It used to be common that adopted children made return trips to their birth countries. Today such trips are made where the entire family travels. A doctoral thesis at Linköping University has studied return trips of adopted children, and found that in many ways the focus is also on the parents.
The trip is seen as an important way for the child to feel proud about their birth country, and to be able to answer questions about their birth country and adoption
Much of the advice and recommendations for adoptive parents concerns the child’s right to his or her origins. This has led to many families travelling on adoption return trips, with the purpose of connecting with the child’s birth country. These trips have become so common that there is now an entire industry devoted to the practice, with travel agencies tailoring return trips as a type of family holiday.
Previous research has mainly focussed on adoptees who are young adults and adults, and has shown that adoption return trips can be positive for the development of the adoptee’s identity. Unlike this research, where the return trip has mainly met the needs and wishes of the adopted child, Johanna Gustafsson’s doctoral thesis shows that in many ways the focus is also on the parents.
“It’s mainly the parents who drive the decision to make an adoption return trip. For instance, the children don’t return in order to re-experience memories to the same degree, because they often don’t have any memories of their birth countries. But the parents often do, from the time they picked up their child and became a family. The results indicate, in other words, that it’s not mainly the children who return but the parents”, says Johanna Gustafsson, who recently completed her doctorate at the Department of Thematic Studies, Linköping University.
Based on a family perspective, Johanna Gustafsson studied how children and parents approach the decision to make an adoption return trip. By way of interviews with children and parents in ten Swedish adoptive families, she investigated how the trips’ content was planned and how children and parents experienced the trip.
Parents want to give children insight into their origin
The results show that it is the parents who drive the decision to take an adoption return trip. The trip is seen as an important way for the child to feel proud about their birth country, and to be able to answer questions about their birth country and adoption. So the trip is primarily motivated by the child’s origins. However the desire to reconnect with the child’s origins varies between families. While some felt that it was important to meet people from the child’s past, others only wanted to experience the country.
All the children I interviewed were happy with their trip, but they mainly saw it as a holiday trip.
By planning and making a return trip, the parents live up to the recommendations of, for instance, Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare, which says that it is important that the child has access to its origins. In other words, an adoption return trip helps make them “good” adoptive parents. But making a decision to go on a return trip is not easy; the parents alternate between fear that the child will find the trip difficult and the notion that not travelling could lead to difficulties for the child later in life.
The children themselves were not very involved in the planning of the adoption return trips, and some of them do not know before departure what they were going to do while in their birth countries. For them, the trip was much like any holiday trip, with a focus on sun, swimming and shopping. In other words, the children and the parents had different expectations of the trip.
The return trip and the importance of money
An adoption return trip to e.g. China or Colombia, is a large investment. One theme that emerged in Johanna Gustafsson’s interaction with the families concerned how money affects the trips.
For the parents who Johanna Gustafsson interviewed, adoption return trips can’t be valued in terms of money, even if they have to borrow from their pension savings. But money gives rise to moral dilemmas. Is it right to give money to the child’s foster parents? Or to the orphanage where the child lived? Money signals what people feel is important, and reveals complicated relationships.
The children’s view of money mainly concerned shopping. Going shopping together became an activity where the families could enjoy themselves together, all on the same terms, without the focus being on the different origins of the family members.
“All the children I interviewed were happy with their trip, but they mainly saw it as a holiday trip. What it means for them in the future in terms of identity and belonging is something that would be interesting to follow up”, says Johanna Gustafsson.