The challenges one single mother faced when adopting her Russian daughter.
The process went quickly. I called my local agency in May, then left for Russia in November. Of course it had taken me six years to move from, “I like kids…” to, “Me, a mother. . . ?,” to “Yes, I can do it!”
I started with China. In 1990, I took a trip to China with my Dad. I was convinced that the “reason” for the trip was connected to my desire to adopt a girl from there. When my social worker came, she said, “China is inactive right now. Unless you’re committed to China or are not in a hurry, I’d suggest you consider another country.”
Over the next couple of months, I explored Vietnam, Russia, Guatemala, and Liberia. In the end, Russia just seemed right. As to selecting an international agency, I did not do a huge amount of research. My local agency recommended a placement agency in another state–they had good experience with them in regards to Russia. Since I had developed a respect for my local agency I said, “Okay.”
The next question was, what age? As a single mom and active person, I felt I needed someone that would fit with my lifestyle. A child who was somewhat self-sufficient with dressing and eating, and able to ski, bike, and roller-blade with me! Four or five-years-old sounded right.
My agency helped me preliminarily consider five girls. We narrowed it to three, then to two. Then I gave them “my list.” I was looking for a child who was healthy, smart, coordinated/active, and sweet. (Asking for the moon, I know!) My case worker talked to me about my top two possibilities, she re-reviewed their videos, then recommended a 6-year-old girl named Hannah. I asked a few more questions and said, “Send the packet.”
Despite getting a very good 12-minute video, 10 pictures taken at two different times, and the equivalent of 6 pages of medical info, it took me over 6 weeks to make my decision. Four doctors and a pediatric development nurse looked over the information.
In my talks with the doctors, we discussed the Apgar, FAS/FAE, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, language ability, affection, interests, inter-personal skills, BCG, rickets, birth family traumas, etc. Based on their input and my continued reading, I had various questions and requests for Russia–new measurements, head circumference size, info about the “discovered siblings,” and birth date confirmation (we had two dates). In the end, I held my breath for two days and finally said, “Yes!”
The Departure that Almost Didn’t Happen
At the end of 1997, there was concern that Russia might shut down adoptions. Everyone was scurrying to make sure all of us with identified children got them out before the end of the year. It really was going faster than I wanted! (I’m self-employed and needed to finish a few projects.) After some changing of court dates, November 25 was confirmed. I shifted into the get visa, move furniture, buy gifts, buy clothes, get prescriptions, make copies of everything, buy peanut butter mode!
Nine days before departure, I got a voice mail from my local social worker. “There’s a problem in Russia. Call me,” she said. Her line was busy for the next 32 minutes. I had good reason to be frantic.
According to the Russians, Hannah might have active TB. (To this day, we can’t figure out what triggered this concern.) She had been moved to a hospital. If it was active, the Russians would not let her leave the country. It didn’t matter to the Russians that the Americans had no problem with her entering the US. With the Russian treatment methods, it could have taken a year to treat her.
Phone calls between my two agencies ensued. E-mails went between various parts of the U.S. and Russia. I called Dr. Jenista in her hotel room at a conference in California. The phone in the hospital where Hannah was did not work, making it a challenge for the agency to get information. They told me we would not know until Wednesday–three days before my scheduled departure–if I was to leave or not.
I could only proceed as if I were going to leave. Its very hard to explain the emotions of packing to go get my daughter (excited, nervous, adrenaline rush), bundled with the emotions of potentially not leaving (fear, questions, traumatized, disbelief). I just plodded ahead.
I had to go out of town briefly, so on Wednesday I stood at a pay phone in the middle of a state park in rural Texas, checking my voice mail messages. The first one was from a friend who said her mother had put Hannah and me on her church’s prayer list. I had never even met my friend’s mother. I stood and cried. The next message said, “It’s a go!” I dropped the phone and sat on the ground and sobbed.
I arrived back from Texas and Mississippi at 8 p.m. on Friday. Two packages were supposed to have arrived: my grow bag and my airline tickets. My grow bag was there. The tickets were not. I had spent so much effort during the previous week trying to remain calm, that at first I didn’t even scream! But then I got mad. Really mad. I spoke to five different supervisors at FedEx. The tickets were found in a town 25 miles away. I was promised I would get them “first thing in the morning.”
