Entry #8Of course, fireworks were exploding, but not in celebration of a birthing bathed in mothering hormones. It was becoming a family by adoption, I guess, exploding with happiness hormones. I end entry #7 suggesting that while writers I have read may use the words ‘bonding’ and ‘attachment’ somewhat interchangeably, I may as well stick with the one that sounds like a boat anchor rather than fireworks and happiness. Clunky or not, ‘attachment’ is the broad term that covers becoming a family whether via a birthing or by adoption. And both modes of becoming family can be celebrations. Stray threads caught and carried by a little bird to build a nest must be a joy to find. Stray threads may be what adopters find to build their nests. But just as nature’s provision of twigs and grass, stray threads can do just fine in nest building. Attachment as a concept is most often associated with John Bowlby. His findings focus on a “child’s tendency ‘to seek proximity to and contact with a specific figure’ when afraid, sick, or tired….” an inborn desire to seek closeness to protective adults. That takes care of what the child sees attachment to be. And adults? What does the term mean for them? More broadly speaking, attachment may be defined as ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’” (Fostering Changes: myth, meaning and magic bullets in attachment theory 5). Understanding Attachment: parenting, child care, and emotional development by Jean Mercer settles on defining attachment as “emotional ties” and “beliefs and ways of thinking about relationships” to form an “internal working model of emotion and social relationships” (p2,3). We had signed a file full of documents and in less than 24 hours would stand before a judge and upon the drop of her gavel, we would be a family. Yasik would be told after we left that first afternoon that he now had a mama and papa. What meaning did he attach to those words? That evening he gave away the toys we brought for him. In celebration or because he had been nurtured in the orphanage setting to share? Had Yasik already been learning empathic social relationships in a place not usually known to encourage healthy social relationships? Was the orphanage actually a caring, vibrant social network, a good environment for the nurturing of empathy (The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog 268)? After that sweet little smile through the banister, we returned to the hotel to have supper with Alexi, the driver, Tanya the facilitator and the translator, Elvira, realizing that while they were shy about speaking English and therefore appeared to ignore us, were actually very kind, thoughtful and helpful. Putting these three in place, arranging our flights, housing and Moscow interpreters, as well as organising the court appearance, made us realize what a large operation one adoption is. At the meal Elvira gave us a heads up that Dave would be expected to give a little speech about how we felt about this opportunity to adopt Yasik and to request that our paper work be expedited. We also learned we would likely be in Moscow longer than we had initially understood to complete Yasik’s paper work. More time to play tourist and shed dollars. The three sharing this meal with us also noted that Yasik looked a fair bit like Dave and shared his interests in vehicles, music and art. Nice. I was later assured Yasik had eyes the same colour as mine. It is worth wondering about: this interest we have in family looking like us or fitting the proverbial ‘like father, like son’. I have wondered about the need to find resemblance to family as a kind of reassurance of our personal identity. Yet it took only a picture emailed to us of Yasik’s biological siblings to determine they were indeed his siblings. For those who do not share similarities with their adoptive families this is often a primary issue in their search for personal identity. “As Swedish as Anybody Else’ or ‘Swedish, but Also Something Else’?” speaks to this issue for the non-white adoptee, nicely encapsulated in the title alone (https://doi.org/10.1177/030857591203600309). After a stroll along side the Volga, we went to bed. Well, actually after Dave prepared what he understood he was expected to say in court. That done, we flopped onto our separate single beds, maybe a bit high and free to daydream. Yasik was almost ours and he was more than we had hoped for. The journal also notes that we each took a Sudafed tablet. Did the Sudafed stimulate that daydreamy feeling? Or was this a peek at what the early days of attachment/honeymoon period feels like? A kind of falling in love. Adoption day was a beautiful early fall day, August 19, 1997. We were driven directly to the court for the region of Yaroslavl. The marble steps up to the court were worn to uneven dips. A very old building. Dave was still muttering the phrases he needed to say; Elvira, the translator, was building up to a nervousness that I began to pick up. This may have been a building that spoke power to Elvira but it lacked the power to gain a fearful respect from naïve tourists. We would more likely have picked up Elvira’s vibe had it been a Canadian court. A traffic jam had delayed proceedings, the prosecutor looked bored, most in the room were women. When the judge was heralded and appeared, she was hardly more substantial than the wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Still… she managed to feed Elvira’s fears and spook Dave and I somewhat when Elvira relayed to us that the she had been admonished to tell the truth or be prosecuted. Dave was called first. He was asked how long we had been married, what our jobs were, after which he recited his memorized speech to request an early dispatch of paperwork. The judge smiled at his earnest tension. I stood next to give my name and affirm I was a Canadian. I sat back down and Dave was asked to rise again. “If you both work,” the judge asked, “how do you plan to care for Yasik?” Dave told her we had a plan to reorganize his classes and that between our schedules, Yasik would never be left alone. And other than one afternoon when we left him at the after-school care which did not please him, he was always with one or the other of us, or with extended family or friends. Although I am sure the question is part of the suggested adoption interview questions, there is a bit of irony in this young judge’s question. It was being asked by someone whose cultural attitude to adoption leans toward dropping off children at an orphanage while parents deal with other life stresses, a trend particularly encouraged in the Soviet period. Dave sat down and I was asked to pop up again. Now the judge asked what we thought of Yasik. I choked and only managed to respond with “Wonderful”. Elvira misted over and Dave caught a smile on the judge’s face. There may be vitriol at the highest political levels over adoptions but person to person, however much suspicion has been whispered in our ears, we found Russian people are as human as any Canadian -- a little ‘duh’ here. Too often, unquestioningly we do drink the Kool-Aid because somewhere in our psyche we have the impression that Russians are not too be trusted nor respected as we might our own good people, something to be further tested by current political tensions. Now the prosecution and defense had their opportunities to conclude that all appeared in order to them. Writing this now I wonder who procured the defence. I remember no discussion about the need for a lawyer, again a nod to the detail involved in a single adoption. The judge rose just as he or she would do in a Canadian court, telling all that she would consider and left for a few minutes. My journal says that Tanya was passing out chocolates and flowers while we waited on the judge’s deliberations. The judge returned and declared that we were Yasik’s parents. That sealed our adoption. Tanya and Elvira hugged and kissed us, wishing us “Good Luck”. There were still details, details, details. One detail that was given absolutely no thought by either Dave or I in our naïve happiness concerned the question of the legal status of parental rights belonging to Yasik’s bio parents. No one denied that Yasik’s bio parents were still among the living. Yasik was in the orphanage under the designation ‘social orphan’, someone who has at least one living bio parent. Had his bio parents actually given up their rights? A fair few years later, I read that a number of Russian adoptions involved illegally obtained children, lacking parental surrender. I googled this issue and found articles that say yes Russia is as haunted by trafficking in children as many, many other countries. And Russia’s response is not to turn a blind eye, being faced with the ever-decreasing population, shorter life expectancy and distaste for the idea that Russians are being taken from Mother Russia. In fact, “In 2008, an amendment to the Russian law on human trafficking re-established that the activity of buying and/or selling a person constituted trafficking regardless of whether it was done for an exploitative purpose” (Transaction Costs: Prosecuting child trafficking for illegal adoption in Russia Lauren A. McCarthy). One article questioned the money laid out by people from wealthier countries in the quest of adopting a child even for the most wonderful of reasons, family making. This money alone likely out weighed the cost of raising that child in his or her social setting. Does this constitute “regardless of whether it was done for exploitative purpose” with the phrase ‘or not’ left unsaid? We were told, at the time, that Yasik’s mom didn’t come back to the hospital after a visit or two so the government took over guardianship. For many years I tried to assure Yasik that her visits suggested she did care for him and placed him in government care because it was best for him, a narrative that works for adoptors. In his teens, Yasik he let me know he didn’t buy that story. Only two years ago did we learn that Yasik’s bio mother, Gurina, went to the hospital to try to get social services money for Yasik