Traveling to your child’s birth country can be a tremendously rewarding experience for your child and family. Going into it with an open mind and an open heart can help you have the best experience possible. I spoke with several parents who had adopted internationally to get their advice on how to make this trip the best experience possible for all involved. Here are some of the tips they gave:
Be prepared for anything: Any weather, any travel setbacks, any emotional response from your child, his or her birth family, or yourself. International travel is always an exercise in rolling with the punches: canceled flights, dealing with jetlag, or poor weather. Add in the combination of the possibility of this trip stirring up strong emotions for yourself, your child, and any birth family you may possibly visit with, and you have even more variables. Do your research ahead of time in terms of what to expect with the climate, do your best to plan your travel to minimize issues—don’t schedule connecting flights too close together, for example—and also prepare yourself as to how you will discuss with your child the difficult and overwhelming emotions she may face. If you have a therapist in your area who works with adoptive families, consult with him or her beforehand about techniques you can use to help your child manage these difficult emotions. Also, make sure your child knows this trip is coming as far in advance as possible, and that you give him ample time to ask questions and express any concerns he might have before you leave.
Make your trip as long as possible. Trying to see all the sights in a foreign country in just a few short days is a recipe for being stressed. Make sure you plan some down days where you can relax at the hotel or just plan things based on how you are feeling that day. Make sure you build in time to adjust to the time change as well. It is difficult for many of us to plan several weeks or even a month away from home, but if you can, it is worth it to save up your vacation days to take one longer trip as opposed to a whirlwind tour. This will give you plenty of time to explore all that your child’s birth country has to offer beyond just the area or city she was born in.
Know where to go or who to call in case of an emergency. Make sure your health insurance, credit cards, and bank all know you are traveling outside the country. Discuss with your health insurance what coverage they provide if you are abroad. If you are in a rural area, map out ahead of time the route to the hospital or doctor’s office, and know how long it will take to get there. If you do not speak the language of the country you are visiting, make sure to bring a phrasebook with you that has phrases you can use to communicate with others in terms of a health or other emergency. If it is economically and practically possible for you to hire a translator for all or some of the trip, make sure you know what the translator provides in terms of access. Some people will be willing to give you access to them 24/7; others may not. If your person isn’t staying with you, know how to reach him or her in case the need arises should an emergency occur outside of your scheduled time together. Also, make sure your family and friends at home know how long you will be gone for, how they can reach you if there is an emergency back home, and how often they can expect to hear from you while you are away, and by what means. Talk to your cell phone provider to see what your options are for coverage while you are traveling. Oftentimes, it is cheaper, and you will get better coverage if you plan to purchase a prepaid cell phone to use while you are there to call local numbers. To call internationally, there are options like Skype and Google Voice that allow you to communicate with folks back home without costing a lot, provided you have Internet access. If you are going to be traveling to an area with no cell service and/or no Internet access, let people at home know how long they can expect you to be incommunicado so they don’t panic if they haven’t heard from you.
If you are going to be visiting with birth family, be prepared not only for the emotional aspects of those visits but the practical as well. When visiting birth family, be sure to show your positivity and excitement to your child so they don’t feel torn loyalty between families or feel you don’t value their birthplace. Encourage your child to sit with their birth family, explain photos to them, etc. It helps them bond and make it more relaxed. Make sure your child knows they don’t have to choose sides. Expect that what you were told about the birth family and what the birth family was told may not be the full truth, even if the paperwork seemed legit. It can be frustrating to finding out that the adoption agency, or even the government entity lied, or created barriers, between the families. Hire a social worker to go with you on the visits with the first family. The adoption agency you adopted with should have social workers “on the ground” in your child’s home country or be contracted with an agency in that country that could provide you with a social worker. Sometimes, the social worker can ask the hard questions more tactfully and can also be culturally appropriate. Find out what is the respectful way to approach and meet the birth family or even people in various areas. That includes how to greet, modest dress, headscarf for women, eating local foods, etc. Be prepared that in your child’s birth culture, it may be common for excessive physical touch or none at all.
Above all remember, this trip is for your child and her benefit. Even if you are enjoying the trip and feeling positive about it, understand your child may not be feeling the same way. Make sure to take some time each day to decompress and check in with your child about how he is feeling, and if he feels he is up for whatever the next day’s planned activities may be. Let her know that you want this trip to be about her and that she can tell you at any point if she is uncomfortable, unhappy, or just tired and needs a break.
Julianna Mendelsohn lives in sunny South Florida where, odds are, it is hot enough right now that she’s sweating just a little, no matter what she’s doing. She is the brains, brawn, blood, sweat, and tears behind The Adoption Mentor and is thrilled to be able to help others build their families through adoption. She is a former elementary school teacher, current MS in school counseling student, Sephora junkie, and the momma via domestic adoption to one lovely daughter.