Entry # 6 Orphanage Risks

Entry #6   Orphanage Risks

I regularly ask myself why I am writing in such detail about a ten-day adoption process long abandoned.  The adoption process in Russia and many other countries has improved.  John Brooks (The Girl Behind the Door 204) notes this as well about Poland’s treatment of orphans, “transitioning from institutional orphanages to foster homes“.  A shout out to organizations like LUMOS cannot go amiss here.

So why rake over long dead coals?  I keep saying it is for personal insight.  Was it relevant to a wider audience?  Out of curiosity I googled current adoption processes to see if any remain that process in a manner similar to our process and found the site, International Adoption.org, which points to several countries that continue to process adoptions almost as quickly and at roughly the same cost as our process in the 90s: Malawi, South Korea and India among the list. There is still some relevancy, beyond the personal, to my pursuit.  And now, as noted in Entry#3, crises around the world are leaving daily numbers of orphans. How will they be cared for?

And back to the journal where we are still in this tiny receiving room meeting Yasik.  I know most parents meet their child in the midst of hovering professionals; adoptive parents experience no more privacy. Nurses or doulas may be bending over a new mother learning to breast feed.  In the case of adoptive parents, orphanage staff are hovering around as these new parents are taking in their introduction to their about-to-be child. Taking him from Dave’s arms, I held him too.  But I could see he was becoming overwhelmed and then he cried.  My first real mommy moment and I scared the kid.  Good start.  The very solid book, Thicker Than Blood by Marion Crook, tucks in a healthy bit on page 65 to ease a new parent’s fear of bonding/attachment– sometimes it happens instantly, sometimes it takes a while, but either way it is going to happen she affirms.  However, … toward the end of the same page she does temporize with “Bonding can occur despite …”.  I who may have been in thrall to the wonder of my emotions for this child surrendered Yasik wordlessly to the sweet-faced doctor to whom he was bonded, to someone he knew was his protector, to someone who had far more well-honed mothering instincts.  She took Yasik from me and folded him into her lap. Now all the women were crying, maybe even the one who never looked up from her work.  Dave though appeared thrilled, beaming face and expanding chest.

Yasik consoled, we moved from this room to the doctor’s office and she elaborated on information we had earlier been given by the translator about Yasik’s time for the first two years in the hospital.  I am using the word ‘elaborated’ loosely. The questions I was encouraged to note as we drove to the orphanage, as I mentioned above, were mostly met with blank stares and dodges back into safer territory, translator or no translator, it seemed to me. When I think back on what we gleaned in that first meeting, the sum message was positive.  They were telling us Yasik was their little assistant with the younger children. I guess in an older brotherly sort of way.  He helped a two-year-old Down’s syndrome girl learn to walk.  They said he was their favourite – and we would see how that might be possible many times in the years ahead.  On a kindergarten outing a few months later another kid was left behind because the staff were focused on taking pictures of Yasik.  But maybe a sales pitch is given to all adoptors.  Who knows? We had no trouble believing it.  They also said he was an intelligent, beautiful and loving person.  We just kept saying ahh … ahh … ahh.

Here’s a heads-up: I hope that parents are now more informed.  I am currently reading  The Origins of You,  by Vienna Pharaon, which looks at William Wordsworth’s observation: the child is the father of the man.   Learning as much as possible about this child about to become your child may helpful in guiding the child into adulthood. We would have been well served if this orphanage had been prepared to provide more of the kind of awareness now available through research and experience.

A book/research article I found and foolishly did not adequately reference beyond the title, Eastern European Adoption, (written post 2005) ends with suggestions from adoptors: “(1) better preparation, guidance/coordination/communication; (2) more accurate/complete information about their child/children and their early history including life in the orphanage; and (3) more realistic/honest perspectives about adopting their child/children” (51).  These suggestions rise out of lack of understanding of the ‘social structure’ of orphanages with, as a pediatrician, Dana Johnson, notes “lack of stimulation and consistent caregivers, sub-optimal nutrition…. institutional children [tend to] fall behind in large and fine motor development, speech acquisition …. Many never find a single individual with whom to complete a cycle of attachment. Physical growth is impaired.  Children lose one month of linear growth for every three months in the orphanage“.   Johnson adds that most infectious illnesses are more common in an institutional setting.  And most importantly, the argument goes on to say that with inconsistent adult interaction, the children lack “an adult with whom children can connect emotionally and who will be there to hold and cuddle them and be counted on to fulfill their other needs” (28-29).   This will be a point I will likely make many more times: the hug factor.

