Last update on March 11, 2019

We shed light on the personal and challenging considerations expat couples will face when seriously thinking of adopting a child abroad.

My husband and I have been expatriates for some years now, living across four different continents and seeing almost everything that there is we feel we need to see. We are now ready to have a family and are seriously thinking about adopting from abroad.

Can you please share your thoughts on international adoption and what implications there might be for an adopted child who proceeds to grow up outside of their original country and culture?

First, it is important to acknowledge that the topic of adoption is very complex. If you have any doubts about this, just watch Mother and Child — the heart-wrenching 2010 film starring Naomi Watts, Samuel L. Jackson, Annette Bening, Jimmy Smits and Kerry Washington.

A box of tissues later, you will likely agree that there is a huge amount to learn and consider about adoption — far more than I could possibly cover in this short response — and that adoption is an extremely personal experience for all involved that can differ remarkably from case to case.

That said, here are some general thoughts that might help to guide your thinking.

Adoption paperwork and procedures

International adoption (whether you are living in the country in which you are adopting or not) can sometimes feel like an insurmountable feat — with seemingly-endless paperwork, wait times, legal and logistical requirements necessary before you can take a new family member home with you.

Each country — the home country and the country you might wish to adopt from — will have their own set of procedures and processes that needs to be adhered to in order to complete the adoption process, so it is advisable to check with local government representatives and check online to find the exact information required.

If you are interested in adopting, be prepared to provide numerous official documents (witnessed and notarised), specific personal identification such as fingerprints, passport photos, various certificates, family finance details, and even very intimate details about the activities and beliefs of you and your current family members.

Also be prepared that it might be a very expensive process, especially if you need to travel to and from a different country and potentially accommodate yourself (often unexpectedly) in that country for lengthy periods of time during the adoption process.

If you need help, there are plenty of adoption agencies that can help you navigate and/or facilitate the international adoption process. These agencies can be expensive as well, but their costs may be worth every cent to you in the long-run, so try to think long-term.

Just be sure to consult a reputable agency — ask around for referrals, ask government departments if they have lists of accredited agencies, do as much research online about each agency as you can, and ask for them to explain all of their costs upfront.

When you are deciding which country you might adopt from, you should know that The Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption is an international adoption agreement between participating countries on best adoption procedures. For this reason, some people feel a greater level of ‘reassurance’ adopting from one of the 75 member countries.

Emotional considerations: What is your motivation to adopt?

There are many reasons for adopting – and each of these will have different implications on both the adoptive parents and on the adopted child. Some of the more common reasons include:

  • Parents may choose to adopt because they cannot have children of their own (infertility issues or the parents are a same-sex couple);
  • Parents have lost a biological child and cannot face pregnancy and childbirth again;
  • Parents want to give a child a ‘better life’ – this can be a common reason for expatriate parents who adopt from the country in which they are living abroad;
  • Parents want to raise a child, but without adding to the population; or
  • A situation has arisen in the extended family of one of the parents whereby someone in the family needs to step-up and adopt the family member.

Infertility issues

If you are thinking of adoption due to reasons of infertility, it is critical that you and your partner first deal with the genuine and sometimes overpowering grief that follows the infertility process — a process which may have stretched over many years and may have included stressful and costly infertility treatments.

Adoptive parents owe it to themselves and to any children they adopt to come to terms with the issues raised by infertility before they pursue adoption. They both need to be 100 percent sure they want to adopt and shed the view that adoption is a second best option.

Many adoption agencies will preach this as well — insisting that parents work through their issues of infertility grief first, then come back to adopt later. Ultimately, this can mean laying the dream of having a biological child to rest, which can understandably be a very, very painful admission.

An adopted child’s perspective

Even if a child feels or believes that being adopted is the best thing that ever happened to them, it is important to be aware that there are a lot of emotions an adopted child may go through, either now or in the future.

Adopted children can adapt and adjust well into their new family, with time, patience and a lot of love and attention. In the first two years of life, children are normally building a sense of trust through their attachments to the adults who love and care for them.

When that does not happen (as is often the case in orphanages), it can take longer for the adopted child to establish that sense of trust and reciprocal unconditional love – much to the anguish and hurt of their new parents. But it can happen.

Once old enough to understand, adoptees (either as children, or later as adults) may experience recurring feelings of loss, rejection and abandonment by their birth parents. They may wonder why they were placed up for adoption or what was ‘wrong’ with them that caused their birth parents to give them up. So, just like for some parents, grief can also be a common emotion for adoptees.

Unfortunately for adoptees, if their adoptive family is generally a happy one, the adoptee may also experience guilt for their feelings of grief – so they can be doubly-tormented. Along with grief and guilt, an adoptee may react to their experience of loss through feelings of anger, numbness, depression, anxiety or fear.

These feelings may occur anytime in life, but especially during emotionally-charged milestones such as marriage, the birth of a child, or the death of a parent. Note also that adoptees who experience feelings of loss or abandonment during adulthood may or may not recognise a connection between their current feelings and their old feelings about the initial loss of the birth parents.

Those adopted may also have identity and self-esteem issues, especially prevalent as they reach adolescence.

Questions about their biological family, why he or she was placed for adoption, what became of the birth parents, whether the adolescent resembles the birth parents in looks or in other characteristics, and where the adolescent ‘belongs’ in terms of education, social class, culture and peer group can also confuse an already-questioning teenager.

The question of the influence of nature (inherited traits) versus nurture (acquired traits) may become very real to the adopted adolescent, who is trying to determine the impact of all of these influences on his or her own identity — trying to make sense of it all.

As always, if you or your adopted children need to talk with a professional about any issues that either of you are experiencing, please do so.

International adoption

Adopting a child from another country almost always means that the adoptive family will become a transracial or a cross-cultural family. Studies have found that transracially-adopted children appear to handle adoption identity issues better than most because they cannot pretend to be like everyone else.

But again, the adoption experience varies from person to person. Interestingly, transracially-adopted children tend to identify with their parents’ race more so than their own.

In order therefore for an adopted child to develop a broader sense of their identity and heritage (and perhaps greater self-esteem and pride), it is usually recommended that parents incorporate elements of the adopted child’s original culture into their day-to-day life, including friendships with people of the child’s ethnicity, food, and traditions into the family lifestyle.

For parents, do not be scared to do this because embracing another culture can actually be one of the unanticipated joys of inter-country adoption.

Adoption: A Joy

Parenting brings with it both a unique set of challenges and a unique experience of joy. Parenting an internationally-adopted child is no exception to this rule.

Talk to as many families who have adopted from abroad as you can, to not only seek advice from their experiences, but to hear first-hand just how much happiness their adopted children have brought into their families.

You can be assured that if adoption really is for you and your partner, that it is possible to find treasure at the end of the sometimes-arduous adoption journey.

Help and support is out there

Are you considering adoption while living abroad? Adoption Voices, the adoption social network, has information and discussion groups for expatsAdopting While Abroad has information on country requirements and paperwork, as well as interviews and success stories.

It can be difficult to find an adoption agency willing to work with expats, as many agencies only handle domestic adoptions. Adopt Abroad is an adoption agency created to help expats adopt. Some other adoption agencies willing to work with expats are: Holt InternationalLos Ninos International and International Children’s Alliance.

Blogs are a great source of information and support. Read an incredible adoption story here and some very positive thoughts on diversity here. For fun, click here to read ‘The top 10 things parents of internationally adopted children want you to know’.