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!
It’s hard to believe 6 months ago, I was worlds away exploring my birthland, Korea. I learned a lot while I was over there, but I’ve been learning a lot since I’ve been back too.
I’ve always known I was very lucky to be welcomed into such an amazing, loving family, and going on this birthland trip only strengthened that feeling. Seeing the children amidst the adoption process definitely also struck an emotional chord with me. After returning from a field trip with the kids, I was introduced to an adoptive family as they waited for their soon-to-be sons/brothers to come downstairs. As soon as the boys appeared, the whole family lit up with excitement. The dad scooped the younger one into his arms, and with an ear-to-ear grin, the little one hugged his little hands tightly around his dad’s neck. The older of the two boys was greeted by his new siblings. With a smile, his new brother gave him an affectionate pat on the head. You could feel the love that the family had for these two special boys, and it was so touching to see.
Upon returning, I was able to get together with my own family: my three brothers, their families, and my parents. I was so happy to be able to share my experiences and photos with them. I recall one moment with my oldest brother, Tom. I was in the kitchen with my mom, and he came over, putting his arm around me, saying “We’re really happy you’re back, and I’m really glad you’re part of our family”. I gave him a big hug. Nothing can compare to that feeling of love for your siblings, and I realized this was what that little boy must have felt that day with his new brother.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve thought a lot about the children at Ehwa. Has the twinkly-eyed, 1-year-old started to walk yet? How is the oldest boy doing in Taekwondo? Is Frozen still their favorite movie? I miss their smiling faces and their love for life. I hope for their well-being and happiness, and that they never lose their sense of wonder or optimism.
I also think about the dear friends I made. The staff at Ehwa who treated me like family from day one. The generous volunteer families who took me to such memorable places. (My favorites were the Boseong green tea fields and Blueberry picking in Jeonju.) My SWS social worker who provided me support while getting to know my foster mother. My translator who went to so many cultural experiences with me – from Taekwondo to traditional tie-dyeing. And of course, Grace, my fellow intern and dear partner through it all!
I’m so thankful for this opportunity to give back and get to know my birthland, and I’m even more grateful for the life I’m living today. After taking this trip, I realized there’s so many people, near and far, to thank for that. I’m settling back into my life in Boston with a clearer, brighter outlook and of course, looking forward to my next trip to Korea.
Through a special grant, Spence-Chapin offers a South Korean Summer Internship Program for two young adult Korean adoptees! Deepen your connection to your birth culture by traveling to South Korea. You will be able to tour and explore Seoul and care for babies in South Korea’s adoption agency, Social Welfare Society (SWS).
Who should apply for the internship?
The South Korea Summer Internship is open to young adult Korean adoptees between the ages of 18 and 30 years old living across the United States who have been adopted through SWS.
How long is this internship?
The internship is from May 28 – June 28, 2018.
What is the interview process like?
Spence-Chapin will review all applications and invite several finalists to interview. Applicants who are not local to New York City can interview via video conference. From these interviews, Spence-Chapin will choose two applicants to participate in the internship.
What are the duties and responsibilities of the internship?
The purpose of the internship is to assist in the care of babies and toddlers awaiting adoptive families through South Korea’s adoption agency, Social Welfare Society (SWS). In addition to day-to-day care, interns will accompany the children and staff on cultural and recreational outings.
What are the fees?
Airfare, ground transportation, room and board and a stipend are included. Interns will be responsible for all other expenditures, such as souvenirs or personal travel. Interns are also expected to provide small gifts to the SWS staff as a thank-you.
What opportunities are there for cultural experiences?
SWS plans many exciting cultural activities for interns, including a traditional Korean tea ceremony, martial arts, Nanta, cooking lessons, and tie-dyeing. Interns will also participate in trips to a green tea field, bamboo forest, nature hikes, etc. Exact experiences will vary year to year.
Where else will I be traveling?
Interns will spend most of their time in Naju. More specifically, they will be staying in the South Jeolla Province which is a more rural section of South Korea. Interns will also spend time in Seoul. After the internship has come to an end, interns have the option to remain in Korea on their own for personal travel.
What kind of support will I have while in Korea?
Spence-Chapin staff will be accessible to our interns via phone and e-mail throughout the internship. Interns will have an identified SWS staff member as their point of contact throughout the internship. This SWS staff member will assist with translation, navigation, and travel.
Will I be reporting back to Spence-Chapin while participating in the internship?
You will be expected to provide periodic updates via phone or e-mail. In addition, our interns are required to keep a record of their experiences while in Korea though the format is up to you. Interns will submit a finalized version to Spence Chapin which should include pictures, descriptions of day-to-day activities, and personal reflections.
Will I be able to search for/meet my foster and/or biological family?
Yes! Interns have the option to work with SWS to search for their foster and/or biological family. If family members are located and interested in meeting, arrangements will be made for interns to meet them at the SWS offices. Spence-Chapin will also provide support and preparation for these meetings prior to departure.