which she was denied so she quit on him. We adopted Yasik in August 1997. Our legal standing in adoption was based solely on the Family Code of the Russian Federation, signed by Boris Yelstsin in 1995. All that applied to Yasik was one line, the final point in Article 130 of the Family Code, “for reason recognized by a court as not live with the child and shirk duties involved in his/her upbringing and maintenance, for over six months”. At least this verifies that the adoption was legal, small comfort, but that is as good as the surrender of parental rights were in his case. Yasik, that young judge proclaimed, was our son from now on. As I mentioned above, we found out two years ago why Gurina actually came to visit Yasik at the hospital to seek money designated for his care. She stopped coming to visit her youngest son when she was denied this money. A year after we adopted Yasik, the Gurins made an attempt to gain access to money for her children’s care through the court. Following is a summary of a copy of the actual court documents of this couple’s complaint before the court, given to the adoptive parents of Yasik’s sister at her adoption: March 11, 1998 re: the case brought by Gurina L V (age 28) and Gurin NG (age 36) for depriving them of parental rights and exacting alimony for the children’s maintenance. The court findings: Gurina is a single mother of the two older children. She married and has two children with Gurin. At the time of this court hearing the girl born in 1991 was still living with the Gurins. The other three had been placed in care. The report says, “The son Yaroslav was adopted without his parents consent due to Article 130 of the Family Code of the Russian Federation.” The response to the Gurin’s complaint was to detail “the parent’s neglect their children, do not care for their lives, do not support them”. Yasik had been taken to the town hospital “due to social reasons”. The Gurins “have deprived themselves of the parental rights”. “The son Gurin Yaroslav was adopted without the parents consent as they [Gurins] refused to take him home from the hospital”. Yet Gurina continued to ask for financial support after which she said she would care for her children. Their argument was lack of money though a court investigation found that the Gurins worked at a factory which paid them in food and china to sell for money. To sell the china they needed to travel past the care homes three of their children were in. Not once did they stop to check in on their children. A sister of Gurina’s testified to the Gurins lack of care for their children. Because the couple could give “no good reason’ for their lack of care the court hearing recommended that the parents be deprived of their parental rights and be ordered to hand over a portion of their wages to the children’s care until the children came of age…. According to articles 69, 81, 84 of the Family Code of Russia, articles 191 – 197 HAS DECIDED: satisfy the claim by the Education and Youth Affairs Department. Deprive Gurina LV of the parental rights to [both her and their] minor children…. the children should be placed under the care of Guardianship and Care body”. The Gurins were given the option to appeal in 10 days. As we exited the court house after our hearing, a radio interviewer waiting outside approached us to ask, via Elvira, what we thought of our experience, what we planned to do and why had we chosen to adopt in Russia. She asked us if Yasik would know about Russia. Since reading about how to help a transnational adoption go more smoothly for the child and about the Magnitsky Law and the Canadian counterpart, Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, the question about retaining ties to Russia carries more weight. At the time we probably responded with only vague assurances and little understanding of our new child’s need for support as he began to discard one concept of himself, his language and culture, to build a new one. We drove with our team or should I say darted about ‘as the crow flies’ on dirt backroads to stand by as Tanya saw to the signing out of Yasik’s life in Russia: the passport office, adoption center, and …? Sometimes we were asked for our signature, more often Dave’s, because it was written on everything that ‘the boy is travelling with his father’. Between stops and while waiting for business to be completed, we talked with Elvira; her English was very strong. We compared teaching experiences, the biggest difference being that she was not merely the teacher but also her classroom’s maintenance person. She fixed her own roof. At noon we returned to the hotel for lunch. We talked perestroika and President Yeltsin’s attempted coup, the dissolution of the USSR, the gulag and the New Russia. No, we didn’t really talk these things for Dave and I could only listen and become increasingly aware of how little we knew of the world our son had been part of for almost 5 years, five potent years as far as his own development was concerned. How Russian was/is he? And how deeply will all these components that make him Yasik impact all that he is and will be through out his life? There were more destinations after lunch for even more signatures and paper wrap – ups. Sort of wish I now knew what all these stops were for. Finally, around 6 pm Alexis and Tanya were done and returned for us. We were about to step from bystanders to parents. OK, let’s see how we do. The orphanage was down a back drive off an alley, fenced in and fronted by unkempt flower beds. Inside though everything was tidy and warm, if institutional. I remember seeing a children’s playroom as we passed through to the doctor’s office. We were not invited to view any rooms. We do not know where Yasik slept. Did he share a bed? Was he in room of cots looking like army barracks? This would have been helpful as we had a bedroom waiting at home just for him. It is notable to me that when Julia inspected our home before giving the OK for us to proceed with adoption, the one concern she had was if the bedroom we had prepared for Yasik was big enough. It was the master bedroom in our 1950s era suburban home. It seemed, at the time, an over-the-top expectation. How would Yasik handle waking in the night completely alone in a very big room? It wasn’t long after we returned home that he would wake in the night to crawl into our bed. Again, Yasik was brought into the doctor’s office, this time carrying what little remained of the gifts we given him at our first meeting the day before. The rather expensive drawing book Dave had given him was now filled with scribbles, the crayon set bedraggled. Dave wanting the best for his son and this new little son happily accepting. We dressed Yasik in the new clothes we had brought for him. I think they mostly fit. He liked the shoes we purchased the day before. We still have them in a memory basket, very proper, sensible little things. I might put the word NOTHING in caps to stress that Yasik took not one personal item from his first five years of life with him as he left to become a little Canadian in the Vincent family. John Brooks in his memoir of his and his wife’s adoption memoir, The Girl Behind the Door, wonders if it might not have been a comfort to their newly adopted baby had they thought to ask for some item the baby had to comfort herself. Yasik was shy and quiet during this initiation. And then came the good-byes. The doctor kissed and hugged us. I would love to have the opportunity to talk with her now. A pretty young nurse had tears in her eyes. Had she been a staff member who had a special relationship with Yasik? Bruce Perry in The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, along with other more recent writers, points to research that acknowledges a childhood in the care of more than one caregiver does not have to be disastrous to a child’s emotional development but do assert that the number of caregivers needs to be small, and above all, consistent. From the time Yasik was taken to the hospital at around the age of one, how many caregivers did he encounter with shift changes in the hospital? Would there have been the remotest validity in asking whether or not the option for ‘baby-led or demand breast or bottle feeding’ was an option, among other considerations that contrast nurturing a baby in an institution versus a family home? How many were part of his daily experience for the approximately two years he lived in the orphanage? What was the impact of the severing of these relationships? Yasik had two big, crystal-clear tears holding on the edge of his eyes but he was smiling all the same. Dave and I came into the adoption with months of preparation. Yasik was expected to un-attach from all he knew as family and willingly embrace a whole new attachment within a 24-hour span. Lost &Found (41) asks about the impact no opportunity to mourn the lost life has on the adoptee. In fact, you the reader can not help but note that everything written thus far is about Yasik joining our dream, nothing about this process from his perspective, leaving behind a biological family with a mama and papa, a brother and two sisters, and then those he engaged with in the hospital and those he had human bonds with in the orphanage. About five children, one being the little Down’s Syndrome girl Yasik had big brothered, were on the front porch to see him off, calling “Das Vadanya.” Wasn’t it the protagonist in Cider House Rules who watched child after child leave the orphanage, each time wondering why not him this time? Did any of these children left behind wonder if they too had a waiting mama or papa coming for them? We climbed into the back of our get-away van. Alexi had sad music playing on the car radio. Just a little over 24 hours from a couple to a family. We haven’t tied up the concept of attachment and moved off into nuclear family bliss. As good ole’ Arnie says, “We’ll be Baaaack…” for as adopting older children (p140) reminds adoptors in the centre of the book, “adoption is a process and not an event.” Stating the obvious of course but a centering reminder all the same.
