If you are adopting internationally, traveling to meet your child will be a part of the process. It used to be that the escorting of children to meet their new family was a possibility, but that option hasn’t existed for quite a few years now. Some countries require one trip, while others require multiple trips. These rules for adoption travel are constantly changing, so checking with your agency about specific country requirements is the best recommendation I can make.
I am actually happy that escorting is no longer an option. I think it is incredibly important for adoptive parents to experience their new child’s birth country. Part of preparing to travel is to understand why it is important to travel; it helps make the cost and more difficult aspects of it are seen as worthwhile.
Let’s start with the reasons it is valuable to travel and experience your child’s country.
Travel gives you a taste of your child’s birth culture. This culture is a part of who your child is. By seeing it firsthand it can help you understand what your child has seen and experienced. You can also share with your child what you experienced in their birth country to add to their knowledge of their place of origin. By traveling you might also have the chance to see the people and places that were important to your child. This could be foster families, orphanages, teachers, schools. All of these places and people are part of your child’s history, and if you have a chance to see them for yourself, you can help preserve part of your child’s history for them. Our children have lost so much, any little bit becomes important.
Travel lets you experience being a minority. In most international adoptions, the adoptive parents will travel to a country where they suddenly become an ethnic minority. Parents who are ethnically part of the majority at home will rarely have experience with this. By adopting, we are asking our children to go from being part of the majority to being part of a minority. Experiencing for themselves what this is like is good for parents to help identify what their child is going through.
Travel allows parents a taste of missing home. Most adoptive parents, by the end of their time in-country, are anxious to get home. They miss their loved ones, the familiar sights, sounds, and smells, food that is comforting and tastes right, and having life be easy and comfortable. Even after just two or three weeks, the desire to return to what is known is strong. These feelings are important because our children will experience the same feelings in reverse. The difference is our children cannot hope to return to what is familiar, and instead have to keep muddling through until all the news of their home and family finally feel familiar. Travel can help develop compassion for what our children go through.
So now you know why adoption travel is important, let’s talk about the travel itself. We have made four adoption trips to adopt five children. That adds up to 11 weeks in two different countries where we didn’t speak the language and where we were the minority. Each time I packed, I did a little better job of it.
Pack light. I never needed as much as I packed… ever. I always wished I had brought a little less. We washed clothes in the sink or we sent them to a laundry or sometimes we had a washing machine in our lodgings. I never needed as much as I thought I did. The downside of packing too much is that you must carry it. We were in Asia, and let me tell you, Asian airports are huge and require miles of walking. More than once, things took longer than we expected and we found ourselves sprinting while carrying a new child and all the stuff we brought through the never-ending airport. Oh, how I wished I had brought less. Because the reality is…
You can buy just about anything you need in your child’s country. Medicine, feminine protection, and baby diapers are about the only things I couldn’t find an equivalent for, or at least not a really good equivalent. Anything else? Well, it’s just like anywhere. Large stores are selling many things all over the world. You aren’t going to outer space.
The pack light directive also includes things for your new child. There is usually a good chance that the measurements you were given are inaccurate and all the clothes you bought won’t fit. (I did pack a small sewing repair set and used it to sew waistbands in pants about four sizes smaller.) Bring some, but plan on buying clothes that fit there. Some children won’t even want to change out of the clothes they came in anyway.
You won’t need huge amounts of toys, either. Chances are too many will overwhelm your new child. Pick what you bring carefully. We adopted older children, so we focused on bringing things we could do together with them, such as games, puzzles, and coloring things. I spent many hours either coloring next to my new child or doing puzzles together. Uno was a great game to bring since it required little language to play.
One thing I wouldn’t skimp on are a few things that help you regulate yourself. Adoption travel is pretty stressful, even with a child who is transitioning well. It can be very helpful to have things around with which you can calm yourself. I brought an adult coloring book, quite a few books on my e-reader, and some knitting. (Yes, you can carry knitting needles on an airplane.) Having these things with me allowed me to spend a little time giving myself a mental and emotional break from all that was going on.
My other exception for packing light is if you have food allergies. International travel is not always friendly to food allergies, and many people find it helpful and/or necessary to travel with the food they can eat. We do not have allergies in our family, but I always packed quite a few protein bars to keep those of us susceptible to low blood sugar going when food wasn’t available.
There are a few more things you need to pack before you head out. Don’t worry, they won’t take up any room in your luggage.
