoption are the ones who have a sense of cultural belonging.

Before embarking on your international adoption journey, think about how you will give your child a cultural identity. Perhaps you can take language classes to learn the native language of your child. Or maybe there are restaurants specializing in cooking from your child’s country of origin. These are two very simple examples of resources that can be a springboard to further cultural learning.

When adopted children ask, “Where did I come from?” they may be looking for more than an explanation of the birds and the bees. What adopted kids may be hungering to hear is their personal story: how they came to be living in this country with this specific adoptive family.

Do you know other families who have adopted internationally? Can you find (or build) a support group of blended international families? It is good for children of international adoption and blended ethnicities to see other families who look like their family – i.e., families where the parents and the children don’t necessarily look alike.

How will I talk about adoption with my child?

Fifty years ago, adoption itself was a taboo subject in America, and international adoption was almost unheard of. At the time, it was thought that children simply didn’t need to know if they were adopted– as though there were something shameful about the whole process. Fortunately, Americans are realizing that adoption is, in, fact a wonderful option for building families and is a cause for pride. Furthermore, in the case of international adoption, ignoring the subject of adoption is usually not an option since many international adoptions involve building a family of blended ethnicities.

So how will you talk with your child about your decision to adopt? Will you present adoption as destiny, as something that was “meant to be”? If you turned to international adoption after failing to conceive a biological child, how will you address the subject of infertility? How can you prevent your internationally adopted child from feeling that he is somehow “second best” because of failed fertility treatments?

How will I help my child deal with negative pre-placement issues such as abandonment, an embarrassing history, or no history?

Every child, whether biological or adopted, eventually asks, “Where did I come from?” To help establish themselves in the present and cement their sense of self (and their self-esteem), children need a sense of their history– even if that history isn’t storybook perfect.

The fact that a child is placed for international adoption typically means that there is a “negative” in the child’s pre-placement history such as extreme poverty, the death of biological parents, or abandonment. In many cases, almost nothing is known about a child placed for international adoption other than the fact that the child was abandoned. How you approach any “negative” in your child’s history can help him or her build a positive (or a not-so-positive) self image.

So just what do you tell your child? It’s simple: Always tell your child the truth. No matter when you introduce the subject of your child’s adoption, always be honest and give as many details as your child asks for. (This will vary, depending on your child’s age.) You can add more details to your conversations as your child grows up and begins to understand all the implications and nuances of adoption.

Warning: If you are not totally honest from the very beginning, your child will lose trust in you when the true story is eventually revealed (and we all know that the truth will come out in the end, if not from you then from someone else). Here are some guidelines for telling your child the story of his or her adoption:

  • Tell the truth – always, every time.
  • Begin at the beginning, with the names of your child’s birth parents if it is an open adoption. Tell your child when and where she was born and when and how she came to you.
  • Keep the details age appropriate. A child in kindergarten can’t absorb the same level of details that a teenager in high school will need.
  • Emphasize that your child was placed for adoption because his birth parents were not able to parent him at that time. It was not your child’s fault that he was placed for adoption– there was nothing “wrong” or “bad” about him.
  • Every time you discuss adoption with your child, remind him or her that adoption is forever and that you are his or her forever family.

Don’t wait until your child asks about his or her origins. Start a scrapbook as soon as you receive the referral for your child. Include photos, copies of reports from adoption agencies and – most importantly – include your thoughts and emotions. Knowing that you specifically wanted this particular child will help him build a bridge over any rocky start he or she may have had in life.

Am I open to discussing birth parent issues?

This brings us to the birth parent issue. Yes, birth parents are just as relevant in international adoption as in domestic adoption. Surprise!

No, you don’t have to worry about losing custody of your internationally adopted child to his or her birth parents. However, you do need to acknowledge and address the fact that your child has (or had, in the case of orphans) biological parents. Some countries open to international adoption keep very meticulous records about the birth parents. Some even have medical histories on members of the extended biological family. You may have details about illnesses that may run in the family (heart disease or high blood pressure, for example), and your internationally adopted child may also have the opportunity to search for– and find– his or her birth family. In other countries, however, the majority of children placed for international adoption are foundlings, and thus no information is available about the birth parents. Your attitude about discussing your child’s birth parents may influence your choice of country.

What are your ideas about race? 

Even the most open minded of us may carry around some stereotypical ideas about race. Do you think Asian children are obedient and good at math? Do you see people from Latin America as being “time-challenged”? Will you expect your child to have these characteristics? More importantly, do you think you will be able to set these stereotypes aside and discover the person behind the race? Internationally adopted children become Americanized. Try to visualize that adorable baby becoming a teenager, an adult, a parent. Can you grow beyond any preconceived racial stereotypes you may have?

How do you feel about interracial families? Through international adoption, you may become an interracial family. Do you raise your child to have the same identity as you (or your other children)? How do you help your adopted child develop his or her own cultural and ethnic identity? Should your child’s name reflect national origin?

Adoption of a child of another race or country is not just about a cute little baby. How do you feel about interracial marriage? How does your family feel about interracial marriage? How will you feel if people look at your internationally adopted child and assume that you are married to a person of another race? How can you learn to know what it’s like to grow up non-white in a predominantly white society if you don’t know this from your own personal experience? How will you support your child when if experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination arise? To become sensitive to your child’s world, you’re going to have to learn about and experience these issues.

Do you have family or close friends of other racial, cultural, or ethnic groups? If so, these people can be a valuable support network and a great source of information on being a minority in a white society. If you do not currently have such friends, you should examine the reasons for this and explore ways to develop such relationships.

How do you feel about getting lots of public attention? 

If you adopt a child whose ethnicity differs from yours, brace yourself because people are going to stare at you. A lot. Even people who mean no harm will stare. Sometimes it’s just a matter of people not being used to seeing parents and children of different ethnicities, but sometimes people stare out of a disapproval based in their own mindset.

Every parent of an interracially adopted child has war stories to tell – about the nosy strangers asking, “What is he?” (Answer: “My son.”) Or, better yet, “What language does he speak?” Shortly after my husband and I decided to adopt a child from Thailand, I ran into a former neighbor at the supermarket. When she learned of our plans for international adoption, she responded with a horrified, “It looks like we moved just in time!” (My response: “Yes, indeed! You saved us the trouble of having to move!”)

Also, if you have a biological child as well as an internationally adopted child, you must be careful to give both children an equal share of parental attention. As difficult as it can be for an adopted child to fit into a new culture and a new family, it can be equally difficult for a biological child to adjust to suddenly having a sibling. Before the arrival of your adopted child, the whole family must come together in the belief that families can be created a number of ways, only one of which is through biology.

What is your motivation for international adoption?

In addition to your qualities and abilities as parents, it is important for you to understand your motivation for international adoption. Do you feel you are doing a good deed for a poor orphaned child who will be grateful to you when he is older? Do you think people will admire you for your selflessness in “saving” an orphan? If so, you need to do more self evaluation before going any farther with your international adoption plans. These unrealistic reasons for pursuing international adoption would likely result in a poor adoption outcome, both for you and for the adopted child.

Furthermore, if your primary post-adoption focus is to help the child become absorbed into your culture at the expense of his or her own, then international adoption is not for you. For international adoption to succeed, you must have an attitude of respect for the country and culture into which the child was born. For children of international adoption to thrive, you must help them learn about and develop pride in their birth culture.

On the other hand, you may be a great candidate for international adoption if you have the capacity to identify with a child of a particular country, if you can see the world from his point of view and can lovingly supply his physical, mental, and spiritual needs.

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