A birthland trip is a trip made to an adoptee’s country of birth. A birthland trip can be made at any time in an adoptee’s life, and can be done alone, with family, or in a group. Individuals and families go on these trips for many reasons, but primarily, they serve as a way to connect an adoptee to his/her birth culture, and in so doing, engage more deeply with a part of his/her identity and past.
We spoke with Beth Friedberg, a therapist at Spence-Chapin with over 20 years of experience working with children and families, to provide some more context and advice on birthland trips.
Thinking about a birthland trip?
If you are considering a birthland trip, we invite you to speak with one of our counselorsbeforehand, who can answer any questions or concerns you may have. If you would like to participate in one of our group birthland trips, you can find out more here. To read more about one family’s birthland trip experience, click here.
“People go on birthland trips for a lot of different reasons, at different ages and stages in their lives,” Beth explained. “The birthland trip is a different kind of connecting to the adoption story—it’s more tangible.”
How do you know it’s the right time for a birthland trip?
“Sometimes the birthland trip is initiated by the parents because they want very much for help their children make connections to their birth culture, foster families, or birth families,” Beth said. “Sometimes it’s propelled by the kids, who have a lot of curiosity and questions about their beginnings, and they’re asking. Usually, it’s somewhere in between.”
“In our coaching at Spence-Chapin, we try to help families realize that they will never be 100% confident with their decisions—that there will always be a certain amount of worry, fear, and concerns about how it may go. We work with families to help them decide how much concern they are willing to handle.”
In thinking about the right time, Beth advises it’s important to consider what other changes are occurring in the family system in that year. If the family has just moved, the kids have recently changed schools, or something else has happened that might make it more difficult to unpack some of the issues that can come up in a birthland trip, it might be best to wait until the next year.
Beth notes that while some children initiate the idea of a birthland trip through their curiosity and questions, others may not be interested in going at first, perhaps because of fear, or just indifference. In those cases, she suggests that parents find something that already excites their child and build on that in order to engage them in the in the prospect of a birthland trip.
“If your child loves music or pop culture, expose them to popular songs or soap operas from their birth culture. If they like cooking, or food, or history, you can share those aspects of their birth culture with them. Tap into what already has meaning for your child and build their interest and curiosity on that.”
How do you prepare for the emotional impact of a birthland trip?
“At Spence-Chapin, we provide coaching to prepare” Beth explained. “One of the main things we do in coaching for a birthland trip is to step back as a way to move into the future and explore identity. We help families go back and review the adoption process and history—to go through those photos, videos, and stories—and see how your child reacts, to gauge what he or she might be ready for.”
“It’s also important for the parents to spend time thinking about that it will be like for them to go back, and thinking through what their child might ask, and working through that with the coaching before the trip, so no one is caught off guard during the trip when it might be more challenging to handle surprises.”
“Where the real learning happens, where the family’s relationship becomes closer, is in the times that may be difficult, and working through that together. That is the way relationships grow stronger—when we show up for each other.”
This summer, Mary and Chris took their family on a birthland trip to Ethiopia. Their younger daughter, Etta, 5, was adopted through Spence-Chapin from South Africa, and their older daughter, Arri, 8, was adopted through a different adoption organization from Ethiopia. We caught up with Mary to ask her about the trip, how she and her family prepared for it, and what advice they have for other families considering a birthland trip.
Why did you decide to take your daughter on a birthland trip? The pivotal moment of deciding to do a birthland trip came in the most unexpected way—while watching the movie Lion. That movie really reinforced to us that our children need to know who they are and where they came from. We talked after the movie and decided, we have to go back and let our daughter see where she came from.
In what ways did you prepare Arri for the trip? Our family is very fortunate to have an Ethiopian Church in our community that offers monthly classes to children from Ethiopia, many of whom are adopted. We also attend a Family Camp in Virginia for first-generation Ethiopian American children. So, by the time we made the trip, Arri already had learned a lot about the culture, language, and history of Ethiopia—even enough so that on the trip, she was able to say hello, and speak words in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language, to other Ethiopians.
