Whether you are fully committed to the idea of adoption or just beginning to explore your options, understanding each step of the adoption process can be daunting. How long each step takes, what is involved, and what each step leads to are questions every prospective adoptive parent contemplates. Here is a list of 10 steps, from considering adoption through post-placement visits. It is not a simple journey, but it will be worth it.

1. Decide What’s Right for You

The first step in the adoption process is to decide what kind of adoption is right for you. Are you more interested in domestic adoption, adoption from foster care, or international adoption? Each type of adoption varies in both the cost, timeline, and the type of children available. If you are interested in infant adoption, the most likely path is domestic adoption. In domestic adoption, a birth mother will match with you and then you will decide if the match is acceptable. Prospective adoptive parents open to older child adoption might consider adoption from foster care. The average age of a waiting child in foster care is 8-10 years old, sibling groups and teens are also quite common. With international adoption, the children available are between the ages of 12 months to 14 years, depending on what country you choose. Countries, such as India, place younger children (between 18-24 months at placement), whereas other countries, such as Bulgaria, have older children available. Special needs adoption is also quite common. When considering a country, be sure you meet the requirements to adopt from that country and that you are willing to have a permanent connection with the nation of your child’s birth.

2. Do Your Research

Once you decide which adoption path is right for you then the next step will be to do some research. If you are adopting domestically, do you want to use an agency or adopt independently? If you choose an agency, be sure to do your research and ask the right questions. How do they advertise to prospective birth mothers? Do they do open adoptions? What about closed adoptions? What is their fee structure like? How many families do they work with at any given time? What is the average wait time? What happens in the event of a failed match? How often do they communicate with you? And what kind of support do they provide throughout the process?

Prospective adoptive parents pursuing international adoption will need to work with an agency, but for a few rare exceptions. Once you decide on a country, take some time to research which agencies work within that country. To adopt internationally, you must use a Hague accredited adoption agency. In addition to the above questions, be sure to ask how long the agency has worked within your country of interest and what their connection is like “on the ground.” Agencies with strong representation in-country can lead to a better adoption experience in that the in-country reps can provide more timely updates of the child with whom you match and they can prove invaluable when the time comes to travel.

3. Complete a Home Study

Whether you adopt domestically, from foster care, or internationally, all prospective adoptive parents will need to complete a home study. A home study is like a snapshot of your life designed to illustrate the type of home and environment you would provide to an adopted child. The process involves much paperwork gathering, background clearances, and in-person interviews. During this time, prospective adoptive parents will explore their motivations for adopting and the type of child they are open to adopting. During this time, too, prospective adoptive parents will engage in several hours of pre-adoption education. State and country guidelines vary but typically families can expect to complete roughly 20-30 hours of training.

4. Wait for a Referral

Upon home study approval, families are eligible to be matched with a child. Some states allow a match to occur before a family has completed their home study, but typically this only occurs in the case of independent adoptions. If you are adopting domestically, you may choose to work with an adoption consultant to develop a parent profile to increase your visibility to prospective birth mothers. Adoption from foster care may occur either from a current foster care placement or by visiting photolisting sites of available waiting children. For international adoption, a referral typically only comes after dossier submission to the country-specific central adoption authority. For most countries, once a dossier is received, it will be logged in and then the prospective adoptive parents are eligible to be matched. Referrals will be made according to the age and/or special needs indicated on the prospective adoptive parents’ home study.

5. Accept a Referral

Choosing to accept a referral is one of the most exciting steps of the process. It can be tempting to jump right in when the first referral is received, but it is important to take some time and evaluate if the match is right for you. Families adopting domestically may be matched at any time during the pregnancy, from the first few months to even days ahead of delivery. When a match is received, you will review it and then, in most cases, schedule a time to connect with the expectant mother either via phone or in person. If both parties feel the match is a good one then you will move on to the next stage. In foster care adoption, typically the process occurs over several meetings when the prospective adoptive parents get to know the foster child, unless the foster child is already residing with them. Be sure to ask questions of the current foster family and the child’s social worker to make sure the match is right for both you and the child. For families adopting internationally, once a referral is received it is a good idea to have an international adoption doctor review the file. Included in the child’s referral will be photos, medical information, development information, and as much family history as there is available. If there are any red flags, consult your agency and have the in-country rep ask follow-up questions. As most international adoptions are special needs adoptions, be honest with yourself of which needs you can handle and which needs are too much. Turning down a referral is tough but it is much easier than a disrupted adoption.

