Adopting from Ethiopia
When Brian and I decided to "start a family" about four years ago we made that decision because we felt it was the right time for us. After all, we had the house and cars and had achieved the level of financial security where we felt we could responsibly raise children. Well, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. As it turns out, months turned into years and we never were able to achieve a pregnancy. I cannot explain it other than to say it felt like month after month we lost something we never had – we lost the experience of becoming pregnant, seeing that positive sign on the pregnancy test, or even having a simple explanation from medical professionals as to why this was happening. It was an emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions, which seemed to have no end in sight.
We had discussed the "what if we cannot become pregnant" scenario as we know many people that had experienced such a setback because of infertility. We agreed that we would not pursue the financial burden of infertility treatments and would use the funds to pursue the route of international adoption. We never considered the domestic program. I just never felt comfortable with the idea that the birthmother has a certain amount of days to change her mind. I just did not think I could survive such a setback.
Choosing a Country
What is most interesting about our road to Ethiopian adoption was how we came to choose the country - or really how God chose the country for us. The criteria in choosing a country was finding one that only required one parent to travel or that allowed the use of an escort (I was taking a three month leave of absence when the baby came home and so we decided that I would not be making the trip). We further narrowed our choices based on specific age requirements for adoptive parents, and others still were just too expensive for our budget to allow consideration.
At first we settled on South Korea. We filed the paperwork and we were on a waiting list, but it wasn't something I was overjoyed about. It is a great program but, for me, I didn't feel like I was having a baby. I cannot explain it. It was just the country we chose but I never felt a connection with the country, its culture or people. Even still, we made this decision intellectually since it met the requirements we had set. We filed the initial paperwork and were placed on a waiting list. That was Spring 2005.
About six months later, I was overcome by a feeling that I cannot adequately put into words, I just knew we were making a mistake. We should not be on a waiting list for a child in South Korea; we should be adopting a child from Ethiopia. There are so many babies there who desperately need homes, and I realized that was where we need to be. Brian was thrilled at the idea since he had mentioned Africa (though never specifically Ethiopia) in the early stages of our adoption discussion, but I had dismissed the country for a myriad of “educated reasons.” Do you hear God laughing? I do. Stay tuned for just how significant this timing really was.
Choosing an International Adoption Agency
Brian was in charge of researching adoption agencies. We looked at agencies that had a long-standing history in international adoption with a solid reputation that could provide references from adoptive families. We also joined an Ethiopian Adoption group on Yahoo to ask questions of families who have completed their adoption or were in the process. These type groups are the best place to get tunsolicited and unscripted references. Another big factor for us was using an agency that allowed us the opportunity to meet our child in the orphanage or foster home where he was living, as well as to meet his caregivers in Ethiopia. We ultimately chose an agency that met these requirements. However, this agency was out of state so we used a separate agency in our home state to conduct our home study. This agency was chosen by the recommendation of our adoption agency.
The Adoption Paper Chase (a.k.a. The Dossier)
The most challenging thing about international adoption - - aside from waiting for your child (more on that later) -- was the dossier. I've been told that Ethiopia actually has one of the easiest dossier requirements of the countries that allow adoptions. Even still it requires patience, diligence, careful review, checking and rechecking -- oh, and checking again -- that everything is correct. Many of the documents we needed (medical reports, reference letters) were somewhat out of our control so we would give VERY specific instructions (and then pray). There were a couple of documents that required a redo but for the most part people were careful, as they knew how important the task was. To us, though, it was not just important -- it was simply the most important thing Brian and I had ever done in our lives and we needed to make sure it was 100% correct so that it did not get rejected. That's a lot of pressure and so the worst part of preparing the dossier has to be the pressure we adoptive parents put on ourselves. My advice to anyone going through this now would be – diligently study the requirements, know them and "love" them. Obtain as much as you can in advance -- don't wait until the last minute to pull it all together. When you get a document back, review it carefully and then when you are sure it is correct let it go, put it aside and move on to the next task.
Waiting for Your Child
Once our dossier was complete and it was shipped off to our adoption agency the wait began. Oh, I have tears just thinking about how painful it was to wait helplessly for the day when we could bring him home. The wait was dreadful and made worse by the fact that there was nothing we could do to speed up time. The paperwork had to be processed; the court date set, the US immigration paperwork complete, and the embassy appointment scheduled, and all we could do was wait.
While we waited for all the legal matters to occur we would periodically get updates on his development and the agency would send pictures. We also had become friends with other families using this agency that traveled before us and took pictures of him to hold us over. In between checking my e-mail every 15 seconds for updates we managed to keep busy. We painted the nursery and I worked on a baby registry for gifts at the request of our family and friends who were planning a shower (I made them hold off on throwing it until after the paperwork was favorably processed). I also started an adoption website to keep our family and friends involved during our journey. We also spent this time learning all about Ethiopia, including the history of its people, customs and culture. We dined out at many area Ethiopian restaurants and made great friends in the process. It was as if the country that we were adopting from was adopting us.
International Adoption Travel
After we finally got our court date, we began working with a travel agent to secure the best pricing and flight dates and options possible. It is difficult when traveling to remote countries because there are not many flights so we definitely recommend using an agency and not trying to book it alone. Also, if you are bringing home an infant we strongly recommend requesting a bassinet on the plane. Also, we paid extra for refundable tickets as one of the biggest rules I learned through this process is that “things change!”
