Entry #12C Set and Setting
The Physical Environment: Yasik began life in an apartment in a small village, moving to a hospital around his first birthday.
By the time he was two he was living in an orphanage for young children. Yaroslavl is an ancient town with a beautiful river running through, paved streets, and wonderful old buildings though the shops looked a bit like they were part of the scenery for an old time Western. The orphanage seemed to be off a dirt road, back a bit of beyond. There was a piece at the side of the house that looked worn enough to likely have been a playground, reminding me of how Tony describes the playground of his orphanage in 1930s Saskatoon (A Canadian Story of Adoption in the 1930s).
A plane ride and he entered our 50s era home with a backyard smaller and not yet particularly kid enticing given that neither Dave nor I had yet given much thought to the yard. But now we had Yasik; we had a yard; we need to see what we could do. Or Yasik very quickly, very naturally rearranged our thinking and awareness of what might please him. Or we fell back on what our parents did with us. Whatever… the environment our house and yard offered became kid oriented. We attempted some gardening, built igloos the odd year we had sufficient snowfall and played itsy-bitsy soccer. The house was tucked in among a string of streets trying to be a suburb but so infused with businesses and institutions that there was little point in denying it was part of a much larger urban setting, with cars everywhere. Nonetheless Yasik learned to ride a bike in the alley between our house and the Chevron station and biked on sidewalks running alongside a street that boasted 40,000 cars a day.
At the bottom of our little tree-lined street, on the other side of the river of traffic, the elementary school had the word ‘Community’ in its title and across from the school was a park with baseball diamonds, a swimming pool and even a creek bordered by trees and picnic tables. An hour or two out of town our bodies and minds could ‘heed the call of the wild’ with hiking or swimming in rain forested provincial parks.
When the city began to feel just that, a city, we moved ‘out to the country’, the bedroom city of Maple Ridge, settling into a half-acre piece bordered by muskeg, bush, trees that fringed the coastal range circling the Fraser Valley.
The physical body Yasik inhabited: This is where it gets tricky between mindset and setting. Yasik‘s genes are part of his mindset. They also contribute to his setting.
As our doctor surmised, Yasik came into our family physically fit, perhaps, the doctor suggested, because he’d built up a strong immunity to childhood diseases in his orphanage. Yasik was growing, pink cheeked and fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which member of the family you asked, unable to miss much school time due to illness. Yasik, with his button nose and soft blond hair, also came into the family with personal cuteness and physical and spatial skills – prowess in sports.
Both Yasik’s cuteness and physical skill are shared by his sister, giving us some sense of the genetic offering of his Slavic parents and grandparents. Whatever the combination is for cuteness, it can come in handy.
Cuteness is the signal nature sends to us that says that a creature is young, vulnerable and needs nurturing. Seeing cuteness is usually pleasurable and cues us to interact positively with children and young animals. Because cuteness can be such a great source of pleasure – hence the popularity of internet kittens and puppies – it can be used to help children (and adults) manage stress and soothe themselves.[xxx]
Yasik was cute enough that on a pumpkin patch trip he so mesmerized the staff they end up leaving another child in the field, but they certainly had lots of pictures of Yasik and the pumpkins which in this case did not ‘manage stress’ or ‘soothe’ the other child’s mother.
Maurice Mierau and his wife were told something similar by one of the women at the boys’ Ukrainian nursery: “Your boys are so good-looking, and that’s an asset in life, you know”.[xxxi] Mierau felt encouraged by the comment. It seems we adoptors also feel some comfort when it is suggested that our adopted child bears some resemblance to us. John Brooks and his wife wanted their girl to think she looked like Brook’s mother as a young girl.[xxxii] Dave and I preened a bit too when our adoption facilitator noted that Yasik looked him and that Yasik had my eyes. Did she really see resemblance or was that a tool in an adoption facilitator’s kit? One of the tools to help normalize adoption as family.
But put bluntly, for Yasik, cuteness was not enough to draw his biological father and mother to dote on him. Nor was the fact that he had been put together with genes from their parents’ and themselves. Much of the recipe that produced his genes will likely never be known, but from the bit of report we have had access to and the way his face is mirrored in his siblings, there can be no doubt he was their biological child. Yet we know that he was found in a bed, unattended as an infant. Our child carried their genes and experienced their lack of nurture. The early, caring nurture that helps a child develop resistance to stress and encouragement of the growth hormone was lacking for Yasik. We would be parenting a child bearing the expression of genes that were developed over generations of oppression and whose infancy was soaking in that atmosphere.
I see no reason to do other than leave this section with the following two paragraphs.
