For Mary Walters, mothering comes naturally. When asked what she likes to do for fun, absolutely every answer includes her daughter, Jenna. From crafting with plenty of glitter (“The floor of my kitchen looks like the winter and summer fairies had a death match!” she quips) to covering their porch with ongoing chalk masterpieces (“blues, greens, pinks… all over the deck and railing. Then it rains, washes it away, and we start a new one!”), it’s clear that being a mom is not only Mary’s number one priority, it’s something she absolutely delights in.
In fact, her caretaker’s instinct is what led her to adoption in the first place. Because Mary was born with a genetic heart defect and severe, life threatening asthma–something that a biological child would have a high likelihood of also having–she set aside the idea of becoming a mother biologically early in life.
As a single adoptive mother of a daughter from Russia, Mary also knows a bit about determination. From navigating the complicated world of international adoption to becoming an advocate for 5-year-old Jenna as she faces multiple special needs diagnoses–which include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, essential tremors, and differential fetal alcohol spectrum disorder–her tone never veers from grateful for and fiercely committed to her role to give her daughter the very best life possible.
When a call was issued from the Russian ambassador for families who adopted before the ban to share their stories, Mary didn’t hesitate. In a heartfelt address to Sergey I. Kislyak, she shared a little of the life she and Jenna have together: There’s Simpie, who became Jenna’s therapy cat the moment they arrived home. There are the challenges they face with Jenna’s health and the many resulting appointments. There is Mary’s enthusiastic wonder in learning to see the world a little more like her daughter does. The love this family shares is evident in each and every line she wrote. But, there is also a sadness that speaks to the reason behind the letter–if Mary were trying to bring her daughter home today, it would be impossible.
Because of this, Mary is forced to face what Jenna’s life might be like if she had remained in the Russian orphanage where they first met, where her early exposure and worsening diagnosis would have made it difficult to find another adoptive family. In her words to the ambassador, Mary explains: “This keeps me awake at night, as silent tears fall. That this beautiful, wonderful, loving, colorful soul may have never found a home. Or worse, that ‘my Jenna’ would have been lost forever, trapped instead by a body of delays, untreatable challenges, and eventually deemed ‘unadoptable.’”
Mary, I know your reasons for choosing adoption- what then lead you to international adoption, and specifically to Russia?
Ultimately, I chose international adoption for one simple reason–I wanted my adoption to be conclusive, with no chances for it to be contested later . . . I do plan on doing a birth family search, and connecting with Jenna’s birth family, but I want Jenna to be the one ready to initiate the exchange.
Russia had a good representation for healthier children and sound legal practices, and the country just spoke to me. It’s so amazingly beautiful there, and its people have strong spirits. From the first time I started to look into Russia, I knew that was where my daughter was. The entire adoption process took a little over three years. My process was delayed twice because of cases in the US. We did not know until the day before if I would be allowed to have my court date or not. Thank GOD the judge said “Da”!
I belong to a very large internet group of adoptive Russian parents. We used to celebrate homecomings, first words, first Forever Family Days, first days at preschool . . . then adoptions stopped. I personally know several families who were caught by the ban. Then, as one united family, we grieved. We prayed. We cried. We wrote letters and were featured in news articles. All in an attempt to reach through the Russian government’s doors, and have them see how many of us love our Russian children. We have an indescribable love for Russia, because of the wonderful little lives born from there. But that love is now tempered by grief and sadness. We still celebrate–first lost teeth, first day in kindergarten, first loves and first dates . . . and keep praying things will change for Russia one day! Many of us would return to adopt again from Russia, if given the chance!
I would love to hear more about your early reservations at being able to parent a special needs child, and choosing Russia in part because of the availability of healthier children, and how you feel about that now that you are more aware of the unique challenges you face with your sweet Jenna. How has that changed the way you think of yourself and your abilities as a parent?
Part of this was the idea of a special needs child. When I first started out, I had the idea that “special needs” could only include profound intellectual disability or physical disability. I had no idea that a special need could range from fairly minor, such as surgically corrective issues, to more severe challenges. It was a misconception that I’ve since changed, after becoming Jenna’s Momma, and spending time with other Special parents.
Let me clarify what I mean by healthier. There were countries at the time that had rampant cases of transmittable diseases amongst their overall population. That thought truly worried me (but I now understand that children with such diagnoses are no less adoptable than any other child, especially since Jenna was born with a transmittable disease herself!)
In Russia, it seemed that the children were cared about and truly loved… Jenna does have many challenges that are directly related to being adopted, and the choices her birth mother made. But she is overall happy and healthy. And those choices could have easily been made by a mother in the US, or any other country.
There have been days, many, many days, when I didn’t think I could handle everything. I made a lot of mistakes. I learned from them, but it wasn’t easy . . . I still have days, even now, that I’m filled with self-doubt, wondering how I’ll get through one crisis or another. And half the time, I think I’m royally screwing this whole parenting thing up. But, I think those worries are fairly normal for most parents, not just a parent of an Exceptional kid.
I do think I’m stronger than I was going into all this. I had a lot of negativity from people around me when Jenna was first being diagnosed . . . and then, I realized I didn’t much care what other people thought. I don’t ever want Jenna to be ashamed of who she is. So I became vocal, and unashamed to share our struggles openly. I lost some friends, and gained so many more. I became an advocate not just for my daughter, but for other special needs parents that were facing similar situations. I know so many parents who are silent because of conflict in their own families. I share, because they can’t.
My abilities as a parent? I’m just a mom. But if I manage to raise a great daughter? That would be amazing!