The next day, I was planning to leave the house at 9 a.m. My tickets arrived at 9:30! When I got on the plane, I was so relieved to be there, I almost forgot what I was about to do!
I flew Lufthansa from Atlanta to Frankfort and on to Moscow. On the plane, I re-read adoption adjustment articles and practiced my Russian. (I got a tutor and became semi-proficient in the basics. I used every word and phrase I learned and could not have survived the first few weeks without it.)
The morning after I arrived in Moscow, we left for Yaraslavl (north of Moscow) by van. It was me, my coordinator, Svetlana, my translator, Sasha (a mother and son team), and the driver. We made two stops: at the oldest active monastery in Russia, and at a restaurant for lunch. We traveled along pine-tree lined, snow-covered, two-lane roads. We saw colorful wooden homes and occasional onion-domed buildings.
After six hours, we drove up a snow-covered lane to the hospital where I was picking up Hannah. Everyone else got out of the van and I was left there alone, in the cold. I looked at the back of the building. There were no sounds and it was snowing lightly.
Sasha came back and said, “She was taking a nap but they’re getting her dressed now. You can come up.” I made sure I had the right knapsack and shakily got out of the van. We walked up three flights of stairs.
We opened a door into an office. Svetlana was seated at the back of the room talking to a little girl whose back was towards me. Was that her? Would I recognize her?
She spun around as the door opened and walked quickly toward me. She got in front of me, glanced down, then slowly held up her arms. I leaned down and she jumped into my arms. She wrapped her arms and legs around me and buried her face in my neck. I couldn’t remember ANY of my Russian! Finally, I said, “Ya tvoia mama.” She smiled and nodded and re-buried her face in my neck.
Wild Child? Or Inept Mama?
Our flights back from Russia took us 24 hours. I did not have reservations (long story, small airline) from Atlanta to Nashville. I turned on the tears when I got to Atlanta. Not hard with all the emotion of recent weeks. Except that I kept talking to the wrong person. It took me three people and three sets of tears to get us on a flight with no change fee.
Hannah was perfect until we arrived in Nashville. She had fallen asleep and did not want to be awakened. She yelled, hit, and kicked. People exiting the plane murmured things like, “Oh dear, mmmmm, my goodness, oh my. . . . ” Somehow I picked up Hannah, our coats, hats, gloves, scarves, and two knapsacks, and got us off the plane. We drove home and went to bed.
The first day was like being inside a helium balloon. Everything felt soft and happy. I’ll never forget how she climbed to the top of the jungle gym at the playground, let go with her hands, spread out her arms, raised her chin, and exuberantly sang a Russian folk song!
On day two, our “troubles” began. Hannah ran into the street repeatedly. She hit me as I told her, “Nyet!” It went downhill from there. Hannah’s meltdowns occurred from 2-6 times per week and were from 1-6 hours long. They were not tantrums. They were out-of-control. They were not triggered by consistent things. One day it would be tiredness. The next it would be not wanting to go to the grocery store. The day after, it would be because I told her to brush her teeth. Often, it was related to bedtime.
Her actions included hitting, kicking, biting, screaming, and spitting. She would head butt me and try to poke out my eyes. She would put her mouth next to my ear and scream at the top of her lungs. She threw things at me, hitting me in my face. In addition to my bruises, bites, and cuts, the walls were scratched, the doors were scraped, and the banister was broken.
At times, I would lock myself in the bathroom and cry and try to gather myself together. While I was in the bathroom, she would scream, kick, and pound on the door.
An added stress was that I had to travel for business. I know that wasn’t great during her first few months, but that’s what I do to make a living. Every time I left town, I was in a panic as to how Hannah would treat a babysitter. Often, they would not come back.
Learning to Control Emotions
During the challenging times, I tried all of the following: timeouts, removal of privileges, holding and rocking, deep breathing, putting her in her room, massage, taking all toys out of her room, ignoring her, complimenting the correct behavior, point system, behavior chart, regular schedules, clear directions as to my expectations, reducing sensory overload, and long transition times.
