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Monday, February 25, 2013

From An Adoptive Father of a Russian Boy

I am completely aware of my own bias.  I am a father of three children whom I love deeply.  I do not play golf because it would mean time away from my kids.  My wife and I have decided not to have cable TV because we want to engage our children, not park them in front of the TV.  Sometimes my little lovelies get on my last nerve.  When my favorite football team is on and I can't see it because we don't have ESPN, I get pretty cranky.  But, we have happily chosen this life because we love, love, love our children.

All our children are adopted.  The oldest, a Russian boy, is now 10 and will be 11 soon.  The middle, a 6-year-old Ethiopian boy and the youngest a 3-year-old Ethiopian girl.  My wife and I are white Americans.  We are a pretty colorful family.  

When we got into adoption, I am sure there was some "savior-complex," if not for my wife, then definitely in me (just a little bit).  We read Matthew 25:40, and we are ready to do for "the least of these."  We're going to "rescue" an orphan and give him a good life.  I am sure those thoughts exist in the mind of many adoptive parents.  But, those thoughts dissipate quickly as it becomes the work of parenting.  Take away the lack of genetic connection, and parenting adopted kids is not different than parenting children that are yours naturally.  And parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is.

What cannot be taken away is the experiences adopted children had before they came into the families that adopt them.  In the case of my son from Russia, something happened that put in him anger - raging anger.  I won't go into details for several reasons.  He's made great strides.  We have had all kinds of professional help and he has overcome a lot.  I'd rather focus on his successes.  More importantly, it is his story to tell.  He is now at an age where he should have the right to determine what others know about him.

One indicator of his progress is that life is now easier with him and two other kids than it was when in the first two years he was with us.  I don't think that is because he's Russian.  I think in Russia there are people who are some of the best parents in the world.  I think that is true in most countries.  I think there are also some people who are awful to their children.  That also is true in most countries.  What I do think happens in situations where poverty is wide spread, like in Russia, is the social systems in place to take care of orphans are overworked.

The reason Russia allows affluent foreigners to come and adopt their children is they have more orphans than they can handle.  In the case of my son, he had 4 workers in the orphanage in his age group.  Those 4 worked in shifts, not all there at the same time.  And there were 16 children.  The workers did not have time to cuddle and coo and hold the babies and take the time needed to teach walking and talking.  What's even sadder is those workers did not have the time to teach the children how to be held.

When we adopted our son at 3 1/2, his body was as ridged as a board when he was picked up.  A child used to being held wraps his arms around you and his legs too.  The position of being held is natural because he's experienced it from birth.  Our boy had to learn that at 42 months of age.  He spent three years learning that when you cry in bed at night, no one comes, and you get punished if you get out of your bed before it is permitted.  He was perfectly comfortable sleeping in urine-soaked sheets.  He was scared to death to leave his bed once placed in it at night.  

This is but a sampling of what was in him: pain, confusion, rage.  And the people who were trying to love him out of this (my wife and me) were strangers who spoke a language he had never heard and took him to a place he did not know.  His case is pretty typical of kids adopted from Russia, Moldova, Romania, and Kazakhstan.  These kids come with a lot of baggage and it adds to the challenge of parenting them.  Again, without going into too much detail, the first two years with our boy were the hardest two years of my life.  And it has not been a cakewalk since then either.     

Please don't misinterpret what I am saying.  I do not condone the awful things that have happened to some of the Russian children who have been adopted.  When I read about that woman a few years ago who put her adopted child on a plane and sent him back to Russia, I was furious.  I am sure life was impossibly hard for her.  It was probably 10 times harder than what we experienced with our son.  But that's parenting.  If she had given birth to a child with a bipolar disorder or a child with schizophrenia, she couldn't send him back!  Parenting is hard and much harder for some parents than others.  When she sent that kid back, I was furious because she made it that much harder for others who want to adopt from Russia.  

Stories like ours don't make the paper.  Our son has graduated out of speech therapy and out of occupational therapy.  He no longer qualifies for an I.E.P. in school.  His reading and math skills are too good to qualify for special help.  He's right in the mainstream.  And that's true on his soccer team.  And it is true in his dance class.  When it comes to art (sketching) and construction (Legos) he is way beyond his peers.  Other kids in the neighborhood call him over when they have Lego emergencies and he gets them through it, finishing the construction for them if need be.  

Recently in Gardendale, Texas, an boy died, a boy adopted from Russia by an American family.  Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry's special representative for human rights said, "I would like to call your attention to another case of inhuman abuse of a Russian child by U.S. adoptive parents" (  If the investigation proves that this child died because of abuse from his adoptive parents, then they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  That's murder and they should spend the rest of their lives in prison.  

