Like many adoptive parents, you've dreamed of the day when you could travel to your child's country of birth as a family. You instinctively understand the importance such a visit will have on your child's sense of identity and self-esteem. Yet there are many questions and issues:
• Are there programs out there created especially for adoptive families?
• How old are the kids traveling?
• Is it appropriate to take other siblings or extended family members such as Grandma and Grandpa? How do the kids usually react?
• Are they made to feel welcome in their birth country?
• Do we want to try to connect with people and places significant to our child's adoption? Is that even possible?
During the past eight years, as director of the Ties Program, I have had first-hand experience with hundreds of families who have traveled back to their adopted child's (children's) birth countries. The following advice and information was based on those experiences. We hope it will help you plan for one of the most significant events in your family's life.
What should I look for in a program?
Most homeland visits run anywhere from 10 days to one month. Typically, participants have a variety of opportunities in the country they visit for sightseeing, school and home visits, foster parent meetings (sometimes with the birth family), meetings with other people significant to the child's adoption, maternity home visits, orphanage and hospital visits, and so on. We emphasize that what feels appropriate will vary from family to family and even from child to child within a family. Families should look for programs that will be as flexible as possible; that way each family can tailor the experience to its individual needs.
Who should go?
Some families choose to send one parent and one child. Others bring the whole family, often including Grandma, Grandpa, aunts and uncles.
Generally, our experience has taught us that if it feels right in your heart, it probably is ... with one exception. In two-parent families where one parent does not travel, we frequently find the family regrets that decision. These journeys tend to be quite profound, and they often have a significant effect on those who travel. By the end of the trip, it typically becomes evident that the parent who did not travel may have missed the most important piece of the child's life thus far. Even parents who work the trip into business plans and stay with the group part of the time have told us that they wished they had made another choice.
Siblings, both birth children and children adopted from another country or domestically, also often travel with a brother or sister and Mom and Dad, even if they don't have personal ties to that particular country. We have also seen extended family members and special friends make the trip with adoptees and their parents.
How old should my child be when we travel? Does my child's sex affect the travel experience?
There is no universal "right age" or "wrong age" for your child to make the trip. The most important message your child is likely to receive during her trip is that the people with whom she shares an ethnic or racial heritage are warm, friendly, funny, genuine people. Children of any age can receive that message provided they are fairly adaptable and flexible. Our advice to families is to think about the temperament of your child. We have traveled with little ones as young as 5 and much older "kids" in their 20s and 30s, and the consensus is that chronological age is not what makes or breaks the experience. It is truly how the adoptee reacts to and interacts with life.
Although we have traveled with a wide range of kids over the years, most are 10 to 17 years old and are pretty equally divided between boys and girls. We do occasionally have a group with a few more girls than boys, and in China, as you would guess, nearly all the children will be girls.