When you and your family decide it’s “go time” and you are ready to take the first step with your adoption process, most people have at least a few preconceived notions about what to expect along the way. Some may be sourced from friends or family members and their own adoption stories, while other ideas may be things you have merely concocted into your possible reality. Your agency will try and prepare you as best as they know how (hopefully), and you’ll be equipped with books, interviews, and doctors. But, even with the best preparation, nothing comes to living it out. So, more than likely, you’re going to experience some pretty big surprises along your journey. Here are nine things I couldn’t believe before adopting that caught my family and me off guard!

1. More Poop Than You Can Imagine

I had biological children before we went to pick up our son from Eastern Europe. Both of my biological kids were very young (one still an infant), so I was still living in the land of diapers. I thought no poop-related content could surprise me – I mean, I had most likely just been poop exploded on the day before. But, what I could never have imagined would be my reality was that I would send poop through the mail. Not once, but twice! And our poor postal worker had no idea what was in those boxes.

You see, when you adopt internationally, you need to expect the water overseas to not necessarily be safe for consumption. But, I can guarantee you that orphanages do not have another option for the children in their care. So, that means many children from orphanages, especially those in Eastern Europe, come home with parasites and worms. Medicine becomes an immediate necessity; one your International Adoption Clinic will be able to prescribe you. However, to test to see which parasites may be causing your child’s issues, you’ll need to provide a fecal sample. Our International Adoption Clinic was hours away from our home. Those fecal samples had to be collected, put into a liquid supplied by the hospital, and then sent through the mail to their in-house laboratory. That meant this mama had to scrape parasite poop out of a diaper, fill up a little jar, and then mail said poop. No one warns you about this when you go to your first adoption introductory meeting with your agency.

2. The State of Children’s Health and Care Can Be Shocking

I would have never believed our son would have been as sick as he was when we picked him up due to severe neglect and malnutrition. He was three years old but only weighed 16 pounds. He was wearing a size 3-month (yes – month!) pant, and couldn’t walk, talk, or chew food. He had never had more than an ounce or two of water at a time, so when he drank, he would urinate through his diaper and clothes within ten minutes. He looked so sickly and had no idea how to chew solid food. It was absolutely shocking that he had gotten to the point where he was. It was terrifying to take care of someone so ill. We fed him baby purees and yogurt until we could consult with a physician to make a care plan. In reality, it wouldn’t have mattered if our agency had prepared us. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had heard the stories or seen the photos. It’s one of those things you just can’t believe until you see it, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

3. Celebrating Holidays Alone

Once our son was home,  we decided as a family that we would try to purposefully integrate some holidays from our child’s birth country into our yearly family traditions. So, we currently celebrate a spring holiday in March that no one else in our area does. We tie dolls to trees, make bracelets, and take photos. We hang a flag out front and sometimes make some cultural, festive cookies. I didn’t think our family would be such an oddity in our town. Maybe it was because I didn’t expect to celebrate a completely different holiday altogether, or maybe it’s because I thought differing holidays would be more popular. Either way, this has been an unbelievably fun and pleasant surprise to our family. All of my children, no matter where they were born, love to celebrate.

4. Birth Order Doesn’t Matter

When you start your adoption journey, many professionals and experienced adoptive families will suggest adopting only within the birth order of your current family. This means you should adopt a child that will then be the youngest in your home. We had two children biologically while we were waiting to be matched with our son, so when we picked him up, he was actually now the oldest child in our home. That went against all suggested insight, but it actually worked out really well for us. Our adopted son is disabled and developmentally much younger than his chronological age. So, for us, our birth order doesn’t matter much anyway. In our experience, chronological age never trumped developmental age. Birth order was not interrupted in our home; our firstborn still physically and mentally acts as the oldest child in the home though she is technically a year younger than our adopted son. Developmental age is so important that, oftentimes, chronological birth order isn’t impacted as expected.

5. Adoption Is Polarizing

When we were adopting, the local news station wanted to do a piece on our journey. They came to our home, filmed a small segment about us as a couple and international adoptions in general. The amount of hatred we got from the public after our segment aired was shocking. We received unbelievably negative comments about our age, parenting, adoption, international adoption; you name it. Anything and everything about our story encouraged someone to emerge and want to speak up about it. I had no idea that anyone would be against adoption, and to be honest, I’m still shocked to this day when I see someone online share their beliefs that adoption is wrong. Adoptees also have varying beliefs about what is right and wrong based on their own experiences, but I truly believe that bringing our son into our family was the right thing to do for him and us.

