So You Are Considering International Adoption: What You Should Know

Several years ago, my husband and I adopted two children from an African country. I am a researcher by trade, so I did my best to figure out what would be needed (in addition to the financial part). I took parenting courses. I learned how to deal with a transracial family (before anyone freaks out, transracial is the term used by adoption agencies and the U.S. government to describe the phenomenon of children of one color being adopted by parents of another color). But nothing prepared me for what I was going to face.

It’s hard not to be optimistic when you are adding children to your family. However, international adoption is studded with landmines. Here are some things to consider:

1. Adoption is a tragic event. No matter how happy you are to have a child, something terrible had to happen to other people for this to become possible. That will have an impact on your child, even if you adopt your child seconds after birth. (BTW, you will not be adopting a child seconds after birth.) I remember shortly after we became an adoptive family, playing “mommy and baby” at my three-year-old son’s request. He was the mommy and I was the baby. Shortly after we started, tears started streaming down his face. I asked him, “Is this because of Ethiopia Mommy?” He nodded, and I held him and rocked him for a long time. He used to come into my room at night, crying, with no words to express his loss. It took my then five-year-old daughter six months to discuss her mother’s death, and when she did, her grief was so profound I had to keep her out of school for the day. If you are adopting internationally, you need to be prepared to support your child through the mourning process, in all its stages, as it recurs (and it will recur).

2. Your child will be overwhelmed a lot of the time. You will be taking your child from a much simpler culture (and by simpler, I mean fewer possessions, fewer choices and fewer stimuli than here in the United States). They will become overwhelmed by our abundance, over and over again. I still can’t take my children to the supermarket without them behaving like circus people: they are so excited to see all this food in one place that they can’t always control themselves. I used to dread clothes shopping with my daughter because she became so excited that I couldn’t calm her down and we have to leave the store immediately, sometimes practically dragging her. I’ve gotten better at managing this, but it’s still not a pleasant experience. You will need to do this, too, and it is a huge, ongoing job. I can’t count the number of places I have had to leave abruptly when the kids have reached saturation point.

3. There are times when you are going to feel very alone, yet very judged. I have so many wonderful friends in real life and online who have provided support and encouragement. However, you are going to be judged over and over by your fellow adopters online. This is going to be important to remember, because online communities of adoptive parents are so integral to your life. They are the only ones who have faced some of the issues you have, and it’s disappointing to ask for help only to be told that you are doing things all wrong and that you are a Bad Parent.  You are also going to encounter some fellow adopters whose parenting philosophies appall you. For me, it’s the people who seem to think they are missionaries, not parents. Their blogs differentiate between their biological children and their adoptive children in a hierarchical way, and their comments about their children focus entirely on the good deeds they are doing. That creeps me out.

4. International adoption is rife with corruption. It makes sense: any time there is desperation on one side and money and resources on the other, there are going to be bad people in the middle. Parents and adopters are misled by middlemen who exploit everyone involved, but especially the birth mothers, who are often told that their children will be coming back later.


By Moretta

Moretta will take that applause. Her Twitter is

12 replies on “So You Are Considering International Adoption: What You Should Know”

Another excellent post series from a Christian adoptive mother: a nice counterpoint to the families in the Mother Jones article:

There are very real orphans all over the earth, but most of us don’t pursue the kids there are; we pursue the kids we want, and these countries know the score. Older kids stay on waiting children lists, while the baby line is hundreds deep. It doesn’t take long for opportunists to figure this out.

I’ve heard of too many devastated birth parents, shocked and confused their children were adopted to another family. Basic investigations have uncovered entire communities picked through for their children, like door-to-door salesmen. I’m not hearing enough about prioritizing birth families and empowering them to raise their own children, not even from well-meaning adoptive parents. Isn’t that what we want? Shouldn’t intact families be our highest goal? Shouldn’t we want for birth families exactly what we want for our own, if it is possible?

But birth families are not prioritized; adopters are. The system is geared to make us happy, to keep us coming. There is this silent belief that kids are better off with us, period.

Thank you for writing this- my husband and I adopted domestically, but we have many friends who’ve adopted internationally. You’ve raised several key issues where there’s no right answer or way to cope/process/etc.

The hardest part I’ve found to communicate to others is the grief in adoption- they see our family and other adoptive families and say “but they kids are so much better off”. But that primal wound (which is actually a very good book on the topic) is still there. It’s hard for kids to grasp, but even as toddlers they know it’s there. It’s hard to me to grasp too, because my kids make me happy. But their grief is my grief, so round and round it goes.

I’ve heard things like that about my children’s grief, too. I wonder about people who are able to dismiss children’s sadness by suggesting that they should compare their past and current situations: “Oh honey, I know you’re sad that Mommy is dead, but Mommy couldn’t give you this great education, could she? There, doesn’t that feel better?”

Last week I watched a documentary about an American family with one teen daughter adopting three Russian children. There was (of course) a huge language barrier and it was so sad to watch.
They had a lot of (adoption) therapists around but it was still a visual struggle. Sometimes there needs to be more than the ‘Love Will Cure All’ way of thinking.

Great post! If anyone is interested in the topic, I (as someone who has no personal connection with adoption) found these blogs really insightful as well:

– Mary + her husband adopted two girls from Ethiopia (separately), one of whom has special medical needs.

– Kristen and her husband have two biological children and two adopted children (one adopted from the US and one from Haiti). She writes well about transracial adoption, race issues in the USA, and the adoption industry.

Finding Magnolia in particular really emphasises the emotional effort and investment it takes to parent a child who has experienced emotional trauma and is grieving (e.g.:

(Whenever I see the phrase ‘just adopt!’ I want to commit violence. There’s no ‘just’ about it!)

And this article on the ‘missionary’ families and the exploitation in the international adoption industry is a great read as well:

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