Journey to the Heart
The big day is finally here. Referral or hospital address in hand, you’re ready to meet your child. But before you board that plane, learn from our experts (read: adoptive parents) how to make your adoption trip the journey of a lifetime. by Michele St. Martin
The precise moment you meet the tiny person who will become your child will always be engraved on your heart. And, for most adoptive families, that nerve-wracking, joy-inspiring moment takes place after travel to an unfamiliar city in the U.S. or even to another country. Parents get to know their child while juggling baby care and paperwork, all the while camping out in a motel in Florida, an apartment in Almaty, or a hotel in Hangzhou for days or weeks. It’s no wonder that packing lists and travel strategies are subjects that dominate waiting parent listservs.
Adoptive Families asked dozens of parents for their best travel advice. Whether you’re eagerly awaiting your first–or third–adoption trip, we’re betting you can learn something valuable from them.
1. Approach the trip with a flexible attitude. Be prepared to travel on short notice. Chris Geer’s son was due at the end of December, but she got “the call” on Thanksgiving Day. “We threw everything we could think of in the car and drove
Don't overpack and don't over think. This is an incredible adventure, and it will not be ruined if you forgot to pack extra socks.
straight through the night!” The paperwork took a few extra days to straighten out, but Chris took this in stride: “It gave us the perfect opportunity to spend time getting to know our son’s birth family.”
Because the call to travel often comes unexpectedly when adopting domestically, ask your travel agent about waiving airfare restrictions or fees for last-minute flights.
Take challenges as they come and don’t be afraid to ask for help. After a nine-day adoption trip to Missouri, Melissa and Mark Oostra were finally on their way home with their baby, Nathan. Melissa ducked into an airport bathroom to change Nathan’s diaper and noticed that he had a rash. “Being the very new mommy that I was, I had no idea what was happening. I panicked and yelled, ‘Does anyone in here know anything about babies?’” Says Oostra, “I still think the person who helped me was an angel.”
2. Prepare for post-adoption life before you leave. Don’t limit your preparation to stocking a nursery. Take a baby-care class, read up on adoption literature, and learn about your child’s culture of origin. “Prepare yourself by reading about the adjustment issues of babies and older children,” suggests Elizabeth Bell-Perkins, mom to a daughter adopted abroad. “If you don’t need to use what you learned—great. If you do, you’ll be prepared.”
Our adoption trip was a time of complete happiness–a dream come true. And we knew that as it was happening.
And on a practical note, arrange for health insurance for your child, adoption leave from your job, and child care for the post-adoption period. Accept all offers of help. Bell-Perkins advises, “Line up folks to help with cleaning, pet care, shopping, whatever. You’ll be glad you did when you get home!”
Whether you adopt a newborn or an older child, limit visits for a few weeks to give your child time to settle in. Warn friends and family ahead of time not to take it personally when you cocoon. [For a thorough discussion of bonding after adoption, see Adoptive Families’ “Welcome Home: A Guide to Bonding with Your Baby After Adoption.”
3. Learn from those who’ve gone before you (but don’t take everything you read online literally). Families cite e-mail listservs as good sources for information about adoption destinations. Sandy Horner, who traveled from British Columbia to Chicago to adopt her newborn son, Ty, says, “An adoptive mom I met online sent me all of her notes and even e-mailed me detailed maps. I knew exactly what to do, so my trip went smoothly.”
Tammy Orahood, who traveled with her husband, Andy, to Guatemala to adopt their son, Henry, says it was “invaluable” to talk to those who had been there, done that. “From time spent on [listservs], I learned what to take, where to stay and eat, what to see, as well as dos and don’ts.”
It can be difficult, however, to evaluate contradictory advice or the lengthy packing lists that proliferate online.
4. If you will be traveling to another country, have a communication plan in place. Knowing even a few phrases in the language of the country in which you are adopting goes a long way, says Paula Ramsey, who adopted her daughter, Jade, in Almaty, Kazakhstan. “Everyone I met was appreciative of my attempt to communicate in their language,” she says.
Orahood says speaking Spanish was useful in Guatemala for conversing with her child’s foster family and birthmother when the family’s facilitator was late or absent.
For a year prior to traveling, Kristine Watts studied from a Russian-language CD-rom developed especially for adoptive parents (http://internet.cybermesa.com/~fdd). “I learned exactly what I needed. I am so glad I did, because Aleksa was already 3 years old, and I believe that this
helped our attachment.”
Must-Pack ItemsWe asked our readers which items no adopting family should leave home without.
Keep copies of all your paperwork in a binder for your trip. When the emotional impact of what you’re doing hits home, it’s great to have all the documents you’ll need in one place, right at your fingertips.–Libby Anne Russler (U.S.)
The most essential items were, by far, our video and still cameras–our in-country photos of our children are priceless.–Marcy McKay (Guatemala)
Adoption travel journal. This was a must! It occupied our down time and is now a wonderful keepsake for our daughter.–Ken & Kelly Bagnasco (Belarus)
I went through so many Ziploc baggies on our trips, I wish I had stock in the company! I pack complete baby outfits in gallon bags—just grab a baggie when you need to change your baby. –Kim Marie Nicols (U.S.)