…[I]f stressful events occurred during certain trigger periods in a child’s life, they would leave an epigenetic imprint on that child’s genes. These trigger periods, though consistent, were not cut and dried across the entire population of the study. Rather, they were highly dependent on the gender of both the affect child and his or her parent. The parent’s gender determined the time at which their stressful experience had the most bearing on the methylation patterns present in their children. For mothers, the period was during their child’ infancy. Mothers who reported experiencing a great deal of stress when their children were just babies – be it from losing a job, relationship trouble, or grieving the loss of a loved one – had children who displayed a distinct and unconventional pattern of methylation in certain target genes. Fathers produced a different but no less distinct methylation pattern, but only when stress during their children’s preschool years, and only in their daughters. Sons showed no abnormal patterns of methylation regardless of their father’s stress patterns. Mothers, on the other hand, impacted the methyl patterns of their sons and daughter equally.[xxxiii]
…For instance, early brain growth depends in part on diet, with the consumption of high-quality proteins having a significant effect. Brain growth slows and complexity advances less if an infant or toddler is deprived of protein. The poorly nourished child’s head circumference is abnormally small, compared with other, better-fed children of the same chronological age. During the first three years or so, the problematic development of the malnourished child can be corrected to some extent if the child is given a better diet, with milk, meat, eggs, or other good protein sources included. Catch-up growth can then help bring the brain closer to normal size, although the child’s stature may always be short. However, delaying the improved diet until the child is 6 years old will not have the same effect. Although formerly malnourished child will have better general health with more protein in the diet, brain size will remain small, and poor intellectual functions will be apparent.[xxxiv]
Cultural: Culture is about social organization: our language, symbols or codes and behaviours and institutions, values, ideas or beliefs and artifacts demonstrated by religion, food, clothing, marriage arrangements, music, literature and art, customs, ceremonies or rituals we choose to incorporate into our lives for cohesion in a group.
We never gave it any conscious thought, but we were going to be actively turning Yasik into a little Canadian. If you had asked us point blank, we would have assured you that we were going to honour Yasik’s Russian culture, I guess by going to Russian meet-ups and by eating piroshkies, but in reality – likely again because we gave no conscious thought to what retaining Russian culture might mean – we were going to be turning Yasik into a Canadian with little pretense of retaining his Russian culture.
Language: adopting older children: a practical guide to adopting and parenting children over age four may be practical in its advice on many issues relating to adopting older children, but slipping in a little suggestion like “Also, perhaps learn his native language before you bring him home…”[xxxv] might be a bit over the top. To learn the child’s native language requires some serious investment preparatory to getting an invitation that may only arrive 6 weeks before the adoptors are expected to fly over to another country to adopt a child. Yasik, thanks to Forest Gump (and yes, other sources), was operating in English within months. Dave and I, with at best 10 Russian words between us, only remember having fun with his renditions of words, ‘sillyphone’ for telephone. We did not look for a school offering weekend lessons in Russian. And yes, long term and for that matter even short term, that was/is a loss for Yasik. If at some point in his life he has the opportunity to spend time with his half-brother and half-sister in Russia, any connection of depth will be hampered by the need for a translator.
Much adoption literature, perhaps more ‘practical’ in this regard, notes that most adoptees will become comfortable with the language of their adoption within months of arrival. The time also came when he was quite certain he did not remember any Russian, although my brother-in-law maintains a fantasy that he heard teenage Yasik talking up some visiting, and very pretty, Russian girls at a hockey game.
Religion: Yasik may have had some experience with the Russian Orthodox church. Dave and I, like many Canadians of our generation, had moved away from organized religion into an undefined belief in God. Some of this generation move back into religion for a stable social world for their children but we could not see any viable reason to make such a choice. We played together on Sundays.
Food and Clothing: We did try here for a while, at least until macaroni and wieners and MacDonald’s got a hold of his tummy. Our friend, Tony, directed us to some sausage shops and a store that made great piroshkies. Clothing was pretty much jeans, T-shirts and hoodies across the globe so that was never an issue.
Music, Art, Literature: Dave worked on art with a motorcycle focus; I read where ever my current interests took me. Neither Dave nor I have the sense of holiness that Europeans seem to have for art and literature. It should also be noted that we had no idea what stories, fairy tales had been told or read to Yasik in the orphanage though my orphanage interview notes say he liked to be read to and learned poems by heart. Someone was taking time with him. Yasik was given a Pushkin story before we left Russia; we were scarcely aware of who Pushkin was to Russia. Because we had little idea of these aspects of Russian culture, beyond a beginner’s understanding of art and literature, and did not sign Yasik up for weekend classes, he had almost no exposure to things Russian. Acknowledging this, we may be coming off as intransigent boors with our lack of engagement in Yasik’s culture. Still with maybe a slight shrug, I can comfortably note that soon Yasik was collecting Pokemon cards, not more Pushkin. Besides which Attaching in Adoption: practical tools for today’s parents[xxxvi] notes that Russian children have been told things like: ‘Close your eyes at night or the witches will come to peck them out’. Not so different from our ‘the boogie man will get you’.