An Update: June 6’20, a Saturday morning. Translation: in no rush to get out of bed, time to run a finger over my tablet snooping for Trump gossip and slipping passed Covid tracking graphs. It wouldn'y have entered my head to check for any activity on my website. Just days before, Dave had installed a spam blocker on my site. Within minutes my ego which had been swelling in wonder at the numbers of hits I was getting on my site was a spurting, sputtering balloon. Not one real hit remained. OK, so I really am writing only to myself, not just pretending to journal my way to a personal understanding of adoption. But Gmail, yes. I check it daily. A tap on my Gmail and there was a little surprise. Gmail had alerted me to a comment on my website. The comment, you can check it – as of Feb 19’21 it is still the only comment, reiterating ‘in your face’ how non-existent traffic to my site is. It reads, “I believe we adopted Yaroslav’s older sister, Svetlana!” For me this is one of those ‘time stops’ moments. I had given some thought over the years to Yasik’s ‘bio’ family, wondering how we might help him get in contact with them if he ever showed interest in finding them. He had not yet expressed interest, at least to Dave and I. Sometime in his later teens, I asked him if he wanted to look for his mother whom I believed must have cared for him enough to have taken him to a hospital, returning to visit a couple of times. His response, “She never cared about me, so why should I care about her.’ I think that was a flat statement, not a question. Still, we had the parents’ names and from time to time I googled them. We had lost the one paper in Russian with a list of Yasik’s siblings’ names. That morning I showed no restraint hitting articles on Trump, yet now I was restrained. I rolled over and with eyes in full stun mode looked carefully at the alert, trying to comprehend that I even had one. “Daaaavve, look at this.” I opened the website to pull up the comment. And there it was. Yasik might have a sibling trying to get in touch with him. Restraint again. What if this was just another way in for spam? A Nigerian prince wanting us to rescue him as he drained out our bank account? We let this electrifying comment hover over us all day like a drone trying to see if we were going to respond, waiting for or taunting us to get over our silly cautiousness and deal with it. Meanwhile the sender of the comment was on “pins and needles “so certain was she of her message. You see I had started putting out posts from my journal about our adoption experience. In Journal entry #1 I provide Yasik’s full birth name, Yaroslav Guerin Nicolavich, and the name of the city he was living in at the time of our adoption, Yaroslavl. The comment sender, Cherie, had been looking for her adopted daughter’s younger brother since 2000, shortly after their adoption and with the aid of a set of documents not provided at the time of our adoption. Good ole’ Google – as obscure as my site is - found the match. Cherie put in the comment and crossed her fingers. On our end we dithered until the evening. Finally, we returned the email with a tentative response. She phoned. And sent pictures of her daughter. The evidence was in the pictures. Svetlana is Yasik’s sister. Turns out the other two, though half brother and sister to Yasik and his sister, look amazing like Svetlana and Yasik as well. And this may not sound particularly PC coming from an adoptor rather than an adoptee from whom the observation usually comes, but as this discovery started to shift our thinking, I began to sense that in some hardly fathomable way, Yasik has some kind of fuller substance, is more substantial as a human being?, a reality, a history with a bio family. No longer a ghost as some adoptees describe feeling of themselves. I don’t understand why this is and maybe it is an idea from societal constructs, still it impacts. Next step: now we needed to get in touch with Yasik about this life–altering news. Cherie says “our kids are complicated and guarded”. And when Dave and I try to get in touch with him to share news that deserves a flashing Breaking News tag, we agree once again. It takes nearly a month to finally get him on the phone. I sent him phone messages, wrote letters –one letter was one sentence in bold, in caps, as tall as the page allows: IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN SOME LIFE-CHANGING NEWS ... CALL THESE NUMBERS: numbers he knew well. His sister and her family were getting as antsy as we were. Near the end of the month, Dave and I had an optometrist appointment at Costco. Dave went in first and I waited for my turn on a plastic chair along side a busy aisle of product and shoppers. With some finger twiddling moments to fill, my default brain mode in times of Yasik stress is to try twisting God’s arm to get him involved, never certain that I have his ear. “God could you please get Yasik to call.” In this very poor excuse for a waiting room, God may have done something. My cell rang. I fumbled to find it and turn it off, certain it was a robo call in a foreign language. I didn’t recognize the number. But I answered it: curiosity? boredom? auto pilot kicking in? a prompt from God? maybe, certainly not because it would normally have been a good idea. A receptionist was on the line, calling from some medical office and wanting to know if we would be willing to offer our home address to give Yasik an address in order for him to receive MSP. “Of, course. Our address is ---. And uhmmm, would it be possible for you to get a message to Yasik for us.” “Want to talk to him? He’s right here.” “Oh, yes.” Fumble, mumble. “Hi, Mom.” “Yasik, I don’t want to tell you now. We are at appointments. But please, phone tonight. We have unbelievable news.” Or something to that effect. Yasik interpreted all this to mean that we were at a doctor’s office and Dave must be having some medical issue, having no idea that I was going to be telling him he has siblings. One as nearby as the US. I was so excited myself that I burbled to the receptionist, who was trying to prepare me for my eye exam, something to the effect that tonight my son was going to be finding out that he has a sister in North America. In the most blandly receptionist tone possible, she responded, “Oh, that would be weird.” Really? This is some of the best news I have heard in my life time. Cherie says Svetlana was over the moon at another point in their developing relationship. I was over the moon at this moment. But like Dave says, just because it is filling your heart and mind, it might not be registering in quite the same way to a stranger….. Duh. Yasik called in the early evening. ‘Are you sitting down?” I asked in announcer mode. He thought Dave must be seriously ill. “Yasik we got an email and pictures and everything. You have a sister and she lives in the US.” And whatever other details came bubbling up. “So what do you think?” With a chuckle, “That sounds interesting.” There was happiness in his voice. But no “Wow! Holy Shit! You have got to be kidding!” Just – “That sounds interesting”. Interesting? It’s mind blowing to me from a perspective that was nurtured from infancy to express emotions with the confidence that they would be acknowledged. Again as Cherie noted, these two siblings are complex and guarded. If from infancy, a display of emotions has been ignored or even discouraged, a guarded response is deeply ingrained. Only the note of happiness in his voice was allowed to slip through. Svetlana had called that afternoon. Like Dave and I, she and her mom were barely holding their breaths as well. She wanted to know when she could call Yasik and I said, “It just so happens…. He called just today.” We were able to let her know we had finally connected with Yasik and that he would be calling us in the evening. She gave us her phone number stat. I gave her phone number to Yasik. He called her without hesitation later that evening. Pictures were sent back and forth, pictures of Svetlana and Anya and Nicolai, that could have been Yasik at different times; especially in the younger pictures, the similarities are obvious. Cherie and Svetlana also sent copies of the documents we had not been given. Svetlana’s passport picture at the time of adoption could have been Yasik’s. So begins a new chapter of their lives. I will include other details, especially from the documents they received, of their lives in chronologically appropriate journal entries.
