The First Family Connection

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When I mentioned to people that I would be taking my 9 year old son back to Ethiopia to visit his birth family I received all types of responses.  People were excited for us, nervous for him.  Some wondered if I was “returning” my son- YES really they asked me that!!  And, others asked why?  They implied he was so young when he left them that he wouldn’t even remember.  Oh, and let’s not forget the handful of people who asked if I was scared the family would try to keep him.  So, let’s talk about the reality of the trip.

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Thankfully I listened to my mama gut because this trip was nothing short of amazing. Seeing my son literally melt into the embraces offered up by teary eyed family members is not something I will easily forget.  Watching my son who is typically untrusting and nervous in new environments absolutely shine… he was in his element.  And, he deserved to experience that.

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My son left his family at around age 2 1/2, his memories before we visited were mostly erased.  However, there is something powerful to be said about the first family connection.  I would be lying if I told you that he feels as comfortable in our family as he appeared to feel with his first family while we were in Ethiopia.  All of those early days being cared for by this group of individuals.  It didn’t matter that they had not seen each other in over 6 years… something about it rang incredibly familiar to my son.  He did remember them… his body remembered what it felt like to be there.  It was familiar.  And, he recognized faces that he hadn’t seen in years.

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One of the things I find so interesting is how scared I was of the “birth family” when I first started looking into adopting a child.  One of the reasons I chose international adoption and Ethiopia specifically was because I wanted to ensure I would not have to deal with a birth family.  At that time I was naive.  I too, thought it would be incredibly hard to share the role of mom.  I too, was concerned my adopted child could be taken from me.

However, now after experiencing the trials and hardships with Shea.  Watching him grow curious… seeing there was a missing link in his life that only his first family could fulfill  I can tell you I was a fool.  Adopted kids NEED to have access (whenever possible) to their first families.  They need to feel that connection, to ask those hard questions and to understand their adoption story.  And, I can assure you that your role as mom is not compromised but only strengthened when you can allow your child to connect with their first mom.  Above is Shea’s mom hugging him for the first time in over 6 years.  I cannot tell you what that hug did for my son’s heart.  To feel that love that his first mom has for him.  To know his adoption did not take place because he was unloved or unwanted- that is some powerful stuff!!!

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In Shea’s case he wasn’t only missed by his immediate family.  An entire village came to welcome him home. I mean this kid was floating on cloud 9 and still is even almost a week after we’ve returned home.  He knows now that HE IS LOVED!!!

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And, it wasn’t just the people.  Shea was fascinated by the tour he took of the home his family lived in.  He loved being able to walk through the home and see how it is that his family lives.  Many of his questions were about their day to day lives.  He just wanted to gain a better understanding of how they lived.

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Talking about day to day activities.  We had hired an amazing guide/ driver/ translator who stopped whenever he saw local kids playing.  Shea was able to join in, learn about his culture and what kids his age did there.  It was really neat to see.  The kids were all so welcoming to Shea and everyone cheered him on.  Ethiopian’s are some of the kindest people I know.birth_family_meeting_ethiopia

I am still trying to get over the amount of love that was lurking around every corner while we were in Arbegona.  We met so many cousins, neighbors and friends.  One moment that was incredibly neat to witness happened when we were walking the path his family still walks ever day to get water.  On our way we ran into a gentleman who approached Shea and started kissing on him and demanding kisses back.  Shea stood there shocked but we could here him say Mamush (Shea’s Ethiopian name) and so we knew he somehow was connected.  Then our translator informed us it was Shea’s Great Uncle… he had recognized him walking down the path and he was SO happy to see him.  How cool is that?

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Shea said he felt like a movie star because every where he went local kids would follow. These cuties followed us on our walk to see the water supply.  They were ecstatic to be included in the picture although you can’t tell by their blank stares.  Its so funny how they don’t know to smile in pictures.  Honestly, they were squealing with delight and jumping up and down right before this shot 😉

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Ahhh… then there were the moments with Shea’s birth siblings.  That was pretty amazing.  All my son has wanted to do is play soccer with his older brother.  He has talked about it on several occasions.  I cannot believe he finally was able to so.  It was like watching a miracle.  So so special!!!

He was also reunited with his 13 year old sister whom probably was his primary caregiver during the day as many older sisters are in Ethiopia.  To watch her follow him around was priceless.  You could feel the love she had for Shea.  Such a beautiful and sweet soul she was.

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And, then he got to meet his younger sister who was born after his adoption took place.  Shea had seen several pictures of her from when we hired searchers to contact his family… but for him to be able to meet her was something special!!!  Look at those faces behind the two of them… oh be still my heart!!!

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A sense of belonging is something else Shea gained.  An understanding of his roots, the ability to piece his puzzle together on his own terms.  Man oh man to any one out there who is debating taking your child back to visit their birth family or even birth country if family is not possible.  Please… please do… and do it NOW!!!  Don’t wait!