Flexibility. If I’ve learned one thing about adoption travel, it is that it never works out quite how you expect it to. There will always be snags or problems of one sort or another. Make plans lightly. Flexibility extends well past just logistics. Accommodations may not be what you are used to. Food will most likely be different. Taxis and buses usually do not have seat belts. Cultural norms can make you feel uncomfortable. (For instance, in Chinese culture it is not rude to stare or ask questions that we Americans consider personal. “How much is your salary?” is a perfectly acceptable question.) Pretty much the whole trip is an exercise is being flexible both with what you have planned and what you are used to.
A sense of adventure. If life isn’t going to be how you are used to, then embrace the differences. Two areas that I have seen adoptive parents struggle is with the urban nature of where they are and with food. If you will be traveling to adopt in Asia, then most likely you will be in a city. That city is very likely going to be extremely large. For instance, even China’s mid-sized cities are larger than Los Angeles and its largest cities dwarf New York City by millions. If you are uncomfortable with or not used to being in an urban environment, surrounded by lots and lots of people, then most adoption travel will be tough. If you know this will be a struggle, try out a U.S. city to get the feel for an urban environment. At least the language, food, and culture will be the same, and you will get a taste of how you navigate city life. We visited parks and museums, walked endlessly, took the subway, and strolled through many stores. Once you accept the fact you stand out and will probably make endless ridiculous mistakes, then you can relax and soak it all in.
The same goes for food. Try things! Sure, be reasonably careful: no unbottled water, no fresh fruit unless you can peel it, and no veggies unless they’re cooked (I’ll admit to breaking that one). That still leaves you with an amazing amount of food to try. Don’t limit yourself to the McDonald’s down the street. We’ve eaten street food, food in little hole-in-the-wall restaurants where we had to point at pictures, fancy restaurants serving local food, and hotel restaurants serving more American food. Only one of us got sick one time, and that was from the American-style restaurant in our hotel. Here’s some more homework for you: try food from your child’s country before you arrive. Try enough so that it starts to seem at least a little familiar.
But really, this is all peripheral to what is actually going on when you travel to adopt. The real purpose is to meet, adopt, and bring home a new son or daughter. Sure, having the right things packed is helpful. Being comfortable in your surroundings always makes things easier. Feeling as though you have food you can eat is important. The bottom line, though, is navigating your sudden responsibility for a brand new child who is essentially a stranger and with whom you probably cannot communicate.
This brings me to the two most important things you can bring with you on your adoption trip: a way to communicate with the broader world, a phone, computer, or tablet with access to either text or email or messenger, and a list of people who have been in your shoes and survived, who are willing to talk you off the edge at any time of day or night.
Some adoptions are easy. The child is not acting out and the parents feel happy with their decision. Some adoptions are not. Sometimes a child is traumatized and scared, sometimes literally fighting for their life because they don’t know what else to do. Other times, it is the parent who is blindsided by overwhelming emotions they didn’t expect. They wonder who is this stranger and why did they ever agree to this? How could they have ruined their family by deciding to adopt? They believe life will never be good again, and they don’t know what to do. The most difficult adoption trips happen when the child is not adjusting and the parents are not adjusting. The hardest part of all of this is that you cannot predict how your new child will react, and if you have never adopted before, you also cannot predict how you will react.
I have been to both places. The terrified parent, convinced I had ruined my family by pursuing this adoption, asking for help from other experienced adoptive parents, pleading with them to tell me things would get better. And I have been the experienced adoptive parent on the other side, helping to calm a distressed parent, offering hope that there is more than the panic they are currently feeling. Adoption is not always easy. Travel prepared with a list of people who are willing to talk you back off the edge and offer some hope.
If you don’t have anyone who can fill this role for you, add it to your to-do list before you leave. Join a Facebook group for adoptive families from your country. Contact your agency and ask if they have parent mentors you can be connected with. Ask around your community if other adoptive parents have experience traveling to the country you are going to. Make your connections now, and then take that list with you.
Finally, on a lighter note, my best travel tip for adoption travel. Pack a clean set of clothes for you and your child in your carry-on bag. Do this even if your child is older. I do not think I have been on an airplane coming home where we did not have to deal with some type of bodily fluid. Older children may get airsick and not grab the bag in time. They may need to use the bathroom, but because of language issues, uncomfortableness with their new family, and (at least for us) not having any idea there were bathrooms on the plane, accidents happen. Fourteen hours on a plane in foul-smelling and/or wet clothes is not something anyone wants to have to experience. Oh, and a couple of large ziplock bags to put the wet and smelly things in isn’t a bad idea, either.
Sure there are some hard things about adoption travel, but we have also experienced some truly wonderful things as well. We have met fabulous people, seen amazing things, and, of course, come home with our beloved children.
Are you and your partner ready to start the adoption process? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to begin your adoption journey. We have 130+ years of adoption experience and would love to help you.