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10 Things You Need to Know Before Adopting Internationally

As a mom of three, two adopted internationally, I get a lot of questions about adopting our girls.  We’ve completed two international adoptions, but we’ve actually pursued four, and while I’m no expert, I don’t mind sharing what we’ve learned and observed over the last five years.  Every child, situation, agency, and country of origin is unique.  Your experience is probably different than mine, but in an attempt to answer some of the questions we’ve received, here are my top 10 things you need to know before adopting internationally.

1. Keep your wonkiness radar up and at the ready.

You hear a lot these days about international adoption and ethics.  So let me start out by saying, be willing to walk away, even if it’s hard, even if it costs you.  As far as it depends on you, refuse to be part of the problem.  Search out ethical adoption agencies.  Talk to adoptive parents.  Ask questions.  We started the adoption process for a little boy from West Africa who was on a waiting child list, but after asking questions about the orphanage where he lived and the process of adopting him, something in our gut told us this wasn’t right.  We sought input from other families who had used the agency and our concerns grew, so we walked away.

If you aren’t sure where to start, try the Christian Alliance For Orphans (CAFO) website.  They provide a list of adoption agencies that you can search through, as well as helpful resources.  Research, get on Google, Facebook, and Yahoo Groups, and gather info from other adoptive parents (APs) and prospective adoptive parents (PAPs).  Choosing the right agency is incredibly important.  Don’t fall in love with a photograph.  Don’t take a Machiavellian approach to bringing home a child.  Battle your inner savior complex.  Above all, the child’s needs come first.  That might seem duh to us, but speaking as someone who knows the ache of childless arms, that temptation can be there, that everything will be okay if you just get the child home.  Listen to your gut and be brave.

2. Find creative ways to fund your adoption.

“International adoption is so expensive.  How do you afford it?”  Great question.  I hear it a lot.  Look into grants and interest-free loans through Abba Fund, or check out The Ultimate List of Adoption Fundraisers from Walking by the Way.  Often times business owners like to help, so seek out friends who sell Pampered Chef, Jamberry, Noonday, etc. who might be willing to donate a portion of their profit on a party that you host.  Sometimes people in the airline industry or those who fly a lot for business are willing to donate buddy passes or airline miles to help with the overseas flights.

3. Battle syllabus shock one step at a time.

When you get the huge stack of paperwork and feel that syllabus shock, take it one page at a time, and remember that all the work and all the classes are preparing and vetting you for the monumental task of parenting a child who has suffered tremendous loss.  Sometimes the paper chase and long wait are the easiest parts.  Even though I knew better, I still let myself think that if we could only get our first daughter home with us, then everything would be fantastic.  It wasn’t.  While we were so relieved to finally have her home, the hard part had only just begun, and I found myself in doctors’ offices trying to help my child not freak out while simultaneously not freaking out myself.

4. Hold your plans loosely.

International adoption is always changing.  If you’re a planner and chafe against the unexpected, this will be hard for you and drive you to your knees a lot.  Our first adoption was supposed to take a year.  It took two, and during that time, the entire process changed.  We edged our way through a gauntlet and it felt like at any point the whole thing could come crashing down.  Another time, we got a year into an adoption, only to discover that the process would take several years more than we thought and that we’d have to make some major homestudy changes to proceed.  It was a blow, but we walked away from our money and the year we’d put into it because we felt a pull to a specific older child in a different country.  We switched from sun to snow and redid everything.  Sometimes adoptive parents act like crazy people.  There was a time in there when I thought maybe we were.

5. Use travel as an opportunity to serve.

Many times as part of the adoption process, you’re required to spend long periods of time in your child’s country of origin.  You may have anywhere from two weeks to two months getting to know your child and the culture, and perform the necessary bonding, paperwork, and medical tests to meet the requirements of both our governments.  It can be taxing on your family, especially if you already have kids, and leaving work can be difficult, but before you go over, you might investigate ways to serve while in country.  That country is allowing you to take its precious child.  Is there a way you can serve out of gratitude and a desire to help?  Maybe it’s participating in relief work or assisting a sponsorship program that will help more kids stay in their birth families.  My husband is a web developer and assisted a local ministry helping keep children in school with their website needs in between our getting to know our daughter.  Friends of ours used their “down time” in between visits to the orphanage to deliver infant formula, diapers, shoes, and food.  Other friends visited sponsored children in orphanages and brought mail from sponsors back home.  (In some cases, if you travel to work with an organization and your travel is for charitable work and not recreational, you may be eligible for tax deductions.  Check out these websites and talk to people smarter than me to find out what qualifies: IRS, NOLO, TurboTax.)

