‘Do you know what you’re getting into?’ We went from empty nesters to a family of 5 in less than a year.’: Couple gush ‘my kids are the best thing about life’ after international adoption journey

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“When people see my family, they instantly get a piece of our story without us having to say anything. Two white adults + two Asian kids = adoption. Most people figure it out pretty quickly. Some are curious about our story and how we came to be the family we are, so let’s start there.

We went from being two empty nesters to a family of five in 11 months. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s really as crazy as it sounds.

My husband and I were both serving in the military, the Air Force, and we got reassigned from Illinois to England. My daughter, who had just turned 19, opted to stay and work in Illinois. My husband and I were in an exciting new place, completely unencumbered, with endless opportunities to travel and experience new things.

A husband and wife stand together on the Great Wall of China
Courtesy of Jill Robbins

I mean…adopting two toddler boys seemed the most logical next step.

I’m kidding. There was nothing logical about our decision to adopt. ‘Why did you adopt?’ is a common question I get when I meet new people. I don’t exactly have a great answer, though. Our most recent adoption happened nine years ago, and I still have trouble answering that question in any way that makes sense to someone else.

Our two adoptions make sense. They make sense to me in all the ways that count.

Let’s rewind.

I have one biological daughter who I raised mostly by myself. I met my now-husband when she was in high school. Although I’d always wanted more kids, things didn’t work out that way, and after I had a hysterectomy at 41, I accepted that door was closed.

I met my husband about six weeks after my hysterectomy—talk about excellent timing, right? We got married in October and moved to England in January, so our first few months of married life were busy and hectic. We sold two houses and prepared for an international move.

We had big plans for our life in England, lists of places we’d visit and things we’d do. We’d talked a little about adoption, but those conversations got pushed to the back burner. I just accepted we were in another season of life.

In England, we met another American family. They had a daughter adopted from China and were in the process of adopting a second child from China through the China Special Needs Program. I saw the little girl, who was about five at the time, walking down a hallway holding her mother’s hand, and everything just lined up for me, right there, in my head.

I know it sounds corny and simplistic and illogical. I can’t explain it any better, even to myself. I knew this was what our family was supposed to look like, and I needed to figure out how to make it happen then convince my husband this was what our family was supposed to look like.

I started researching China Special Needs Adoption and started regularly peppering my conversations with my husband about the topic. It helped that someone we knew personally had experience in this area. It didn’t come completely out of left field when I ever so casually asked my husband one evening, ‘What do you think about us adopting from China?’

I didn’t get an immediate ‘Wow, that’s a great idea. We totally should!’ but I didn’t get an ‘Are you crazy?’ so I kept researching and planting seeds. And my husband isn’t a quick-answer guy or a get-excited guy.

Although I definitely drove the bus, and I don’t think we’d have landed here if I hadn’t pursued the idea of adoption, my husband did get fully on board and by the time things got real, it was definitely an equal endeavor.

We told most of our family, friends, and coworkers once we’d completed our home study and had been matched with a child. We told my daughter very early on but didn’t widely share until things were a little further down the road.

The most common reaction we got was ‘Are you crazy?’ or some version of ‘Do you know what you’re getting into?’ Some responses were phrased a little more gently, but adopting a two-year-old in our late forties wasn’t the path most people who knew us expected us to take.

A little boy sits on top of a stone structure
Courtesy of Jill Robbins

While those aren’t exactly responses a prospective parent wants to hear, I get that our decision was seen as a little outside the box. I tried not to let the lack of fanfare and excitement get to me, although it sometimes did.

When a wanted, planned child comes into your life, no matter how it happens, you want it to be celebrated.

We’ve had a lot of people ask ‘Why China?’ Sometimes the ‘And why not an American child?’ was spoken, and sometimes it was just implied. That’s a long answer, and for the truly curious, I can talk to you more about why and how we chose as we did. The short answer is it made sense for us at the time. We had a unique living and residency situation, which made international adoption more practical, and we felt the China program was the best fit for us out of all the international programs we considered.

I do want to explain a little bit about the China Special Needs program. When we first started making inquiries about adoption, the wait time for an infant with no special or medical needs was about eight-plus years. The China Special Needs program was much quicker. Although the words ‘special needs’ frightened me at first, we found it to be a very good fit for our family.

There were a variety of kids with different special or medical needs available for adoption in China, some of which most Western families would consider quite minor, such as low vision, birthmarks, missing digits, and so on. There were also more challenging needs such as Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida, or Cerebral Palsy.

Our adoption paperwork included a home study—having a social worker come into our home before and after our adoptions and write a report on us—as well as extensive background checks and a bazillion pieces of paper stamped, sealed, apostilled, and certified by both the U.S. Department of State and the Chinese government. Our adoption paperwork was in a 10-gallon tote. I used two binders and three plastic accordion files.

Since we were matched with both our kids prior to adoption, we had a chance to get to know them—at least on paper and through photographs—before they came into our home. One of our kids lived in a foster home associated with an orphanage, and the other lived in an orphanage in a large room with lots of cribs cared for by nannies. Once we had been approved to adopt them, we used a third-party service to send packages with little gifts and pictures of us.

A little boy sits on a toy tractor
Courtesy of Jill Robbins

One of the questions we are asked most often is whether or not our kids are biologically related. Sometimes we’re asked if they’re ‘real brothers,’ which is a personal pet peeve of mine. Our boys are not biologically related and come from different provinces. They were adopted separately, one year apart. They are four months apart. And they are real brothers in all the ways that matter.

