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.
Entry #1 I have kept a diary since my 20s. When I finally obtained a satisfactory level of cool, I started calling it a journal. Now when I am wanting to understand more about becoming and being a family via adoption, turning to my journals is like cautiously pulling the thread Isabel Allende imagines in Of Love and Shadows (p.140) to unravel the conflict her story narrates. Allende may have used the metaphor to suggest that pulling on a thread would start a dangerous or damaging domino effect but it struck me personally as a way to see what my experiences were made of. This is not an unusual curiosity. I have read a library shelf worth of studies and memoirs written by people who because they themselves were parents, both birth and adoptive, or children of an adoption turned to the study of adoption. They wrote to pull on the thread of their stories, to unravel the parts of their lives that helped them to see the knots and hopefully work them out. I think most of these writers, or artists, or musicians or film makers were compelled from within to do so. I know this is why I read, watch movies or documentaries, sometimes get directed to music by my husband, sift through my journals- to seek some understanding of our family’s experiences as it has come through adoption. And a word to address veracity: Someone says, “I remember it like it was yesterday.” Science arches an eyebrow and responds, “I doubt you do.” A first year psychology text addressing memory makes the point that we are constantly reconstructing memory as time weaves new perspectives into our narratives, changing a certainty into a gist well peppered with what must be acknowledged as fiction. In the stories I share from my journal, there will be new perspectives and a fair bit of ‘gisting’ goin’on but I do have a first person primary source, my journal to guide each narrative. The entries I select to draw together into a post have been first read by my husband and son. I start with an entry from June 24, 1997. Yasik was about 4 ½ and living in an orphanage in Yaroslavl, an ancient city about 250 kilometers from Moscow. Because he was considered cute enough to still have potential for adoption, even at the advanced age of 4 + years, he had been allowed to remain in an orphanage for younger children and on a roster of adoptable children. He had three older siblings in other orphanages. His full name was Yaroslav Guerin Nicolavich; someone told us that Yaroslav is a name he was probably given more as representative of the region he was born into than because his parents saw their new born son as ‘fierce and glorious’, the meaning the name has in Slavic regions. Dave and I had been trying to adopt for about two years; this an average time though for those determined to have a newborn the wait averages out to seven years. Those two years were about learning what the process involved and then standing before the doors labelled: domestic adoption, open adoption, friend of a friend adoption, international adoption, guessing behind which door we would find our child. We chose the door labelled international adoption. Dave’s hand was firmly on the door handle. My fingers were still a bit twitchy. I have boxes scattered all over the floor and shoes well broken in before I walk out of the shoe shop with a new pair of shoes. And there is much, much more to consider when looking for a child than a pair of shoes. Yeah, really. In the midst of laying down money to the society facilitating our international adoption, I would find myself still toying with other possibilities. Having a biological baby is a desire that is woven into our beings by biology, tradition, culture, religion, and societal expectations. This was the desire to be as normal as possible despite now living in a body beyond the age of reproduction. I was 47 and could no longer give my husband his own child, even though I had never wanted to do anything but adopt. But Dave, how was he feeling about never having a little David or Darlene growing into a remarkable likeness of himself. Dave stopped me up by asking how he could make a big deal of having a child that came from his DNA when he was adopted himself. That settled my twitchy fingers. We were on the same page about adopting. The first child we were offered when we started to apply to Russia was a 7 month old boy. The woman who was facilitating our adoption, Julia Ivanova, told Dave to be considered for this baby he should shave his beard because it had gray in it. I was already well dyed. But it didn’t help because Russia came back with a policy that said we had to be less than 40 years old to adopt an infant and we weren’t, I being more years beyond 40 than gray-bearded Dave. Anyway we looked at our options, a biological or adopted infant was out for us. When I told a friend who was on maternity leave with a toddler, her less than sympathetic response was, “Good, you will not have to deal with diapers.” I think she saw them to be a waste of good money. The child was going to be an older child. I was teaching adult education classes, Dave was working on his art degree, and he was meeting mortgage payments with a week-end job. We each tucked in minor surgeries; mine left me with a pee bag sloshing around on my thigh while I was stopping in at various offices to get signatures, and sign away lumps of money. The pee bag would rock and roll as I rushed about and sometimes surprised me enough that I would jump or yell for what looked to others like no particular reason. So did we stop to check out what it meant to adopt an older child? No. We knew little even about the state of affairs in Russia. Would the KGB be following us around? What would the weather be like in August? At this point all we knew was our adoption process and a bit about the stories most common at the time regarding adoption, the miracle of a god given ‘forever child’. I am not sure if the term ‘forever child’ had begun to trend, but when I later began to study adoption, I found a decent body of research on adoption beginning well back in the twentieth century. No one hinted to us that we might consider even a visit to the SFU library where a study of Romanian adoptions was into its fourth year. We were simply running through a domestic to do list. We were working through pages of paper work about our home, our finances, our jobs, our families and our health. And we had started to put down money to pay our way through the process of adoption. If we backed out now we would have to do all that over for another child. Money always has a loud voice. So we asked what was available to us if we were not going to be allowed a baby. Julia told us about a 3 year old boy , wheel-chair bound with cerebral palsy, and a 4 1/2 year old boy. We were not open to the 3 year old because we worked as caregivers for challenged people for many years. We thought we might have a hard time distinguishing between a sense of being at work and being in a family. We wanted family, not more job. Is there a stone to overturn here in terms of becoming and being family? This was not the pursuit of altruism or joining the ranks of rescuers of the destitute. Yes I was pursuing the dream that refused to fade which I write about on the home. But even my dream of adopting a little blond boy was not about saving his sorry little butt; it was because in my dream I had been given him. And I know what flags pop up on the landscape with that admission. I will deal with them in time, if not already in other posts. And here is another admission found in this entry: Dave liked that the 4 year old would allow him to keep going on his studies because the 4 year old would go to school part of the day. Doesn’t that sound convenient? Neither Dave nor I had altruistic ideals fueling our desire to adopt. We wanted a child and if we found one who would fit our finances and work demands, nice. BUT… hear a very firm ‘however’ here: being near to ageing out as prospective parents, and being low on discretionary funds, we had little leeway to be choosy. We were two people stretching our necks to be counted as middle class, yet about to pack our lives with some serious financial demands. Factor into these constraints an odd little piece: our school had managed to get us unionized in negotiations that decided maternity leave for adoptors could be dispensed with because those at the meeting knew of next to no one planning to adopt at the time. Julia gave us the first picture of Yasik: blond- just like my dream, chubby- well, pictures add 10 pounds, and one definitely crossed eye, and as someone at my school pointed out, a very cute nose. I was looking at this picture of Yasik while calling Julia to tell her we had chosen to go ahead with adopting Yasik. The little fellow in that picture was drawing me in. A question I wrote down that day was: How do you hold back dreams? We were about to do as James Michener suggests at the end of The Drifters when the character Brit says, “[people] ought to inspect their dreams. And know them for what they are.” So we went shopping – always a nice way to put a dream in action. We went shopping for a 4 year old boy. Dave got him a book of paper airplanes.