How did you and your husband prepare? That’s a great question. As parents, we felt so vulnerable and…scared, would be an honest way of describing it. You realize you’re not really in control. We knew that we didn’t have to do this visit, we didn’t have to open this door—it could stay closed. But we felt like there could be healing if we all felt brave enough to walk through the door.
We found it helped to think about and work through the what ifs—and for us there were a million and one what ifs that came up for us. What if my child is upset by the experience? What if it isn’t a good experience? We went through them all.
But, in the end, it comes down to being brave and acknowledging that it’s scary to open a door that you could keep closed. But it’s worth it—the peace it gives to the child, to the birth family, to the parents. It’s indescribable.
What resources did you use for the practical preparations? We sought out both the broad and the specific resources out there. For example, an Ethiopian Homeland Travel online group discussed both practical questions about the travel (such as immunizations to get), as well as emotional questions. We also talked to other families about their experience. Before our trip we got together with another family that lives near us who also adopted their child from Ethiopia and had recently traveled there together.
You were also able to set up a meeting with Arri’s birth mother? Yes. We had reestablished contact with Arri’s birth mother when she was about two years old and have been writing back and forth and having phone conversations since, so we were able to set up a meeting with her in Ethiopia. Of course, up until the moment that it happened, we made sure to prepare Arri—and ourselves—for the very real possibility that it wouldn’t happen, as a result of logistics or something else. We didn’t want to promise Arri anything that we could not control the outcome of.
What was the meeting like? Her birthmother seemed very interested in what we are like as a family—what we like to do together, what we enjoy—to see how we are as parents, and to just spend time with us. She made it a point to let my husband and I know how grateful she was that we were raising Arri the way that we were. Arri was anxious at first, but once she was more comfortable, she seemed to just want to watch her birth mother—to get a sense of her. Overall, it felt good to have the affirmation that everyone is on the same page—it was affirming of everyone’s role in Arri’s life.
Would you still recommend the trip to parents even if a birth parent meeting isn’t possible? Yes, definitely. It’s still such a rich experience for the child and the family to just be in the culture, to hear the language, to eat the food, to visit the historical sites. We brought Arri back to the hospital where she born, and I believe it’s important, even if the birth family visit isn’t possible, to try and seek out other types of monumental pieces to visit to give the child something to hold onto about his/her story.
What were some unexpected outcomes of the trip? It turned out that the fact that Arri had learned about Ethiopian culture, and even knew some words in Amharic, was very affirming to the people that live in that country, which was something really unexpected for us. It seemed to help Ethiopians to see that US families that adopt Ethiopian children are trying to teach them who they are and are giving them a sense of their birth culture and history. This was evident even in just the ways people’s faces brightened when Arri said hello to them.
And how did the trip affect Arri? We were really taken aback by how much confidence and peace the trip gave to our daughter. The way in which Arri was welcomed and affirmed by the Ethiopian community, was truly transformative for her.
I think that Arri also really grew in her understanding of her adoption. The experience with her birth mother, seeing the country, the hospital where she was born, all enabled her to really see that her adoption was not about anything that she did wrong, but due to circumstances.
We’ve also noticed that she’s been introducing herself differently since we’ve gotten back. We kept Arri’s birth name—Arsema—but we have always called her Arri. Upon returning from Ethiopia, we noticed that she began introducing herself with her full name—that she was standing taller in who she is.
It’s clear that you and your husband decided early on to raise your children with openness around their adoption. What prompted that decision? Before adopting Arri, I attended an Adoptive Mom’s Retreat, which I now attend every year, and at those retreats, they talk so much about trying to instill the importance of being honest and raising your children to know who they are. At the retreat, adoptee young adults share their stories on how not knowing who they are, or their parents’ lack of openness around their adoption, led to a lot of grieving and pain for them.