A hair stylist tipped my head back and told me ever since she was six, she wanted to style hair. Apparently it would surprise us to know how many people become aware of their life focus/purpose quite early in life. My desire to become an adoptive parent, as I have written earlier, began with a childhood dream. Reaching adulthood, I, still at the teething stage of maturity, tried chewing like any curious puppy on a couple of what might have been initiations into the world of adoption. One of the winters I Iived in the Canadian north I shared a squatter’s log cabin with a school teacher teaching elementary children who spoke little English outside the classroom. Because my religious community believed I was ‘doing God’s work’, I was financed by family, friends and some church groups in the south, receiving from this collective something north (a blatant pun) of $100.00 per month which to me, in the seventies, seemed enough for food and the roof over my head. Who knows how much my roommate was covering. I in financial naiveté never noticed. I was the protestant fundamentalist equivalent of a hippie, though too otherworldly to cotton on when others were talking free love, it wasn’t God’s free and redemptive love. One afternoon while I was going through the motions of language study while my roommate spent the day addressing the needs of 40 clamouring children, I was interrupted by a knock at the door. A man, maybe in his twenties, stood in the porch; in one hand, he held a baby girl under one year old and in the other, a baby bottle. The baby was wrapped in a blanket: thank God for little mercies. The man, her father, held the baby out to me, telling me her name was Gladys. As I absolutely unhesitatingly took the baby from his arms, I did have the presence of mind to ask how long he wanted to leave Gladys with us. “Oh, a day, or a week, a year… ”, he squinted as he slipped back out the door. This was a Friday afternoon. My roommate with end of the week plans for a child-free weekend, came home to find me dragging a dresser drawer out on the floor next to the kitchen table, turning it into a make shift cradle –‘enthusiastically’ she quite generously observes. Finances, wherewithal, and most seriously, legalities never given a moment’s attention, I was fussing over what to do with a name like Gladys. Gladys’ young mother had her priorities more clearly in order. Within a couple of hours, she came to the door to ask if we had her daughter; with hardly another word she walked over to the drawer on the kitchen floor and lifted Gladys into her arms. In a small town, word mercifully travels quickly. The aborted first attempt to follow my dream summed up by my roommate: “Even you were relieved you’d dodged that bullet.” A few years later I was visiting someone who lived above the market in a provincial town in the Philippines. A visitor came to the door who may have heard an ‘Americana’ was visiting. My coping skills in the language, Tagalog, were not enviable, but I could pick out enough words to know the person in the doorway was asking if I would like to buy a child. Buying a child was doable, and done in those years, with apparently little legal difficulty within the local community. It was quite another thing for an expatriate on a work visa. Maybe my prefrontal cortex was by then in the final stages of development or I had heard some scary stories for I had sufficient good sense to say, “ Salamat po, pero hindi naman.” (“Thank you, but not really.”) What you know of me so far is that I was at best comfortable with no stable income or clearly articulated reason for actually living a life on earth – something Joe and Josephine Normal think is foundational. I had daydreams but played out each day as though only life after death had value. I felt like a dopey bystander to life active around me. Generously you might call me a late-bloomer. OK. ‘In the fullness of time’ as it says in Galatians 4:4 of the old King James Bible the finances, wherewithal and legalities began to fall into place, and I could now begin to present myself as a viable candidate for adoption. Still single and beginning a career as a school teacher, I admit I still needed a bit of a nudge from my sister with whom I had often talked of my interest in adoption. A friend told her of an older, and sweet foster boy. Succinctly summarized, as I was only beginning to evolve into what parenting might entail, I think he got a much better home with a couple in a small town on Vancouver Island. Still I had taken the first step: I shook off the vague daydream, now actively seeking to adopt. The poet and Instagram personality, Yung Pueblo, encourages people to find “a partner who supports your dreams”, not an essential in adoption, but wow for lots of reasons, a very good thing. And along came Dave. We took the next steps together. For most, these steps are paperwork, orientation and about two years of aborted adoptions; a few possible adoptions fell through before we were offered Yasik. I am writing this post to preface the story of our adoption as family, a story I will write on the template of Joseph Campbell’s interpretation of the Hero’s Journey. Even the vague and naïve experiences above can be seen as part of a template for such a journey. The Hero’s Journey is extrapolated from ancient stories as an explanation for why people have human experiences. I chose a common outline for many myths as a template because I embraced the Hero’s Journey as the way I want to understand why I am on earth: hopefully I am working my way toward becoming a person who can live a life I am at home with. As I understand the human experience as interpreted by myths like the Odyssey and many others, we as humans encounter shipwrecks, monsters, deep sleeps on some island and conflicts in our search for home, a stable life or to learn how to be human. Maybe as was Odysseus’ experience, many of us for a vast variety of reasons, do not take the most direct route to return to our homes or places of maturity. Perhaps I took the slow boat to find what I wanted to experience in my life. In Book 3 of the Odyssey, Athena puts Odysseus into a deep sleep in a cave. I too may have gotten stuck on some island and put into a deep sleep. I do know I certainly have always felt I didn’t fully awake or fully begin to experience life until I began taking realistic steps toward adoption. I once heard a preacher say we better get our lives together because by 45 we are set in our ways as surely as if we‘d been poured in concrete. We now know we are not hardwired; our brains, minds, even our bodies are rewiring, changing throughout our lives. We continue to evolve on our human journeys. We can become the people we want to be, may even planned to be as we set out on our human journey. Sidebar: research done by Dr. Daniel Gilbert found “… over a ten-year period of time, you’re not going to be the same person” (Personality Isn’t Permanent, Benjamin Hardy p 37). An abundance of myths worldwide give weight to this explanation of life on earth. Why we find ourselves on earth and taking such a journey is less substantiated. I may have slipped the bonds of sanity, but I have decided to go with the assertions made by Natalie Sudman in The Application of Impossible Things: my near death experience in Iraq (2012). Sudman had a near death experience when her convoy drove over a bomb in Iraq. I use the word ‘assertion’ as her perspective. I have not had an NDE so for me it can be no more than a belief. Sudman said the experience revealed to her we choose the experiences we enter into when we come from another place. It is assumed by many Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” So maybe. Kate Atkinson in her 2002 Not the End of the World collection of short stories has one called “The Bodies Vest” about a man, Vincent, who has observed death up close and personal: his father, his first wife and her father. On the last page of the short story (p 192), the narrator says as he lay dying himself that he wants to assure his two sons for whom he wanted better things he had come to realize “… everything was all right but he couldn’t speak and besides he had no logical evidence on which to base that belief.” I have no ‘logical evidence’ either. It just works for me to choose to believe we are spiritual beings who have come to earth to have a human experience. That I might have dreamed up a plan to come to earth to deal with adoption and soon after I arrived I was reminded of my purpose in a dream works for me. Whatever. At best we can say we are here. What do we do with that reality? All this to say I approach my search to understand the world of adoption from the perspective I may have come to earth to experience a journey in adoption, hopefully continually learning a better way, likely less for myself and Dave now as something I might share with those who are considering becoming or have become and are still in the middle of being birth parents, adoptees, and adopters. I go as far out on a limb as I can to find support when I seek to show it is not just the Luke Sky walkers, Harry Potters or those we deem highly successful in the non-fiction world who are on a hero’s journey, but also birth or bio parents, adoptees and adopters who struggle with the baggage of adoption. And to be even more specific, I am not only talking about those who begin life in institutional care, become adopted and go on to international success like Russian-born, American-raised, Jessica Long, but I am also hoping to make a case for the seven year old boy sent back