An unexpected family
Karen and Mark Meuwissen's family didn't turn out exactly as they planned. But the Alexandria couple learned that some of the best things in life are unexpected.
"When I used to imagine what my family would look like, this isn't what I imagined," Karen said. "But now I can't imagine it any other way."
Their daughter, Beth, 17, is a blonde, blue-eyed American. Jacob, 7, is from Guatemala and has dark eyes, jet black hair and a ready giggle. And 5-year-old Ryan is a confident, dark-haired Korean.
"We have a Caucasian, a Hispanic and an Asian in our family," Karen said of their adopted children. "But it doesn't really matter. It feels like the right family."
The Meuwissens' non-traditional, but much-loved family started about 20 years ago when Karen discovered that she was unable to conceive. At that time, the waiting list for a domestic adoption was five to nine years.
She and her then-husband got lucky. Two and a half years into the process, they got a call that there was a baby girl waiting for them. Beth was placed into her mother's arms at two and a half weeks old.
"I didn't miss out on any of her life, just the pain of childbirth," Karen said.
When Beth was 4, her adoptive parents divorced. That led to the reunion of Mark and Karen, high school sweethearts who were reunited by their mothers.
"And thus began the great rebuilding," Mark said.
The two married after some serious discussion.
"One of the things we knew was that I wouldn't be able to conceive," Karen recalled. "Mark knew he wasn't going to be able to have biological children. That's a big thing to think about."
It was an easy decision for Mark.
"She was way more important to me than whether I would have a biological child," he said.
After being married a year, the couple decided to start the American adoption process. In Minnesota, open adoption policy enabled the birth parents to choose the adoptive parents. It was a long and arduous wait.
Over two and a half years, the Meuwissens had only two interviews with birth parents. They determined that one would not work out. The other seemed perfect, but the mother changed her mind at the last minute.
A social worker then suggested that the Meuwissens pursue an international adoption. Although they worried about the difficulty a child from another country may face here, they agreed. After doing some research, they chose Guatemala for several reasons - the babies there were in foster care instead of orphanages; they thought they would be able to understand the Latin American culture; and they met all the requirements.
"The odds were kind of against us," Mark said. "Both of us had been divorced, we were remarried with an 8-year-old child in the house. And we were getting old - at 36-37."
The Meuwissens proceeded to fill out "an obscene amount of paperwork" and wait.
"It's an odd feeling because you don't have to go through nine months of labor, but it's a financial and emotional strip search," Mark explained. "It's amazing what you need to go through."
"It's really nerve-wracking and it's really scary," Karen agreed. "You know you are a fit, you know you will be a great parent, but it's not your choice."
In December 2001, the Meuwissens said a definite "yes" to a baby boy they describe as "the Gerber baby with jet black hair" with the "biggest roundest head you have ever seen" and a "belly rolling barrel laugh."
In May 2002 they arrived in Guatemala and their new son, Jacob, was handed to them by his foster sister on his 6-month birthday.
"I had such mixed emotion," Karen recalled of the girl's tears at the exchange. "I finally had this child, but you can feel the pain of the people handing him over."
A few months after Jacob's arrival, the Meuwissens decided that he and Beth should have another sibling. But by the time they were ready to start the process again, the Guatemalan government shut down all adoptions. So this time, they opted to put their name on the Korean list.
"Here we were bringing another race into the family, but we were so ready for another child," Karen said. "We wanted to have two kids closer in age."
Normally a lengthy wait, luck was on their side and the couple got a call within two weeks.
But some "gut instinct" told them that it wasn't right, and after much soul-searching, they turned it down.
"It was like an intuition," Mark said. "It didn't feel like that was going to be my son. It just didn't feel right."
Six weeks later, they got another referral, and knew immediately that the baby boy in the photos would be the next child in their growing family.
On his 7-month birthday, Ryan was escorted from Korea to America to meet his new family.
"When we brought him home, we knew our family was complete," Karen said. "We didn't have any regrets."
But they do know they have a long road ahead of them.
"We did not make these decisions lightly," Karen said. "Raising a multi-racial family is challenging, and can be very difficult in a small community."
"I think overall the community has been very supportive. I don't think we have had a prejudice issue yet," Mark said. "I think their day is coming, and we have to make sure that they have that safe family to come home to. We have to give them the tools to work with that conflict."
For the Meuwissens, those "tools" include a stable and secure home full of their own family traditions - and an abundance of love for this unexpected family that is better than they ever could have imagined.
About 20,000 children from foreign nations are adopted by U.S. families each year. Intercountry adoption is the process by which you:
adopt a child from a different country than your own through permanent legal means; and
bring that child to your home country to live with you permanently.
It involves the legal transfer of parental rights from the birth parent(s) to the adoptive parent(s).
This process can be long, complicated and expensive. During the process, you'll need to make many decisions, some minor and some potentially life-changing. Clarifying your hopes and goals early on can make those decisions easier. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Start strong by learning as much as you can, seeking sound advice and maintaining a good support system. Consider speaking with a licensed professional counselor, therapist, social worker or member of the clergy about questions or anxieties you may have about becoming an adoptive parent.
Flexibility may be necessary. For example, many prospective adoptive parents begin the process by assuming that they want as young a child as possible, and a child that closely matches their family's ethnic or historical roots. They may learn that there are older or multi-ethnic children eligible for adoption, and must make a decision on whether to stay with their original intentions or consider the other options.
While trying to follow the advice of friends who successfully navigated a foreign adoption, you may learn that a country's laws have changed or an agency is under new leadership. Some legal complexity may threaten to undo months or years of planning, or require additional months of waiting. Patience is necessary through the process.
There are inherent financial and emotional risks associated with every adoption. Discuss these openly with your adoption service.
You may also find it beneficial to consult with other parents or support groups about the risks and concerns associated with adoption.
Here are some places to start your support group search:
Adoption Services Support Groups for Adopting Persons: www.adoptionservices.org/adoption/adoption_support_groups.htm.
Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA): www.frua.org.
Families with Children from China: http://fwcc.org.
Guatemala Adoptive Families Network: www.guatefam.org.
North American Council on Adoptable Children: www.nacac.org.
Our Chinese Daughters Foundation (OCDF): www.ocdf.org.