Don’t forget to bring an electrical converter, not just the two-prong plug adapter. And I used my pocket money cheat sheet so much, it was well worn after a week.–Molly Thomas (Russia)
Snugli backpacks are comfortable to carry and have lots of storage pockets, eliminating the need for diaper bags.–Cynthia Butcher (China)
Prescription antibiotics were a lifesaver when my daughter developed an ear infection just before flying home.–Nancy Allaire (China)
Buy a separate seat for your child on the plane. The price of the seat will reward you two-fold in peace and quiet.–Bozena Syska (Russia)
Contact information for people in your child’s birth city. When you adopt domestically, you never know how long you’ll have to be there, but our friends of friends of friends did a lot to ease our stay.–Janelle Siders (U.S.)
Palmolive dish wipes–just wet and use. They worked wonderfully to clean bottles and dishes in our hotel room, and saved us from toting around a bottle of dish soap.–Sasha Mahoney (China)
The willingness to explain your special situation. People will often go out of their way to help you. The airline clerk found us seats together on a crowded plane, and even gave us a discount coupon for a future flight.–Ann (U.S.)
When anyone asked where we came from, we gave away postcards of our hometown. The people we met loved them.–Ken & Kelly Bagnasco (Belarus)
We asked the orphanage staff to write something about our child on blank note cards. We now have a packet of beautiful notes, hand-written in Russian, with stories about our children, their likes and dislikes, personalities, and so on.–Denise Hoppenhauer (Russia)
Our international traveler photo card (find one at www.kwikpoint.com) came in very handy (Need a bathroom? Just point to the photo of the toilet!), and everyone we met got a real kick out of it.” –Pat Luftman (China)
If learning languages is not your forte, use flash cards designed for adopting parents (China and Russia travel cards are available at www.chinaconnectiononline.com) or a generic laminated picture card (www.kwikpoint.com) to fill in the gaps. Or hire a translator (through your hotel or, in advance, through your adoption agency). You’ll return with a richer understanding of your child’s milieu if language is not a barrier.
5. Prepare medically.
Check with your doctor to make sure your standard immunizations are up to date, and consult a travel-medicine specialist about any other vaccines you’ll need. Decide what medications to take, and speak to your pediatrician about bringing and administering antibiotics. Ask about any medical tests your child will need upon arrival at home before your trip.
Download Adoptive Families’ “Adoption Medical Travel Guide,” by Deborah Borchers, M.D., for a complete plan for your new child from pre-adoption preparation through post-adoption evaluations. On the same site you’ll also find a letter to share with your pediatrician on adoption travel preparation.
6. Pack light and buy what you need when you arrive. After over-packing for her first adoption trip, Andi Arndt and husband Chris made Trip #2 with carry-on luggage only. “We bought diapers, formula, and baby clothes in China,” Arndt says. “It was so much easier to navigate the airports, and we never worried about our bags making the connections.” And she discovered an unexpected bonus to traveling light: “Many of the everyday items you buy on your trip will become treasured family mementos.” [Sign up for the COO Yahoo group.]
7. Preserve your memories (before you forget the details). Melissa and Mark Oostra used eight rolls of film during their nine-day adoption trip. Melissa also wrote down every detail—from the stormy night ride to the foster family’s home, to warming bottles in the hotel bathroom sink, to dinner with Nathan’s birth family. “We can’t wait to share it with Nathan,” she says.
There’s no such thing as too much documentation of an adoption trip. Keep an adoption travel journal daily. Try out your digital camera and camcorder before you travel, and don’t miss “An Adoption Trip to Remember,” by Ann Keisling and Mark Smith, for a guide to capturing your adoption on film.
8. Let your new child set the pace. Don’t set your heart on playing tourist or shopping till you drop until you see how your baby is adapting. “We tried not to pack too much into the day,” says Orahood.
When J.J. Keelan and Joan Merritt traveled to Cambodia to adopt their daughter, Victoria Mae, they did their sightseeing first. Keelan explains, “We traveled to Siem Riep the weekend before the adoption because we knew the sightseeing would be very physical. We wanted to be tourists first, then just settle in with her when we got her.”
9. Get off the beaten path. A favorite memento from our first adoption trip to China is a blue, plaid umbrella. One day a group of teenage girls, eager to practice their English, said “Hello” to us—and giggled with delight when my husband responded in Chinese. They cooed over the baby, and, when it was time for us to go, insisted on giving us their umbrella to shade her from the sun. My daughter loves that story."
When adopting from South Africa, Sydney Wallis visited black townships that had been created during apartheid. “The families we met were amazingly welcoming. The experience changed our view of how most of the world lives. I truly feel that a ‘local’ view can help an adopting family understand where their child comes from better than all the tourist attractions and restaurants.”
10. Cherish the journey. Paula Ramsey advises to keep things in perspective. “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t overpack and don’t overthink. It is an incredible adventure, and it will not be ruined if you forgot to pack extra socks. You are meeting the child who was fated to be yours, and nothing is more important than that.”
Stormy weather and so-so accommodations couldn’t dampen the spirits of first-time parents Melissa and Mark Oostra. “We just couldn’t stop staring at Nathan, holding him,” recalls Melissa. “It was a time of complete happiness, a dream come true. And we knew that as it was happening.”
Michele St. Martin is a freelance writer who lives and works in Minnesota.
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