I took from hearing those stories that the adoptee voice isn’t always lifted up as it should be, and it’s important to nurture children’s identity and be honest with them.
And I know that that’s easier said than done. Many families like ours commit to that idea of openness in the early stages, when you’re still going through the adoption process—and it’s one thing to say you’re going to do it and it’s another to really follow through, to discover how to do that, to equip yourself and your family to maintain that commitment and to face any fears about following through.
What are some resources that have helped you and your family to embrace openness in the ways you have? We found a lot of community and support by attending different camps. I’m not really that much of a social media user, so for me, the face-to-face gatherings are what I look for to engage.
It’s just nice to have a safe place to go where everyone is walking the same walk, so to speak. And even if the topics are broader, like about being a transracial family, as opposed to something more country or region specific, it’s still very helpful.
Everybody needs community—both the children and parents.
Any plans to take your younger daughter, Etta, to her birth country? We are absolutely planning to do a trip to South Africa for Etta once she’s old enough, but we are just beginning to discuss what that will look like, and are just starting to find ways to connect Etta to her story—mostly because South Africa is a very different country than Ethiopia, and up until now, a lot of our community connections are to Ethiopian culture. But Etta has really enjoyed learning about Ethiopian culture with her sister and has been warmly embraced by the local Ethiopian community. So, we expect it will be a harder road to navigate, but we are certainly up to the task!
Did you know Colombia celebrates its own Women’s Day? In honor of Día de la Mujer Colombiana, we spoke with Carmen Elena Támara García, Spence-Chapin’s Foreign Supervised Provider in Colombia. She is an incredible woman in her own right and we wanted to learn more about her role advocating for children in need of families in Colombia and what makes this holiday so relevant today.
Carmen Elena, what is your current role? How long have you been involved in this work? I am the Foreign Supervised Provider for Spence-Chapin in Colombia. That is, the person in charge of carrying out the administrative and legal functions on behalf of adoptive families working with Spence-Chapin’s Colombia Program. I serve as a bridge between Spence-Chapin and the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) which is the Central Authority on adoptions in Colombia, and as a liaison for the agency and adoptive families to private adoption homes here in Colombia.
I have been linked with Spence-Chapin since 2012. Before this role, I worked as the Head of Adoptions at the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF) since 1993 and served as the Deputy Director of Protection from 1996 – 1999. In these positions, I directed the creation of programs aimed at the establishment of rights for children and adolescents, and the coordination and design of public policies to prevent and punish abuses against minors.
What is your typical workday like? Every day I wake up with the hope of finding a family for a child who needs one. This is the motivation that inspires my work.
From early in the morning, I am in communication with organizations to answer questions and provide updates about families who have an application for adoption in process. When I receive a child’s referral or a family’s paperwork, I read all the received documentation and order the translation of documents that are necessary. Frequently, I must attend information meetings at ICBF or the private adoption houses.
When an adoptive family from the United States arrives in Colombia to meet their child, I will take care of all the logistics for their stay in Colombia and coordinate all the appointments which the family must attend to complete the adoption process. This typically includes medical appointments for the child and appointments at the United States Embassy.
As a family lawyer, I am also in charge of submitting the family’s legal request for a court date and accompanying the prospective adoptive family when they are notified of the adoption decree. This is very exciting for me!
What is the most rewarding part of your job? When I see the happiness of a child and his adoptive parents on the day of the appointment for the “Encuentro meeting.” This is a mixture of feelings for me, it is a joy with crying! Later, when I receive the post-adoption reports and I read that the child has adapted well, and the adoption was successful for their parents, as well, it is very rewarding, especially if it involves the adoption of an older child. This is like saving a life!
Has there been a child or family that has made an impact on you in some way? I remember with special affection each of the adoptive families that I have had the opportunity to accompany in the process. I admire each of them for their capacity to give love, sometimes in the face of difficult situations.