6. Develop your support system.

Love is not enough.  You think it will be, as you’re staring at a referral picture and imagining your family finally all together.  It’s going to take a lot of love, for sure.  But it’ll take more than that.  So while you’re waiting, start working on your support system now.  Who’s going to bring meals?  Who’s going to sit at the house during a nap so you can run out and grab a cup of coffee and wander around Target in a daze?  What’s your plan during church so you don’t end up missing six months?  You can’t anticipate everything, but start thinking now about what you’re going to do.  What professional therapists and doctors do you need to check into?  Who you gonna call?  It’s not the Ghostbusters, but make sure you research your local resources ahead of time.

7. Attachment can take time, and it works both ways.

People will tell you that they loved their child the first time they saw him or her.  People will say it’s the same as having a baby.  Maybe that’s true for some people, but for me, it took time.  Well, let me be clear.  I loved my daughters immediately, but liking them took longer.  Like any relationship, it grows.  It took time and little steps to build trust.  You can want it just to be there, like when they laid your birthed baby on your chest for the first time, but it’s different.  You’re creating a bond after brokenness and loss.  You’re part of the healing, but healing takes time and it can be agonizing and slow.  It’s worth it.  Don’t be afraid to stay home together, to ask friends not to hug your child, to put boundaries in place as you bond to one another.  Work on your relationship first before you let everyone else in.

8. Nurture your marriage and other kids.

Whether you’re adopting or having babies, parenting can strain a marriage.  Prioritize date nights with your spouse if you’re married.  When we first got home with our youngest daughter, these happened in short spurts after we finally got her to sleep.  We didn’t want her waking up with a babysitter, so with our cell phones at the ready and a trusted sitter who knew to call us instead of go into her room, we crept away, stayed close to home, and just had a little bit of detox time talking about our marriage, laughing to relieve the stress, and kissing.  Go find a park bench down the street and make out.  You’ll feel like you’re on the same team and that you’re going to survive.

After our first adoption, our son took a beating, literally.  His new little sister threw trucks at his face and hit him and screamed bloody murder if he looked at her wrong.  After our second adoption, he became a middle child, and both our kids all of a sudden had an older sister bossing them around.  We try to take them on one-on-one dates, to ask them questions about their feelings, and to give them freedom to process everything and affirm their struggles.  Recently my son has started journaling how much he hates his sisters.  I know that sounds horrible, but I’m encouraging him to get out his feelings on paper.  I told him, “Your journal is between you and God.  As long as you aren’t showing your sisters, you can get out your feelings in there.”  I don’t want anyone bottling anything, so we talk and look up scripture and ask God to help and in a safe place, we admit when it’s hard.

9. Root for birth families and countries.

Work towards keeping first families healthy, helping families living in extreme poverty find a sustainable income to be able to provide for their children.  It’s why I’m passionate about the work I do with Children’s HopeChest and why when people ask me if I’ll adopt a child from our CarePoint in Uganda, I say that would be failing at the work I’ve set out to do.  We partner there to help kids grow up in their own community within their own culture, to become the future leaders of their village, to reduce the number of orphans created.  Adoption is a beautiful answer to orphanhood, AND let’s also work toward keeping kids from being orphans in the first place and let’s look for solutions before adoption.  And then if despite everyone’s best efforts, an orphan is created, and then if despite everyone’s best efforts, a child isn’t able to find a family in his or her country, then international adoption.

The chair of the orphan court who cared for my oldest daughter saw how much we loved each other and she said something that made my tears overflow.  “It doesn’t matter whether you’re from France or England or America or here.  If you love each other, then you should be together.”  I hate that my daughters lost their first families.  I hate that my daughters lost their countries of origin and I feel that loss for them.  But I’m so thankful that we could cross borders to surround them with love and provision.

10. Embrace your new normal.

At some point, they’re just your kids, not your adopted kids.  At first it will feel all new and the differences will be glaring.  One of our daughters is a different race.  I had to learn how to do her hair and help her feel connected to her culture and race.  She’s having to learn how to navigate when her friends see me and say, “Is THAT your mom?”  My other daughter didn’t speak English a year ago.  I’m having to learn how to advocate for her in school.  She’s having to learn how to speak and now read English.  These things make our family stick out; they make us have to talk about it with strangers.  But as we develop our new normal, I’m learning how to protect my kids from excess scrutiny, and we treat all our kids, the one born here and the ones naturalized, as our kids.  They’re ours, they’re real, and we’re a regular family.  And yes we’ll answer questions and no we aren’t going to be rude, but we are going to expect that everyone treats all our kids as kids, and not exhibits at a museum.

There’s so much more, but I’ll stop at ten.  Okay, what else?  What have I missed?  Fellow adoptive parents, what have you learned?  What do you want others to know?


image from Donna Page Photography