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I am so glad that Shea was able to have this opportunity.  I am happy that he now has the ability to talk about where he is from.  He got to know his family, his country, the beauty and the poverty.  He gets to make up his own mind in regards to his thoughts on Ethiopia.  He went from not wanting to talk about Ethiopia or his adoption in front of people to wanting to share his country with the world.  He asked to do a presentation in his classroom and he is re-decorating his room to what he calls an “Ethiopian” style.  What a gift this trip was for both him and I.

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Our guide was a great help in balancing the emotional parts of the trip with sightseeing adventures in Ethiopia.  I love that Shea got to see so many sides of Ethiopia.  We were able to do the fun animal adventure stuff like visiting the Abieta Shala National Park, Lake Awassa and Born Free.  We were able to visit a ton of ministries and non profits (check out more about them here).

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We also learned about customs and culture by visiting teff farms (teff is the grain that injera is made out of) and watching traditional coffee ceremonies.  I even let Shea try some coffee which he thought was pretty great!

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Then of course… let’s not forget… the FOOD!!!

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One of my favorite things about visiting other countries is trying out all of their native dishes.

This trip we were really fortunate because there was a large party of Ethiopians who were staying at the guesthouse with us.  They were kind enough to invite us to a cultural dinner and show.  We ate amazing Ethiopian food, Shea learned to dance Ethiopian style and my brother and I learned how to drink Tej (honey wine) the right way.  I was so proud of Shea for jumping in and being so willing to learn from his fellow Ethiopians.  I hope this sparks an interest and connection with his culture that we can continue to keep alive.

Ethiopian Cultural Dancing from Mama Munchkin on Vimeo.

It was amazing being able to learn so much about Ethiopia.  It was equally amazing to be able to give something back.  Ethiopia is always in great need.  When I visited the first time I had collected new packaged underwear to donate to the various orphanages.  So, I had asked Shea if there was something he would like to collect.  He had the wonderful idea of collecting soccer balls and delivering them all over his country.  Initially, I wasn’t sure if it was possible but after my husband informed me the balls could be deflated we got started.  Shea collected nearly 300 soccer balls.  He was able to give something back to the people in his native land.  He was so proud and had so much fun bringing joy to these other children.  It was really neat to watch! (Read more about our soccer ball donation drive here and here).

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Our time in Ethiopia had to come to an end… but I know we will be back soon.  And, until then Ethiopia will remain close to our hearts!!

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Tell me your thoughts on birth family/ first family connections.

I would love to hear them!!

18 Comments

  • Carrie says:

    what an amazing story beautiful images! thank you for sharing

  • Carrie says:

    This is great! I love how much love and compassion you have that is so hard to come by now a days. It is refreshing to see! While I have never been in your position I completely agree with your decision. I would hope that if I ever chose to adopt I could do the same.

  • You and Shea have a beautiful, wonderful, spellbinding story. I read it with a few tears because of the beauty and because of your obviously huge, generous heart, and with a smile. Every child should have such a loving mother.
    Robin Follette recently posted…The Liberty ProjectMy Profile

  • Xavia Omega says:

    Wow, what an incredible story. Shea is truly blessed, surrounded by so much love. Kudos to you for making that happen for him!

  • Natalie says:

    This is absolutely incredible! Your son is so lucky to have your family to support him and share these ties with him–now, he knows that he’s loved on both sides of the world! I also love that you incorporated a service aspect of the soccer balls into the trip. What a wonderful way to give back to his home country. 🙂
    Natalie recently posted…Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up | Vol. 5My Profile

  • Vi Dotter says:

    He is a lovely boy. What a smile. You have fulfilled something in him that will only assist him on his life’s journey. We all have fear of the unknown, but we know that by challenging ourselves we grow and our lives are fuller for it. Sometimes I think people are just unsure what to say when confronted by something so foreign and they just say things hoping to hit somewhere on the target. Or maybe we should socialize less, because seriously some people are not worthy – “returning your son” – test failed. Just FYI your video is showing up as “private” – Thanks again for another great post.

  • David Dolnick says:

    Thank you for sharing this awesome story Amber. Today’s news is filled with so much negativity it is stories like this and people like your family that bring such an amazing smile to my face and give me hope for our future. I only know one thing in Ethiopian – Negus Negas – King of Kings. Shea has the smile of a king and this post warms my heart. Blessings and light!

  • Diana says:

    What a great experience for Shea (and you)! to be honest I pictured him older (idk why, maybe when I read his adoption story I thought it was more than 6 years ago)
    Diana recently posted…Enchildas Suizas (& Meal Plan)My Profile

  • eva says:

    Thank you for that wonderful and heartwarming insight. I would love to hear a bit more how you were received by the birthfamily, if it was being part of a big Family or rather being an “intruder” or so….

