Taking the plunge to become an adoptive family can be a little scary. For most people, the beginning of the process is to decide what that plunge will look like . . . International? Domestic? Infant? Special needs? Older child? It can be overwhelming. There is no right answer and each family needs to look at all the factors and decide which direction will work best for them. To help you in your research and decision making, here are a few things to think about in regards to international adoption.

1. How well do you deal with unknowns?

When you are adopting internationally, you have to come to terms with the fact that there are just some things you are not going to know. This is true even for the most predictable of countries. These uncertainties include the actual health (emotional and physical) of the child and how long the process will take. While some countries can give the illusion of having accurate files every time, there have been enough cases of either undisclosed or unknown special needs being apparent at the time of meeting. Not once in our five international adoptions has our child’s file matched exactly with the child we saw in front of us. This is true whether the child is in the care of an NGO or not. The fact is, until you actually meet the child, you do not have any guarantees.

You also will not have any idea how long the process will take. Some people wait years for a match, others (depending on the country) wait years to bring their child home. Even with a predictable process such as China’s, there are still many steps and each of them has the potential to slow the process down. To make matters worse, more often than not they are processes beyond your control and there is really very little you can do about it. It can be a test of patience . . . and how much ice cream you can consume.

2. Are you ready to fall in love with another country?

Adopting a child from another country means that not only are you bringing a new child into your home, but another country as well. The country of your child’s birth is a part of her. It is the country where he was born and the country that allowed you to adopt. Yes, this child will also become an American (or Canadian or whatever country you happen to be a citizen of), but this child will also forever be a part of their country of origin. How do you feel about this country? Do you have positive feelings? Do you like their food and traditions? Do you know anything about the country? While there is no way I can recreate growing up in a Chinese or a Vietnamese home for my children, there are things I can do to honor their heritage. I can speak positively about the countries, though that does not mean I am also not honest about their struggles. I can expose my children to the foods and art and history of their country. I can do my best to show appreciation for that aspect of who my child is.

3. Can you become comfortable in living outside your comfort zone?

Adopting internationally means that we are going to be asked to do what for some of us could be very uncomfortable things. I believe that all countries at this point require either one or both parents to travel to adopt their child. For some countries, one trip is required; for others it can be up to three. International adoption travel can be difficult. Not only are you meeting your new child for the first time, you are doing so in a completely different culture. For many parents, this is also their first experience of being a minority, something most of us will be asking our new children to do on a daily basis.

International adoption also often means parenting a child of a different race. Children need role models who share their ethnicity. Do you have friends of your child’s ethnicity? Are you willing to make some? Are you willing to listen to those friends when they tell you what life is like for them and pass that knowledge on to your children? This is just one area where adoptive parents need to get comfortable being a little uncomfortable.

4. Are you willing to deal with your child’s hard questions and grief over their personal unknowns?

I know that many people are drawn to international adoption for the precise reason that there is nothing known about the birth parents. It seems safer that there is no one who can come forward and derail the adoption. It seems easier to deal with birth parents as a purely abstract unknown. But the truth is, many parents come to the realization that their child has an overwhelming need to know about his or her origins, and some parents decide that they would do just about anything to give their child this information. Sometimes searches prove fruitful, but more often the past remains a mystery. Having no information on birth parents might seem easier to the adoptive parents, but it is not easier for the child. Some children manage to deal with this lack of information with little emotional turmoil, but others are completely derailed by it.

A Final Word

International adoption certainly has its challenges, but we have found it also has its joys. Flexibility and an ability to take things as they come are crucial. In the end, not only have I gained five wonderful children, but I have been changed into a different person. The path is not always easy or smooth, but if you are willing to open yourself to the unknown, you will find deep joy in the journey.