For the past 3 years, I have been a member of numerous Facebook groups specific to adoption. One question that arises time and time again is whether or not a family should visit their new child’s orphanage during their trip to China. This is an important question to ask, but because experiences vary greatly, everyone has a different opinion about the answer. Today, I want to share with you several reasons why I believe the benefits of visiting your child’s orphanage most often outweigh the costs, if that is where he or she resided prior to Family/Gotcha Day.
Benefits of the Orphanage Visit:
• A chance to observe your child in his/her most familiar environment. Watching a child who you’ve just recently is such an intriguing process. Your new son or daughter is a gift with lots of layers of wrapping paper. Each new experience is an opportunity to peel back another layer, a chance to learn something new. Seeing your child navigate their most familiar environment can provide you with new insight into your child’s personality, likes/dislikes, and behavior. You can learn what type of toys and friends your child gravitates toward. You can see if they behave in a confident or timid or sad or excited way. There is so much insight you can gather by simply watching your child in the orphanage.
• An opportunity to interact with the children left behind. Although it is an impossible reality to swallow, the truth is that the majority of orphans will never be adopted. Visiting your child’s orphanage will provide you with the opportunity to be the hands of feet of Jesus to those children if even for a short time. Depending on their circumstances, having one-on-one interaction, complete attention, smiles, and joy from an adult might be a rare occurrence. Your new son or daughter woke up, ate meals, took naps, and played with these children. Up until meeting you, these were their people. You will have a lifetime to love your child. Take this opportunity to love on these children. Yes, it will be sad to see their medical needs left untreated. Yes, you will cry when you leave. Yes, you will remember their faces for the rest of your life. But, do it anyway. They are worth it, and the love you have to give in those moments is the best gift you can leave with them.
• The ability to speak with previous caregiver(s) about your son or daughter. This is possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity here. Although you may return to China to visit your child’s orphanage in the future, your child’s caregiver might not be employed there anymore. Memories fade with time, and visiting your child’s orphanage will give you the chance to hear current and more reliable information about your son or daughter. You can ask any questions you desire. While practical questions like, “What are his favorite foods?” is important to note for the early transition to your family, consider asking questions like, “What are your hopes for [insert child’s name]?” or “What do you want me to tell her as she grows up?” This is a valuable opportunity. Take advantage!
• The chance to take pictures and video of the orphanage itself, as well as your child with caregivers and friends. Some orphanages will not allow you to take pictures and video, but if they do, take as many pictures as you can. Snap photos of your child’s crib, where he/she ate meals, played with friends, attended school, took baths, etc. Take pictures of the foyer, the hallways, the pictures on the walls. Document everything you can for your child. Photos of friends, nannies, and administration are priceless. As your child grows up, their memories of the past can fade. Preserve as much of this part of their history as you can. You can then later decide when to show those pictures to you child, as varying levels of trauma will occur, and some children will benefit from seeing those photographs early, while others will need significant time before viewing them.
• An opportunity for your child to say goodbye to friends and caregivers. Regardless of your child’s age, have your guide let your children know that they are coming back to the orphanage to say see everyone, say goodbye, and leave with their new parents. Although they may not fully understand what is taking place, this is an opportunity to begin finding closure. Be mindful of who leads the child away from the orphanage when it is time to leave, as well as how that takes place. I will explain more in my personal experience later in this post.
• A new perspective of how your child became who they are. Like I mentioned before, our children come to us as gifts with many layers of wrapping paper. Through observation and conversation with orphanage staff, you can induce and deduce so much about your child. You will not have a full picture or complete understanding by any means, but you will have pieces to help the puzzle take shape over time.
• A chance to thank those who stood in the gap until you arrived. This is critical and so very important. For those of you who adopt children who were loved, please use the orphanage visit as an opportunity to share your deep gratitude. These people are caring for the fatherless, something that we are all very passionate about doing, and they do it day in and day out, probably for little pay. They are serving children with untreated medical needs and institutional behaviors, sometimes with few resources. If your child loves his or her nanny, take this opportunity to share your appreciation with her. Your thank you may be the only one she receives in a very, very long time.
• The opportunity to personally take your orphanage gift to the administrators, caregivers, and children. You have gone shopping and purchased our donation items with great care. Some of you have even collected donations from your family and friends. Personally delivering these gifts during your orphanage visit is an opportunity to serve the fatherless, the ones left behind. You can look the administration, caregivers, and children in the eye and be light and love to them during your time at the orphanage.