But please, Mr. Dolgov, if you are going to speak to the press about this and other abuse stories, could you grant this adoptive father a small request.  Could you spend the next 10 years of your life telling the stories of American families who have loved their Russian children?  Would you please come to my house and take a long look at the huge picture of St. Basil's cathedral we have over our son's bed.  Maybe as you visit you could enjoy some Russian tea which my wife occasionally makes.  You and I could sit and discuss Russian authors - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn are my favorites.  My wife and just tonight began reading Father Sergius together.  Maybe, Mr. Dolgov, you prefer Turgenev or Asimov or Chekov.  While you are here, ask my son how we portray Russia to him.  He will tell you, I hope, that we encourage him to be proud of his heritage.  We want him to love the fact that he is Russian.  

Is that not a good thing, Mr. Dolgov?  Mr. Putin?  The Duma's action in late 2012 of cutting off adoptions of Russian children by American families is pathetically political.  What could be more hideous than using children as fodder in a propaganda war?  Most families I know that have adopted Russian children are like us.  They dearly love their children and they teach their children to love being Russian.  So, if 1000's of families take that approach, then, you have 1000's of young kids growing up in America who have pride about being Russian and love for that country.  

Cut that off as was done and is the current state of things, and what do you have?  First, you, Russia, have an orphan problem that is not getting solved.  Your homeless population will rise once this generation of orphans age out of the system and end up on the streets, addicted to drugs, and victims of the sex-slave industry.  Second, you have a nation, America, which instead of developing a deep love for Russia instead sees the Russian government as petty.  Where there was the potential for deepening of positive relationships, there is now growing distrust and childish rivalries.  O, you criticized us for human rights violations.  We'll show you!  You can't adopt our kids any more.  Are the people elected to the Duma a bunch of 10-year-olds?  Can't they see that the ones being hurt are the children in the orphanages?  

Of course they know that.  They just don't care at all.  If those kids can be used to strike a humiliating blow at America, then they'll be used in that way.  The value of those children is in what they can do for Russian national pride.  The lives of children already forsaken by their birth parents are now devalued even more.  The leaders in the Duma will without conscience use the children to save face.  

You know who does care?  The orphanage workers in Russia care.  Their hearts and backs are broken.  Some of those workers, mostly women, deeply love the children.  I know one did when we brought out boy home.  We showed him the pictures of the ladies we took before we left.  He always looked at one and touched it slowly.  "Vaya."  This was back when he was barely talking at all.  He didn't know many words in English or Russian, but he knew her name.  "Vaya."  It was obvious in how he said and how he looked at her.  Vaya loved my son before I did.  Vaya cares about these children and she knows they need homes.  And she knows her own country just cut off an enormous source of potential parents.

And those American parents who want to adopt, what about them?  They'll be fine.  The ones who can afford it will go to Kazakhstan or Ukraine.  The ones who can take off from work will go to Kenya or Malawi or Uganda.  The ones willing to risk the process will go to Honduras or Guatemala.  The ones willing to wait will go to China.  And the rest, the (now) majority will go to Ethiopia.  If now, there are plenty of children right here in America who need to be adopted.  One of my best friends in the U.S. has three adopted children from America.  My brother is in the process of adopting two from right here.

Of all the political actions I know of, the decision by the Russians to cut off Americans from adopting Russian orphans is the stupidest.  I love Russia.  I love the art.  I love the literature.  I love the pride and strength of that great nation.  I love the food.  The best fish dish I have ever had in my life I had at the hotel in Pskov on our two trips there.  I am sad for a country so great to be ruled by leaders who are so selfish and short-sighted.  

The evil ones are the Americans who adopt and then hurt the children they've adopted.  The victims are the children who will not be adopted.  What comes next?  I don't know.  But I wish I could get Mr. Dolgov and Mr. Putin to meet me at a hotel in Pskov.  I'd arrange for Vaya to be there.  And I would bring my boy.  Maybe the five could hash this out over a meal of the best fish you'll ever eat.  


  1. Superb. We are also that family, learning Russian to help them keep positive ties. Doing puzzles of st Basils and still looking for a good salyanka soup recipe. Thank you.

  2. “I do not play golf because it would mean time away from my kids.”—This passage touched me deeply, Rob. It may be a simple sentence, but it speaks volumes. And I think you don't want to play golf because not only because it would take your time away from your kids, but because you just realized that it's more fun spending time with your kids rather than having fun.

    Aiko Dumas

    1. Thanks, Aiko. One of the things I think about is "What will I remember?" I think I will remember throwing passes to my Son Henry the yard. I think I will remember admiring something my son Igor has painted or built. I will remember tickling my daughter Merone and her begging me to stop and saying "Do it again, Daddy."

      And, they will remember. Neither they nor I may remember specifics, but we will remember joy in their growing up and that Dad was a part of that joy, not apart from it.