to Russia by his adoptive mother, and of course, my son, Yasik. The plot line for the Hero`s Journey is a three act play: separation, initiation/disintegration, return/re-integration. So simple a plot outline must surely allow for liberty of detail: is the main character the only one who gets a full on hero’s journey? Odysseus was noble born and secure in a family, with a loving wife and son. What of the crew members who died when Zeus decided to pin cocky Odysseus’ ears back a bit? Are they merely stock characters or foils summarily drowned off, or are they too on a hero’s journey with different purposes in their human experiences, finishing equally as well, yet not registering on our mainstream scale of success? In his interview with Bill Moyer, Joseph Campbell makes clear the hero is not limited to our ideas about a classical hero but is for all of us the path of maturation all evolving humans follow. If Campbell is right, Odysseus’ crew too were on a hero’s journey. The young fellow who dies early in a freak accident or in an act of gun violence, or someone one’s cherished daughter who dies of an overdose on her first experiment with drugs, or the child who languishes in institutional care: have they too not come to have a human experience on a hero’s journey? What about the child caught in an abusive foster home until self-worth has died? What gods came to her rescue? Yet Campbell says the hero’s journey is for all of us. In Ernie Crey and Suzanne Fournier’s book, Stolen From Our Embrace, he shares details from the life experiences of two of his siblings who were taken from their families and put into foster care. The following is the piece about the life journeys of two of his sisters. Frances and Jane had fared no better in their foster homes [than others among his siblings]. The fundamentalist Christian foster parents [they were placed with] exerted strict “discipline” through whippings, psychological terror and heavy farm labour. The girls were told if they didn’t submit to discipline they’d burn in hell along with all the other pagan Indians. As adults, my sisters told us with tears flowing down their faces about their foster father’s favoured punishment. For any imagined infraction he’d march the girls in the middle of the night down to the poultry barns to shovel out chicken shit until dawn. Both Frances and Jane carried deep shame throughout their lives about being Indian and a lot of anger towards white adults. After Frances began drinking heavily as a young mother, her baby daughter, Roberta, was apprehended by social workers, again without any notification of family members. The loss of a second generation of Crey children was well underway. It seemed like nothing could ever repair the abandonment and grief Frances felt, and her guilt for failing Roberta. In the late 1980s she died of a heroin overdose. As an adult, Jane told me of being sexually abused by her foster parent’s son, who was never charged and is now a Christian missionary in Africa. In her late teens, Jane gave birth to a son who was adopted…. Jane now spends most of her time on Vancouver’s meanest streets in a methadone- maintenance program but receiving no psychiatric care or counselling to help her cope with the immense losses in her life (42,43). There has to be more to understand about the Hero’s journey and how the end goal of maturation is understood if each of us is truly on such a journey. I choose to hope there is a story with more widely open arms, being careful not to massage the story to fit the Hero's Journey plotline.
I left the last entry hugging and kissing a child after knowing him three hours and knowing tomorrow he would be our child. Whether the word ‘bonding’ was in wide use at the time, or whether the pre-adoption seminars at the time used the word, I do not remember. Scanning my journal again, I don’t see the word on any of the pages I am now writing about. Yet as we left he peeked through the banister to smile and wave. And we floated away into the evening on a happy cloud. I remember Dave and I going for a walk along the Volga in the evening still wrapped in this happy cloud. The journal says we felt Yasik was so much more than we could ever have hoped for. This is why I ask: do people bond in three hours? ‘Bonding’ after all is the word most people use rather than ‘attachment’ to describe the feeling they have for their children. Few would be surprised at my use of it as well. However, and yes here comes another big ‘But’, asking this question I have begun to discover stuff excluding Dave and me from the circle encompassing only those who fit the scientific definition of the word. And whether is sounds like fluffy semantics nonsense or not, I want to respect the work of science because I want to continue to follow an explanation built on as empirically accessed information as possible to know if my understanding is as concrete as possible. To choose to use the word simply because of a feeling is not a stable explanation. Thus far my readings no longer allow me to use the word ‘bonding’, drawing a distinct line between it and ‘attachment’ which is where the writers want to go to explain those feelings, even though as I currently understand it, ‘attachment’ doesn’t burst within quite as quickly as the feelings Dave and I are sure were ours, and are just as certain cemented a love within us. So what is ‘bonding’? Why am I directed to use the word ‘attachment’ rather than ‘bonding’? Are the feelings we had that day merely the squirt of emotion needed to encourage the growth of attachment? Were they really sufficient to leave us with sense of commitment to Yasik as our son that has refused to wane right to the present? We have never questioned Yasik took his rightful place in our hearts then and there and has never been ousted. With a question like this, I will start with a definition or two for these two words. Attachment and Bonding: From Ethological to Representational and Societal Perspectives, Inge Bretherton, University of Wisconsin says: (bolding mine) At a time when research on the topic was still sparse, [John] Bowlby (1958) postulated that the human infant enters the world pre-adapted to interact with and respond to a human caregiver. We now have overwhelming evidence that his claim was justified. The word bonding was originally used to refer to a father or mother’s sudden development of positive, protective feelings toward a baby born to them or a very young adopted infant. When people spoke of bonding in that sense, they usually meant to imply certain ideas: (1) that bonding involved the feelings and behavior of adults toward babies, not of babies towards adults; (2) that bonding involved a dramatic, irreversible shift in the adult’s emotional life; and that bonding was needed for the child’s sake because it enabled the adult to do the hard work involved in early parenthood. But ‘bonding’, suggests Jean Mercer in Understanding Attachment: parenting, child care, and emotional development (2006,p.5), became a bit of a loosy-goosy term, referring to whatever sweet emotional moment one person shared with usually another person, animal or even thing. The science world was forced to abandon it, though it was supposed to be a word specific to what began to develop in utero via hormone changes and the head start the biological mother gets while her child is in the womb. Yet Mercer returns to the word on pages 70 to 75 as a needed identifier, including fathers and parents of adopted infants who have no hormonal changes, nonetheless, “show bonding to the same degree as biological mothers”. Not even the belief about breast-feeding being essential to bonding holds weight for Mercer. She relegates that idea to persistent myth. In Thinking Critically About CHILD DEVELOPMENT: Examining Myths & Misunderstandings (2016 p.82) Jean Mercer talks about research looking at levels of oxytocin when asking if adoptive mothers bond with their adoptee. The research found mothers who produced more oxytocin when cuddling with their children showed more delight in their children but then concludes it is not easy to measure how bonding or loving occurs for it is still not clear how important early contact is. But there is no denial here that ‘bonding’ can be acknowledged for adoptive mothers (fathers?) of infants. There is, however, denial in Inside Transracial Adoption: strength-based, culture-sensitizing parenting strategies for inter-country or domestic adoptive families that don’t “Match”? (2000, p 128) by Gail Steinberg & Beth Hall for they write, By strict definition, adoptive parents can’t bond with their children. Bonding is a one-way process that begins in the birth mother during pregnancy and continues through the first few days of life. It is her instinctive desire to protect her baby. Whichever definition hits the mark, on page 75 of Understanding Attachment: parenting, child care, and emotional development Mercer adds this caveat: “Adoptive mothers…ordinarily experience bonding…if [their children]… have been adopted early in their lives.” And with that seven word caveat, Dave and I are pushed outside the realm of the word “bonding”. And in taking in the full scope of the definition, we must recognize there was never any viable reason to wonder if Yasik has ever ‘bonded’ with us. But Yasik looked me directly in the eyes and smiled. Connection of some sort was made and emotions were exploding like a fireworks display within. I will see if the word ‘attachment’ is wide enough to offer explanation of the emotions we felt that day – in the next post.