Costs of the Orphanage Visit:
• Emotionally draining for you and your child. Count on this being an emotionally exhausting experience for you and your child. Be prepared to rest and stay close together for the rest of the day. I recommend having meals in your room, playing calm games together, and having as much closeness as your child will allow.
• Regression in attachment. This happened to our family, and I will talk about it later in this post. It can but does not always happen. Be prepared for the possibility but do not let fear of it push you away from the orphanage visit. Remember, you are running a marathon not a sprint. You can overcome any regression in attachment in time and with intentional parenting. Remember your training and seek support from your post adoption team if this happens.
• You may observe negative situations during your visit. While visiting your child’s orphanage, you might see children on potties for too long or little ones being harshly scolded. You may observe dozens of children lying in cribs or babies being fed from the same small bowl. Your child may have an adverse reaction to a caregiver or a room. He or she might be scared the entire time you are there, clinging to you for protection. All of these are difficult situations to experience.
Despite those three possible costs, I truly believe that the benefits of visiting your child’s orphanage outweigh the costs. To give my opinion some credibility, I want to share my personal experiences with orphanage visits.
We have two sons adopted from China, each from different provinces. Prior to our Family Day, Tucker lived at Chongqing Children’s Welfare Institute in Chongqing Province (top), and Tyson lived a the Social Welfare Institute of Beihai City in Guangxi Province (bottom). In October 2013, we met Tucker in a Civil Affairs building. Although initially scared and saddened by the transition from the orphanage staff to our arms, the three days before our orphanage visit were filled with good progress as we got to know each other. Tucker happily played with both my husband and me, and he gave and accepted affection from both of us. On Thursday afternoon of that week, we visited Tucker’s orphanage. You can read about our experience here.
Many details of the day will remain private, as I truly believe that there are pieces of our children’s stories that should be protected. What I will share with you is that at the end of our orphanage visit, Tucker’s sweet nanny was holding him. They shared great love for one another, as she had cared for him from his first day at the orphanage. We quickly made the decision that it was time to leave, as the circumstances were becoming more chaotic and overwhelming. I took Tucker from his nanny, and we quickly made our way outside. Meanwhile, he was screaming and crying, likely a product of his broken heart leaving his precious nanny and the only home he had ever known. In the days that followed, we had significant setbacks in Tucker’s acceptance of me, his new mommy. He no longer wanted anything to do with me when Ryan was present. Not only did this pattern of behavior continue throughout the rest of our time in China, but the battle for Tucker’s heart continued for weeks and months after coming home. Our relationship has grown and evolved so much over the past 21 months, and our love for one another is becoming more and more deeply rooted on a solid foundation; however, I often wonder what would have happened had we handled the end of our orphanage visit differently.
Although the effects of Tucker’s orphanage visit had short-term (ie., months) consequences, Ryan and I firmly believed that the long-term benefits outweighed those costs. As we prepared to adopt Tyson, we knew that the trip to his orphanage was a definite. While Tucker’s orphanage was located in the city where we had been staying, Tyson’s orphanage was approximately 3 hours from our hotel. Regardless, we knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit his orphanage and speak with his nanny so close to his time of living there. You can read my blog post about Tyson’s orphanage visit here.
I followed my own advice for Tyson’s orphanage visit. I took the time to stand back and observe Tyson in his most familiar environment. My husband, biological son, and I interacted with the children we would inevitably leave behind that day. I spent considerable time talking with his nanny, asking her questions and encouraging her to ask me questions, as well. I took as many pictures and videos that I possibly could, including a video of Tyson’s nanny singing a familiar song to him. I gained a new perspective of who Tyson is during our time at his orphanage. The nannies called him “Big Brother” in Cantonese, and after visiting the orphanage, I better understood his nickname. With deep gratitude and so many tears, I thanked the woman who had loved him so much. She stood in the gap until we could arrive. Because she loved Tyson, and he loved her, Tyson is able to form attachments to our family and us to him. I was so thankful for the opportunity to hug, cry with, and share my appreciation with this sweet woman. I love this picture of Ryan holding our son as he processed his feelings about our orphanage visit.
At the end of the day, you get to make the decision as to whether or not it is in your child’s best interest to visit his or her orphanage. I hope you will consider the long-term benefits I have shared today while you weigh the costs. For us it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for both of our sons, and I am so thankful that we took advantage before coming home with our new sons.