In the past few years, I have begun to fill in some of the gaps they chose not to fill with my own reading. Any blanks I have filled in, as limited as they are, have come from Google searches or searches of studies I found at SFU and from the few books on my reading list about life in Russia, and of course, this past year from having connected with Yasik’s sister and her family.

Yasik did not walk until he was moved to the orphanage.  Some of the orphanages in Russia have what is termed ‘lying down’ rooms. Was Yasik in a ‘lying down’ ward in the hospital?    In other words, did he not walk because he was not given opportunities to get out of bed to walk?  Was he left to lie in bed for much of the time he spent in the hospital?   Did he have rickets because of the lack of proper diet and exposure to sunshine while he stayed in the hospital?  Or did he come into the hospital with rickets due to the lack of care he received from his biological parents? No appropriate judgment can be made.  And concerns about rickets? Childhood rickets do not have lifetime impact if treatment catches the problem before disabling deformities develop (lots of downer ‘D’ words there which did not come to pass for Yasik).  To be fair, I actually could not at the time have fathomed asking why he had rickets or why he could not walk until the age of two.  My questions were more mundane: “What does he like to eat?”  Not mundane enough though.  I received no answer to that one either.  And maybe it was pointless from their perspective to waste time answering that sort of question, given they may have assumed if we could come all this way to adopt a child, we would be providing a different diet than orphanage fare. (I say this, aware of a potential stereotyping profile and the gossip monger’s love of scratching around in the dirt). At any rate, Yasik took over responsibility for teaching us his likes and dislikes the moment the van left the orphanage the next day.

The negatives brushed over, the conversation skipped on to positive notes.  Perhaps even allowing us to know about the rickets and slow start to walking was to suggest that though the parents and/or hospital provided poor care we could be assured the orphanage rescued Yasik and gave him the vitamin D he needed to deal with rickets and the stimuli to encourage him to walk.  And we have never doubted that his bones and coordination were not hampered by the lack of care previous to his move to the orphanage.  As I write this, I have to conclude this sweet looking doctor was doing what she had likely done over and over, focusing on the positives unless it was necessary for the future of the child to bring up the negative.  Yasik learned to walk.   Notching the positives up, the doctor went on to say Yasik had musical interests and liked to draw and within a split second, Dave whipped out his ever-present sketch book and crayons.  He drew a circle on the page and Yasik got right into it, drawing lines to connect the circle.  Then he carefully returned the crayons to their right place.

We saw no males in our brief time in the orphanage but I didn’t question why when Yasik needed to go to the toilet, he chose Dave to take him, a male he knew only as a hugger, circle-drawer and gift-giver.  He said to Dave, “Kakas” (I doubt I need to offer translation), and taking Dave’s hand, led him to the toilet.  Dave helped him do his job and pull up, Yasik stopping first to point out his deposit.

Before this one opportunity to learn about the first four years of Yasik’s life was brought to a close, we measured his feet and took him with us in the van to buy a pair of shoes and get his passport picture taken.  Can you imagine that? This four-year-old child had barely known us for one hour, yet my notes say he went with no hesitation, allowing Dave to carry him out to the van in the company of four strangers: Dave, me, the driver and the translator.  In the van, he held my hand, and as Dave talked to him, he started to talk back with shy little words.  When we arrived at the store, all shyness slammed to a halt as Yasik and Dave spied a motorcycle. Yasik squealed out the Russian word for motorcycle,мотоцикл, as something that sounded like ‘matikli’ to us. We have three pictures of the thing; it could have been a fly caught in a scraggly bush to me but to the two of them, it was awe-inspiring.

The store we went to was a set piece for an early twentieth century western movie, the shoes were a little boy’s oxfords from the middle of the century but the clerk was the first retail person who smiled and treated us with genuine friendliness – likely responding to Yasik’s charm.  This little shopping trip ended taking Yasik to a passport office for a picture before returning him to the orphanage.

I was 47 in ’97 and had dreamed of being a mother to an adoptee for nearly half my life, yet until that afternoon I merely stood to the side looking on at mothering.  That was lots of time to develop either a sense that like any other job I had handled to that point, hopefully I would learn sufficient competence, or as in my case, a deep insecurity about how to do it right.  In Thicker Than Blood (70,71), Marion Crook writes, “…[M]otherhood wasn’t a professional job or a test for which you got a grade.  It was a living situation that changed constantly, and I was expected to simply do as well as possible”. She concludes when she came to terms with how her mothering was going to play out that she was “happier with myself when I accepted that I wouldn’t be perfect”.   So far, I had managed to make Yasik cry when I first held him and when we needed to make Yasik a bit more presentable for his passport picture, I was at a loss taming his hair.  Three other women in the passport office, more maternal than I perhaps, jumped in to help me out or at least to comb his hair in what looked right to them as Russian women of the 90s.

