One factor that influences the decision to adopt internationally versus within the U.S. is not having to face birth family issues during the adoption process, as traditionally, birth parents have been "invisible" in international adoption. As with many things in life, change is inevitable and the field of adoption is no exception. For example, many of our families adopting through Guatemala have had the opportunity to meet their child's birth mother. In Korea, we are seeing more instances where birth families may want to meet the adoptive family or hope to for an exchange of letters and photos. In Ethiopia, adoptive families are having the opportunity to not only meet birth parents, but also siblings, extended family members and caregivers. As an agency, we feel strongly about the benefits to families and the children they adopt when they are offered the opportunity of meeting birth families. In addition, we recognize our responsibility to prepare families for the increasing openness in international adoption.
For many years, domestic adoptions were "closed", meaning that there was little to no information shared between birth families and the adoptive families in the adoption process. Gradually, this has changed into a more open system where most birth families making an adoption plan review adoptive families "dear birth parent letters" and may meet with the adoptive families before asking to be matched. This exchange is frequently non-identifying information, including letters and photos exchanged through an agency, and may later, at the family's discretion, develop into a more open exchange. This gradual transition into more openness in the adoption process has proven to be beneficial to all parties involved. For the birth parents, this has led to contentment with their decision and less anxiety about the welfare of the child that they placed for adoption. For the child, it offers answers to basic questions such as, "Why didn't they keep me? Whom do I look like?" For the adoptive family, there are answers for their children's questions and peace of mind about the decision of the birth family. Still, for many families considering adoption, meeting birth parents and the experience of being "chosen" by them is cause enough for them to turn to international adoption instead.
The first step in preparing for openness in international adoption is to consider your own feelings and thoughts about birth families. Start this early in your adoption process, giving yourself permission to have conflicted or uncomfortable feelings about birth families. What concerns do you have about meeting your child's birth family? For some families new to parenting and adoption, there are concerns about the legitimacy of their connection to the child if there are known birth parents. Others worry about a birth family being able to locate where they live or their child wanting to return to live with their birth family in the future. Developmentally, young children believe that they are the center of the universe, and thus responsible for everything that occurs. This can lead to their feeling that there is something wring with them if they sense that there are negative feelings towards their birth family or that it's not okay to ask questions or talk about them. Use your social worker during your home study process to explore your feelings or concerns about meeting a birth family, learn about the social and political situations that may lead to birth families making an adoption plan in that country, read articles or books about birth families in domestic and international adoption. One exercise that you might find helpful is to write a dear birth parent letter to the unknown birth family of the child you hope to adopt. What would you want to know about them and the decision they are making? What would you want to tell them about you, your decision to adopt and how you will parent your child? If you are adopting as a couple, consider writing letters separately, before sharing them, as you may have different perspectives.
Making the Most of Meeting Your Child's Birth Family
View a complete list of potential questions
When you travel to your child's birth country, you become the carrier and protector of your child's information. This is the time to learn as much information as possible to share with your child in the future before it becomes difficult or impossible to gather. Write down any questions you have so you don't have to worry about remembering them in the moment. What information do you think your child may want to know down the road, when they are 5, 15, or 20 years old? What would you want to know if someone were gathering this information for you? Take pictures with the family, gather family stories, ask whether the family would like to record a message for your child for when they are older, ask what their hopes are for your child's future and, of course, what they would want your child to know about the decision they made to place him for adoption.
Next, try to put yourself in the position of the birth family. Imagine that you are making an adoption plan for your child, believing that what you are doing is in the child's best interest. For most birth parents this means not knowing whether their child has been placed for adoption, what country their child lives in or even whether he or she is alive. What might you want to know about where your child is going to live and the family who will adopt him? Consider ahead of time what level of openness you might be comfortable with in the future if contact is possible. Is there something tangible that you would like to leave with the birth family as a reminder of the child you both love? Talk to your social worker and program coordinator so that you can prepare for the range of possible meeting situations that you may encounter while in country. For example, where will you meet the birth family, who might be present, what is their living situation like, what might their response be to meeting you? Being prepared for the range of possibilities and thinking through how you might want to respond to different situations or questions will help to decrease anxiety around meeting your child's birth family.
In his book Being Adopted , David Brodzinski writes, "To feel worthy as a human being, you must feel that you come from something worthwhile." By exploring your feelings about the birth family and allowing yourself to consider the possibilities of openness in international adoption, you give your child the gift to know his history, permission to feel proud of himself, and the power of information.
This article was contributed by Wide Horizons for Children adoption agency.
A mother recounts meeting her daughter's Korean foster mom 11 years after her adoption.
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Part One of Two
A realistic look at International Adoption