6. Fundraising Is Possible

Fundraising can often be a scary undertaking, especially for those of us that have never done that gracefully. I couldn’t even fundraise for my orchestra trip in middle school. But, when you are faced with needing to fundraise to bring your child home, you somehow make it work. From large donation yard sales to crafting into all hours of the night, adoptive parents have fundraised successfully in many different ways. I would never have thought fundraising would cover most of our adoption expenses, but somehow it did. And, since I had decent success with our adoption, I now help others fundraise for their adoptions. I help run a non-profit that provides airplane grants for the coming home trip and two different organizations that donate grants to adoptive families currently in process. Many families actually fundraise their way to being fully funded. Though it is a difficult undertaking, fundraising your way through the expenses of your adoptive journey is totally possible, even if it’s not your strong suit.

7. Kids Are Not Resilient

The belief that kids are resilient is fairly widespread, but many adoptive parents know this to be a painful way to look at the situation. Kids can not just “bounce back” from every circumstance. My kids can go on vacation to the beach and can be so unbelievably flexible during the whole trip. Their resilience is amazing, and they are able to adapt so quickly to change while vacationing. However, spending some time at the beach with family is different from being able to “bounce back” from not eating enough calories for three years. Being flexible about getting donuts or ice cream in the beachside community shopping center is different from instinctively knowing that mama will always be there when there hasn’t been anybody for years. Children from hard places, like orphanages, can’t just bounce back once they are brought home. They can’t just magically, all of a sudden, remember that food will be available when necessary. Some of our adoptive children hoard food for years out of fear of starvation. It doesn’t always matter how much love and security you give immediately; some kids need time to learn to trust, and unfortunately, some never learn how to function in a family. Our kids aren’t resilient. They don’t just bounce back from a life of loss.

8. Experience Racism Because of Our Son’s Ethnicity

My family once went to a restaurant in our hometown run by people from my son’s birth country in Eastern Europe. It was amazing to eat authentic food that I was butchering the recipe of in my own kitchen. But, what struck us the most was a conversation we had with the owner. In his thick Eastern European accent, he told us that he was glad we brought our son to America as, if he had stayed there, he would have died because his skin color was so dark. I was stunned. I knew that people of my son’s ethnicity have to go to a different hospital because of their heritage, but to hear someone say it about my child made it hit home even harder. We never experienced direct racist remarks while in the country. Still, I have friends that, while picking up their children, experienced derogatory looks and remarks from people in their child’s birth country. It’s still shocking to know that our son is viewed a certain way overseas.

9. Healing Comes Slowly

Healing the type of damage that some of our adoptive children have experienced can’t happen overnight. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, and that is hard to swallow.

For our family, healing has come ever so slowly. It took my son a year from pick up to eating a hot dog happily. It was an extremely difficult year, full of protein shakes, not even on the growth percentile chart, blending up spaghetti and meatballs into a puree, only going to restaurants that had smooth soup, taking baby food everywhere for our 3-year-old, etc. We worked hard, and our son worked hard. We cut macaroni noodles into fourths, then thirds, then in half. Then he was eating some but getting worn out, so he was supplementing with PediaSure. It was exhausting, but the moment he ate an entire hot dog and drank a glass of sweet tea was the most relieving feeling. And that moment was won through diligent, continuous, and unchanging trust and safety. Our son is still mostly considered nonverbal, now coming up on five years home. His receptive skills are so much better, so things have improved so much from pick up to now. But it’s slow. It’s the type of slow progress where you need to watch videos from years ago to remember where you used to be. Much of this journey has surprised me, and this may be one of the most surprising things. I had set myself up for these quick returns on love investments, but healing needs more time than I expected initially.

There are so many things that can’t be learned before living out your process. Even though I do believe that our agency provided us with the deepest, most valuable preparation possible, we experienced so much unknown. No amount of preparation can make a prospective adoptive parent ready for everything they are going to encounter. There are some things you just have to go through and live in order to know what it is like. I believe that our children often teach us more than we teach them. So, expect the unexpected. 

Considering adoption? Let us help you on your journey to creating your forever family. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.

Kristina Frazier: I’m Kristi—Mama of 4, adoption advocate, and wife to my high school sweetheart. I’m just here surviving off of sweet tea and sarcasm, sharing all the feels of life with some honesty, a little bit of humor, and a whole lot of Jesus.