When Sherry Graehling and her husband traveled to Russia in June of 1995 to adopt their six-month-old daughter Katherine, they chose not to bring along their very active five-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Instead, Elizabeth stayed with her 80-year-old grandmother, Margaret Graehling, whose husband had recently passed away.
“Our older daughter’s presence was not essential to the process, and we expected we would be dealing with a highly-contagious medical condition (scabies),” says Sherry. “Also, we knew that our daughter and her grandmother, who are very close, would provide an excellent support system for each other.” All of this together made a pretty good case for leaving Elizabeth behind in a situation where she was safe and comfortable.
Elizabeth moved into Grandma’s house, where she only experienced one “bad night.” “The first night we were gone, Elizabeth looked at our photograph and cried because she missed us,” says Sherry. “After that, she settled down and relaxed and had a lot of fun with Grandma and her cronies. They had a tea-party at the home of one of Grandma’s friends.” Sherry would have had a lot of trouble leaving Elizabeth if she had not had a great deal of love and respect for, as well as confidence in, her mother-in-law. “She is the only person I could have left our daughter with.”
Mindful of the distinct possibility that their trip might not work out as planned, and not wanting to deal with a lot of questions in the event that the unthinkable should happen, the Graehlings told only their immediate families and a very few close friends about their trip and the reason for it. Five days into the trip, Elizabeth (left in the care of her Grandma under the auspices of their needing to be out of town on extended business) blurted out that Sherry and Jim were actually in Russia to pick up her baby sister!
“When everyone (except Grandma, who had been sworn to secrecy) gently told her she must be mistaken, Elizabeth very adamantly said, ‘I’m NOT lying and Grandma will tell you!’ thereby officially letting the cat out of the bag!” laughs Sherry.
“Sheepishly, Grandma had to fess up that she had, indeed, been less than truthful regarding our whereabouts, and Elizabeth was very smug, indeed.” Thankfully, by the time the beans were spilled, Sherry and Jim had already officially adopted Katherine. All that remained were the Embassy formalities and the trip home.
The Graehling’s adoption trip proved to be successful and satisfying, although arduous and tiring. In retrospect, Sherry firmly believes that bringing Elizabeth along would have caused a very difficult trip to be much more difficult in almost every way. “We have always been thankful we made the decision to leave our older daughter at home. By the way, our two little daughters, almost exactly 4 1/2 years apart in age, are the best of buddies and could not possibly be closer,” beams Sherry.
John and Beverly Burch also traveled in 1995 to adopt a baby girl and chose not to bring an older sister along. But the Burches traveled to China to adopt their daughter Anna. “We really wanted to take our seven-year-old daughter, Kari, with us,” says John. “She had been asking and praying for a baby sister for years. We felt she could handle the trip in most ways and we thought it would be a tremendous experience for her. Little did we know what the trip would really be like!”
In the end, the Burches decided to leave Kari at home in the care of her grandparents for several reasons. “It was during the school year and she was struggling a little bit. The thought of taking her out of class for two weeks was worrisome. We figured we could get the work from her teacher to take with us, and work on some each day. Looking back on the trip, though, we now know that would have been a disaster,” says John.
Into their decision also went Kari’s picky eating habits and food allergies, as well as the cost-it would have added a couple thousand dollars to the trip. The Burches also worried about how exhausting the trip would be on them and Kari, and how difficult it would be to take care of both Kari and Anna during the trip. “We wondered a lot about how much time we could give to Kari with a new baby to deal with, especially if Anna was sick in any way. We decided that it would be better to concentrate on the baby and not have to worry about whether we were neglecting Kari.”
That decided, Kari’s grandparents John and Virginia Burch moved up from their home in Arkansas into the younger Burch family’s home in Chicago for the duration of the trip. “My parents stayed at our house to care for Kari so she could continue with her school and other activities without disruption,” says John, who had complete trust in his parents. “They know most of our routines, have a good relationship with Kari (they take her camping for a week every summer), and they are very flexible and resourceful.”
