When people ask me what international adoption is like I often respond it is like walking on the moon. Nothing can quite prepare you for those first incredible steps and once you have made the journey, your perspective is forever changed. Though a lot more people have built their families through international adoption than have walked on the moon, finding people to relate to during this process can be tough. For this article, I decided to ask my fellow adoptive parents what advice they would give about international adoption. Here’s what they said:
Advice from Parents About International Adoption
The most important thing to remember is that adoption is a lifelong journey.
Once you have accepted a referral, be sure to identify all resources available to you – from medical specialists to speech therapists to specialists in reactive attachment disorder (RAD). It’s important to remember that most international adoptions are for children with special needs. Have realistic expectations of the time and resources that you will need for your child. Reach out to these organizations before your travel and understand what your insurance will cover. When you’re home and sleep deprived you’ll be glad to have a “go to” list in hand.
Be prepared for the fact, yes fact, that the child in your referral will be different than the child you meet. Remember, your child continued to grow and develop during the time between accepting their referral and travel. Children that might not have shown delays early on may exhibit developmental delays with passing time. Medical diagnoses may change or evolve and behavioral issues may arise. Be ready and committed to love and accept the child you meet, no matter what.
Trauma is defined as any stressful event which is prolonged, overwhelming, or unpredictable. For children of adoption, their world has been turned upside down, oftentimes more than once. In my son’s young life, by the age of 2 he had lived in an orphanage, lived with foster parents, then moved halfway around the world to live with us. Understand what trauma and associated grief look like in young children and learn how to parent it.
Most adoptive parents can list ways to forge attachment with their newly adopted child (direct eye contact, holding them, feeding them, etc.) but it’s important to remember bonding is a two-way street. One adoptive parent shared she felt more like the babysitter during her first days with her new daughter. Our first days in China I expected to fall immediately in love with my son and feel wholly and entirely like his mother. But I didn’t. For some, it’s an immediate bond. For others, it takes time. Be kind to yourself and don’t feel any shame or guilt if it takes you a little longer. As one parent shared, remember and repeat often: “Love is a decision, not a feeling.”
The best thing about international adoption is – it’s international! That means you get to experience another culture, another language, different foods, different ways of viewing the world. Embrace this time. Yes, you will be in survival mode those first few days, but you are in your child’s birth country. If you go into your travel time with a sense of adventure, the reward will be a deeper understanding of your child’s culture. Because when you adopt a child internationally, your whole family becomes part Chinese or Indian or South Korean or Colombian, and that is an amazing thing.
Without a doubt the most discussed issue between adoptive families on social media is sleep issues. The bedtime ritual can be traumatic for adoptive children. It could be they were used to sleeping in a room with other children, or the family bed, and now they are being asked to sleep in a room by themselves. You may need to co-sleep or stay in the room with your child overnight. Be ready to do whatever it takes for both yourself and your child to get a good night’s sleep – no judgment!
Whether you are still co-sleeping after being home for two years or you administer “time-ins” rather than “time-outs,” adoptive parenting is different. Some days you will be just like any other parent and other days your child’s anxiety in a new situation or the worry of an upcoming trip will serve as a reminder. If you already have biological children the shift may be a challenging one. As one parent shared after parenting biological children, she felt as if she was “parenting upside down” with her adoptive daughter. Be ready to adjust your ways of thinking to meet your child where they are.
Even before you travel, start to build your village. Your village may be your friends, your family, your church, your neighborhood, or even your medical team. If you can, find families in your area who are journeying through international adoption. Your agency can be a great place to start or begin by finding groups on Facebook. The ability to reach out and ask for support or advice from like-minded individuals will prove an excellent lifeline when the time comes.
Adjusting to life back home as a newly adoptive family can be downright draining. Don’t be afraid to ask, and accept, help from people. That help may come in the form of a warm meal, a load of laundry, or even a social worker or an attachment specialist to guide you. The first time you utter the words “we have tried everything,” give a professional a call. The asking will make you a stronger, better parent.
My son has been home almost three years now and every day I still feel like I am in a dance between what is “normal” and what is “adoption.” I shard this with a friend of mine who promptly shook his head and laughed. He adopted his daughter from Korea at age 2 and 35 years later he said, “I’m still doing the dance.” Sometimes it will be attachment issues. Sometimes there will be identity issues. Sometimes there may be a rush to know their birth culture or to track their DNA and sometimes there may be a rejection of that same connection. The most important thing to remember is that adoption is a lifelong journey. It doesn’t end when you meet your child. It begins. Our job as adoptive parents is to help our kids navigate their way and to walk alongside them lovingly – wherever that path may lead.
Jennifer S. Jones
Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and "is this really us?!" whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.
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