When Older Children Stay Home

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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.

Grandma and Grandpa Move In

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."

A Couple Weeks with a Favorite Aunt

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."

Mom Goes, Dad Stays

Alison and Min McGhee.
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.

Devon and Luke O'Brien (center) at the cabin with cousins Rosie (left) and Willy Kerber.
Once Alison and Bill prepared the kids for Alison's trip and the new baby's arrival, Luke and Devon never questioned their parents beyond simple queries such as "Is China farther than Florida?" and "Where is 'New Baby' now?" "Because their father would be taking care of them like always, they seemed perfectly content that all would be fine," says Alison.

The first week that Alison was gone, Bill tried to maintained the family's regular summer program/daycare schedule. The second week, Bill took a week of vacation and took the kids to the family's cabin with his sister, her husband and their two children. "Each time I called the cabin, either Luke or Devon would answer the phone laughing," recalls Alison. "They would tell me that they had caught a fish, or saw a baby bear, or had gone out in the kayak. They were having a great time and I felt as if I wasn't needed at all!" laughs Alison.

Alison called home frequently while she was gone, racking up a $700 phone bill from China to America. "What the kids seemed to focus on more than anything else was 1) how many planes I had to take there and back and in between, and 2) how many hours on each plane," says Alison. Each phone call contained within it a variation on the theme: "Now Mommer's getting on another plane and boy it'll be a long ride." According to Alison, it was their way of trying to grasp the enormity of the trip.

Alison and Bill's decision not to take Luke and Devon on the adoption trip was also out of sensitivity to China's one-child policy. "I can barely imagine the anguish that must have accompanied the birth mother's decision to relinquish our daughter Min, who is a bright, beautiful and joyful child. Whatever the reason, you can be sure it stemmed from China's one-child policy." Alison said she would have been very uncomfortable bringing the whole family on the trip because it would continually convey to everyone they met in China that "our rules are different....we can have as many children as we want."

Alison also had this to share with all adoptive parents of Chinese children. "I speak Mandarin and tried to answer the myriad of questions that people on the street in China asked me and the other adoptive parents in my travel group, as gracefully, gently and truthfully as possible. Without exception, people would draw me aside once they knew I spoke Chinese and tell me, urgently, how much they love their babies in China - ALL babies, not just boys - and how very much so many families would like to have more than one child. The love of children is something anyone who's been in China knows in their gut. I would never want to hurt people by parading around Luke and Devon while carrying Min in my arms, knowing that a larger family is a near impossibility in China."

When Luke, Devon and Min are older, Alison and Bill would like to spend a year or so living in China with all three of their children. "That would be a much better way to really understand and experience the culture of Min's native country," says Alison.

Dad Goes, Mom Stays

Sheila Carrigan and Marlin Buse with Kids Brandon and Pari. Sheila Carrigan and her husband Marlin Buse looked into all the travel options before they adopted their daughter Pari (pronounced: "Perry") from China last summer. They eventually decided that Marlin would travel with his own sister Mary, who is single, and Sheila would stay at home with their six-year-old son Brandon. "It was a hard decision, but we decided it made sense for our family," says Sheila. "We had never left Brandon for more than a week. And we worried about leaving him that long and then coming home with a sister." Sheila says an advantage of their travel arrangement was that they could keep Brandon in his usual schedule. Also, since Sheila worked full-time while Marlin was away, she would have two extra weeks of leave time when Marlin and Pari came home.

When the time came for Marlin and Mary to leave, Sheila and Brandon took them to the airport. "We took one last picture of ourselves as a 'family of three,'" recalls Sheila. "I was really nervous and sad as we said good-bye." From the airport, Sheila and Brandon went to the Denver Natural History Museum to see the dinosaur exhibit and then on to a picnic sponsored by their adoption agency. "By happy coincidence, our agency was having its annual summer picnic on that afternoon. Brandon and I were so excited and happy to see all the beautiful babies and children. We felt much better about Marlin winging his way across the ocean to bring Pari home."

Sheila and Brandon called Marlin and Mary everyday. "On the first night in Nanchang, we were shocked to hear that they had just received Pari! Marlin said that she was cute as a bug. And I'll never forget how full my heart felt as Brandon 'talked' to his little sister by phone. It was really hard not to see her for all those days."

When Marlin, Mary and Pari arrived home, Sheila says that she was awake, well- rested and refreshed, rather than exhausted from the trip and travel home. "I think it was a good decision for us. I think the transition from 'King of the Castle' to brother was easier on Brandon because I stayed home with him. He is sweet and loving to Pari. And she is doing really well. Also, Marlin and Mary had a great brother-sister trip together. Someday, we will all travel to China together."

Thoughts from a Seasoned Traveler
Jackie Szczepanik, mother of three internationally adopted children and one biological child sums up her feelings this way, "Adoption travel is a wonderful perk-but it's not a vacation!"

Jackie feels that the newest addition has many issues that need to be handled by the primary caregiver. "I love this time of intense bonding with no other distractions, and the ability to concentrate on and get to know each of my children before the real world intrudes. Quite frankly, I am pretty selfish about this special time. I would rather deal with the inevitable sibling rivalry at home," says Jackie. "We are a very close family. My kids are very tight. So from my perspective, they did not need to be there from the first moment in order for them to bond."

"We have adopted three times internationally and I really never seriously considered taking any of the siblings along," says Jackie. "Our first adoption (daughter Kristen, now age 12) was from Korea, which required two trips. We were living in Japan at the time. My husband and I took our then five-year-old son, Ryan, with us on the first trip to meet his baby sister and do some paperwork. I returned alone six weeks later to pick up our daughter. Our second adoption was to Thailand (for daughter Katey, now age 8). Again I traveled without the kids, but my mother came along. We were in Thailand for two very busy weeks. Our daughter needed my undivided attention. Daughter number three, Kelsey (10 months at adoption), is from China. I traveled alone."

The Szczepanik children are always very involved in the adoption process-from helping their parents get the adoption documents together, to dreaming about how the new baby would be, to looking at baby "stuff." "We discuss the trip and how much I will miss them, but taking them along is never up for discussion," says Jackie. "While I'm gone, the kids and their dad plan a homecoming celebration, which they all enjoy." Jackie says that the highlight of the kids' time at alone with their Dad was their time spent alone with Dad. "My husband took vacation days, so they had him all to themselves."

Jackie says that one of the best things she did to prepare her older children for the new one's arrival was to carry around a sack of flour in a Snugli. "I was doing this to get in shape for lugging a baby around China," she says. "The 'baby' first weighed five pounds, then 10. It was so silly and we had some very funny comments and reactions to the 'baby.' We kept it a secret that the baby wasn't real because the girls were very embarrassed that their nutty mom was actually going out in public with this 'baby.' But the laughter opened the door for some good and honest discussions about the upcoming change in their lives," reflects Jackie.

While Jackie was gone, the kids and their dad planned a homecoming celebration. "That's always fun for them," she says. To keep the kids and dad up to date, Jackie sent faxes after each important step: when she first arrived in China, when she met Kelsey for the first time, when the adoption was final. "I wish I had sent a fax daily to the kids. They would have felt more a part of the process that way."

After Jackie returned, the kids were asked to help with the baby and were expected to help in any way they could. "They were great! The oldest drove his siblings to their activities without arguing. The girls jumped in and did chores without being asked! It was wonderful while it lasted," laughs Jackie.

"Each of my daughters know that I went alone to get her. I have told and retold the stories of my grand adventures to bring them home," says Jackie. "It's just the way it works in our family. Some moms go to the hospital to have babies...their mom hops on a plane. The end result is the same."

Credits: Mary E. Petertyl

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