I keep asking 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. So why rake over long dead coals? I insist it is for personal insight. Yet out of curiosity I googled adoption processes 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 to my pursuit. So, yes we are still in the doctor’s office 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, and in the case of adoptive parents, orphanage staff are hovering around as these new parents are taking in the look of their about-to-be child. When I think back on what they shared with us about Yasik, the sum message was positive. They were telling us Yasik was their little assistant with the younger children. I guess in an elder 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 reflexive 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. 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 – sometimes it happens instantly, sometimes it takes a while, but either way it is going to happen though toward the end of the same page she temporizes with “Bonding can occur despite…”. The doctor with the sweetest looking face 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 told us about Yasik’s time for the first two years in the hospital. I am using the word ‘told’ loosely but we did manage to learn Yasik got rickets while at the hospital. The questions I was encouraged to note as we drove to the orphanage were mostly met with blank stares and dodges back into safer territory, translator or no translator, it seemed to me. 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, searches of studies I found up at SFU and from the few books on my reading list about life in Russia. 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 two years he spent in the hospital? Did he have rickets because of the lack of proper diet and exposure to sunshine while he stayed in a substandard hospital. No appropriate judgement can be made. 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?” 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 other positive notes. Perhaps even allowing us to know about the rickets and slow start to walking was to suggest that though the 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 in the hospital. And so, as I write this I have to conclude this sweet looking doctor was doing what she had likely done over and over, focus on the positives unless it was necessary for the future of the child to bring up the negative. Yasik learned to walk. 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). 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 for some reason. 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 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 tiny, shy, little words. The store we went to was a set piece for an early 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. 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 only ever looking on at mothering. That is lots of time to develop either a sense that like any other job I had handled to that point, this was one more job I would be competent at, 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 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, 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. Returning Yasik to the orphanage, we hugged and kissed him – was it a natural or expected response? How do people bond in three hours? He followed us out of the room and then the journal says “I was last and he peeks through the bannister 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 conclude, “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 that was what we knew about our child-to-be before he became our child 24 hours later.
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 parentless 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 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.
I found online a list of 26 orphanages for the city and region of Yaroslavl. The site is copyright from 2006 to the present. Many were simply called “Baby House No.--” which is a “state residential institution for orphans and children without parental care, age 4 and under”. But others got specific. There were a couple of “Music and Artistic Education Baby” houses. Then there were a couple of “Social and Rehabilitation Center for Minors” orphanages. One was for children 3 to 18. There were a couple of “Sanatory [sic] Orphanages for Tuberculosis Children”. Others were for hard-of-hearing or deaf children. One was labelled “Agrarian Special Orphanage”. Other orphanages were labeled according the word “Type”. There is no explanation for the ones labelled “of the Type 7” but those labelled “of the Type 8” come with this piece, “for Mentally Defective Children”. Ten of the 26 orphanages in Yaroslavl carried the ‘of type 8’ plus ‘for Mentally Defective Children’ designation. If, as several articles I have found suggest, a high percentage of children in Russian orphanages are considered, at birth, or after time in an orphanage setting, to be ‘mentally defective’, what does the label refer to? How these children get the designation is straightforward. Several articles and policy papers talk of the attitude among more traditional doctors that a baby with a birth “defect” is going to be problem for the mother so she is advised to turn her baby over to the state just after birth and sometimes without even seeing or holding the newborn. A Human Rights Watch paper noted “Many parents face pressure from healthcare workers to relinquish children with disabilities to state care, including at birth. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which medical staff claimed, falsely, that children with certain types of disabilities had no potential to develop intellectually or emotionally and would pose a burden with which parents will be unable to cope”. Maybe this is true, for Will Englund wrote a piece in the Washington Post in 2013 called “Russia’s orphans: Government takes custody of children when parents can’t cope”. His report on the issue of children in Russian orphanages: The children are almost certain to have at least one disability. The disabilities can be congenital or related to alcohol consumption by the mother during pregnancy — or they have arisen because of the loss of emotional contact that comes with life in a state orphanage. “Every month in an institutional setting has a physical impact on the brain,” said Chuck Johnson, head of the National Council for Adoption, in an interview in Alexandria. “Every child will come with some developmental delays.” But then, in a Human Rights Watch paper, The experts reported that Russian psychological norms are based on very strict criteria. Apart from these norms, however, factors that in the West are considered as being simple medical risks, will, in Russia, be labeled as illnesses: *Babies born to alcoholic parents or whose mothers suffered depression during pregnancy will be labelled encephalopathic and remain so until they come of age. *Orphans will be classed as being mentally deficient. *Children with a single physical malformation (a harelip or speech defect...) become subnormal in the eyes of Russian doctors. Human Rights Watch also found that these early diagnostic practices interfere with a child's right to full development and in certain cases, to life, itself. Moreover, abundant information gathered in Russia indicated several crucial incentives behind "over-diagnosing" that suggest violations of basic medical ethics. According to a former charity worker who distributed assistance to impoverished baby houses and has traveled widely in Russia since 1991, one legacy of the Soviet medical bureaucracy encourages hospital staff to avoid any risk of sanctions for errors detected under their care. For example, she recalled the case of a child she knew well who had a medical chart with a catalogue of conditions including oligophrenia and encephalopathy. A doctor told me that they have to cover their butts. They could lose their job, so they write many diagnoses. And you know the penal system here. It's a “better safe than sorry” system. A second factor that encourages exaggerated diagnoses is the Russian law which, until recently, prohibited international adoption of "healthy" children. "The doctors in the system wanted the kids adopted, so they'd say that this child has a tumor and then “wink” at you. Finally, a widely cited incentive for over-diagnosing is the extra financial subsidy and salary increment that the state grants to institutions that care for children with disabilities. The entitlement to these subsidies was confirmed by children's rights activists as well as by staff of state institutions. One volunteer who worked in a Moscow baby house for a year and a half recalled to Human Rights Watch, Once, in a rare honest moment with the acting director, she told me, 'We are considered as a medical facility because more than half our children are considered to have medical defects.' So they could finagle more money for the place. Another baby house director told Human Rights Watch, however, that the subsidy does represent the greater burden shouldered by the staff in dealing with disabled children, even though the salary levels remain very low and do not attract specially trained personnel: A pedagogue in a baby house who works here, for the Ministry of Health, will get a 20 percent higher salary than from another ministry. Yet what should we be talking about if the salary of a doctor is only $100 a month? Of course, all these places with "problematic kids" get higher pay because we have to deal with all the kids…. The name on the byline is Kathleen Hunt, who I assume was the reporter. The chapter is ‘’The “Gilded Cage” of the Dom Rebenka: infancy to four years”, ( p.116 ) taken from Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanage (1998) written by Human Rights Watch. These kids will enter adulthood, work their ways through life with a host of papers labeling them mentally defective like a life long albatross around their necks. And we come back to the question, aside from globally respected diagnoses, what do the labels really mean? And even with an appropriate diagnosis, what concrete prognosis does the label offer? With no verification to the contrary, we assume that Yasik was sent to a baby house though he had turned four because, I think it was Julia who told us, Yasik was held at a home he was aging out of for the powers that were felt he was still adoptable. The largest number of children adopted out is from the baby houses. I guess there is no surprise there – it seems to me, we humans deeply believe in the wonder of having a baby as the picture perfect way to establish a family and we just as deeply believe that we have the best chance of molding the little bitty baby into our likeness if the little bit comes to us ‘tabula rasa’. This belief system resists challenges to other options in ways that may be well below our conscious level of dealing with our lives. In any case, when I look at what paper work we have, the orphanage name is Yaroslavl Orphanage. There is no such plain name on the listing I found so this was merely sufficient name for the paperwork. We do not know what ‘Type‘ it was. We do know there wasn’t enough land surrounding the building for it to be an ‘Agrarian Special’ orphanage; with ‘scruffy grass and bare spots, not far from lots of other buildings’, it was hardly worthy of the stimulation a playground should offer children. It put me in mind of how Tony describes the playground at his orphanage in 1930s Saskatchewan (April, 2020 post, Becoming Family). Inside, the orphanage looked quite small from what we could see in our very limited guided tour. We were taken via the straightest route to a receiving room. Inside we passed through a play room with a child-size piano which he must have played, so ….. maybe this was a ‘Music and Artistic’ Baby house. We were taken to the head person’s office, a sweet looking, grandmotherly woman who was a doctor. There was another woman at a desk who never once looked up at us, at least when I noticed. That is focus or loyalty to work or something. Was she now immune to these emotional tableaus about to unfold once again, or? Yes hindsight could suggest a wide range of possibilities; in the journal I was simply struck by her disinterest but so caught up in the emotions I was enjoying that I could not ask questions. Maybe she had a stiff neck.