We were told he was attuned to music, but the orphanage staff did not elaborate other than to encourage us to put him in music classes. We did that. As these classes advanced, they were more and more directed to classical piano. By the age of 12, Yasik was pleading to be freed of them although it could be argued that he started to give strong hints almost from the start as he flopped his head down on the piano keys and moaned. He wanted music but whatever the radio gave him of top 40 to bounce and chant along in sounds perhaps between Russian and English. Maurice Mierau’s youngest did the same, making “tuneless word-sounds that were neither English nor Ukrainian”.[xxxvii] Be that as it may, Dave and Yasik were listening to a CD while driving somewhere. Dave noticed Yasik in tears and parked, pulling Yasik into his arms. Yasik broke into serious sobs even though Dave assured him it was only a song. That was the power of music for him.
Traditions, Customs, Ceremonies, Rituals: adopting older children: a practical guide to adopting and parenting children over age four[xxxviii] provides a list of suggestions for how adoptive parents might encourage a child’s cultural heritage. I am including the list as different strokes for different folks. I know I would have loved to have been able to take Yasik to visit Russia. And we always encouraged friendships with people from Russia whenever we encountered them. Russian food was just fine with us but that was about the extent of our encouragement of a maintenance of Yasik’s origin culture.
- Send your child to a culture camp where he can meet other children adopted from his birth country
- Participate in a homeland tour arranged by some adoption agencies or visit your child’s home country
- Spend time in a part of your city where there is a large population of people who share your child’s cultural background
- Connect your child with a friend or friend or mentor who shares his cultural heritage
- Reserve one night of the week for cooking and ordering ethnic food your child enjoys
- Learn your child’s language while he learns yours
- Decorate your room child’s room with items, designs and pictures from his native country
- Do cultural arts and crafts projects
- Go to museums that feature art or artifacts from your child’s native country or that focus on your child’s ethnic or cultural history
- Attend cultural parades or events
- Listen to culturally relevant music
- Celebrate holidays native to your child’s culture or that focus on a historical event important to his community of origin
- Buy him culturally relevant toys, story books, music, cookbooks, clothes, literature and other age-appropriate items
- Attend salons or barbershops that cater to your child’s race or culture of origin
- Expose your child to different faiths or attend religious services at a house of worship with which your child is comfortable
- Speak frankly about historical and present discrimination and prejudice
- Create a cultural life book with your child that explores his cultural and family history
We celebrated Christmas on December 25, not January 7, the Russian Christmas, and had fun or slept in on most of the rest of Canada’s statutory holidays. We did not at the time go out of our way to learn about the cultural world we had taken Yasik from. The organization we adopted with offered continued Russian connection, but other than one or two visits, we did not maintain this connection. Yasik showed little interest and Dave and I are not extroverted enough to seek out those kinds of social events.
And we were not particularly unusual in our casual attitude to Yasik’s heritage. John Brooks in The Girl Behind the Door:
Casey never showed much curiosity during [conversations about her origin story]. She never asked about her birth mother, whether she had siblings or who her birth father could have -been. Much to [her Polish-origin adoptive mother’s] dismay, she had little interest in Polish culture, never watched the hours of video [her adoptive parents] shot during [their] trip [to adopt her in Poland], and when asked if she wanted to meet her birth mother someday waved [them] off, annoyed…. As time passed, the orphanage became a distant memory. [The adoptive father] hoped it had been completely erased from Casey’s consciousness. She was a member of [their] family now – no different from a biological child in [their] minds …. [They] even tried to convince her she looked just like [the adoptive father’s] mother as a young girl…. But in truth, [they] had no idea how [their] words resonated in her sharp little mind.[xxxix]
We cannot be certain we are making the best long-term decisions when we don’t offer more access to our child’s first culture. Maurice Mierau, in Detachment: an adoption memoir writes that he and his wife enrolled their children in a Ukrainian language nursery school for a few of months and took them to a Ukrainian store for goodies.[xl] But quickly the couple were introducing birthday parties, celebrated with their Ukrainian speaking babysitter and several Ukrainian friends and buying goofy outfits for Halloween.[xli] “The only religion in [their] house since the boys arrived was Star Wars”.[xlii] Within a year of their adoption, the younger son thought of Ukraine as part of a long distant babyhood and the older son said he wanted to be a Canadian.[xliii]
Nonetheless Mierau’s older son, who was adopted at 5, had no memories from before his life in an orphanage yet “he’d told [his adoptive parents] about a dream that seemed to go further back”.[xliv] In the dream an image approaches the child whom he believes is his mother but this image vanishes when the child tries to come closer to it. Would more connection to the culture of origin have helped the boy gain a sense of contact with the past?
End Notes at the bottom of Entry #12D