The families that adopt siblings have left an indelible mark on me. I am shocked by the way they handle more than one child at the same time, with a smile for each one, without complaining, without showing fatigue, without glimpsing problems, feeling that with love everything is arranged.
I also remember a 13-year-old girl who, the day she met her adoptive parents, told them: “You are more beautiful in person than I had seen you on Skype. I hope to be the best daughter, the best person and the best professional. I want to take care of you in your old age, to repay you for what you are doing for me.” These words touched me deeply and I have not been able to forget them.
What does Colombian Women’s Day mean to you? Every November 14th since 1967, Colombian Women’s Day is celebrated. On this date, the heroic Policarpa “La pola” Salavarrieta is commemorated. It should be noted that Policarpa was an intelligent and brave woman who fought against the Spanish Crown at the beginning of the 19th century. She was executed by the Council of War during the Spanish Reconquista in 1817 for her role as a spy supporting the cause of independence for Colombia.
The date and original significance of the celebration are unknown by most Colombian citizens, but on this special date it is necessary to recognize all Colombian women for their spirit, hard work, perseverance, character, courage and the struggle that has characterized them.
In this important moment in which we find ourselves, I think active participation by women in political processes is essential. There are significant contributions women make in our post-conflict country that will enhance the integration of gender perspectives and the development of our democracy.
What main change would you like to see for young girls in the next generation? One of the most important challenges facing Colombia today is being able to design strategies that will open new opportunities for young people and reduce the deep disparity in living conditions that exist throughout the country.
I am convinced that one of the most effective ways to combat inequality is through education, science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and culture. That implies that all young girls should have the possibility of making the transition from the educational sector towards decent and quality employment.
I want to see young girls in the next generation empowered with their rights, exercising their obligations with full awareness of their potential to contribute to their own society.
Is there a powerful woman you admire most? I admire all the women who have human quality. Human quality has nothing to do with intellect, knowledge, money or physical appearance, but with virtues such as kindness, simplicity, humility and solidarity. These women often go unnoticed, and in many cases, have had a life full of difficulties – but still they are grateful for life. It is a true privilege and I feel very fortunate when I meet this type of woman.
I admire coherent, honest women who fight to carry out their dreams and who spend time and effort totally unconditionally for the welfare of others.
“Hi! We are the Cotner family! We are a big, fun, loud, loving, rocking family. We have six beautiful kiddos. Four were homegrown and two grew in our hearts via international adoption and they both just happen to be rocking an extra chromosome a.k.a. they have Trisomy 21 or Down Syndrome.
Our first son, Harvey, came home from Eastern Europe and completely stole our hearts. Soon after our first adoption, we knew that we wanted to adopt again, and specifically another kiddo with Down Syndrome. We knew financially that it might be easier for our family to wait a few years, but when I saw the profile of this waiting kiddo, my heart skipped a beat. I requested his file and I read it over and over. I was looking at it, yet again, when my youngest daughter Quinn said, “Oh, there he is… there’s my brother. I’ve been looking for him!” I knew he was our son and another adventure was beginning!
Harrison joined our family thanks to help from Spence-Chapin and our fabulous in-country team. In a beautiful coincidence, Harrison came home in October, which is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.
Parenting a child with Down Syndrome is truly a blessing. Our sons who have Down Syndrome have overcome so many obstacles that most people take for granted. Seeing them overcome and succeed has given us a new insight on life and we truly appreciate all the little and big things. They are our shining lights. There are the hard days when the struggles of Down Syndrome and prior institutional trauma can hurt your mama heart, because we want to take all their pain and struggle away. But it just makes us love them more and remember that with love and patience we can all do hard things.
Our older four children are incredible with their little brothers. They are so loving and protective, and they are the boys’ biggest cheerleaders. They loved them before they even met them, and their admiration for their brothers only grows. I always say the greatest gift we’ve ever given them was each other.
