My heart ached the day my six-year-old daughter told me, “Sometimes I don’t feel real.” I had adopted Elena at age two-and-a-half in Romania, and we had always taken part in Romanian adoptee reunions, picnics, and parties. Still, she was missing something that I could not give her. She had no sense of life before adoption.
Although I always knew I would take Elena back to Romania one day, I imagined such a trip would wait until she was a teenager, or even older. But after talking with an adoption therapist, I concluded that my daughter, at eight, needed to see where she came from now. We bought our tickets, made arrangements to stay with a host family in Bucharest, and planned a two-week visit to her birth country.
Visiting Elena’s orphanage was a life-altering experience. Before that day, when Elena spoke of her babyhood, it was always prefaced with, “When I was two,” as if her life began when she came to America. Seeing the happiness of the orphanage staff who remembered her, her crib, and her favorite chair, gave my daughter a picture of her early life. She discovered that she was, and had always been, real.
Every parent wonders if her child is ready to meet her birth family. I had met Elena’s birth mother at the time of her adoption, and I knew she would greet Elena with nothing but happiness and good wishes. But as we drove to her birth family’s village, I could see Elena’s bravado ebbing away.
When I saw the joy on her birth mother’s face, I knew Elena would be okay. She took great pleasure in passing out gifts to her siblings, who introduced her around the village with pride.
I advise families planning a trip like ours to give their children a sense of normal daily life in their birth country. In addition to visiting major tourist sites, go shopping at a neighborhood market. Visit parks and schools. Stay with a host family. Elena came away with a tangible sense of what it means to be Romanian.
Since our trip, I’ve noticed a change in my daughter. She’s much more comfortable with who she is, more settled, more accepting of why her life unfolded the way it did. I’m glad my daughter is growing up knowing that nothing about her past is out of bounds. Our bond is stronger, not weaker, because I was willing to share, and even welcome, her ghosts into our home, thoughts, and lives.