Whether you adopted from Guatemala, China, SE Asia, Mexico, Russia, Africa, or somewhere else, going back to your child’s birth country can help your child connect with his or her roots, boost self-esteem, and provide a strong foundation for building a positive identity. Positive shared experiences also help an adoptive family create deeper/richer connections.
But homeland trips require careful thought — in terms of logistics, and the conversations you’ll have with your child before, during, and after the journey. A Heritage Journey is the ONLY chance you will have to take your child back to his or her birth country for the first time. Make this trip exceptional. Here are some things you want to think about before you begin planning:
1. What’s the right age to travel?
After more than fifty years of international adoption, we have learned how important cultural connection can be for developing a positive identity. Exploring a child’s culture helps a child feel whole, which builds self-esteem and cultivates pride in his or her heritage. Knowing this, most authorities believe that multiple trips should be made to a child’s birth country whenever possible. However, there are caveats. Until a child is fully attached to his or her family, it can be detrimental to return to his or her birth country. So in general, at least two years after adoption provided your child is attaching well.
Dr. Jane Lieder, of Our Chinese Daughters Foundation, recommends a first trip between the ages of 6 and 10, when children are open to cultural differences and less judgmental of the poverty they might see than in the middle-school years, when peer-group judgments can rule a child’s psyche.
I often tell my clients that 8-12 years old is a great range, if you intend to emphasize adventure activities, which is what we specialize in at Motherland Travel. Children in this age range are typically more eager to step outside their comfort zone and are able to participate in most soft-adventure activities. Knowing adventure activities promote self-esteem and building connections we strive for including some of these in every itinerary we design. But as Dr. Lieder says, once a child enters middle school, they begin to separate from their immediate family and rely more heavily on their peers. So the sooner we get our kiddos to their birth country, the better!
With each child the optimal timing of the trip will vary, maturity and personality are big factors. Personal finances also play a role in international travel. If a homeland visit is not financially feasible for your family right now, use this time to learn about your child’s heritage, go to heritage camps and spend time talking about his or her birth country.
One last very important note, searching for birth or foster families should NOT be taken lightly. Most authorities on this topic would agree that this step should not necessarily happen on a child’s first visit to his or her birth country but when I child is ready for this experience and expresses that interest on his or her own. Bottom line, prioritizing a trip to your child’s birth country can be an amazing experience and does NOT have to include the stresses associated with birth or foster family visits. When your family is ready for that, you will know. Until then, enjoy the adventure!
2. How should you prepare your child?
Family talks about the trip should begin well before you travel. Books, magazines and videos can get everyone talking about your child’s birth country and about adoption in general. Does your child have fears associated with birth country travel? What are they? Does your child understand what will happen on the trip, whom he or she will meet, and that you will all be returning to the US together? I had a client a couple of years ago whose child asked her several times during their Heritage Journey if they were leaving him there. Make sure you talk about these things in advance. You might not have thought about this, but your child likely has! What you want to take away from these conversations is an understanding of your child’s emotional readiness, level of stress and anxiety. Your child’s reactions to these discussions will help you gauge his or her readiness and expectations.
3. Is the trip about cultural pride or adoption?
What is the purpose of the trip? If it is exposure to your child’s culture and the place they were born, then go and enjoy the sights, eat amazing food, explore, learn, discover what it might be like to live in your child’s birth country. Create meaningful connections to each other and your child’s heritage. Many people choose to create these types of positive memories during their first homeland trip, leaving adoption issues, visits to meet a foster mother/family or orphanage, or even meeting birth relatives to a later trip. Simply experiencing the land and people where your child started life can be hugely empowering and can instill a positive identity in your child. The more positive experiences you can create, the deeper your connection will be to each other and your child’s birth country. I am a big advocate of this type of trip on the first homeland visit.
Visits to orphanages and meetings with birth siblings and birth parents require serious thought and planning. A child should have a firm grasp of his or her birth and adoption story, and be able to express his or her feelings about it. Without adequate thought and preparation, a trip of this nature can be triggering and overly emotional. It doesn’t mean you should not venture down this road, just be prepared.
4. Are you ready for the unexpected?
When pursuing a child’s personal history on a homeland visit, be ready for the unexpected. What if you find out information that is different from what you have previously told your son or daughter? What is your responsibility to a newly discovered birth parent, or your child’s biological siblings? Knowing when to pull back from situations in which your child seems uncomfortable will help your child feel safe. Set up a signal for “I need to get out of here,” and observe your child’s cues.
You must be vigilant about understanding and observing your child’s triggers and be prepared to act on a dime. Having a flexible itinerary makes a big difference here. Acting quickly (rescuing) your child from an uncomfortable situation will build trust and deeper connections (which is our ultimate goal in every trip). When I help families design a homeland trip, I always make sure they are traveling with a well-informed English-speaking guide that will be able to help navigate any uncomfortable situations that might arise. A good guide will be able to drive experiences in a positive manner. My ground operators are the best in the business and I trust them implicitly.
5. Should you travel with a group or customize a trip for your family?
Families report that both types of travel work well – but what is important is that each family determines what suits their family best. Some things to consider when making the decision: does following a routine and a schedule set by someone else relax you or make you cringe? Do you need privacy and time to regenerate or do you feel energized being around other people (are you an introvert or extrovert)? Do you like the comfort of a group and knowing there are others going through the same thing or do you prefer to deal with emotional situations within the safety net of your family? Do you (and others in your family) like to explore at a leisurely pace or at the discretion of a large group?
For many kids, travel-mates with the same history and past are a powerful benefit. Other children, like my daughter on our group trip to China, might feel excluded which leads to compounded emotional stress. These are important things to discuss long before joining a group trip or booking a private excursion to your child’s birth country. As we’ve said before, this is potentially the most important trip you will ever take with your adopted child. Make sure you know what type of trip works best for your family. And most importantly, don’t let money be the driving factor of your decision. If you can’t afford the right kind of trip for your family now, begin to save and make it the perfect trip later!
6. What’s your backup plan?
One of the things we talk about constantly with families that travel with us, is the need to be flexible. There will be things that trigger you or your child. Be prepared to cut back your daily schedule if need be. Find alternative activities, and offer them to your child without blame or repercussions. If you are on a customized trip, having a dynamic/flexible itinerary is easy. If you are on a group trip, be prepared to leave the group for certain activities if necessary. Always have a soft place to land at the end of every day so you and your family can connect, talk about the day and regenerate. This is your trip and it must work for your family! Remember, positive AND negative experiences are part of the process of learning about your child’s culture of origin. No trip will ever be flawless but every trip should leave your family feeling more connected.
When you are ready to explore the world with your family, please schedule a 30-minute Discovery Session with me at www.calendly.com/bambi. I’d LOVE to help!
Bambi Wineland is the mother of two internationally adopted children, a traveler, a Certified Professional Coach, and the Founder and CEO of Motherland Travel. Motherland Travel began by designing Heritage Journeys for families with internationally adopted children. The emphasis of those Heritage Journeys has always been on deepening family connections, building self-esteem and cultivating pride in a family’s multi-cultural heritage. Motherland Travel also uses the philosophies of transformative Travel for designing family trips with purpose – building rich connections, with each other and the world! Read more about her here >> http://motherlandtravel.com/