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Sailing the World to Meet Your Kids



Kelly Watts at sea with her family–Jessica (daughter), Paul (husband) and Nick (son)

If I could have coffee with any woman in the world, it would be Kelly Watts. Author, adventurer, adoptive mom…Her response to a “life crisis” at 35-years-old caused by infertility and failed IVF treatments was to sell her home and sail around the world with her husband, Paul…which led to the adoptions of their two children: Jessica, from the Pacific Micronesian Island of Kiribati; and Nick, from the Marshall Islands. She documents her journey of setting sail around the world and meeting her children in the process in her book “Sailing to Jessica.” In today’s “Take Five,” she talks about adopting from remote places in the world, having an open relationship with her children’s birth moms…and why life is one grand adventure.

1. Kelly, you wrote “Sailing to Jessica” to document the unexpected journey of adopting a two-month-old baby in Kiribati. I’ve never heard of anyone adopting from this place. Would you tell us about that process? Do you recommend others pursue adopting from this country? 

After our failed IVF attempts in New Zealand, Paul and I decided that we would adopt a child when we finished sailing around the world.  So we set sail.  When we arrived in Kiribati, we thought we’d stay for a week.  Instead, we stayed for eight months as we unexpectedly adopted our daughter, Jessica.   Their adoption law, modeled after British law, required us to stay in the country for 6 months of the adoption process. Since we had already quit our jobs and sold our house to sail around the world, we were able to stay.  We anchored in Tarawa’s lagoon and enjoyed getting to know our baby daughter; the court allowed us to keep her during this time.  The adoption process was straightforward.

But I think the statistics prove how difficult it is: the Department of State’s Intercountry Adoption website shows that only one female infant has been adopted from Kiribati over the past 15 years – and that’s our daughter.    If someone intends to live in Kiribati for a couple of years, then I highly recommend adopting an I-Kiribati baby.  But for most of us – including Paul and I once we returned to life on land, jobs and a mortgage – adopting from Kiribati is a challenge.  That’s why we adopted our second child, Nick, from the Marshall Islands.

2.  What did the process of adopting from the Marshall Islands involve? The Central Adoption Agency governs adoptions in the Marshall Islands and, at the time, they were only working with one adoption agency.  So we worked with that adoption agency.  After 7 months of waiting, we received the joyous phone call that we were going to be parents of a two-month baby boy.  We hopped on a plane and flew to Majuro where we met Nick and his Marshallese family.  After his adoption was approved, we then spent 6 weeks waiting for his USCIS visa to be approved.  Compared to our independent adoption of Jessica, Nick’s adoption was a breeze.

3.  You have an open adoption with your children’s birth moms.  What does this look like?

When we first started sailing across the Pacific, we met a man who had been adopted by a Polynesian family.  He explained that, to Pacific Islanders, adoption is like marriage: it unites two families.  For the adopted child, there is no denying one family for the other; they are both family. I was – and still am – struck by this simple truth.  And our children are living examples.  Nick will cheerfully chat with a stranger, just like I do, but his broad smile is exactly like his Marshallese mom’s.  And, to show agreement, Jess will still subconsciously lift her eyebrows like her I-Kiribati mom but her humor (poor child!) is like Paul’s.

We write their Island moms periodically and, every year, I send them a photo album of the children so they can see how they have grown and what their interests are.  Nick’s mom sends me photos and text messages that I share with him.

When Jessica was 6 years old, we flew back to Tarawa to see her I-Kiribati family.  What a wonderful experience!  By seeing both of her families side-by-side, I think she realized that she knows our family “groove,” the way we do things.  And that she fits perfectly in it.  She also saw her resemblance to her I-Kiribati family.  We all did. To this day, when Jessica makes a certain face, we can laugh and say, “you look just like your I-Kiribati sister when you do that!”  Besides giving Jessica the knowledge of where she came from, our trip to Tarawa has given her the knowledge of who she is today: our daughter.  And that’s pretty cool.  

4.  Given your love of sailing, adventure and culture, do you do anything special to keep their Pacific heritage alive in your home? 

We actually moved to Australia to be closer to the Pacific…does that count?!  We try to embrace opportunities to keep their culture alive.  In the States, we were part of a Marshallese adoptive families group that had annual reunions.  It was awesome to have the children play together and to see families that look just like ours. In Australia, we have attended some Kiribati cultural and fundraising events.  Plus the kids play ukulele in school – although I think they would rather do Just Dance!

5. Most of us only dream of doing what you’ve done–selling everything, sailing around the world, switching careers mid-stream, adopting. Given all the risks you took, was it worth it in the end?

One look at my beautiful children and the answer is “Absolutely!”  Even if we hadn’t miraculously adopted our children, I would still do it over again.  (Although now I am smarter: I wouldn’t recommend casting off without learning how to sail first).  Paul and I discovered so much about each other and ourselves on our trip that our priorities – and our view on life – have changed.  As C.S. Lewis once said, “A man who has been in another world does not come back unchanged.  One can’t put the difference in words.”

[easyazon_image add_to_cart=”default” align=”center” asin=”0987454803″ cloaking=”default” height=”160″ localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51q4c6qsORL._SL160_.jpg” tag=”2ndmom-20″ width=”100″]”Sailing to Jessica.” [/easyazon_image]

If you want to follow Kelly Watts on her ever-evolving journey, you can check out her website and purchase her book, “Sailing to Jessica.” 


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