When an American mother sent her 7 year old adopted son back to Russia, claiming he was mentally unstable, the incident prompted countless media stories about the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to adopting children, especially older children, from orphanages in the former Soviet Union. Psychologists and adoptive parents were quoted liberally in the press, but few journalists seemed to be talking to the children themselves, so I decided to do just that. It wasn't hard - all I had to do was walk upstairs and talk to my 12 year old daughter, Maria*; my husband and I adopted her four years ago from an orphanage in Ukraine.
The orphanage was a Dickensian place near the Russian border filled with children, aged 7 to 17, whose futures seemed as dim as their pasts. Most of them had been taken away from their biological families due to neglect and/or abuse .The stories they tell are chilling. There's a reason that, even after adoption, many of them are afraid to sleep alone, no matter how old they are.
Our daughter slept in the bed with the blue and white quilt in the foreground of the picture above. Her only possession was a small sliver of soap in the nightstand; otherwise, she owned nothing. She was 8 but was so malnourished that she looked 6, with a boy's haircut to discourage lice. She seemed happy to be adopted and leave the orphanage....until it happened.
During our first night in a hotel in Ukraine, after she was officially "ours", she couldn't or wouldn't stop screaming. The only time she was quiet was when she sneaked out into the hallway and tried to run away. "I was so scared", she says now. "I didn't know what adoption was. I thought I was being kidnapped. "
Things didn't immediately get better when we got to America. For months after she came home, she would often kick or spit at me if I tried to get physically near her. Once she even grabbed a kitchen knife and put it on her neck, as if she was going to slit her throat if I got any closer. "At that moment I wanted to die," she says. " I was angry at everybody, at you, at my first parents, at the world. I didn't know I would ever feel better."
But she did start to get better. She loved our dog and enjoyed her new toys. She even started being civil to my husband and myself, and we thought we were out of the woods: far from it, as it turned out. When Maria had been home about six months, she began having rages and tantrums, and now I know why. She was losing her ability to speak Russian, which is typical for kids adopted into families that speak another language. The English was pushing out the Russian, but she still couldn't speak much English. "I had no language to think in," she says. "I thought I was going crazy. I was losing my mind."
The hardest part for my family, including my two biological children, was that Maria didn't love us, or even seem to like us much. So much for the dream of the sweet little girl entering the family fold. Since her biological parents had broken her heart, she assumed we would too, so she steeled herself to prevent it. As she later explained, "I put walls around my heart so it could never be broken again."
Outside our home, she behaved herself and charmed most everyone. She did take exception when adults told her she was "lucky". In her blossoming English she would unhesitatingly respond, "Did you lose your first brother and sister? Did you grow up cold and hungry? Did you live two lives, in two different countries? No? Then you must be the lucky one." I've yet to see anyone disagree with her.
There are tens of thousands of children adopted internationally living in the US today. Some of them have easy transitions. Many, like Maria, do not. Incredibly, some children were told in the orphanage that they were being adopted to be killed for their organs; it's the orphanage version of an urban myth. These kids remain hyper-vigilant, never able to let down their guard, wondering if this is the day they'll die. Our daughter was hyper-vigilant simply because she grew up in a world where bad things happened on a fairly regular basis, and the only person she believed she could depend on was herself.
Another family who lives near us adopted their daughter Anna* from an orphanage in Eastern Europe when she was about 10. Anna is 17 now, a calm and confident young woman studying hard for college. She told me that when she was first adopted, she picked fights with her parents constantly. "I had to test them to see if they were strong enough to handle me, and to see if they would give up on me." She couldn't forget what the caretakers at the orphanage had told the children: "You don't deserve love," they said. "You don't deserve anything, and that's why you have nothing. All the children believed them. I believed them."
Anna used to rip up gifts from her adoptive parents when she got angry. "It was my way of showing myself I didn't need them or those presents. I didn't need anybody", Anna told me. "I never felt that anything my parents gave me was really mine. I had never had anything that was mine."
Anna says it took more than 5 years of therapy before she truly loved her American family. She had to let go of the anger inside her, and with help, she has. She is, in fact, a delightful and insightful teen who plans to become a therapist herself. "I want to work with other children who were adopted", she says. "I know how they feel."
As for my daughter, she wants to be a vet, thanks to our dog. She was in therapy for about two years to try and heal what she calls "the hole in my heart." She has "graduated" from therapy, but she still has moments when she feels like a "dirt child", as she calls it...a child so worthless she may as well have been left in the dirt. Luckily those moments are further and further apart.
You wouldn't know any of this to see Maria. She appears confident, sociable, and has a winning personality, not to mention a pretty face. People always tell us they'd be happy to adopt an older child "if we could get one like her." They can-the orphanages are full of older children no one wants, but not many people want to adopt older children from institutions in Eastern Europe. People always hear the bad stories, and I do not doubt that there are some children who have been hurt so badly that they cannot love again. I haven't met those kids, though. The ones I know are more like my daughter; they act out, they get better, and they learn how to be part of a family. They do not hurt animals or burn down the house. That doesn't mean it's easy.
On mother's day, Maria made me a card, as she always does, but this one was special. Inside she wrote, "Thank you for opening up my heart." She often says she loves us now and she likes to be hugged. Still, I know that she could close her heart again in an instant if we betray her trust. Carpe diem.
*Maria and Anna's names have been changed.