What it's like to adopt a child from abroad

Helen O’Callaghan talks to Jennifer Phillips, a woman who found adopting a child from abroad to be a challenging, rewarding and enriching experience. 

HOLLY PHILLIPS is very lively and chatty and loves pretend play. The almost three-year-old also likes to show off her Ethiopian friends, children who like her have been adopted into Irish families.

Jennifer Phillips, aged 48, adopted Holly in Ethiopia when she was just six months old.

“I adopted her at the same time as another Irish woman adopted the child who shared a cot with Holly. Our children get on great and so do we.” Every year on Holly’s birthday, Jennifer remembers the little girl’s birth mum. “As she grows, I will tell her that her birth mother did care for her because she made sure she was adopted and got a family who would love her.”

Holly’s birth mother, her Ethiopian friends and her little cot companion are all part of what Trish Connolly of the International Adoption Association calls the ‘adoption circle’. “A person who is adopted has a wider family. Our children may join our family through adoption but we must remember they were born to another mother, another family, another culture. This is a huge part of their identity, of who they are and the adoptive family must remember this.”

Jennifer opted to adopt as a single applicant. “I wasn’t in a relationship in my late 30s but I wanted a child more than a partner. Adoption had always been on my mind.”

What really pushed the Meath woman to finally begin the adoption process was meeting a little boy on a charity trip to Uganda. His parents had both died of Aids and he would have loved to be a teacher. “But he couldn’t because he had to look after his younger siblings. I thought what a waste – he was such an intelligent little boy.”

The idea of being a single adoptive parent was never daunting, says Jennifer, who works in finance. “I had no concerns about my capability to parent alone, though I did find myself thinking would I be able to afford to raise a child on one income.”

The key question social workers asked Jennifer during her assessment to adopt was around her support network. Did she have one? How solid was it? “I had to prove to them, if something happened to me, that somebody would be instantly available and willing to take Holly 24/7 — say if I was in hospital for two weeks. I had to ask [my network] if this happened would they be available. I always had to have a solid circle around me, not just my family.”

Jennifer has four brothers, three of whom live close by. “One of them has four children around Holly’s age. I knew my daughter would have plenty of contact with cousins. She doesn’t have a dad here but she has plenty of contact with my brothers. My mother is amazing. So is my extended family— they’ve all accepted her so well.”

She was surprised at how easily she adapted to her changed lifestyle once Holly arrived. “I didn’t have one minute to myself, yet I adapted immediately. I woke up next morning, fed her and put her back for her nap. I felt I’d been a mother for years. I couldn’t get over how natural it was.”

But she’s aware there may be challenges ahead. “If Holly desperately wants to know information about her birth family and I can’t find it for her —that’s a concern. I just hope I can. I have a certain amount of information if she wants to trace her birth mother. As she gets older, I’ll have to explain to her that I’ll do my best but that I don’t have any guarantees.”

Peadar Maxwell, senior psychologist at the Child and Adolescent Psychology Department, HSE in South Wexford, agrees with Trish Connolly that adoption adds another layer.

“Adoptive parents are like other parents but they are also healing parents.”

Maxwell points out that a child, adopted internationally, who perhaps has been in an institution, may have additional needs – sensory-processing issues, such as hyperactivity or impulsiveness; language difficulties or attachment problems.

“One minute the child’s in Vietnam, the next they’re in Ireland. Ireland feels, smells and sounds different. People speak differently. The child is being asked to attach to a new family. It’s a big ask from a psychological and sensory point of view.

“Children who are adopted can be out of sync with their peers. A nine-year-old may be typical of his age group in terms of physical and intellectual age but be two years behind emotionally, so he doesn’t have any true peers.” For all these reasons, Maxwell says adoptive parents need to mind themselves.

“Taking a child from one culture to another comes with a big responsibility and might lead to parents becoming very focused on the needs of the child. They forget their own needs or feel guilty about meeting them.”

But, says Maxwell, when parents mind themselves it’s an act of love towards their child. “Parents mind themselves by minding their important relationships whether that is a couple, a romantic other, adult friends and family. When we value key relationships we are resourced. And a resourced parent is best placed to be a healing parent.”

* Peadar Maxwell is a speaker at the International Adoption Association’s conference on Saturday, November 7 (10am-4.30pm; registration: 9.30am) at the Carlton Hotel, Dublin Airport. Enquiries: 01 4992 206 or email info@iaaireland.org. Visit www.iaaireland.org 


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