After a successful search, many adoptive parents turn their thoughts to an in-person meeting with the birth family. But along with excitement these thoughts can be accompanied by stress and anxiety. Planning an international trip alone can be stressful. Throw in the realization of what this meeting could mean in your child’s life and it can become overwhelming. But it doesn’t need to be with the right planning and support.
Here are seven tips to help you prepare for your birth family meeting. I’ve also created a checklist for preparing for a birth family meeting which you may find useful.
- Planning Ahead. This can be the trickier than one might expect. Just to survive in our culture, most parents are masters at planning ahead, creating schedules and managing multiple priorities. So when planning a trip to Guatemala that will involve a birth family meeting, many naturally start planning 6, 8 or even 12 months or more ahead. While this seems perfectly natural and logical, in our experience planning too far ahead just doesn’t work. Why? Well think about it from the perspective of the birth mom. She may be illiterate and not have a calendar of any type that she maintains. To be asked if she is available for a meeting 6 months away, she will likely say yes, but then in a month or two may become confused or angry as to why the meeting never took place. We find contacting the family about a month prior to the proposed meeting date works best in terms of a commitment that we can be confident in. Of course this means you need to commit to your dates and buy tickets with the hope the family will be available. A middle ground is to have your searcher check with the family that they are open to a meeting and ask if there are any times (such as the coffee harvest) that they would not be available before you make your plans.
- Work with someone who can take care of the on-the-ground logistics. Your searcher will, in most cases, manage the birth family logistics while you will want to find a travel agent to assist with your own accommodations and transportation. Your searcher can handle all the communication and travel logistics for the birth family, provide translators as needed, and offer emotional support to the birth mother during the meeting. For many birth mothers they are not comfortable traveling far out of their villages and most, while excited, are very nervous about the meeting. Having someone they know accompany them and take care of their arrangements is important.
- Plan downtime for your family after. Every child is different and each approaches a birth family meeting differently, but all of them will need time after the meeting (as will you) to process what just happened. It is important to have some normal, quiet family time (around the pool at your hotel, or watching a movie in your room) after your meeting.
- Be flexible. Given the time, effort and expense of planning your meeting it is reasonable that you will want it to go perfectly as planned. However, it is best to keep in mind that there are many things which are out of anyone’s control (especially when traveling in the 3rd World) and the more you can keep a mindset that allows you to roll with the punches the more successful your trip and meeting will be. One area where this often comes up is in who attends the meeting. We always ask for a list of who is coming and pass that along, but often an extra person shows up or someone who was expected is not able to make it at the last minute. Just try to remember that you can’t be prepared for everything and try to relax and enjoy the meeting.
- Bring a conversation starter. I’ve seen meetings where the four hours fly and the questions and conversation doesn’t end. I’ve also seen (probably many more) where there are long silences as everyone stares at one another. What I’ve seen work well is when adoptive families bring items to facilitate conversation such as a family photo album which they leave as a gift for the family. Items such as balloons, a soccer ball, crayons and coloring books can be helpful if smaller children will be at the meeting. If you are bringing gifts for the family, these can also serve this purpose, for example, a solar lamp could be taken out and you could show them how it works.
- Don’t make significant promises in the moment. While it will be powerful to experience first-hand the needs of this family who has given you so much, it is wise to defer making any offers for assistance until you have had an opportunity to consult with your searcher. We have seen cases where a well meaning adoptive family makes a promise which is later not possible to fulfill and in one particular case this caused the birth family to cut off the relationship. This doesn’t mean you should not discuss possibilities with the family such as educational opportunities or understand what could make a substantial difference in their lives, just make sure your translator understands that you are gathering information and having a conversation and your searcher will be in touch with them later.
- Afterwards, don’t drop contact. You will be super busy with the remainder of your trip and then getting settled once home and then back in the rhythm of your life. And it can be easy to look at the meeting as the culmination of a process. But for the birth family they will see this as the beginning of a relationship and will be confused and hurt if too much time passes with no news from you.
This wound up much longer than I expected and there still seems like a lot to write, but I hope this was of some help to some of you out there. Please let me know by email or in the comments if there are other questions or concerns you have about birth family meetings. Or if you have had a meeting let me know if you have suggestions of your own for families who are considering a meeting.