One day just as we were nearing the parking lot where Yasik’s team was set to play soccer, he blurts out that he doesn’t want to play. I don’t ask why. Appearing responsible is my default mode, so my blunt response was: “You have to.” Yasik came back with, “I don’t have to listen to you. You are not my mother.” Likely my eyes bulged a bit, but on the surface of things, I acknowledged his point, coolly countering that legally and in terms of his care, yes I was. We went to the game. Years later he told me he would never make his kids go to soccer. What was I not understanding? Was there a problem with soccer that I was missing? Or was this the first display of those ‘adoption issues’ adopters hear about? He was ten then. Nothing else surfaced for several years, at least that we were aware of. Then along comes a cold, wet night in March of 2007. Yasik was 14. Was this the night those deep seated issues of attachment determined to surface again, this time strong enough not to back down? Or was it just blinding, untested but quite normal teenage testosterone obliterating reason?
As a student with learning challenges struggling against parents who believed nothing, and I mean nothing, was more important than a solid education, fighting about doing homework was a nightly ritual by now. Yasik probably had more homework than most students, certainly more than he ever wanted. That made this night no different than usual; it started out as just another night with a flare up over getting homework done. Of course there is always more than just the tired, after work, homework conflict at stake. We were in the midst of another threat of flooding. TV weather reports had us uptight about the North Allouette pouring down the road instead of flowing sensibly under the too narrow bridge at 224 St. and 232nd Ave. If Yasik was angry, we were tense too; none of our tempers would have been at Calm on the emotional dial.
My journal entry of the night does not detail the fight we engaged in but does note that Yasik is arguing to go paintballing or skiing and we are countering with a negotiation of homework first. The fight escalates. Yasik, who deeply though sometimes selectively believed (you might read ‘stubbornly’ here) in justice, isn’t giving in. He leaves the house. Does he grab a coat? Does he slam the cheaply made front door? The journal doesn’t say, but it is likely on that cold, wet night threatening a flood, he is jacketless.
The first time your kid does that, you stop a moment. And I guess going outside into a night that does not warmly embrace his anger gives him a slow down as well because apparently he goes only as far as the front patio. A probation officer once noted that most runaways opt for warm summer nights.
Dave clicks in first, pulling a jacket on and going out after him, thinking Yasik is running off somewhere more in line with a great teen drama of fiction than merely hiding out under the eaves. I guess when it is your first move into rebellion you don’t always work out a detailed plan. Yasik lets his dad go off on a goose chase, slipping back in the house while Dave is out blindly checking up and down a rainy street boasting one lone streetlight on the corner.
Those of you who have a Bible-infused background may remember the verse in the gospel of Luke (my version) that goes, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” referring to the unusual activities of her firstborn, Jesus. This was the piece of the evening I continued to ponder in my heart for a long time after: when Yasik comes back into the house it is not with more fighting or cold slamming of doors. Instead Yasik comes into our bedroom; I reach out to him and hold him. While we stand there mute, me crying and shaken, Yasik says, “I always wanted to do that.”
Mothers of Misery: Child Abandonment in Russia
David L. Ransel, professor of History at Indiana,1988
Ransel looks at the establishment of foundling homes or hospitals in Russia to answer the concerns of the government for the fatalistic and devalued view of people toward infants.
For 150 years, ending with the beginning of the 20th century, a system of foundling homes shifting to fostering and back was intended by the Tsarist rule to deal humanely with unwanted children. And to comply with the Church’s pressure to protect the sanctity of the family with the growing problems of infanticide uncomfortably practiced in the face of economic pressure as belated birth control (p.11). Infant mortality due to a delay in the progressive thinking gaining ground in Western European countries, abandonment for reasons of shame, poverty and job pressures were also reasons to discard a child. As the homes developed, conditions in the homes, unintended economic motivations, and opportunity for the homes to serve as social laboratories for educating artisans and craftspeople were further if unexpected reasons to continue the problem of devaluing the life of a child. Mortality rates in foundling homes were upwards of 80% of children taken into care by the age of 22(47-48,257). Ransel’s observation on page 103 is that people actually saw the homes as a means to rid society of unwanted children.
Thomas Malthus, the Pessimist, while visiting in 1789, provided his take at a positive spin on the mortality rate of the foundling homes, “If a person wished to check population, and were not solicitous about the means, he could not propose a more effectual measure than the establishment of a sufficient number of foundling hospitals, unlimited in their reception of children.”(page # lost)
The period followed a trajectory of high infant mortality becoming an uncomfortable state of affairs, leading a paternalistic government to demand programs which initially show some success but ultimately return to high rates of mortality, which loops back to forcing the government back to instituting reforms or a new program all through the 150 years, if for no other reason than to look good on the European stage.
