When 8-month-old Aliya Jane met her new, adoptive family last year in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, there were two loving faces to learn. There to greet her was her mom, Beth Stubenbord, from New York City, and—grandma Jane. Beth, a single mother, couldn’t imagine making the trip alone. “I knew I wanted my mother with me,” she says. “I wanted somebody else to rely on and talk to.”
Not long ago, adoptive grandparents like Jane tended to play minor roles in the adoption process, usually waiting in the wings for their adult children to arrive with babies in hand. But a growing number are now hitting the road—or even spanning the globe—to personally welcome their new grandchildren into the family.
Why the rise in grandparent adoption travel? For one thing, more single parents like Beth Stubenbord are adopting, so their parents go with them as they travel to Texas, Oregon, or even China and Eastern Europe. During the past year, Spence-Chapin, the agency in New York that arranged Aliya’s adoption, had five grandmothers traveling to China and two to Bulgaria.
Says then-single mom Ronni Blumenthal, whose mother, Barbara, traveled with her to Guatemala City for the adoption of her 23-month-old son, Dov: She was a mom, and I was a mom-in-training. I had never even changed a diaper. Barbara brought along toys that appealed to Dov and exerted a soothing calmness on him. She established herself as Grandma, and she passed along to me her maternal knowledge.
Another reason to bring Grandma: Adoptive parents realize that their parents can provide much-needed support, both emotionally and physically, on the adoption journey. When we drove to Pennsylvania to adopt our daughter, we didn’t want to leave our 13-month-old son at home with anyone, relates Debbie Baer of Old Bethpage, New York. So we asked my mom to come along and help. She also assisted with some paperwork issues—becoming truly involved in the adoption process.
Steve and Becci Goldman were similarly grateful to her parents, who traveled to Guatemala City with them to adopt their 4-month-old babies, Kevin and Emma. Becci vividly remembers watching her mother place an inconsolable Kevin on her chest at 3 a.m. and sleep with him for the rest of the night. The next day Becci came down with a virulent stomach flu; after that, Steve and her parents juggled all the baby care. “I don’t think we would have made it without my parents help,” says Becci.
Traveling grandparents are known to run around foreign cities looking for diapers or infant nail clippers, cover the parent who needs a nap, and hold squirmy babies on the long airplane trip home. “The bonds that grow between parent and child and grandparent are infinitely strengthened when grandparents play a role in the process,” says Massachusetts adoption social worker Raquel Woodard. “It’s very powerful,” she asserts.
“My mom’s being there for the adoption definitely strengthened the bond between her and our children,” recalls Debbie Baer. “She couldn’t be with them enough. And we now have a wonderful adoption story to share with our daughter, one that is even more touching now that my mother is no longer with us.”
“A family adoption trip may even change the dynamics between the adult parent and the adult child,” says Jane Aronson, M.D., of New York City. She believes that adoption trips renew and rekindle the relationship and can build a peer relationship between parents and children. “I look at my daughter now as a mother who’s responsible for someone elses life,” says Jane Stubenbord. Beth, too, acknowledges a change. “I feel a deeper connection to my mother,” she says. “Itss meant so much to have her know Aliya from the start.”
From the grandparents point of view, there are other benefits—some profound. Sally and Joe Winston joined their daughter, Julie, on a trip to China, at the height of the SARS epidemic, to adopt her 9-month-old daughter. “This was the most wonderful experience weve ever had,” says Sally. Words like magical, fantastic, and life-transforming tumble from these grandparents lips.
“Being there when my grandchild came into my family’s life was a privilege for me,” says Cleeta Fisher, who accompanied her son, Brian Fisher, and his wife, Virginia Cornelius, to Nanching City, China, last year to adopt their baby daughter. “I would wish it for all grandparents.”
Open Arms and Hearts
Perhaps the biggest benefit of a grandparent’s presence is the strong signal sent that their grandchild is a full-fledged member of the extended family. For many adopting parents, it’s a seminal moment that allays their concerns about acceptance of their new child.
Cleeta Fisher recalls the moment she met her granddaughter. “Brian and Virge were handed the baby, and they handed her to me. I thought, ‘Hello, welcome to the family.'” It was a poignant scene for Cleeta, all the more so because Brian is her son via adoption. I had tears of joy and flooding emotions that went back 38 years to when Brian was placed in my arms, she recalls. Brian says he gained new insight into his own adoption. I had no idea that my parents went through such a similar process.
For Ronni Blumenthal, a special moment came as her mother wrapped little Dov in the worn woolen blanket that Ronni’s great-grandmother had made. “My grandmother used to tell me,” says Barbara, “go get the red blanket, and we’ll cuddle.” So this blanket—and the tradition—has been passed from generation to generation.
“That meaning trickles down to the new grandchild,” says Jackie Fleishman, director of Act of Love Adoptions in Natick, Massachusetts, who has developed adoptive grandparenting workshops. Grandparents are the holders of the generational story. Their presence on an adoption trip begins a profound integrating of the child into the genealogy of the family.