I tripped over a new label recently though apparently it has been identified since the late 70s: ‘Imposter Mother Syndrome’: feeling you really aren’t the best mother for the child who is yours. It could be massaged to include adoptor parents for I am unlikely the only new adoptor who has felt “a fear that at any moment you might be exposed as a fraud“(https://theeverymom.com/imposter-syndrome-as-a-mom-how-to-overcome-it/.

Returning Yasik to the orphanage, we hugged and kissed him – was it a natural or expected response?  He followed us out of the room and then the journal says “I was last to leave and he peeked through the banister to smile and wave.  The image I was left with at the end of the day – a happy smile”.

In the evening, writing in the journal, I concluded, “He was beautiful in every way.  His ears are big! He looks directly and openly, and intelligently and he has such a sweet smile”.  (And now as I read this, I wonder what the big deal was with noting – both by the staff and myself- that he showed intelligence. I mean he was cute as a bug’s ear and certainly seemed happy and comfortable with us.  What more was needed?)

Our first day with our child-to-be before he became legally our child less than 24 hours later.

 

Entry #5 We Meet Our Soon-to-be Son

Entry #5   We Meet Our Soon-to-be Son

We were now in the room, maybe the doctor’s office, where we met Yasik.  There were two small couches in a corner.  I sat on the one by the door; I think Dave was left with no option but to stand. The doctor was on the other one.  And the woman sitting at the desk was still concentrating on her work, not looking up.  A woman brought Yasik to the door. I turned, and not a foot from me stood a little boy, looking a bit pale and scruffy.  Then for some reason the woman whisked him back out- a sneak preview? Dave said out loud, but probably to himself – “That’s it?”  It says in my journal our translator answered, in English obviously, not a muscle twitching with irony, “He’s not yours yet.”   Why did she say that?  We had been following her all day, asking few questions, and getting few answers, as much because we had little idea what to ask as the facilitators reluctance or inability to provide answers.  We had only a bare outline of the process.  Now each of us in that tiny room was part of a profound emotional moment.  She handled it with a tamp down. Cautioning us that there is more to the process than just, “Here is your son, you can take him now”?  Looking at this journal note today, I can only say, I think she may have been trying to maintain some control as her role demanded unable to sense all the role’s expectations in this very human exchange.  It is one of those things I notice flit across my mind in the years since when I have been a player in other moments of tense emotion.  The awkward, the mundane, the irrelevant all interact with the profound. OK so we needed a warning not to grab the kid and run.  There were protocols yet to complete.  Relax.  He will be yours entirely in barely 24 more hours. And he was.   So we tucked our necks back in and mutely nodded, “Oh, OK.” We wrapped the adoption all up in under two weeks, a plus for our budget and emotions in the moment.  We do not fully know what it was doing to the caregivers, the facilitators, the child. And it can be said it seems the process, perhaps because of tensions like in that moment, still not understood, led in the decades since to reflection, which in turn, led to a process for foreign adoptions showing more regard for the child, possibly for the bio-parents as well, than the adoptors and the facilitators.    Now, even if foreigners do get to adopt from Russia,  I have read they come for a ‘meet and greet’ of three weeks, and then return at a later date to remain again for weeks before the child is theirs and can return with them to their home country, at a cost double our expenses.

Whatever she was saying to us, its message was floating on by somewhere just above us.  In our hearts where, for us in those 20 minutes, reality was grounded, Yasik became our son. Dave said later Yasik became his son the moment he picked him up and that has never changed.  Yasik has since August 18, 1997 always been his son. I am certain of this because a few minutes later Yasik was again brought in.  He was led to stand in the middle of us – the doctor, the translator and Dave and I.  We just stared at him at first which must have set him on edge a bit. He stood there with fine, sandy blond hair, hazel eyes, scratches on his nose, a band-aid on a finger, dressed in pink leotards, a faded pink sweat shirt, and a pair of little girl’s leather shoes too small for him.  And a bit of a smudge under his eyes.  Yasik had just woken up.  Dave went to him with a gift, and I held back, starting to cry – my default response to emotional moments with him, right.  Yasik liked the plane Dave gave him, grabbed it and held on.  It was happening so quickly of course.  My next memory is of him in Dave’s arms and me seeing, not him, but Dave’s face for Yasik was turned into his shoulder.  Dave’s face sealed the deal for me.  Just like that I saw stamped on his face his love for his son of two or three minutes.  Yasik had become his son.  And my heart received our son then as well.  This is our becoming a family moment.

