In nearly every adoptive parent’s story, there are moments when idealistic dreams run smack dab into reality. These are not pleasant moments, and I can clearly remember a few of my own as I moved from dreaming about adoption to actually understanding the realities of adoption. I’m afraid that what I have to say may prove to be one of those moments for a few of you.

If you are serious about adopting a baby from China, here are 6 things that you really must understand first.

1. There are no babies.

Well, of course there are babies in China, there are just no babies available for international adoption. The world has changed a lot in the past twenty or so years, and while at one point it was common for parents to quickly bring home a very young girl, that is no longer that case. The children who are coming home now are older and have special needs of one sort or another. Younger children who are young and healthy are being adopted domestically, and it is not necessary to have them adopted overseas. This is a good thing.

If you want to see that written out in numbers, here are the most recent statistics about the shared list. (The “shared list” is the master list of children who are eligible for adoption and have their paperwork completed. They are just waiting to be matched with a family.) Currently there are 917 girls and 2321 boys waiting. If these numbers are broken down by ages, it becomes even more interesting. Of the 3-year-olds waiting, there are 74 girls and 185 boys. Of the 2-year-olds waiting, there are 17 girls and 78 boys. Of the 1-year-olds waiting, there are 2 girls and 17 boys. And those babies everyone keeps wanting? There is exactly one boy on the shared list under the age of 1.

2. Adoption will change your life.

It doesn’t matter if this will be your first child or your fifth, if this is your first adoption, your life will change. (Actually, I would add that each child added to your family forever changes it, but that’s not what the article is about.) If you cannot imagine having your life turned upside down and inside out, then perhaps adoption isn’t for you, because that is what will happen. You will never be able to have your old life again, because it will be different. You may grieve the loss of your old life; this is completely natural, but it is good to have the realistic expectation up front that this will happen.

3. There are no guarantees.

When you are far enough along in the process to be considering a child, you will be shown a file of that child’s history, at least what is known of it. Sometimes these files are pretty darn accurate. Sometimes these files are about as far from accurate as you can get. And there is also the whole spectrum in between. The trouble is, until you actually meet the child, you will have no way of knowing exactly how accurate the file is. If you commit to a child, you need to know that you are committing to the worst case scenario. (Once again, I would add that this is true for biological children as well. There are no guarantees in life, and a healthy child one day does not mean a healthy child always.)

4. There are no “healthy child” adoptions.

The majority of children coming home from China have special needs. These can range from minor to extremely significant. It is best to start researching medical conditions early in the process to familiarize yourself with what these conditions entail and what day-to-day life looks like. The other thing to remember is that all children who are adopted have been affected by trauma to some degree. The degree of trauma an individual has experienced and the effect it will have upon that individual can vary. A child severely affected by trauma can have significant behavioral issues that traditional parenting methods won’t help. A parent needs to be willing to be flexible enough to change their parenting in order to help their child heal.

5. It’s not quick.

Plan on a year or more to bring home a child. If you are open to either sex as well as a variety of needs you will be matched faster than if you have very narrow parameters to what is acceptable. The US side of things also can take months as you work on a home study and then immigration paperwork.

6. You are adopting a country as well.

Your child’s birthplace needs to be one that you can appreciate and find beauty in. It will always be a part of your child, and changing their citizenship will not change that. If you are not comfortable with others who share your child’s ethnicity, think carefully about transracial adoption. If you cannot say positive things about your child’s birth country, ask yourself if you should adopt one of its children. If you are unwilling to make yourself uncomfortable while learning another culture, perhaps international adoption is not for you. Take the time to learn about your child’s culture, study its history, appreciate its food, and become a close ally.

Adoption is a wonderful and joyful way to build a family, but along with the joy, there is always the pain of loss. And in the midst of this ever-present tension, we need to be mindful that there is a child behind it all. A real living, breathing child who doesn’t get much say in his or her own future. We need to not lose sight of this as we imagine our perfect adoption fantasy. Of course it is okay to be excited by the prospect of adding a child to your family. I would worry about the family that wasn’t excited and was adopting solely out of a sense of obligation or duty. But we also must not let that personal excitement cloud our ability to see things from both sides, and to understand what it is exactly that we are asking a child to do . . . change cultures, families, languages, and often names. We must also put aside our own expectations for what our new child will look and act like, and instead be patient and wait to discover who they already are. It is not easy, but it is also worth it, to learn to love and appreciate this unique person that you are so thankful to be able to call your own.