Often I have caught a glimpse of my daughter as she watches the movie The Wiz, an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, and how she marvels at Dorothy when she clicks the heels of her ruby slippers together in hopes of returning home. I wonder after she asks me, “One day will we go back to visit Ethiopia?” if she ever wants to click her heels and return to her birthplace to experience a place and people that she has only heard about. My answer has always been that one day, we are going to go back and visit.
Although adopted children literally and figuratively are at home with their adopted parents, their birthplace still holds significance. Adoptions inherently bring to light that a child’s life started somewhere else. For many, it is where milestones occurred or where the birth family they don’t remember or never met still resides. A birthplace visit may answer unanswered questions or may open tender places that no one knew were there. The impact can be important and overwhelming to an adopted child.
Imagine going to a place you don’t remember where you may not know anyone or fully remember them but others know you and feel an affinity toward you. They may even feel love for you and you have no idea who they are or how you are supposed to react. It is one thing to see a picture of your birthplace, but it is different when you return to your birthplace. There are many things to consider and navigate as you prepare to visit your child’s birthplace.
Remember, this is more than a vacation. This is a life-altering experience that requires physical preparation and, more importantly, emotional preparation. The most important person in this equation is your child. There is the main question that adoptive parents must ask in preparation for a trip of this nature: is my child emotionally ready for this trip? This is not a trip that should be sprung on a child like a trip to an amusement park. It should be planned because it is a sensitive journey involving the hearts of humans—the adopted children, adoptive parents, adoptive siblings, and birth families.
Many adoptive parents that I spoke with recommended counseling before embarking on a birthplace journey. A journey of this nature brings up many issues. It helps to address their expectations, fears, and questions. Often counseling for the entire family and the child individually may be necessary.
You must ensure your child understands what is going on. The lines of communication between the adoptive parents and their child must be open and honest. Let your child know you don’t have all the answers, but you have the time and patience to listen and discuss their feelings. Also, prepare your child for the inevitable unknowns, information, and family situations of which you were not aware.
Often adoption agencies provide guidelines on when the best age is to return to your child’s birthplace but, ultimately, it is up to the adoptive parent to assess the situation and your child’s emotional readiness. I spoke with Veda Simpson, an adoptive mom whose child is from Africa, and she said, “I decided to take my child for a visit to Ethiopia because at the time the life expectancy of the people was in the forty-year-old range. That influenced my decision.” Given the life expectancy of the people, she didn’t want to wait until her child was 18 and miss an opportunity to meet her birth family.
There may be unresolved feelings that arise after the visit that should be addressed with a counselor, so be prepared to continue the emotional journey even upon your return home.
Hire an Investigator
Unless you have kept in contact with the birth family, this trip may require hiring an investigator, sometimes referred to as an adoption detective or searcher. Although you may have documentation, do not assume that all the information is accurate or up to date. An investigator will help you find more detailed information about the birthplace and birth family. Most importantly, they can help you contact the birth family and may be able to assist you in arranging the visit. Once you receive the information from the investigator, share what you have learned with your child in an age-appropriate manner if you believe they are emotionally ready to receive it. Often an investigator will be able to tell you if key individuals are alive or deceased, if there are other siblings, et cetera. Remember, some of the information that you had formerly shared with your child you may find is inaccurate once you get the report from the investigator; be flexible and impress upon your child to do the same.
Engage a Tour Guide and Translator
If your birthplace visit is in a foreign country, it would be good to contact an escort/tour guide and a translator while the birth family is being located and contacted. Often the tour guide and translator are one and the same. Many times the escort can assist with travel arrangements and transporting the family to and from the birth family’s living area. The translator role is imperative. Not being able to speak each other’s language can create a real barrier. Being able to communicate with the birth family and ask questions makes the trip invaluable. Spend time finding the appropriate translator, especially if you are visiting an area that has a particular dialect. Always remember to get recommendations to ensure your family is safe and comfortable with whomever you select.
