Entry #6 Orphanage Risks
I regularly ask myself why I am writing in such detail about a ten-day adoption process long abandoned. The adoption process in Russia and many other countries has improved. John Brooks (The Girl Behind the Door 204) notes this as well about Poland’s treatment of orphans, “transitioning from institutional orphanages to foster homes“. A shout out to organizations like LUMOS cannot go amiss here.
So why rake over long dead coals? I keep saying it is for personal insight. Was it relevant to a wider audience? Out of curiosity I googled current adoption processes to see if any remain that process in a manner similar to our process and found the site, International Adoption.org, which points to several countries that continue to process adoptions almost as quickly and at roughly the same cost as our process in the 90s: Malawi, South Korea and India among the list. There is still some relevancy, beyond the personal, to my pursuit. And now, as noted in Entry#3, crises around the world are leaving daily numbers of orphans. How will they be cared for?
And back to the journal where we are still in this tiny receiving room meeting Yasik. I know most parents meet their child in the midst of hovering professionals; adoptive parents experience no more privacy. Nurses or doulas may be bending over a new mother learning to breast feed. In the case of adoptive parents, orphanage staff are hovering around as these new parents are taking in their introduction to their about-to-be child. Taking him from Dave’s arms, I held him too. But I could see he was becoming overwhelmed and then he cried. My first real mommy moment and I scared the kid. Good start. The very solid book, Thicker Than Blood by Marion Crook, tucks in a healthy bit on page 65 to ease a new parent’s fear of bonding/attachment– sometimes it happens instantly, sometimes it takes a while, but either way it is going to happen she affirms. However, … toward the end of the same page she does temporize with “Bonding can occur despite …”. I who may have been in thrall to the wonder of my emotions for this child surrendered Yasik wordlessly to the sweet-faced doctor to whom he was bonded, to someone he knew was his protector, to someone who had far more well-honed mothering instincts. She took Yasik from me and folded him into her lap. Now all the women were crying, maybe even the one who never looked up from her work. Dave though appeared thrilled, beaming face and expanding chest.
Yasik consoled, we moved from this room to the doctor’s office and she elaborated on information we had earlier been given by the translator about Yasik’s time for the first two years in the hospital. I am using the word ‘elaborated’ loosely. The questions I was encouraged to note as we drove to the orphanage, as I mentioned above, were mostly met with blank stares and dodges back into safer territory, translator or no translator, it seemed to me. When I think back on what we gleaned in that first meeting, the sum message was positive. They were telling us Yasik was their little assistant with the younger children. I guess in an older brotherly sort of way. He helped a two-year-old Down’s syndrome girl learn to walk. They said he was their favourite – and we would see how that might be possible many times in the years ahead. On a kindergarten outing a few months later another kid was left behind because the staff were focused on taking pictures of Yasik. But maybe a sales pitch is given to all adoptors. Who knows? We had no trouble believing it. They also said he was an intelligent, beautiful and loving person. We just kept saying ahh … ahh … ahh.
Here’s a heads-up: I hope that parents are now more informed. I am currently reading The Origins of You, by Vienna Pharaon, which looks at William Wordsworth’s observation: the child is the father of the man. Learning as much as possible about this child about to become your child may helpful in guiding the child into adulthood. We would have been well served if this orphanage had been prepared to provide more of the kind of awareness now available through research and experience.
A book/research article I found and foolishly did not adequately reference beyond the title, Eastern European Adoption, (written post 2005) ends with suggestions from adoptors: “(1) better preparation, guidance/coordination/communication; (2) more accurate/complete information about their child/children and their early history including life in the orphanage; and (3) more realistic/honest perspectives about adopting their child/children” (51). These suggestions rise out of lack of understanding of the ‘social structure’ of orphanages with, as a pediatrician, Dana Johnson, notes “lack of stimulation and consistent caregivers, sub-optimal nutrition…. institutional children [tend to] fall behind in large and fine motor development, speech acquisition …. Many never find a single individual with whom to complete a cycle of attachment. Physical growth is impaired. Children lose one month of linear growth for every three months in the orphanage“. Johnson adds that most infectious illnesses are more common in an institutional setting. And most importantly, the argument goes on to say that with inconsistent adult interaction, the children lack “an adult with whom children can connect emotionally and who will be there to hold and cuddle them and be counted on to fulfill their other needs” (28-29). This will be a point I will likely make many more times: the hug factor.
In the past few years, I have begun to fill in some of the gaps they chose not to fill with my own reading. Any blanks I have filled in, as limited as they are, have come from Google searches or searches of studies I found at SFU and from the few books on my reading list about life in Russia, and of course, this past year from having connected with Yasik’s sister and her family.
