Entry #12B   Set and Setting

Entry #12B   Set and Setting

Most parents start out with a child with no words but we started out with a child whose words we couldn’t find in the dictionary, and even if we found them, we couldn’t figure out how to use the dictionary’s definition to our advantage. When we said ‘Nyet’ to Yasik we had little idea what that communicated.

What books might we have read at the time or what concepts might we have picked up from other parents or from the media of the nineties to guide us? That was a time of concern over ‘helicopter’ parenting. And I, back in my religious years, had read James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline (1977) and some other book about a couple who followed his ideas and ‘transformed’ their lives which may have held some residue neuronal territory in my brain. (I will bet that sentence could knit some eyebrows into a furrow or raise them heavenward.) But for the most part we neither thought we needed to bother to read in this area or were too busy to try.

But now as I seek to understand the ‘setting’ for Yasik’s mindset, some obsessive-compulsive habit of mine exerts itself for I have long felt like a subject was not adequately addressed until I have checked off the 7Ws or as many states of human experience as Yasik might have had interactions with which could possibly offer insight.  If I, however, need backing for my obsession I will generalize from a point being made by Siddhartha Mukherjee in The Gene: an intimate history which makes roughly the same point, while making a point of the interconnectedness of genes and environment.

Identity, we are told now, is determined by nature and nurture, genes and environment, intrinsic and extrinsic inputs. But this too is nonsense – an armistice between fools …. whether nature predominates or nurture is not absolute, but depends quite acutely on the level of organization one chooses to examine.… in the estuarine plains of crisscrossing information, history, society, and culture collide and intersect with genetics, like tides.  Some waves cancel each other, while others reinforce each other.  No force is particularly strong – but their combined effect produces the unique and rippled landscape that we call an individual’s identity.[xv]

Mukherjee comes back at the end of the book to “recall the scientific, philosophical, and moral lesson of [the] history [of the gene]” in 13 points. In point #6, he offers a good example of how Nature and Nurture are seen as working together.

#6. It is nonsense to speak about “nature” or “nurture” in absolutes or abstracts.  Whether nature – i.e., the gene- or nurture – i.e., the environment – dominates in the development of a feature or function depends, acutely, on the individual feature and the context.  The SRY gene determines sexual anatomy and physiology in a strikingly autonomous manner; it is all nature.  Gender identity, sexual preference, and the choice of sexual roles are determined by intersections of genes and environments – i.e., nature plus nurture. The manner in which “masculinity” versus “femininity” is enacted or perceived in a society, in contrast, is largely determined by an environment, social memory, history, and culture; this is all nurture.[xvi]

I happened to read both The Gene and The Myth of Normal at the same time.  The Gene gave me some understanding of Nature and The Myth of Normal focused on Nurture. In The Myth of Normal, Gabor Mate, warns against diagnosis for those elements of our humanity that are not “all nature” as Mukherjee says above.

Diagnoses are abstractions, or summaries: sometimes helpful, always incomplete. They are professional shorthand for describing constellations of symptoms a person may report, or of other people’s observations of someone’s behavior patterns, thoughts, and emotions…. [D]iagnoses reveal nothing about the underlying events and dynamics that animate the perceptions and experiences in question …. A … study looked at the prescription records of almost one million B.C. schoolchildren over an eleven-year period and found that kids born in December were 39 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than classmates born the previous January. The reason? December kids entered the same grade nearly a year younger than their January counterparts – they were eleven months behind in brain development. They were being medicated not for a “genetic brain disorder” but for naturally delayed maturation of the brain circuits of attention and self-regulation.[xvii]

Caveat here: Of course, I will not be covering everything related to Nature and Nurture, but hopefully will cover aspects I see as related to Yasik.  As well, I am trying to stretch Nature and Nurture to accommodate my metaphor of ‘setting’ or environment for Yasik’s perception or mindset of adoption as family.

Historical/Political/ Economic:

Parenting an Adopted Child reminds us “that children’s lives do not begin the day they are adopted.  Regardless of the type of adoption, children have biological relatives and genetic histories of their own”.[xviii]

History is the narrative of human experience in time and place.  I think you would have to read historical examinations of human experience like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature or Hans Rosling’s Factfulness or Jennifer Traig’s Act Natural to appreciate what Dave and my human experience was/is in relation to our forebears’ human experience.  We lived on the edge of a metropolis both in New Westminster and then in Maple Ridge which meant job, mortgage, commute, local schooling, weekend social events like family picnics and soccer games within the context of a government that legislated in respect of BCers’ vote, tipping a bit to the left of center. Canada, or BC for that matter, were not remotely turning toward an authoritarian regime that was Russia during Yeltsin’s time, the place of Yasik’s first four years.

We have, as I have mentioned often, only a bare history of his life in Russia, things adoptors are now heartily encouraged to check out, but we do know that his Russian environment was like that experienced by many of the worlds’ poorer, less developed countries. Russia’s reputation as a poor country is such a given assumption in the pool of common knowledge that even Jennifer Traig, in her book on hypochondria, Well Enough Alone, uses Russia as an example of somewhere you might expect to find people with bad teeth. She is writing of her own gray coloured tooth, and wonders how the tooth turned on her. “I’d known other people with discolored teeth, but they’d always had a story. They’d fallen face-first into a tree, or grown up in Russia”.[xix]

But on balance, this note from Marion Crook in Thicker Than Blood: adoptive parenting in the modern world:

Once I was dealing with quite a stupid prank one of my sons had managed to engineer, and my neighbour sympathized, “Well, it’s not your fault; he’s adopted.” 