Our son was brought to the orphanage on Christmas Eve 2005 and we got the referral call while I was at work on January 10, 2006. She said, "I believe I found your son." She proceeded to tell me all about him over the phone. I tried to maintain my composure and did a fairly good job until she said something that stopped me in my tracks "He has beautiful big eyes." I said (no screamed), "What! You have a picture?" I was hysterical and told her to e-mail me the picture and then hung up, left work and raced home so that Brian and I could open the e-mail to see our son for the first time together. It was a moment that was so intimate, wonderful and meaningful that I pray everyone reading this story has or will experience that moment -- and often. I would not trade anything on earth or beyond for that moment when I looked at my child for the first time, even if it was just a little black-and-white photo. Our son was 3 months old and born in September 2005 (the same month I had that sudden change of heart about our adoption country choice… Coincidence? I think not!). Our son’s Ethiopian name is Magegn (pronounced with a “W") and means "the brightest light at the break of day." He is exactly that for my husband and me. We call him “Max” and “Magegn” interchangeably and his Ethiopian name is kept as his middle name. It is not only a name with significant meaning, but an important part of who he is.
Brian traveled alone to Ethiopia and I have to tell you that Brian had NEVER changed a diaper before this trip. He earned major points for this. While Brian was in Ethiopia we talked EVERY DAY (and I have the $500 phone bill to prove it -- another piece of advice: get a calling card!). After he met our son for the first time all he could say was "he's such a sweet boy." Brian went on to share little details about their first meeting and how he fed him and played with him and what a great laugh he had. After the embassy appointment two days later Brian had custody and I heard his sweet voice for the first time from the hotel phone. I could not believe that I was hearing this picture that has been on our refrigerator for months. He was real -- and he was mine. Yes, to all of you reading this -- I am crying again.
Since I did not travel to Ethiopia to pick up Max, we have two gotcha days. My gotcha day is on May 13, 2006 when father and son came home. I met them at the airport and while I waited for the plane I had all these ideas about what I would do and say and how I would react. I had imagined this moment for so long it played in my head like a movie. However, what happened to me when they came up the escalator was pure instinct: I ran to and hugged Brian and immediately looked at my son and cried. Brian said, "Do you want to hold our son?" My mind was screaming, “YES, YES, YES!” but I could not speak words. Knowingly, Brian handed me our son and I held him and smiled, cried, kissed and hugged him. I just looked at this perfect little boy and I actually found the time in my racing head to say “thank you” to the God that made him for us. I never wanted to put him down. Now he never wants me to put him down so I gained a son and a sore back!!
Attaching and Bonding
Once home, Max did not have any of the behaviors that we were warned about when adopting orphans. To aid with bonding and attaching, we implemented the "look but don't touch" rule when he first arrived home. Understandably, everyone wanted to visit and meet our son. We requested that out of town guests not come for the first month as we did not want anyone staying at our house that would confuse the bonding process for him. Also, for those local visitors we asked that they not hold or do anything that a caregiver would do (comfort, change diapers, give bottle). In the end, he took to us quite readily and became attached rather quickly. He knows who his Mom and Dad are.
Health Issues with International Adoption
As for his health, Magegn came to the orphanage malnourished and dehydrated and briefly had to be hospitalized. Our agency workers in Ethiopia worked very hard to regain his health and today I can report that he is in excellent health. I would strongly suggest that when you interview your agency discuss the provisions they have in place for healthcare once the children are brought into their care. Stay involved and proactive in information gathering from the date of referral to the date of custody.
Home at Last
Max is the light of our family. He has breathed new energy and a sense of excitement and purpose for not only Brian and I, but for our entire family. Max’s start in life and who he is today has taken us out of the cocoon of our comfortable lives as a constant reminder of our place in the world and our responsibility to it. Some have said we cannot help them all, but I say we can all help some. That’s a perspective on life that I have because of the gift of Max.
So now he has been home for four months. It’s been all that and a bag of chips. He actually just had his one-year visit at his pediatrician and he is in the 75th percentile for American children his age. That is astounding, as he did not even make the chart when he came home. I tell you this because it is important to know that these children are living in conditions that most people cannot even comprehend, but do not be discouraged as once home they will physically, mentally and emotionally flourish under your care. You see his picture on this page but it is a shame you cannot hear his laugh. It is infectious. He is the happiest little boy we have ever known. He smiles with his whole heart and he is smart, inquisitive, strong and engaging.
Becoming a Parent through Adoption
I could spend the next four pages being “one of those” parents telling you all the nuances of why he is the most special little boy in the world. I will spare you, but I will tell you that I never knew love like this existed. I have loved but never like this. Giving birth has nothing to do with motherhood. Being a mother (and a father) is pure and simple something that happens when you are handed the charge and responsibility of raising a child into adulthood, and there is something unconditional that comes with that task. I don’t even know how to describe it because it was instant and there is a permanency to it. It is nothing like when you fall in love and then it cools. This feeling of love for Max grows leaps and bounds with each day and every time we walk into his room and see him for the first time of each new day it is a level of love that exceeds the love we felt when we placed him in his crib for the night.
In closing I want you to know that each day we pray for families known and unknown seeking to start or expand their families through international adoption. It is an arduous journey but one with more rewards than challenges. If I could offer any advice to you on international adoption it would be to enjoy the ride and all the bumps that go along with it. That's how I'm going to handle it next time around.
- Laura and Brian