My husband, William, is active duty Army and that can add some additional hiccups, but Spence-Chapin handled it with such grace and ease. Our process was smooth, and we truly fell in love with Harrison’s birth country. The Army is incredibly supportive of adoption and we are so grateful for this. They let my husband take a substantial leave and even reimbursed some of our adoption expenses.
Every child deserves a family…. every child has worth, and we are forever thankful to be a part of the lucky few that get to have some rocking kiddos with Down Syndrome in their family thanks to adoption and Spence-Chapin!”
A mother reflects on her family’s transition at home after adopting her daughter from South Africa.
“I keep meaning to write a post about how well we’re all doing. I wake up each day with resolve to sneak away and write about Kurhula’s progress – the letters she’s learning, the pounds she’s gaining, the friends she’s making, and all the other ways she is thriving after seven months home. But lately, by the time her breakfast eggs have left the pan, she’s usually already initiated at least one epic power struggle. Despite all the progress she’s made (or, perhaps maybe because of all the progress) we’ve entered a trying phase of Kurhula testing her boundaries. Every boundary. Over and over. This has resulted in some loooong days, folks…with lots of foot stomping, arm crossing, and eye glaring pouts. It turns out our little girl has quite a stubborn streak! And she knows how to push my buttons faster than any child I’ve ever taught. By the end of each day, I usually opt for chocolate and puppy snuggles on the couch rather than writing a blog post about how well we’re all doing.
questioning myself a lot lately, wondering if I’m getting this whole
“motherhood thing” right. As I sit in the hallway outside her open
door and watch her cry on her bed for the third time in one day, I can’t help
but wonder if I’m doing right by her. But then, inevitably, her sobs always
turn to a whimper, and soon after, I usually hear her whisper, “Mama,
I’m sorry. I feel bad…” That’s when I open my arms and welcome her into
my lap, and we both take a minute to just breathe each other in again. This is
how we’ve ended most days this month. And although it’s hard and exhausting, I
know it’s what she needs right now. She’s testing us to make sure we mean what
we say, to figure out if we really are going to keep her safe, and if we truly
are here forever no matter what. Just last night she nodded
her head emphatically and said, “Mama, you still love me even when I make
the big, BIG Consequence Choices.” Yes, baby, even then.
last seven months have presented us all with a very steep learning curve. And
although some days are harder than others, I am so proud of our little family
and the ways in which we’re growing together. Speaking of growing, it
seems our little baby really has turned into a young girl! She’s gained 4
pounds and grown 3 inches since coming home.
She still begs to be carried around in
the Ergo (or “the pouch” as she calls it), but Kurhula now has a
collection of scooters and bikes that she likes to zip around on during family
walks. She loves her pets and smothers them in kisses and hugs throughout the
day. And when we visited her doctor today for a blood draw (which has always
resulted in tears and screams in the past), Kurhula calmly put on her
headphones, turned up the volume on her favorite Shakira song, and gritted
her teeth while the nurse inserted the needle into her arm.
I must laugh when I think back to our initial impressions of Kurhula, when all we had to go by were her referral photos and a few video clips. We thought she was delicate. We really did. We had no idea what a firecracker she’d really turn out to be. Anyone who meets Kurhula quickly learns that there is nothing fragile about our girl. In fact, she defines the word “fierce.” And although that means I’m probably in for at least twenty more years of epic power struggles, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Spence-Chapin finds families for the most vulnerable children in South Africa – children with a medical diagnosis who are in need of an international adoptive family. It takes a dedicated and resourceful parent to adopt a child with special medical needs. At Spence-Chapin, we guide families in how to make an informed decision about their family’s particular medical openness and offer support and resources before, during and after their adoption. Spence-Chapin is confident that in a loving home with the right family who is dedicated to learning about, or already has experience with special medical needs, these children can thrive!
But how does a family determine if adopting a child with special medical needs from South Africa is right for them? Here are 5 places to start:
Learn about the most common medical needs in South Africa.