    • Mama Munchkin says:

      I will have to write about that- thank you!! We were wonderfully received. Every neighbor and relative came to see my son. They all kissed and prayed over us. There was so much excitement and love to be felt. I think that was the most healing part for my son 🙂

      • eva says:

        That would be great! I think that being received positively as a whole family is so important for an adopted child. There is nothing worse than the sensation of being torn inbetween them…

  • Laura says:

    This brought back wonderful memories of our trip to Ethiopia last December with our adopted 18 year old daughter. It was life changing and so healing for her and for us! She is now a freshman in college majoring in nursing. She is wonderfully balanced between her Ethiopian family and her Amgerican family and culture. We have seen a very hurting 10 year old girl when we adopted her, grow into a beautiful young woman and the trip to Ethiopia was part of that healing process. We are so grateful to have been able to go and put together the pieces of her life puzzle. To meet her family, friends, and be a part of the culture she loves! We are forever connected and What a blessing! 😊 Thank you for also sharing your journey!

  • Noel Nielsen says:

    What a great read today. What a great gift you were able to provide for Shea.

    I feel much the way that you do about making the trip back to their homeland. When my girls first came home, from Ethiopia, I made a commitment to myself to take my twin girls back every 3-4 years. I wanted my girls to know their country and their family.

    I know that not every adoption from Ethiopia is the same and that every child has their own unique circumstances, that lead to adoption, and that everyone has to gage what would be the best time to make their first trip back, for their child. However, our adoption was quite unique. I first met my girls in 2006, when on a medical humanitarian trip. My girls were about 6 months old, at the time. After leaving Ethiopia, in 2006, I started sponsoring their young 16 year old mother to go to school. It wasn’t until I had been home from that trip for 3 months, that I got a call, saying that the adoption of the twins fell through and that the birth mother wanted me to take them. So from the get go, we had a very different story, than most Ethiopian adoptions. My girls came home when they were a little older than 2 years old. We made our first trip back when they were 6 years old. We had an amazing 3 weeks, in Ethiopia. We spent a full week with their birth mother. There was a whole bunch of us that went back together. You see, there were about 30 Village of Hope kids that were adopted and just about all of them live within a few hours of us. There were 50 of us that traveled back, to Ethiopia. We had an AMAZING visit. The girls enjoyed each and every day. However, once we were back in the US, I was blown away by their response to the trip. They told my sister, “Oh Aunt Jackie, you don’t want to go to Ethiopia. They have naked people” and they also said, “Mom, next time can’t we just go to Mexico?”. I was blown away! The trip went off without a hitch. They were having so much fun. But it wasn’t until I had spoken to a girlfriend of mine, who had taken her girls back, to Ethiopia, the year before, that I started to understand. Her kids went through the same thing. They didn’t want to go back again. While talking to her, we talked about the processing that these kids go through after visiting with their birth family and their country. I think for a lot of these kids, it doesn’t matter if their first time back is at 6, 12 or 18 years old, there has to be this process of sorting out their past life with their current life. My friend told me to give it time, soon my girls should start warming up to talking about it again and perhaps talking about returning. She was right, it took about a year. It has been almost 3 1/2 years since we went and my girls are very excited for our next trip.

    I don’t regret for one minute, taking them when I did. Looking back, I know it was right. In fact, one of the surprising things about this trip was, this trip was suppose to be all about my girls, but it turns out that the very neatest thing was, having my girl’s birth mom have the chance to still see the girls while they were still young. Seeing them sit on her lap and for her to still be able to carry them, brought tears to my eyes. I thought, “I am so glad the girls are so still so little, because if I came when they were teenagers, she wouldn’t have had the chance to see them while still so young.” Our trip was truly a special gift for her AND now my girls are also starting to recognize that too.

    This is a video I made of our first trip back. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfCdxIs9OI0

  • Sarah says:

    Amazing, thank you for writing this!

  • Elise says:

    Thank you for sharing your amazing story! We have been talking about the ‘right’ time to make a trip back, and your story was very inspiring. I was wondering though, how you navigated the money issue. I’ve heard several stories about how the birth families ask for money. How did you handle this? What would you recommend? Any thoughts would be so appreciated!

    • Mama Munchkin says:

      I think the right time definitely depends on the child. My son is 9 and this past summer out of no where he really expressed strong interest in making the journey. For us his age was perfect bc I felt he was young enough to not feel the weight of the burden to have to take care of his family. He just felt loved. I told our searcher that I wanted him to be very upfront about our intentions in regards to money. I had heard that families act and even expect money sometimes. To my surprise they never asked. We did bring fruit, coffee and some supplies like jackets, blankets, solar lamp and charger and solar flashlights. And, I did leave a small amount of money with the mother to help. But, I think if you hire the right translator and discuss with them your intentions and how to talk to the birth parents about expectations you will be fine. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  • Loooooved your story.Thank you so much for sharing!
    In fact it is Sunday morning and it is an amazing way to start my day. We have never been to Ethiopia and after reading your personal story I truly feel compelled to go.
    margalit francus recently posted…Chicago’s Rock and Roll McDonald’sMy Profile

    • Mama Munchkin says:

      I’m so glad you liked it 🙂 Ethiopia is one of my favorite countries to visit. The people are so warm and welcoming! You definitely should go someday.

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