6. Waiting

For most prospective adoptive parents the toughest part of the process is the waiting game. Where earlier steps of the adoption process may have proven to be a flurry of activity, from accepting a referral to the placement of the child can take a long time. If you are adopting domestically, the timeline will be clearer. Still, you may decide to wait to tell people about your upcoming family addition. Even after placement, states vary with respect to adoption consent laws so it is okay to feel nervous until the adoption is solidified. Families adopting from foster care are typically in contact with the child throughout the adoption process but even this can be hard. There are many hurdles to go through to welcome a child into their forever home and waiting can take weeks or months. For families adopting internationally, the wait can be particularly difficult. Even if you matched with a child quickly, there are still hoops to jump through with immigration services as well as in-country local and/or federal courts. This process can take anywhere from a few months, to a year, two years, or more depending on the child’s country of origin. As hard as it may be, try to find ways to make the waiting time pass. Remember, though the wait is hard, you are one giant step closer to welcoming your new child home.

7. Travel to Meet Your Child

One of the most exciting moments of the adoption journey is when you get “the call.” Whether it is to travel down the road, to another state, or to another country, being prepared is key. For domestic adoption, you will have made a hospital plan with the birth mother. Know that this will be both an awkward and a beautiful time filled with conflicting emotions. Families adopting internationally will have a bit more of a journey ahead. Knowing what to pack can be a game-changer, particularly with a 10 days to two or three weeks in-country stay ahead. Be sure to bring games and activities to foster attachment and remember you are not traveling to the moon. China, India, Bulgaria, South Korea, and Ukraine are all foreign countries but they do have clothing and food stores for your new child. Know, too, that the time in-country is not real. It is an adjustment period for both you and the child and jetlag is no joke. Families adopting from foster care will experience a similar transition as international adoptive families. Older child adoption can be tough and it is important to stress that you are now their primary caregiver and that this is their forever home. But no matter what your path, be sure to take lots of pictures, ask lots of questions of family or caregivers, and write down your thoughts and experiences. These will prove the foundation of your child’s lifebook and be a great gift to them in the years ahead.

8. Adjusting to Your New Life

Coming home from adopting your new child will feel like completing a marathon. You are beyond exhausted but somehow the miles you have covered in your journey of the past few months and/or years feels like a dream. It may be tempting to jump back into your old life and to showcase your new addition, but taking the time to cocoon with your new child in your first few weeks home is essential. Whether they joined your family through domestic adoption, from foster care, or from international adoption, your child has experienced trauma. The sights, sounds, tastes, and smells they were used to are gone. Take the time at home to establish new routines. Play together, read together, venture outside the house, but only as far as your new child feels comfortable going. Adoption is a huge adjustment for all involved, and it is important to take the time to adapt to your new life. And if you or your child are struggling, please seek help. Post-adoption depression happens more frequently than you might think, and it is important to remember that you are not alone.

9. Post-Placement

Once you return home you will need to complete a series of post-placement visits with your state-licensed social worker. The purpose of these visits is to check-in on how both you and the child are adjusting. For families adopting domestically or from foster care, post-placement reports must be completed before the adoption may be finalized in court. Typically, three visits are required over the course of six months. For families who adopted internationally, your child became a U.S. citizen as soon as they stepped foot on U.S. soil. If you adopted from a Hague Convention country, the adoption was finalized while in-country. If you adopted from a non-Hague Convention country, such as South Korea, then the adoption will need to be finalized when you return home. Regardless, readoption is still a good idea as your child will then have a U.S. certificate of foreign birth.

10. The Years Ahead

The most important thing to realize about adoption is that it is a process. It can be easy to think once you return home and settle into a groove that you are “finished” with adoption. But adoption is a lifelong journey. Navigating relationships with birth families, questions of identity, finding racial mirrors, navigating adoption in the classroom and within your larger extended family and community, the list goes on and on. Remember to stay open, listen, support, and remind your children that they are not alone.

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Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.