Returning to Visit First (Birth) Family

Honeybee with her sister in Ethiopia

This week’s Tuesday Topic is one I have thought about quite a lot.  Leslie asked the question:

Our 7 year-old Ethiopian daughter, K.,  has been with us for a year.  We are in process of adopting a 3 year old boy and hope to travel for court in July.

We are trying to decide whether to take our daughter with us. I met her birth mother when I was there last year and liked her very much, although, of course,  it was a very emotional meeting.

My husband is concerned about our daughter’s attachment to us being impacted if we take her to visit.  K seems attached to our family and happy.  She used to throw tantrums a least once per day about not getting her way – clothes, food, etc.

In the last month the tantrums have been rare.  She sometimes pouts, but is not crying and throwing herself on the ground.

I would like to take her to visit and we probably will not be going to Ethiopia again for several years.

Has anyone taken their children back to Ethiopia to visit birth relatives after only a year or so?  How did you prepare them?

I know she will feel some sadness but I don’t want her to be devastated and feel torn.

As your comments came in, I read each one and thought to myself, “That is a really good point.”

I have thought about this question every day since I posted it last Wednesday, and to be honest my thoughts have been all over the place as I’ve sifted through the implications of taking your daughter or not taking her.  I am going to offer my opinion, but know that I offer it very humbly and with a rather small voice, because it is a complicated question and there is no one right answer.

The purpose of this trip is to meet your new son and begin the long journey of attachment with him.  This trip is all about him and his needs.  He may be a very easy-going child who is going to attach with ease.  On the other hand, he may be a child who has experienced significant trauma or may be less resilient to all that he has experienced.  Not knowing a single detail of his story, I can only assume that he has suffered loss.

My gut feeling is that he deserves your love and full attention, and if your first days with him are challenging, it will take all you have to support him and one another.

If your daughter had been home for a few years, was well attached, was old enough to be somewhat independent if your son was not doing well, was not having tantrums or behavior issues, then I would encourage you to take her.  Time with first families is precious and a very high priority to me.

When we went to meet our children, we made significant efforts to meet their families, even traveling long distances with only names and vague details scribbled on paper.  We trusted that people would help us find our way to their families, and God blessed our efforts; we have met relatives of each of our children.  The trip to find Eby’s grandfather was one of the greatest adventures of my life.

When we got home with our children, I assumed that maintaining each and every relationship was vital to their emotional health.  As we learned more about trauma and our children’s particular histories, we discovered that not all relationships are based on love and kindness and that we needed to give our children the freedom to let them go.  There are a few people our children will likely never see again – that is their choice and we support them 100%.

At one year home, I would not have been able to discern any of this.  I just didn’t know my children well enough yet; their stories had not unfolded.  As their parents, our job is to protect them, not to place them in a situation that will make them feel unsafe or afraid.

Every child is different, every family is different, and we have to make the best decisions we can based on what we know.

There are many families who have taken their children back not long after coming home and they would say it was a great decision.  The upsides are that your first child is not left behind when her attachment to you is still new.  I also agree with my friend, Leslie, who said that it helped her girls bond with each other by meeting on the trip.  Honeybee said I should tell you  that it might help your son not to be afraid because he will have a sister there who looks like him.

I also want to say that Cici made a great point; we just don’t know when the opportunity to be with first families may no longer be available.  It can be difficult to stay in touch over the distance, and at the moment, we don’t know how to reach a family member who is important to Little Man.  Medical care in Ethiopia is also not always available – we have to acknowledge that people die and if we delay our plans to return indefinitely, we may wait too long.

All that being said, I would plan a return trip for your daughter when she is a little older, securely attached to you, and adjusted to life with a new sibling.  I would definitely go see her birthmother, take loads of photos to her, take loads of photos with her, and give her a means of contacting you if you feel comfortable with that.  Then when you get ready for your trip, devote yourself to preparing your children.  Learn about Ethiopia together, plan together, and make it the trip of a lifetime given to your children with love.

These are the things I would consider in making this decision:

*How long has your child been home and how well attached do you think she is? How well attached are you to her? Is she having significant behavior challenges?

*What kind of relationship did your child have with her first family while in Ethiopia?  Did she live with her mother or was she in an orphanage for a long period of time prior to her adoption?

*Be sure you know your child’s history well.  If there was abuse, neglect, or significant trauma, be certain you are not reintroducing her to situations that could be emotionally harmful.

*Remember that the primary purpose of this trip is to meet and bond with your new child.  This is his time and it is precious.  If your daughter’s needs for support take precedence over his needs for attention and baby steps toward attachment, it could damage your early relationship with him.  Those days can never be reclaimed.

*If you leave your daughter behind while you travel, who will care for her?  Is there somebody she feels secure with that will care for her and preserve the attachment she has gained with you?

*If you take your daughter, consider bringing an extra support person just for her.  An aunt, grandparent, or dear friend who can be an additional supportive adult could be invaluable.

*Anticipate that upon returning home, your daughter will have lots to process and she may be grieving.  It’s impossible to know how easy your son’s adjustment will be, so be sure that you have lots of support in place for you and for them.

*Pray – a lot.  This is a complicated decision and there are many factors you cannot control.  In the end you will have to make the best decision you can, so make it and move forward in anticipation of all that God will do.

This post has grown very long, so I will close by sharing that Honeybee returned to Ethiopia to visit her extended family after being home 16 months.  It was a wonderful trip and it brought up loads of grief, some confusion, and some behavioral challenges.  We were extremely naive about how the trip would impact her.  If we could do it all again,  we would probably still let her go, but we would prepare her much better, and we would prepare ourselves for the emotional needs she would bring home with her.

Leslie, thank you for the great question; thank you also to each one of you who responded. It isn’t too late to add your comments! This is the beginning of a new week and I hope blog more – Eby had the best birthday ever and I can’t wait to share a photo or two.


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Leslie
    May 2, 2011

    Thank you so much, Lisa and everyone who responded! I feel so blessed by all of the comments. I feel so supported and honored to have a community of adoptive moms to seek advice from.
    My husband and I are still talking, praying and reflecting – but at this point we are probably going to start saving now for a trip in a year or two.
    We have seven children, four through international adoption. K. is the first child that I have had the blessing of meeting her birth mother. Fortunately, we have have been able to send pictures and letters twice and have gotten back pictures of her her birth mother looking at the pictures.
    If we did take K. with us, I would only take her for the first court date trip. We will probably only meet our new little guy for a few hours on the first trip and since, right now, there can be a long wait until the second trip we don't want too much bonding to happen. We don't want him to feel abandoned if he doesn't see us again for several months.
    Again thank you so much for all the comments – we will be rereading them and praying!

  2. Leslee
    May 3, 2011

    Lisa, I just have to comment on your INCREDIBLY insightful and eloquent response to this question. I've had my head in the sand lately and missed the original post and all the comments but I think yours does an amazing job of articulating the myriad of possibilities and things to consider. Thank you so much!

    1. One Thankful Mom
      May 3, 2011

      Thank you, Leslee. I put a lot of thought into it because I feel that relationships with first families are so important, but I think we have to always place our children's needs first and sometimes it is hard to figure out how to do that. It is even more complicated when we have multiple children with many needs!

  3. Julie
    May 4, 2011

    What a carefully thought-out reply. Every kid is so different and there is such a wide range of issues coming into play. Good job. 🙂


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