Ask any parent who has adopted internationally, and they’ll probably say something along the lines of, “I could write a book about everything I’ve learned.” It’s true; there’s nothing quite like gaining experience in real-time to educate you fast, filling you with information you feel is worthy to share with everyone and anyone even remotely curious about the international adoption process.

While we were fortunate beyond belief to have had the support of a local adoption network of several hundred families (including highly-experienced leaders well-versed in the process of international adoption itself, being adoptive parents themselves), there’s no real way to be fully prepared for what you’ll encounter while in your child’s country of birth. 

Most countries open to international adoption–Hague Convention or otherwise–do have certain requirements when it comes to the international adoption process, including time spent in the country. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, families were not always required to travel abroad to be united with an adopted child. In some cases, children were flown to the United States or their destination country by themselves or with a guardian to be united with their waiting adoptive family at the airport gate.

Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore, because it’s incredibly important for adoptive parents to experience their new child’s birth country. It’s important to honor the fact that not only is this where your story as a family will begin, but this is where your child’s life began before you became a part of it.

And while it’s easy for me to talk about how important and great it is since I’ve already been through it, I am grateful for having had the opportunity despite the ups and downs that came with it. Here are five things I learned in-country.

Be Flexible to Changes In-Country

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” as the saying goes. So, be ready to be flexible. You can’t foretell how each and every day is going to play out, no matter if your itinerary had all the “Is” and “Ts” crossed or if you triple-checked all the boxes. Appointments get bumped or canceled. Children get stomach bugs (and so do big people). Things go missing. Supplies run out. You’re not in your element. You don’t have your car. You can’t just run out to the corner store to grab what you need. You’re at the whim of a system that frankly doesn’t care if it’s inconveniencing you. It doesn’t care if your little one missed their late-morning nap and is going to cry loudly in the otherwise quiet waiting room in 3, 2, 1…

Welcome to parenthood. Whether you’re in another country or not, juggling all of life’s demands is difficult on a good day. Add in the fact that you’re working through the international adoption process in a foreign country, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to take one task at a time, one day at a time. Remind yourself that eventually, it will all come together and you will all go home together. 

In the meantime, don’t waste a good opportunity to bond with your child. While you’re perhaps not in an ideal situation, it’s rare to find yourself with a few weeks or months of one-on-one time without the normal interruptions of family, friends, work, and your typical at-home routine. 

Be Open to Trying Everything

When traveling pre-kids, we were always pretty adventurous, happily adopting the “When in Rome” philosophy. From food to music to art to sports, we liked to experience wherever we were in an authentic way.

Most families who travel to adopt find themselves trying to budget as much as possible,  because international adoption is expensive, especially if the stay may be a long one. So, while it may seem tempting to hunker down where you’re staying and blame your drained piggy bank, that’s probably not in your best interest or the best interest of your child.

Get out! Take walks and try local parks–they’re free! You need to eat, so try that dish that you cannot pronounce nor describe. Just like back home, you may find that there are festivals, pop-ups, or open markets to browse. Oftentimes, you’ll find street musicians and artists as well as crafters selling their goods for cheap. 

“We were there.” “We took you to this place.” “We tried that.” “The view was beautiful here.” These are things you’ll want to be able to say around the dinner table in the years to come. Celebrate your child’s birth country by learning as much about it as you can. Respect it as much as they may want to someday.

But for the moment–in the moment–being open to trying things, getting out, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is healthy while you wait for the paperwork to come through. It’s good for you, and it’s good for your child.

Be Ready for the Unexpected

Just when you think everything has fallen into place, the other shoe will likely drop with a loud thud to the floor. Wait for it. From a court closure to a natural disaster, from a transit strike to a water main break, be ready for the unexpected. 

Finalizing your international adoption in another country far away from your at-home resources and support can be challenging. Without minimizing the circumstance, just keep reminding yourself that you will be going home. It will happen.

We did experience the court closure, the transit strike, and a very annoying water main break (that made preparing and sanitizing baby bottles extra fun). It was not easy, but with patience, a sense of humor, a few outbursts, and a lot of support from both those we were staying with and those back home rooting for us, we survived. 

Looking back, I sometimes joke that our second stay, which hit the two-month marker, was somewhat of a “baby boot camp.” Toddler boot camp, really. It was an experience like no other, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It forced us to take on some extra responsibilities most new parents don’t have to even think about, but it’s what we signed up for. Now, I’m grateful for the experience.

Be Prepared to Fall in Love with Your Child’s Birth Country

Although you may have heard or seen the worst of your child’s birth country–especially if it’s one with a struggling economy or civil unrest–don’t be surprised if once you touch down, you realize that despite its hardships, it has many wonderful qualities as well. 

No place is perfect, after all. While I went into traveling to my children’s homeland with an open mind, I was still blown away by all of its beauty, not just the land, but also the people and the culture. 

Take the time, if you can, to make real connections. While life is going to go on, this is an important chapter of it, and one you will no doubt want to talk about and share with your child in the future. We were fortunate enough to be acquainted with a wonderful guide who took us to some off-the-beaten-path places. He showed us the everyday country rather than just the places you might find in a travel brochure. He shared his pride of country with us, and that impacted our view of our child’s country as well. 

To be able to take in our children’s country firsthand was priceless. It enables us to talk to them about their birth country in a way that’s more meaningful and genuine than scrolling through a website or reading a book.

Be Proactive in Knowing How to Prepare and What to Expect From International Adoption

It’s go-time. You’ve been informed that you’ve been cleared to travel. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed as the months–or years–of hoping, praying, and planning all come together. In just a few short days, weeks, or months you’re going to be boarding a plane and flying to your child’s birth country to begin your journey together as a family! 

During this time, it’s easy to count on everything falling into place as planned. After all, you’ve already endured the difficulties of applications, home studies, and long waits. Now, all you want to do is be united with your child and live happily ever after.

As previously mentioned, that’s wishful thinking; life is going to happen, and things will go wrong. Even still, now is not the time to stop being proactive. Plus, remaining active is a good way to burn off some of the nervous energy you’re going to be feeling.

Here are some ideas for how to stay productive while waiting to travel: 

  • Go over your travel arrangements and come up with a schedule for once you arrive.
  • Make sure that you and your family understand the expectations you have once you have been united with your adopted child. 
  • Figure out legal issues, obtain passports and visas, visit the doctors to ensure you’re fit for travel, research in-country lodging, as well as food and clothing.
  • Try your best to schedule a return flight, although the timing can be tricky. 
  • Make sure someone will be able to take care of your home while you’re away, as well as animals and plants. You want to make sure you’re prepared to bring a little one into said home upon your return. 

While it may seem impossible to cover all of your bases, you will be prepared as you’re ever going to be by staying organized, communicating with your adoption agency, and reaching out to your support system.

Just know that despite all the starts and stops, ups and downs, eventually, it all comes together. Your true journey will begin when you return home with your child in your arms–to the place where you will start your life together as a family.