Big Papa and I come from an extraordinarily adoption-friendly family. His mother adopted both of his siblings back in the 1950s. Big Papa’s sister, the oldest, was adopted internationally from Germany. I am still amazed that his mother got on a plane by herself and flew to a country we’d just gotten over a war with, to start their family. International adoption was quite rare at that time. Shortly after, Big Papa’s brother was adopted domestically. His birth location and birth family were kept secret, although Big Papa’s parents did both discuss adoption and made a point to let each of the three children know, that no matter their origin, they where loved and a part of the family just as much as the next child.
Back in the 1950s adoption still had certain stigma. Families didn’t talk about it much. Open adoption, where a birth mother maintains contact with the adoptive family was unheard of. There were no online forums or chat groups where adoptive moms could interact, share their stories, get advice and find solace amongst other adoptive families.
I still remember a high school friend of mine who was adopted, the oldest of three children in her family. She had brown eyes and dark kinky curly hair which was distinctly different from her two blue-eyed, blond straight-haired siblings, both of whom were biological children. Everyone knew she was different…adopted. But no one talked about it.
My sister, who is my only sibling, is also an adoptive mom. She adopted her daughter, my niece, from China eleven years ago. At that time, even though numbers of Chinese adoptions had declined from previous years, there were still thousands of baby girls coming home to families in the U.S., and fairly quickly at that. Once she had her dossier in, they waited about nine months before they got the call.
One picture of my niece, an old-fashioned ‘head shot’ photograph, was all they received. No video. No string of photos from different angles. 1999 was still early in terms of the internet. It wasn’t long after they received their referral that they were on a plane with a dozen expectant families, flying to a hotel where they waited until the moment when each of their daughters was brought out and placed into their arms. They never went into the orphanage where my niece spent the first months of her life. They made only one trip. And, they made an enormous, life-changing decision based on a single two-inch by two-inch head shot and a page of cryptic medical information.
My-oh-my, how things have changed. This is not our mother’s adoption. Or even our sister’s. Adoption circa 2010 is a different beast altogether and it continues to evolve.
Many of the changes, both to domestic and international adoption, are positive. Domestically, many families have access to birth family information and may even maintain relationships to a greater or lesser degree with their child’s birth family. Internationally, with the advent of the internet and digital photography, families are more likely to receive several pictures or even video footage of their child. It’s easier to direct questions to overseas agency counterparts. Critical medical information, when available can be more readily transmitted back to international adoption doctors here in the U.S. Overall, adoption is much more open and broadly accepted as one way to create a family.
That said, there have also been changes to the adoption process, particularly internationally, that have added layers of bureaucracy and paperwork, resulting in longer waits and greater time between receiving a referral and brining a child home. You can imagine why my mother might have a quizzical look on her face when I tell her I might need to make three trips before I bring our child home. Or why our wait has taken two years. Even the fact that adoptions in China have moved into a five to six year wait period is positively dumb-founding. How is it that adoption has changed so radically in such a short time?
Domestic adoptions are now almost exclusively open adoptions, where birth mothers select the family who will raise their child. In our state, Washington, foster-to-adopt opportunities are soon to become a thing of the past as our state system moves towards programs to keep children with their extended birth family. Countries which used to be enormously popular for international adoption, such as Guatemala, no longer have agreements with the U.S. and most countries are instituting continual changes to the requirements for prospective adoptive parents. Single women adopting from Ukraine? Sorry, probably not any more. Unmarried couples adopting from India? No, I don’t think so. Overweight and trying to get a Chinese baby? Forget about it. Been to a psychiatrist? Don’t think about adopting from Russia. Just the restrictions and regulations alone are enough to make even a college graduate’s mind run in circles.
I have to say that while I consider myself on the far end of the bell curve when it comes to being educated about an endeavor before I launch into it, the crazy changes, paperwork, government applications and approvals, have turned out to be far more complex – and frustrating – than I ever remotely imagined. Two years ago when we made the decision to adopt, I remember asking Big Papa: “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s going to be a lot of paperwork.” “Are you really up for how invasive all the questions and interviews will be in our lives?” “It could take a year or so before we get a baby.” “Sure,” he said. “At least adoption is a pretty reliable route and we know we’ll end up with a baby in the end.”
It’s almost laughable now, with all we’ve been through (and I haven’t even been able to write about the half of it). Yes, we will most likely end up with a baby in the end. And, truly, that is bar none the most important thing. But I would be lying if I didn’t say acknowledge that the stress placed on our emotional and physical health has been higher than either of us ever anticipated.
Even our relationship – which I gratefully consider strong – has been tested. It is true that we married late and started down this road at an age when some couples our ages are getting ready to become empty-nesters. But I know we both are a bit envious of friends of ours who had a few carefree blissful years devoid of discussions about FBI fingerprints or fertility.
On the positive side, and there are indeed many positive aspects to our experience, I am extremely thankful we have the opportunity to meet our child before our final court date. While Armenia is exactly half-way around the world, parenting is for a lifetime and being able to meet our kid-to-be before everything is signed, sealed and delivered is a welcome benefit.
In the age of the internet we are also fortunate to be able to receive both video clips and still photos of the child we’ll be adopting. Having this additional visual information is not only useful to us, but it is an early record of our child that we can share as she grows.
Despite however much I might whine about all the additional paperwork, delays, miscommunications and frustrations associated with Armenia being a Hague-adoption country, it is one of the reasons we chose this country. I rest easier with the knowledge that children are placed on a data base for three months before they are available for international adoption. Family and community members have a chance to say that want to adopt these children first – which is as it should be. Hague process is also designed to reduce child trafficking and I feel better knowing that it’s extremely unlikely that the birth mothers who relinquished their children did so to benefit in any monetary way.
And, after visiting the orphanage our child will likely be coming from, I feel secure in knowing that the level of care is as high as it possibly could be. Children have their own beds and the rooms are clean. The nannies are exceptional and the children are well cared for, as much as can be possible in an orphanage environment.
There is no way to sugar coat how difficult adoption is. People tell us that once we have our child, we’ll forget about all the challenging moments we experienced, just like moms who give birth forget about the pain of childbearing. I beg to differ.
I know nine months can seem like a lifetime for an expectant mother. Now imagine waiting two or more years to cradle your baby. Or, imagine giving birth, seeing and holding your baby, and then being asked to give her back until more paperwork is filed and a court date arranged: Come back and get her in four to six months.
When all is said and done and our child is home with us, I have no doubt that we’ll feel elated, if not exhausted. Big Papa and I do long for this waiting period to be over and for the next phase of our life, parenthood, to begin.