Kari did not have a great time while her parents were away. As is to be expected, she missed her parents a lot. “It was hard for her. We called her twice, but I’m not sure if it helped or made it harder for her,” says John. “After we got back, we heard about somebody who had made a tape for each day they were gone for their child to listen to. They had to predict what they would be doing each day, but it worked OK. Wish I had thought of it.”
Looking back, John says it was the right decision for their family. “We had the luxury of an almost perfect care situation that allowed Kari to continue her normal routine. She loves my folks and is very comfortable with them. It made for minimal disruption in her life and that was worth a lot.”
The Burches still regret that circumstances didn’t allow Kari to travel. Perhaps if Kari would have been older, or if they could have controlled the itinerary and added some “vacation” time before meeting Anna, bringing Kari along might have been an option. “Even now, I still regret not taking her with us. But I also know it was the right decision. Most things in life are a compromise.”
When Jeff and Cindy Stowe traveled to Siberia in the summer of 1996 to adopt their baby daughter Sara, their six-year-old son Steve stayed with Cindy’s sister Vicki Pahl-Trudgon. “Steve is very familiar with my sister,” says Cindy. “He sees her on an almost daily basis. He had a great time playing with his two-year-old cousin and the countless neighbor children who are in and out of my sister’s house.”
The Stowe’s also prepared Steven for his new sister’s adoption with lots of family discussion. “Just before we left, we took him to Toys R Us and he chose something to keep him company-a huge stuffed dog that he later named ‘Slurp.’ A friend had told me she prepared daily gifts and notes for her child to open while she was away on an adoption trip. She felt this was very helpful, but I didn’t remember this until after our trip.” Cindy says that daily small gifts and notes would have been nice because it was difficult to call home while they were traveling.
Cindy highly recommends having some kind of plan in place in the event the sibling at home becomes sick. “Steve got very sick with stomach flu while we were in Siberia. My sister took time off work to care for him. It sounds like this was the time that he missed us most. His Dad really spoils him with attention when he’s sick, so I know he especially missed his Dad,” Cindy muses. Knowing that anything can happen while you’re gone, Cindy feels it’s very important that your child be well-bonded to the caregiver. Also, the caregiver will need a durable power of attorney and insurance information, in case medical treatment or hospitalization becomes necessary.
Of course, Cindy and Jeff would have loved to take Steven along on their adoption trip. “It was difficult being separated from him” recalls Cindy. “If the travel was expected to go smoothly, I would have taken him with us. It would have been a great experience for him. It also would have broadened his understanding of Sara’s need for a family. But the trip was just too difficult.”
When Alison McGhee and Bill O’Brien adopted their baby daughter Min from China, it was Bill who stayed home with their two children, Luke (age 5) and Devon (age 3), and Alison who traveled. “Having lived and traveled in China before, I knew full well the particular stresses of life there, especially for small children who would be suffering from jet lag and would be susceptible to any sort of illness,” says Alison. “Also, I lived in Taiwan and came home with T.B. and a never diagnosed illness which continued to appear during the course of the first year I was back in the U.S.” For their family, the risks of taking children along, along with the stresses on the parents, who would be trying to entertain two young children while getting to know a new baby (who might be under great stress of her own), made taking Luke and Devon an option that Alison and Bill just never considered.
For months before the adoption, Alison and Bill very matter-of-factly discussed the upcoming adoption and trip with their children. They talked about why Alison was going to China, how an adoption differed from birth (“‘New Baby’ will be coming from China instead of my belly, the way you were born”), showed them where China was on the globe, and reiterated that Alison would be gone for two weeks. Alison says that she doesn’t think that, at their ages, Luke and Devon had a real conception of “weeks.” But, it was valuable for them to repeatedly hear a calm, assured answer of “two weeks” to the question of “how long?” whenever it came up. “We also assured them that Daddy and Nita (their daycare provider) would be taking care of them just like always,” says Alison.
© Mary E. Petertyl