Yaroslavl was more attractive than Moscow and full of the look of things ancient – over 1000 years old. Yasik has very old blood in his veins. Where Yasik was actually born, Ermakovo village, is in the northwest part of Yaroslavl, near that lake on the map. It is farther north than where I once lived in northern Saskatchewan so I know with certainty that it was an area which would have had more than 7 months of snow in a year. We were taken to a hotel on the Volga River when we arrived and had caviar for lunch. But it was not all grand old hotel and extravagant foods. On the drive into Moscow Dave was fishing in his underwear to prepare to pay our driver, at the airport I feared frisking and now we assumed we must pay for our hotel which would again necessitate getting-the-money-out-of-the-secret-pockets-in-the-underwear. This time the assumption was the expectation. In the hotel lobby, our driver, without being able to speak English, managed to convey to us we needed to pay for our stay. Dave had to get money out of his shorts in the lobby of a hotel, with scarcely a pillar to hide behind, and surrounded by people curious about obvious tourists. He was successful. He paid for a room with two single beds and a TV offering programs only in the evening. Though two single beds in a L arrangement did not seduce us to sex, in a fanciful kind of way, we were pregnant with the reality of having our own child in the next 48 hours. At lunch we finally met a translator, a school teacher who said the lunch we shared with her was more than her monthly salary. It became an uncomfortably extravagant lunch as we took in that piece of information. The translator answered questions no one so far had been able to because of the language barrier. She told us Yasik was “a gifted boy”, musical and helpful with others. His interest in music was immediately evident and over the years we have caught him in the act of helpfulness. After the meal, we went to a few offices to take his name off Russian records and give each official a small gift to help with the process-bribery to us, but courtesy to them. If you google tourist tips for Russia you will find these sites to be quite specific about the need to bring a gift and which gifts are appropriate and which are not. The sites suggest foreigners “dress sharply, arrive on time, be patient while waiting for the notoriously late Russians – and bring a gift”. Did we dress sharply? I doubt it for on the afternoons we played tourist I noticed a few women looking down (‘down’ is to be taken both literally and figuratively) on my sandals and casual attire, attire I felt to be comfortably trendy. I don’t know if we arrived on time as the timetable was in the hands of our driver and translator. No one seemed to be upset, only gracious and accepting. To participate in the custom of gift–giving, we had been carefully instructed pre-trip by Julia, our adoption facilitator, and were prepared to hand a gift over each time the translator raised her eyebrow in the direction of our bag. It felt shifty to us which only points to our narrow understanding of cultural differences. As I said, the people we dealt with in the process of adoption were unfailingly gracious. In one office where we waited in the outer office on wooden benches while the interpreter talked to the staff in an inner office, we watched an inch worm work its way across the floor. Dave tried to help the little thing and it freaked in terror. Once we had stopped at all the registries to remove Yasik’s Russian footprint, our driver turned the van in the direction of the orphanage for our introduction to our son-to-be. Perhaps knowing her time with us was limited, the interpreter suggested we use this short drive to write down questions we might have for the orphanage staff but that turned out to be a bit useless. When I pulled out my questions later, translator or no translator, I got blank but respectful stares. I would have loved to know why. While I was naively writing down some questions, the translator, a school teacher possibly conversant in several different languages, came up with an even better way to use five or ten minutes. She began to teach us some phrases she thought would be helpful in communicating with Yasik. Monolingual Dave started mimicking her without hesitation. I have worked in a couple of foreign languages and know what a nightmare language learning can be so just wanted to throw up -- I was going to one of the truly important moments of my life and being pushed on the way there into doing something which has given me some of the most stressful experiences of my life. I get it if books written to guide people though the adoption process are merely suggesting adoptors primed to prove how perfect they will be as parents learn a few tourist level phrases, but some of these books sound like they are suggesting adopters learn their child-to-be-‘s language by ordering an app from Amazon. Do they have any idea what that means? It is doubtful though even they would dare to suggest language learning be all wrapped in a few minutes. I thank Yasik for learning English so quickly. The amazing expectations of those few minutes did not end there. The translator also managed to tuck in further information about Yasik’s history. Yasik’s mother visited him in the hospital where he lived for the first two years but “she moved around a lot”, whatever that meant. I did not question the comment at the time. Now I wonder if my blasé reaction was because my mind was pre-set to a bias against this mother’s care of her children. I have since learned much more about how many Russians see adoption. Somewhere I cannot currently validate, I was either told or read parents will leave their children at a state-run orphanage or what is also called a boarding school (often a more literal label than the boarding school as private school) while they attend to commitments like education or work away from home. One source I did manage to secure is Russian Babies, Russian Babes: Economic and Demographic Implications of International Adoption and International Trafficking for Russia written by J.R. McKinney (2009). She writes of the how the Soviets in the early years of their regime felt the raising of children would best be done by the state. In time the costs to the state measured against desired results of the ideal Soviet citizen led to backtracking to the tradition of the family-raised child. The children being raised by the state were generally weaker intellectually, physically and socially than family-raised children. Moving away from the Soviet aspiration to the tried and true was likely done with as little fanfare as possible, leaving Russian society with a stronger acceptance of placing a child in state care than would have been true in other cultures. If Yasik’s mother “moved around a lot” then state care may have been an obvious choice not only for someone struggling with drugs or alcohol but perhaps someone struggling with other pressures of poverty. Yasik was, after all, born in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Added to this, I have no journal entries referring to the role of the father in Yasik’s life because it appears no one told us anything about him. J.R. McKinney in Lone mothers in Russia: Soviet and Post-Soviet policy (2008) notes in Post-Soviet Russia, 70% of Russian children lived in households where needs exceeded income. The article points to the demographic called ‘Lone Mothers’ as very specifically mothers who never married and therefore could look to no one else for support of any kind. Added to the difficulties Russian parents faced in those years is the negative attitude in Russian society, seemingly prevalent but now being more actively countered, toward domestic adoption. Add together these considerations and all that remains of this information is to understand we cannot simply assume a child in state care arrived there because someone else was willfully negligent. Then again, adoption is not always possible if Russians have just dropped kids off at the boarding school cum orphanage while other issues are being worked out. Numbers from 70% to 90% are offered when accounting for those (social orphans) in the state system with living biological parents who have the right to return for their children. But there were four Gurin children in four different orphanages so while Yasik remained in the orphanage for several years, at some point the state must have decided or come to the conclusion his biological mother’s rights had been relinquished, hopefully in consultation with Yasik’s biological mother. Clarification was never offered, at least not clearly to us, and raises another question suggested from time to time. Did she get a say, and if not, why not? LUMOS makes the contention that orphanages can be big business. As we are daily watching with the Covid-19 crisis, the desire to help solve a problem can so easily be turned by others into something hurtful to society. It is an aspect of adoption I only want to turn away from as too sickening to contemplate. Yasik didn’t become available for adoption until just before we applied so someone up until then was still open to coming for him. Added to this, as was suggested to us, some families in Russia were considering adopting him; we were, therefore, encouraged even before we left for Russia to lay down some more money to ensure our adoption. We did so immediately. And whiff of a money grab aside, it may well be some Russian families were interested for the UN publication Child Adoption: Trends and Policies provides a graph showing 75% of adoptions were domestic in the early 2000s, and somewhere I cannot locate at this writing, I saw the same breakdown for the year 1997. As noted above, Russians, for all the writing about their antipathy to domestic adoption because they do not want a child not of family blood, did process far more domestic adoptions than international at that time. Yasik was moved to the orphanage before his second birthday the translator told us. We were given to understand the orphanage did not know when he was taken to the hospital but I continue to believe a small window is opened on to the care Yasik’s mother had for him for the translator told us his mother came to visit him at the hospital a number of times. But then again, this little bit of information into his first two years includes a comment on the care and attention he got during his time at the hospital. He had rickets and he could not walk until the orphanage took over his care. Did his mother not notice? Did she not care? Did she feel too cowed by authority and her own inability to care for him? Yasik caught up physically in the orphanage to the extent he was barely ever sick as a child. When our doctor gave him a medical just after we brought him to Canada, he surmised Yasik had built up a strong immune system in the orphanage. We adopted a child who simply weathered every illness common to kids with barely a sneeze. Even when it was his turn to get chicken pox, he and his little buddies spent their “sick” week playing in the park across from their school.