Yasik did not walk until he was moved to the orphanage. Some of the orphanages in Russia have what is termed ‘lying down’ rooms. Was Yasik in a ‘lying down’ ward in the hospital? In other words, did he not walk because he was not given opportunities to get out of bed to walk? Was he left to lie in bed for much of the time he spent in the hospital? Did he have rickets because of the lack of proper diet and exposure to sunshine while he stayed in the hospital? Or did he come into the hospital with rickets due to the lack of care he received from his biological parents? No appropriate judgment can be made. And concerns about rickets? Childhood rickets do not have lifetime impact if treatment catches the problem before disabling deformities develop (lots of downer ‘D’ words there which did not come to pass for Yasik). To be fair, I actually could not at the time have fathomed asking why he had rickets or why he could not walk until the age of two. My questions were more mundane: “What does he like to eat?” Not mundane enough though. I received no answer to that one either. And maybe it was pointless from their perspective to waste time answering that sort of question, given they may have assumed if we could come all this way to adopt a child, we would be providing a different diet than orphanage fare. (I say this, aware of a potential stereotyping profile and the gossip monger’s love of scratching around in the dirt). At any rate, Yasik took over responsibility for teaching us his likes and dislikes the moment the van left the orphanage the next day.
The negatives brushed over, the conversation skipped on to positive notes. Perhaps even allowing us to know about the rickets and slow start to walking was to suggest that though the parents and/or hospital provided poor care we could be assured the orphanage rescued Yasik and gave him the vitamin D he needed to deal with rickets and the stimuli to encourage him to walk. And we have never doubted that his bones and coordination were not hampered by the lack of care previous to his move to the orphanage. As I write this, I have to conclude this sweet looking doctor was doing what she had likely done over and over, focusing on the positives unless it was necessary for the future of the child to bring up the negative. Yasik learned to walk. Notching the positives up, the doctor went on to say Yasik had musical interests and liked to draw and within a split second, Dave whipped out his ever-present sketch book and crayons. He drew a circle on the page and Yasik got right into it, drawing lines to connect the circle. Then he carefully returned the crayons to their right place.
We saw no males in our brief time in the orphanage but I didn’t question why when Yasik needed to go to the toilet, he chose Dave to take him, a male he knew only as a hugger, circle-drawer and gift-giver. He said to Dave, “Kakas” (I doubt I need to offer translation), and taking Dave’s hand, led him to the toilet. Dave helped him do his job and pull up, Yasik stopping first to point out his deposit.
Before this one opportunity to learn about the first four years of Yasik’s life was brought to a close, we measured his feet and took him with us in the van to buy a pair of shoes and get his passport picture taken. Can you imagine that? This four-year-old child had barely known us for one hour, yet my notes say he went with no hesitation, allowing Dave to carry him out to the van in the company of four strangers: Dave, me, the driver and the translator. In the van, he held my hand, and as Dave talked to him, he started to talk back with shy little words. When we arrived at the store, all shyness slammed to a halt as Yasik and Dave spied a motorcycle. Yasik squealed out the Russian word for motorcycle,мотоцикл, as something that sounded like ‘matikli’ to us. We have three pictures of the thing; it could have been a fly caught in a scraggly bush to me but to the two of them, it was awe-inspiring.
The store we went to was a set piece for an early twentieth century western movie, the shoes were a little boy’s oxfords from the middle of the century but the clerk was the first retail person who smiled and treated us with genuine friendliness – likely responding to Yasik’s charm. This little shopping trip ended taking Yasik to a passport office for a picture before returning him to the orphanage.
I was 47 in ’97 and had dreamed of being a mother to an adoptee for nearly half my life, yet until that afternoon I merely stood to the side looking on at mothering. That was lots of time to develop either a sense that like any other job I had handled to that point, hopefully I would learn sufficient competence, or as in my case, a deep insecurity about how to do it right. In Thicker Than Blood (70,71), Marion Crook writes, “…[M]otherhood wasn’t a professional job or a test for which you got a grade. It was a living situation that changed constantly, and I was expected to simply do as well as possible”. She concludes when she came to terms with how her mothering was going to play out that she was “happier with myself when I accepted that I wouldn’t be perfect”. So far, I had managed to make Yasik cry when I first held him and when we needed to make Yasik a bit more presentable for his passport picture, I was at a loss taming his hair. Three other women in the passport office, more maternal than I perhaps, jumped in to help me out or at least to comb his hair in what looked right to them as Russian women of the 90s.
I tripped over a new label recently though apparently it has been identified since the late 70s: ‘Imposter Mother Syndrome’: feeling you really aren’t the best mother for the child who is yours. It could be massaged to include adoptor parents for I am unlikely the only new adoptor who has felt “a fear that at any moment you might be exposed as a fraud“(https://theeverymom.com/imposter-syndrome-as-a-mom-how-to-overcome-it/.
Returning Yasik to the orphanage, we hugged and kissed him – was it a natural or expected response? He followed us out of the room and then the journal says “I was last to leave and he peeked through the banister to smile and wave. The image I was left with at the end of the day – a happy smile”.
In the evening, writing in the journal, I concluded, “He was beautiful in every way. His ears are big! He looks directly and openly, and intelligently and he has such a sweet smile”. (And now as I read this, I wonder what the big deal was with noting – both by the staff and myself- that he showed intelligence. I mean he was cute as a bug’s ear and certainly seemed happy and comfortable with us. What more was needed?)
Our first day with our child-to-be before he became legally our child less than 24 hours later.