With a delay in progressive thinking, a paternalistic approach to care, the lack of value placed on the life of an infant beginning to wane at the end of these 150 years, what kind of changes did the twentieth century in Russia bring for these children?
Humming along on my morning commute, listening to the radio, an over-the-top lead-in question caught my attention. What is being done for someone who has had ‘his soul ripped out’? I had happened on a discussion of PTSD. In that context, the sense of histrionics fizzles out. But always quick to make personal connections, my thoughts picked up the question and moved it to my context ¬– concerns I have with the family in adoption. It became the question which initiated this blog as I joined the search to understand the adoptive family when the adoptee has spent some part of his or her early years in an orphanage – and what this start to a life brings to the struggle of the adopted person and his or her parents, both biological and adoptive. The blog is about my search for information about life in a Russian orphanage in the 90s, the adoption process of that decade, the early years with our child, the changes that came in the teen years, and what our family has learned and experienced as my son moves into adulthood. And once some of the markers of these years surface, hopefully guidance will begin to come to light.
Before the search officially begins, I offer my story.
One summer afternoon when I might have been seven or eight, I watched an afternoon TV movie. A woman who apparently knows she is dying goes to an orphanage and adopts a girl of five or six. They become very close. And yes, then she dies. The husband draws into himself in his grief and so the little girl feeling shut out runs off to sit on a big rock on the seashore to cry out her loneliness to the ghost of her mother. Of course, the father comes to his senses in time to recognize that his wife knew she was dying. She had planned to replace his loneliness with a child. The movie comes to a crescendo as he rushes out to rescue the child before the tide comes in to wash her away.
With even deeper impact, in my teens, I dreamt one night that I had been given a child, a little boy with blond hair. For some reason I spent most of the dream struggling to get around a rock slide (I like to think it was around Angel Rock on the Port Alberni highway) with this little boy in tow but the impression I was left with was that, though there was some kind of struggle, this boy was for me. My memory holds that I had this dream more than once or at least with enough impact that with it and the afternoon movie, I always seemed to have planned to adopt. Creating a child from the eggs within me never compelled me in the same way. Adoption had become my romantic ideal.
Samuel T. Coleridge wrote of it in this way:
And what if you slept? And what if in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awake, you had a flower in your hand? Ah, what then?
Yes, “Ah, what then?”
In my twenties and thirties I entertained half formed thoughts of adopting children I was asked to help with, but not until I was in my forties could I begin to act on what seemed to me to be simply what I must do, rather than a romantic notion. I secured sufficient financial independence and I accepted a date with a good man, Dave. Together, over two years, we completed the requisite orientation and exploration of adoption options. Check, Check, and Check. As many who have adopted internationally know, the flurry of the final weeks make up for the dragging months of the years leading up to the adoption. After rushing about getting medicals, references, finances and a wardrobe for a child of indeterminate size, we flew to Russia, drove to a large provincial town, and were introduced to our little, blond, four year old son. It still strikes me as noteworthy that at the end of the day we met our new son, we slept in a lovely old hotel in single beds – no sex required for the making of this family. The next day we stood before a very young judge who appeared charmed by our shy happiness, drove around town to remove this child from the Russian record system and then picked him up at the orphanage. In less than 24 hours of meeting him, and only having been told that he seemed to love music, he was our child. It never occurred to us at that time to think that amazing. We (read ‘naively’ here) assumed that we likely knew as much as any set of parents holding their just born biological child. Besides which, as international adoptions only took off in the ‘90s, little easily accessible literature was available other than memoirs offering the theme “God has given us the forever child we were destined for”. These memoirs were scarcely more than chick-lit usually written about the pre-adoption period and the first two years post- adoption, a kind of honeymoon period for most adopting families. Any memoir we might have wanted to write at the time would have produced that same story line.
Only once in that period was our bliss punctured for a moment. An American couple called and tried to engage us in a conversation about why their child seemed so easily disruptive. We looked at each other blankly and tossed the problem off, assuming the parents lacked parenting skills.
Yasik (the diminutive of his Russian name) was beautiful, sweet and cuddly. We cocooned with him in the nuclear family dream. But this blog would not have been created if that nice and normal dream had not taken a turn toward the need to understand why adoption creates a special kind of family drama. Yasik began to challenge our ideas of the best choices for his life soon after he turned 14. We chased him down a rabbit hole for several years but around the time he turned 18, the downtown community of our town became the family and home he sought out more and more. We were asking him to make choices he could not maintain, and eventually we lost our son to the streets. As Coleridge asks, “Ah, what then?” The search to understand became unavoidable. We needed help for ourselves and for our son.