I snapped, “And all four parents are thoroughly ashamed of him at the moment!”  How dare he imply my son’s heritage was inferior![xx]

While not denying the rich culture of Russia, a quickie googling will corroborate that ‘growing up in Russia’ is growing up in a country that slipped from super power in the early 90s, just as Yasik was being born, to the designation ‘developing country’ which by a Google definition means ‘low living standards, low per capita income, widespread poverty, and having underdeveloped industry and outdated infrastructure’. I will add a comment from Born For Love which is focusing on the conditions in Russia as they impact children raised in orphanages in Russia. Examining the period of Russian history from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Richard Hellie, a professor of history, ties that period of darkness to the present day as having “replicated itself as each generation continued to traumatize the next and build brains for reaction, not thought”.[xxi] Offering us some cultural preparation for our trip to Russia, our adoption facilitator, shrugged while warning us against smiling in public for “We [Russians] have unsolvable problems”.  Then again, Susan Wheeler says the non-smiling face is a mask, a street face.[xxii]

Coming into the world with a ‘traumatized brain’ is an existential concern for an orphanage-nurtured child and his or her adoptive parents. If a sense of hopelessness in the face of difficulty saturates a society, that hopelessness like smoke from a fire will find its way through the cracks in a child’s life, covering the child’s outlook on life in soot-black.  If the perception of life is based on insecurity and fear rather than love and hope, care-givers are not equipped to nurture in love, leaving the child with emotions regulated by fear, which continues the cycle begun so many centuries before.[xxiii]  We know that one care-giver at the orphanage shed tears as staff and children stood on the porch waving good-bye to Yasik.  Perhaps she gave him some consistent nurture. But was there enough consistent love to produce the oxytocin needed to develop a strong sense of safety and security in Yasik’s being?  Was he able to know a sense of calm when in a stressful situation? Time, with consistent care, is needed to build a strong awareness that is all is well in his world.  Studies have shown that even after three years in the adoptive home, children do not always show sufficient calmness via oxytocin and vasopressin to give them an adequate sense of security, even though the need for a consistent caregiver is by then being met.  And to repeat, the need is for consistent nurture, not, as studies have shown, necessarily only from the bio-mom. The infant only asks for consistency in nurture. When a baby cries and then cries some more but does not get a helpful response, the child, the baby becomes, simply shuts down.[xxiv]

Referencing Bruce Perry in What Happened to You: “… early in life, the brain needs consistent, patterned experience to develop some key systems.”  Perry uses the example of exposing an infant to a language for 6 weeks, then changing the exposure to another language for six weeks and then on to another.  Then he says

This poor child will not speak any language at all…. [for] there were never sufficient repetitions with anyone language to properly organize the child’s full speech and language capability…. It’s the same with relationships.  [If the infant’s caregivers change often the] infant brain hasn’t sufficient repetitions with any single person to create the architecture that allows [the infant] to develop healthy relational neurobiology.

The key to having many healthy relationships [in a person’s] life is having only a few safe, stable, and nurturing relationships in [the person’s] first year.[xxv]

Perry also makes the following point: Even if it’s a really nice, respectful person entering the child’s life, it takes a long time for the child to make sense of the shift and get back to a calm, regulated state.[xxvi]

Considering that Yasik was given over to us with not one item he might have called his own, we can assume that he was living below the poverty line.  His parents had left him nothing; the orphanage would not let him take anything.  He was comfortable with that for he gave the toys we brought to the other children the night before, they said.  It is possible to wonder if Yasik was heartily encouraged to share the toys as others have noted that toys were well-monitored.  Again we also know that Yasik was a kind of ‘oldest child’, helping to dress and care for other children, particularly the little Down’s girl.

Adopting older children: a practical guide to adopting and parenting children over age four reminds adoptors:  “Remember your child has gone through many losses; the loss of their biological family, the loss of caretakers and friends, the loss of culture, foods, familiar smells, sights etc. They are sometimes overwhelmed when they come to their new family and home…”[xxvii]

We flew back to Canada, and within two weeks, Yasik began life as a member of a family in the nineties whom economists define as “…families who had at least one-third of their income left after paying for necessities such as shelter, food, and clothing. This money is called discretionary income, or money that families can choose how to spend”.[xxviii]  So we were some where on the middle-class spectrum. Whether we actually had appreciable ‘discretionary income’ or not, we had enough to be free to choose to enjoy many of life’s good things.

But did that necessarily mean that Yasik had a sense of deprivation in the orphanage? Perhaps with nothing to compare and three squares a day, he was unconcerned about his economic state.  Yet as we packed for the return trip to Canada, we found he had been hiding his toys, a kind of hoarding common among institutionalized children, and it is safe to assume that he was not the only ‘social orphan’ (children placed in orphanages who are not orphans) in his orphanage. From time to time, Yasik may have witnessed children with material goods or some connection to money he may have understood was outside his hopes.  Could this also be some of why he was so willing to join himself to two strangers after less than 24 hours acquaintance? We do know this. As Daniel Gilbert reminds his readers in Stumbling On Happiness that while moving farther up the money scale doesn’t make a lot of happiness difference, coming out of desperate poverty increases a sense of happiness.[xxix]

Yasik defined his economic state this way: he said he got all he wanted one Christmas and then wished we were rich so he could get everything he wanted. What was that about I thought at the time.

And yeah, yeah, I know, all the adoption guides say don’t swamp him with stuff.

*End Notes at the bottom of Entry 12D