Learn the Culture
Whether your visit is domestic or international, the cultural norms of the community or country you are visiting are very important, so be curious. Proactively learn about the culture of the place you will be visiting. Those I spoke to who were traveling internationally suggested having the entire family learn about the culture together so that everyone traveling to the birthplace was familiar with the place and their norms. You can read books, watch videos, and seek out people who may have lived there or have family there. Given the far-reaching tentacles of social media and the Internet, finding a connection to the birthplace location should be relatively easy. A connection will increase your knowledge, enhance the experience, and make everyone more comfortable. Of course, you will not be able to prepare for everything you experience but having a foundation of what to expect will alleviate some culture shock. Keep in mind culture is not only found internationally; there are different cultures within the United States, so even if your child’s birthplace is in a domestic location, don’t take for granted that the cultural norms will be the same as your own.
Preparation for the Adoptive Parents
Not only should the child be prepared for this visit, but the adoptive parents should be mentally and emotionally prepared to be there for their child during this process. Monitor your child’s emotions throughout your visit. Encourage your child to share how they are feeling because some aspects of the trip may be triggering. Work with a counselor to understand what your child may be going through and how to handle the emotional challenges your child may experience. If you are visiting with the birth family over an extended period, be flexible. If your child is becoming overwhelmed, include other tourist activities that allow you to experience the area but more importantly allow your child to decompress from the heightened emotional nature of the trip.
If there are questions you would like to ask the birth family that you think your child would like to know in the future, consider writing them down so that you can refresh your memory. There may be a lot going on during your visit but there may not be an opportunity like this again.
Remember, this is a moment that the birth family may have only imagined. Their level of excitement may be palpable, and it may not match your child’s energy. Ms. Simpson recalled when their vehicle entered her child’s birthplace village. She said, “There were people waiting for our arrival and they ran and made sounds of celebration, following our vehicle to welcome us.” In many ways, it is a welcome home from the birth family, since this is a visit that many families have hoped for. Some parents I spoke with recalled that the birth family requested that the child stay with them alone. You should formulate your responses to inquiries such as this in advance of your visit and discuss it with your child so that he or she is aware.
As you plan the trip, determine who will travel to the birthplace. Will it be the entire family so that everyone can experience the visit and be there to support the adopted child? Will it be with another family who is visiting their birth family so that there is someone there who understands and experiences the journey at the same time? Or should this be a trip for the adoptive parents and the adopted child only? Sometimes the adopted child may want to process the visit just with their adopted parents. There is no right or wrong decision, but you should consider how the visit will impact all the children in the family.
Consider journaling during this process to chronicle the preparation and the visit but also to capture your experience and feelings.
Document, Document, Document
Sometimes a birthplace visit does not include meeting birth relatives. Often adoptive parents only visit their child’s birthplace when the child is born and are the connector between a place the child may never have seen or experienced. The adoptive parent holds a treasure of information that they can one day share with their child. Questions will arise and, even though parents will not have all the answers, some knowledge is better than none. While visiting your child’s birthplace for the first time, whether domestically or internationally, it is easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of adding to your family. However, remember that your child cannot travel back in time to see what you saw on your initial visit to their birthplace. Take pictures and videos of the big things and the little things—the hospital, the hotel you stayed in, the car you drove, et cetera. I traveled twice to Ethiopia to adopt my daughter. I took pictures of the courthouse where I finalized the adoption, of the nannies that took care of her, and of things that captured the essence of the country. The pictures are puzzle pieces that give my daughter a visual representation of her origins. You can create a non-traditional baby book for infant adoptions with the memories you document. This is applicable for adoptions of older children as well. During the adoption process, there are often many moving and emotional parts that interfere with the child remembering everything, so document it for them.
I asked Ms. Simpson what she would have done differently. She said she wished she had hired someone to take pictures and videos of the moments that she missed while visiting her child’s birthplace village. The birth parents wanted to interact and get to know her as well as their birthchild, which left little room for Ms. Simpson to take pictures. Better images of that day would offer a time capsule for the child to revisit the experience while continuing to process the trip.
This is often a once-in-a-lifetime trip for all involved. One adoptive mom told me that her gift to the birth family was pictures of her child through the years. This was a beautiful way to share with the family how their birth child developed over the years.
As you can see there are several things to consider as you prepare to visit your child’s birthplace. Most are easy to research and schedule. The hope is that your child’s birthplace visit meets their emotional expectations and provides them with a greater sense of self.
If you are planning a birthplace visit, please share with us some of the steps your family has taken.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.