If you adopt internationally, travel is going to be a part of your experience. For some adoptive parents, the opportunity to travel is a huge perk, while for others, knowing they will have to travel internationally is nearly a deal-breaker. People’s reactions to the need for travel fall on either end of these two extremes and everywhere in between. I happen to relish the experience of travelling as part of our adoption experiences, and it’s not just because of my unfulfilled wanderlust. In this first installment, let me tell you why I think travel is a wonderful part of adoption. In the next article, I’ll offer a few ideas for getting the most out of your adoption travel adventures.
Travelling to adopt your child is an extremely important part of the adoption process. Chances are the culture your child was born into and spent time in is very different from your home culture. We need to experience our child’s culture to give us insight into our child. This is especially true if the child you are adopting is older. In some countries, you don’t always have an opportunity to visit your child’s orphanage, and I am always a little baffled when the opportunity is present and the parents don’t take advantage of it. This may be your only chance to see where your child lived, to meet the children he shared his life with, to interact with the people who took care of him. Our experience of visiting our daughter’s foster home made many, many things clear to us. We gained insights into her experience that we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t made the effort to visit before we left the country. I know that visiting these kinds of places isn’t always comfortable, but I have never met anyone who regretted going, even when it was very difficult.
Being uncomfortable is part of the package. We are not always comfortable travelling in a foreign culture. It is not easy. We don’t understand the language. We are afraid we will make mistakes. We crave familiar food. By the end of the trip, we whine that we just want to go home. Despite my love of travel, I have also experienced the need to just be home where things are easier and I can relax.
But before you dismiss these feelings too quickly, you need to spend some time embracing them, to really sit with them and imagine what it would be like not to have the chance to go home where things are comfortable and easy. This is exactly what your child will soon be experiencing. All those difficult, homesick, frustrating moments you spend in your child’s home country is what your child will experience in her or his new country. However, your child’s immersion in a new culture will not end in two or three weeks with an airplane trip back home.
We need to ask ourselves exactly how long we would have to spend in this country we are visiting briefly in order to feel comfortable, to not be homesick for everything familiar. I expect that the answer is quite a long time. Remember this when your child doesn’t embrace her new culture immediately. . . or even months down the line. Learning a new culture and a new language (not to mention learning how to be a part of a family) takes a long time.
If you are bringing home a younger child (or even an older one, really), this is your chance to form memories of their birth country for them. Chances are, they won’t remember much, or if they do, the memories will be sketchy or deeply buried. Soak up everything you can so that you have something to share with them about the country where they were born. What were the sights, smells, sounds? What were some of the positives and the negatives? (None of us live in a perfect place.) You will need to remember for them, and to do that, you are going to have to see more than the inside of the fancy hotel and local McDonalds. Remember that in a very real sense, you are doing this for your child. Go out. See things. Do things. Create memories that you can share with your child about the place of their birth.
Finally, recognize that your child’s birth country and culture will now be part of your family. You are creating a multicultural family. Use travel as a chance to develop an appreciation for this culture, its food, its history, its art, its daily life. Part of your job as a parent will be to help shape your child’s positive associations with his or her birth culture. Your own appreciation for and knowledge of that culture, especially that which is developed firsthand through travel, will encourage and sustain that part of your child’s identity.
Now, all of this applies if your child’s transition to you allows it. Adoption travel is a different type of travel from anything else and it is certainly not a vacation. If your child is sick or too terrified to do anything other than play in your room, then by all means, that is what you need to do. Your child comes first. Sometimes, though, it can help to get out. Our first adopted son’s transition was extremely difficult, but he often did better when we were walking around and seeing things than when we were just at the hotel. Being able to get out was a life saver for us.
Look at the need to travel as an opportunity: an opportunity to get to know your child and his or her background a little better. To experience being a minority. To understand the strain of operating in another culture. It is an opportunity to sacrifice a little of your own comfort for your new child.