Check out this article on the Top 10 Medical Needs in South Africa! Currently, the two most common needs our partners Johannesburg Child Welfare (JCW) see in the children in their care are: a diagnosis of HIV and unknown or unpredictable developmental delays. We are actively looking for families who feel open and prepared to parent a child with one of these two needs. You can learn more by exploring these resources specific to adoption from South Africa.
Consider the medical and developmental care children receive in South Africa.
JCW strives to provide an environment that caters to the overall development of the children in their care which includes their physical, emotional, spiritual, and educational needs. Children receive medical treatment at JCW through a partnership with Thusanani Children’s Foundation. Thusanani provides safe and modern medical care to ensure each child receives the medical and developmental care they need – HIV testing and treatment, occupational therapy, physical therapy, antibiotics, surgery, well-baby visits, etc.
Additionally, Spence-Chapin sponsors a Granny Program at JCW to help the children develop the important socio-emotional bonds that are so important to a child’s development. Through the Granny program, children are paired with surrogate “grannies” from their local community who spend special, one-on-one time with them every day. This humanitarian aid initiative gives institutionalized children the opportunity to form important healthy attachments with a trusted adult. We see incredible progress made by children who are matched with a granny. In South Africa, the children call their grannies “gogo”!
Consult with an international pediatric specialist to make an informed decision.
It’s recommended that families considering adopting a child with medical needs consult with a pediatrician about diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of specific conditions to consider if your family has the ability to provide the care a child will need. There are many experienced international adoption medical specialty clinics throughout the United States that are a resource for prospective adoptive families. Physicians with an international adoption specialty are familiar with common medical issues involved in intercountry adoption and many of the common needs seen in children eligible for international adoption.
Because South Africa is a signatory to The Hague Treaty on Intercountry Adoption, adoptive families benefit from a transparent and ethical process for receiving a child’s information. At the time of referral from South Africa, Spence-Chapin will provide all known social and medical history provided by JCW so a family can make an informed decision. The family will review the medical history with a Medical Specialist and support from Spence-Chapin.
Gather information about resources and eligibility for services in your state and community.
Each state offers a variety of services for children with special needs through state agencies and community organizations. Free services through Early Intervention and CPSE services are offered nationally and children 0-3 may qualify when they have a developmental delay in the areas of cognitive, physical, speech and adaptive development. It can be helpful to anticipate the programs offered in the local schools as well as the State laws and regulations for special needs education.
Additionally, when considering the adoption of a child with special needs, it can be helpful to consult with other parents of children with medical needs or international adoptive families. They can be a great source of information, support, and referrals. They may be able to share their suggestions, insights, and recommendations for ways that you can strengthen your ability to parent a child with a medical need. It may also be helpful to prepare for what to expect through help from the local home study agency, special needs support groups or even online through adoption websites such as AdoptionLearningPartners.com.
Are you willing, and do you have the time to become informed about the realities of raising a child with special needs?
Do you have access to medical resources in your community that specializes in the treatment of pediatric special needs?
Are you able to make sure that your child takes medication or attends therapies?
Does your schedule allow for the time it takes to parent a child with a medical need?
Are you comfortable with any attention it may bring to your family?
Are you willing to advocate for your child in your home, school, and community?
Are you prepared to accept unknowns for the future development of your child and to find solutions to any challenges that may emerge?
Following the adoption of a child from South Africa, Spence-Chapin welcomes adoptive families to engage in post-adoption services through our Modern Family Center. Spence-Chapin’s Modern Family Center offers counseling, parent coaching, post-adoption support, mentorship and birthland trips. These services can be provided to families in person, over the phone or via video conferencing in all 50 states. We also invite you to attend our annual family events so you and your child can meet other South Africa adoptive families!
Children with special medical needs are waiting for adoptive families in South Africa. If you feel you might be a good match for these children, let’s talk! To learn more, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 212-400-8150.