A pair of boys stand together wearing Christmas sweaters
Courtesy of Jill Robbins

Our first meetings with our kids were weird and wonderful and surreal in the same way any birth story is. They were also heartbreaking and stressful.

The way the China adoption system is set up (or was, at the time of our adoptions) is not perfect. After months or even years of waiting, the parents travel to the child’s home province to meet the child for the first time. The kids are in the care of a representative of the child’s orphanage during this first meeting. After an alarmingly short amount of time and some paperwork, the parents assume custody of the child and leave.

There’s a second meeting within 24 hours where the families are asked if they wish to proceed with the adoption, then more paperwork. The family must wait with the child in the child’s home province while the Chinese side of the paperwork is completed (about 3-4 days) and then the family travels to Guangzhou to complete the rest of the adoption in the U.S. Embassy.

Our kids were both scared and didn’t fully grasp what was going on, even though we were assured everything had been explained. They were two and three years old, respectively, and I’m sure the concept was impossible for them to grasp.

The process had been well explained to us, but it’s one of those things in life that is impossible to prepare for. There were a lot of tears and doubts during our first moments with each of them.

Parents stand in a field with their two adopted sons
Courtesy of Brittany Brietzke Photography

Our two adoptions were very different. One was relatively idyllic and easy after the first 24 hours of ‘Who is this stranger?’ Things calmed down and were really smooth after that, aside from some sleep issues. Everything went pretty much as we’d expected it to go.

The other was stressful in every possible way something could be stressful. Nothing went as planned. We had problems with our visa paperwork for our child which caused snafus with our travel and extra travel expenses. Once home, we had problems with insurance, and we had an issue with my pay being stopped for no apparent reason. We also had an undisclosed medical issue with our second adoption and a medical issue that had been presented as less elevated than it was. It was a lot on our plates, and I know everyone in our house felt that stress, as hard as we tried not to let them.

No matter how you bring kids into your family, you can never predict what kind of curveball life is going to throw at you. Sometimes, you just have to keep paddling the boat.

Between our first and second adoptions, our daughter (20) came back to live with us. When I said empty nesters to a family of five in 11 months, I was not kidding. I was happy to have everyone together, but that much of a shift in family dynamic in such a short time is a rollercoaster. It’s like replacing your bicycle with a rocket ship.

Things eventually smoothed out, and we found our normal. I did have a bout of depression after our second adoption. We all had a harder time adjusting, and regular life seemed to be imploding. Post-adoption depression is real, which I found out the hard way. I’d always dismissed it before it happened to me. It was a good lesson in empathy, but it was a very hard time.

A little boy plays with a ribbon outside
Courtesy of Jill Robbins

I didn’t get help or go to a therapist for quite a while, but I eventually did, and I found solace in journaling. I tried to talk to a friend about it once and the answer I got was ‘But this is what you wanted.’ It made me feel so guilty and so horrible, I never brought it up again. I think transitioning to being a parent or to parenting more kids always has the potential to be difficult and stressful. There are different events that might make life more challenging or stressful, and people process those kinds of things differently.

With both of our boys’ adoptions, we had the opportunity to spend some time in Beijing and in their home provinces. I am glad I have stories about our time spent in their birth country and pictures to share. We hope to go back and visit when they’re a little older and the world isn’t so crazy.

Our biggest challenges with adoption right now are the inability to answer our kids’ questions about their birth parents. We have no information or clues about their birth parents or their lives in China before we came along, as is typical for China adoptions.

Two brothers sit together at a waterpark
Courtesy of Jill Robbins

We don’t know much about our kids’ finding stories, and what we do know, we keep private. While we’ve shared a lot about our family story in the broad strokes, some of the particulars of our story are theirs to tell, so we agreed to let them be the ones to reveal those things, if or when they choose to do that.

There are DNA kits and registries a lot of adoptees are using to connect with birth relatives. We have selected one and will be doing that this fall/winter. We know of adoptees who have connected with people they’re biologically related to this way, but we are going into this very cautiously and trying not to have a huge amount of expectations.

At nine years after our first adoption, life feels pretty ordinary. I don’t forget my kids are adopted. I don’t forget they’re of a different race and ethnicity from my husband and me and that brings some different responsibilities. That said, the fact they’re adopted isn’t front and center anymore, at least not all the time.

A family with their two sons on a boardwalk
Courtesy of Melissa Ann Photography

For me, the hardest thing about adoption is the weird questions or the assumptions people make about our family based on a quick glance. Adoption isn’t my good deed or a calling. Not all curiosity is friendly. Even the most benevolent curiosity can be ill-timed or inappropriate.

Adoption brought a lot of new people into my life besides my kids. I’ve met a lot of people I would never have otherwise met because of my boys—other adoptive parents, people in the limb difference community, and younger parents who are my new contemporaries. When you have a kid at 42—no matter how that happens—you are probably going to be the oldest mom in the kindergarten class.

I still can’t explain, in any sort of intelligent way, why I saw that mom with her daughter back in 2011 and knew what path my life would take. My kids—all of them—are the best things about my life.

There are all kinds of ways to become a family. This was how it happened for us.”

Two brothers stand back to back with their arms crossed
Courtesy of Jill Robbins
Parents hug their two adopted sons
Courtesy of Jill Robbins

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jill Robbins of San Antonio, Texas. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, or her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d love to hear your journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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