I have a snapshot in my mind of Dave and I driving through the intersection at Lougheed and Gaglardi Way in Burnaby testing out names for Yasik. His birth name was Gurin, Yaroslav Nikolayevich –the surname, his given name and the patronomic. Yaroslav as I said was possibly homage to the region of his birth. In respect to impressions we picked up somehow in the pre-adoption phase, we felt Yaroslav should be included in his name. We cannot say that we did so in full-hearted desire to respect his culture. I thought Russia was a country with mysteries I might like to explore but I wanted my son to become as deeply Canadian as I was. I think Dave felt the same. Including Yaroslav as one of his names was merely a nod to approved behavior for adoptors. This moment in the van testing out names was our, emphasis on ‘our’, naming ceremony for our son-to-be. We may not have called in the relatives or secured a reservation at the local place for religious ceremonies but the moment stays with me. Naming a child has always seemed to me something held to be a precious privilege for parents, whether the recipient child would agree or not. And with good reason sometimes. Case in point, a couple have just named their new born twins, Corona and Covid, as a way to provide a more positive message in a time of stress. They were wobbling along the right track though, for most of us want to find a name that is a positive message to the child or a way to acknowledge those we love or is a name that sounds cool to us because it is a name trending in the particular decades we inhabit. We were no different: we registered our son-to-be with a given a name we liked and then were happy to find had meaning that we thought appropriate, and we tucked in a second name to honour three relatives in one. The end result was, with the inclusion of Yaroslav, our son’s full name is so long it never fully fits in the allotted space given for names in online documents. The name we use in these journal entries is Yasik, a diminutive of Yaroslav which we were unaware of until we met our son. Had we known we might have retained it for him; he was used to it; we liked it, and in fact used in the early days, mixed in with our given name. A Google scan shows the questions around naming an adoptee are common among adopters, even though a 2014 book, adopting older children: a practical guide to adopting and parenting children over age four, does not mention the issue of appropriate names while asking adopters to consider ways to become aware of their child-to-be’s culture. But then turn to Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness (p.268) written in 1994 by Betty Jean Lifton, which has been considered ‘The Bible’ for adoptees. Lifton devotes a page to the question of naming and her words carry a potency I do not wish to water down with paraphrase. As an adopted child, my birth name had been taken from me, and, therefore, according to the beliefs of many old cultures, I was vulnerable to all kinds of dangers. A name was considered a vital part of you, like your eyes or your teeth, and had to be kept secret so that an enemy could not harm you….By taking possession of my birth name, by sealing it away [in sealed adoption files] with the names of all adoptees, society took away my power and the power of all the adopted. It is impossible to describe how adoptees feel when they learn that first or last name given them at birth. The birth name is a confirmation that you were born and that you exist. It is as integral a part of one today as it was in ancient times. As the poet Stanley Kunitz tells us: “Nothing is mine except my name/ I only borrowed this dust.” Even when they cannot have a relationship with their birth parents, adoptees may reclaim their names as a way of reclaiming their original identities….Sometimes adoptees will use both their adoptive and their birth names, as if not sure which is the real one and which the impostor. My husband would be one of the latter. He has included his birth surname in his public name. Does its inclusion suggest a question of identity? A follow up to Lifton can be found online. Robyn Chittister put up a piece on adoption.com in June 2016 to say a name doesn’t reflect a child’s personality, and it is easy [not sure about that point] to change although adopters do need to think about what impact a name change will have on the child’s world as best they can know at the time. Jennifer Kadwell put up a piece on adoption.com in August , 2019 to say there are no parental manuals to confirm the rightness or wrongness of their choice, but again, Lifton’s observation cannot be ignored. In our global village no name is too ethnic to be considered an albatross. Jodi Meltzer wrote in cafemom in Sept, 2014, “It is not about erasing what happened in the past. You build on their foundation” which is the point Fraser McAlpine wanted to make in July 2013 in a Guardian piece, agreeing “it should never be about making the child ashamed of his [or her] birth world”. In fact Google has shown us how common our son’s name is in Russia, even attached to some illustrious persons in the Yaroslavl region. With paper work done, passport prepared for Yasik in the chosen name, some child-sized clothing bought, airplane tickets in hand, the night before the flight we opened one of the bottles of wine we had packed as gifts meant to smooth our way into Russian offices; we had crossed off every note on our naive checklist preparing for an adoption. We dusted off the peeling paint and sat on the cement steps of our front porch under what stars we could see through all the street lights and passing cars, and dreamed about our coming life with him. We saw ourselves as very lucky people. In the morning we dressed for the nine hour flight. We had to get new American dollars to pay for the items on the next checklist, the one that would secure our adoption proceedings in Russia. To be sure those American dollars looked crisp, Dave ironed them. I had sewn a pocket in my bra for half of them and I had sewn a pocket in Dave’s shorts. When we stuffed the pockets with the money – $5,000, I looked like I had three breasts but Dave was sporting a male fantasy, packing around enhanced boys. Many of our extended family saw us off at the airport and then it was a nine hour flight to Frankfurt. We were on our way to the next level of a partnership – up to then we were more like friends helping each other through life, now we were evolving into a unit – a family- with a life bigger than just us. The trip was cramped, but hey, they gave us each a small hand towel, maybe for the morning shower in the tiny toilet. And on to Moscow. When we arrived we were told we would need to declare our money. I went into hysterical giggles wondering if we would have to be strip searched to declare, but no, so maybe it was all on paper; I don’t remember. Our driver and hostess showed up to rescue us though they didn’t speak English. Driving through Moscow we kept seeing signs that read Mockba (in Russian letters) 850. Having done no research before we left, we thought it must be a popular radio station. It was the 850 year anniversary of a city with a long and rich history of which we were ignorant. The driver, Alexi, took us to a Soviet era apartment to our eyes in serious need of ‘renos’ – an ancient elevator, heavy, steel, double front doors, a tiny deck with ¼ inch steel siding. You could see where bullet holes had dented it –a design built out of fear. The furnishings in the interior may have had the touch of a little old lady’s place from the 50s and may not have been Ikea branded, but a sense of art remained evident, complete with an old piano and beautiful wood furniture. We turned on the TV, which had not left the 50s too far in the dust either, to see little men dressed in what we did not know were traditional dress declaring their proud determination to emphasize their independence from Russia, papakha, not cossak, hats, and choka coats. We knew so little of Russia that we were not aware this program had to do with the worsening relations between Russia and Georgia. Books encouraging an attempt at cultural awareness should be given heed.