We talked about how to control emotions, about how to use words, not body, and about making right choices. I discussed emotions; made emotion faces, told emotion stories, and got her to share her emotions. I made sure she had lots of physical outlets. I created “family” stories like ‘Henry the Mouse’ who visits all kinds of families to learn how to live in a family. We drew pictures of her past and present. We began to see a therapist.
One of the most effective tools was the strict adherence to “house rules.” This was my effort to get control over the most violent and abusive behavior. “No hitting. No kicking. No biting. No spitting. No yelling. No getting out of bed after goodnight hug and kiss.” Breaking any of these rules meant instant timeout. (Getting Hannah into timeout and getting her to STAY in timeout, however, took months.)
Even during the horrible months, we had fun. She was affectionate and we laughed a lot. That’s what sustained me. Also, I knew from the beginning I was parenting an extraordinary child. She was coordinated, curious, intuitive, likeable, adaptable, and extremely bright.
Five and a half months after I adopted her, the meltdowns ended. They reached a crescendo and then just stopped. The three weeks before the last meltdown were worse than all of the other months combined.
One day, about two weeks after her last meltdown, we were in church and the lay leader asked some of the children, “What have your parents taught you?” Hannah leaned over and whispered, “Mama, you’ve taught me to control my emotions.”
A Working Family: Blending the Past, Present, and Future
Right now in our family development, I’m asking myself questions and looking for future solutions. It almost surprises me to have this available energy. For so long, I could not think beyond my own physical self-protection and my daughter’s emotional survival.
How do we build on what we’ve learned? How do I make sure her mental talents are challenged? How do I help her build on her physical abilities? How do I make sure there are male role models and couples in her life? Should I think about a sibling? How do I blend her past and her present, and give her emotional strength for the future? How do we get more information from Russia about her past? How do I help fill the “hole” in her heart related to her past? How do I thoughtfully answer questions such as, “But WHY do families love each other?”
For the past two weeks, I’ve stopped knocking on wood when I tell someone the meltdowns are over. Even though they may be gone, I realize that Hannah is a strong-willed, extremely bright child who will test me every step of our lives! My goal now is to help her channel that inner strength. At the same time I remind myself that even though she seems extremely self- sufficient, she still needs the tools to live and grow as part of a family.
Through my reading, our continual visits to the therapist, and my gut instincts about my daughter, I’ve endeavored to do the following:
- Help her talk about her scary thoughts and dreams connected to her past.
- Help her talk about her scary thoughts and dreams connected to fearing she’ll lose me.
- Remind her that life is a series of hellos and good-byes.
- Help her to work through her grief over what she has left behind in Russia.
- Keep working on emotion words.
- Make Russia and her birth family seem a part of her life now, not just a part of her past. I can do this by sharing photos of her brothers, encouraging her to pray at night for her birth family, and by having Russian dinners, etc.
- Acknowledge the tough times when she lived with her birth mother, but try and find positive attributes too.
- Keep in contact with her orphanage. We recently got a note, a photo of her at age 3, and a drawing from one of the children in her group.
- Share stories about families and how they solve differences, spend time with grandparents, have family discussions, and play with cousins. (She didn’t do these things in a family setting in her past.)
- Talk about future plans, such as getting a dog, buying a bigger house, taking a bike trip, visiting Russia, and what we might do together when she’s 11, 24, and 37.
When I wrote my autobiography for my home study, I said that the reason I wanted to adopt was to pursue my two favorite endeavors in life. To learn and to teach. Now that my head is above the water, I can smile and say, “Little did I know how much I would learn!”
At the 8 1/2 month mark, I’m in heaven! I can’t stop smiling! We are the perfect fit. Sometimes she says to me, “Mama, why are you staring at me?” I always say the same thing. “Because I can’t believe you’re my daughter! I love you so much!” Every time I say it, her face lights up and she gives me a big hug and a kiss.
Addendum: A few months after I wrote this, Hannah’s violence and challenging behaviors returned. Eventually, she was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She has undergone therapy, I learned new parenting approaches, and now she is healed. Through all of these difficult times, my love for her and commitment to her never wavered.