When we returned to the hotel later, I recorded the day. I marvelled at the immediate and complete arrival of such a love, but I did not doubt it.   For myself and my husband, Yasik was our child that day. We loved him; ergo he was our son.  A Russian woman had given birth to this child and taken him to a hospital and given him over to an orphanage.  She no longer was his mother. We registered that information. He stood in in the middle of the room parent-less and we had come to Russia to claim him.  But what does it mean to say, “Wow, he was our son” because we fell in love with him and would the next day hear a gavel affirm our legal parentage?  The idea of a child as a blank slate seems also to run deep in our understanding of how parents see their relationship to their child.

And here comes the beginning of a big ‘But’. The dream I write about in another post was not so much about my finding a little blond boy; in this dream from decades earlier in my life, I am running from people which suggests  while I may have understood the little blondie was my son, apparently my pursuers did not.  There are parents in adoptive families who cannot entirely rest confident of their bonds to their ‘forever’ child however they shield themselves from uncertainty with what at times sounds like a desperate affirmation.  No sooner typing that statement I hear someone in the crowd shout back, “Speak for yourself.”  Fine, maybe echoes of others’ claims to my son haunt only me; actually no, for my husband used the word ‘legitimacy’ when we discussed this wiggly little worm beginning to drill holes in the certainty two paragraphs up. Talk to a few adoptors: the sense of insecurity about the relationship inherent in adoption sometimes bubbles to the surface for many.

Whether by birth or by surrogacy or by adoption, there are pieces of this experience most parents find they can connect to.  Nonetheless, though I am not a biological parent, there are pieces here too I doubt are identified by biological parents.  And in story after story it is those feelings which may sometimes be closely examined, or tentatively hinted at, or outright denied. You will find books by people whose adoption experience ignited in them questions that led to academic research, you will find memoirs in which people circle their experiences as they learn to cope with what Dr. Claire Weekes, in Hope and Help For Your Nerves (1969), termed ‘fear of the fear’, and you will find stories of people who wanted everyone to believe, sometimes quite aggressively, the child they adopted was fully, and only ever, their child.

For a while, just as euphoria floods the brain when we fall in love, we were awash in oxytocin. But here and there we came across stories: we heard Joanie Mitchell had found the daughter she gave up at birth in favour of her career.  There was no ‘breaking news’ cast for the baby girl’s adoption, only a shroud of secrecy.  But now the world had righted itself again and we were happy to hear Joan Mitchell had found her long lost daughter. In memoir after memoir, reality show after reality show, the big news is the reunion of birth parents with an adoptee.  The adopters, while given a quick, little and hopefully reassuring hug, with the promise “They will always be ….’s ‘real’ mom and dad”, are then written out of the script.

Or, although we are continually reminded that nurture trumps nature for as Lewis Mehl-Madrona says it so well in Healing the Mind through the Power of Story (2010), “we are so much more than our genome”(154)**, someone will sit on the armchair across us and look at us with unblinking sympathy, to pontificate,  “I always say, ‘It’s in the blood’.”

And what about the mother who gave birth to him? Or those who cared for him in the hospital and at the orphanage for several years?   There we go again.  Who we are, the love we feel and offer, the environment we provide does not allow us to assume we are the totality of our child’s attachment or whatever it is that comes wrapped in the concept of  the adoptee’s ‘real’ parents.

And the question of legitimacy does not come only from the ‘pursuers’.  The little blond boy, the third part of the triangle that was this new family, what is happening within him?  We, in those 20 or so minutes, believed we were bonded or the other word ‘attached’ to the little fellow.  But the neuro-transmitters flooding our brain with love or oxytocin, were they flooding his in the same way or degree?

We are not the norm: we have to redefine ‘family’ to accommodate all the people assembled into the adoptive configuration as Marion Crook advocates.  The adopted child has not only one set of undisputed parents, but two or more.  I have just started to read, Thicker Than Blood: adoptive parenting in the modern world (2016) by Marion Crook.  She caught my attention immediately for she starts out by saying, “We work hard at finding ways to support membership in their first family while firmly establishing them in our adoptive family”(27). I think the more we understand our child is a child whose Hero’s or Heroine’s Journey must always straddle two families, the more we ease the child’s burden, and likely our own.

I have been mulling this feeling of insecurity as an adoptor for a long time.  My thoughts, standing before me like some security gorilla at a bar, arms crossed over a ridiculously bloated chest, have demanded I read beyond the adoption fluff books in order to build a real attachment with the child.

**I am not a scientist and will always handle matters of science gingerly.  At the very least Goggle is there for the reader, as are the books I reference.