*Featured Artwork: “Little Corazon” by Anita Driessen
Nineteen years ago, I traveled to Russia and adopted my two year old baby girl. The decision had not come easily. I had never experienced a strong desire to mother a child until my mid-forties when I suddenly visualized my future self as this frail, lonely old woman, consumed with regret for her life choices. Then it hit me, this could be my last chance. I agonized for months about my options. Since I had been diagnosed with early estrogen positive breast cancer, eight years prior, pregnancy was a risk. Could I take it? In vitro, artificial insemination, any procedure that required hormones injected into my body scared me. I vacillated, maybe I would be okay. Finally, after a warning from my oncologist, I ruled out pregnancy.
Adoption seemed the safest choice. But where? I researched domestic adoptions and learned of long waiting lists, years even. I was already an older mother-to-be. How long could I wait? Then I discovered an agency near my home that specialized in Russian adoptions. Convenient. And I had a connection to Russia. My Grandmother, Jenny, was born there and had immigrated to New York as a young woman. Russia was part of my heritage. It made sense that it would be my daughter’s birth place, like my family almost coming full circle.
After meeting with the director of the agency, I received answers to some of my questions. Infants were not eligible for adoption. Babies lived in the orphanages until at least one year old. That was okay with me. Frankly, the thought of mothering a new born overwhelmed me. As a divorced woman who worked full-time, adopting a toddler or older child appeared more realistic. I think I was afraid of caring for an infant; something about its helplessness unnerved me. Maybe I feared I couldn’t meet its consuming dependency needs.
I asked the director about possible anger and attachment issues of children who lived in orphanages. I thought I had done my homework. Back in 1998, there wasn’t a deluge of literature on Attachment Disorders, as there is today, but I scoured the internet for any information. I learned that Reactive Attachment Disorder is a diagnosis that describes any disruption in attachment, resulting in a child’s failure to form a secure bond with a parental figure. Any child, biological or adopted, who lacked a caretaker’s consistent attention between six months and two years, is at risk. The condition exists on a continuum; the most severe are the kids who torture animals and show little empathy for others. She laughingly waved my concerns away and showed me a video of a dark haired toddler, rocking a baby doll. Her eyes sparkled and my heart melted. Since I’m a psychotherapist, I thought I could handle any difficulties that could arise. My love would conquer all. Looking back, I realize how naïve I was.
And yet, I continued to ruminate. Could I actually get on that plane to Moscow by myself and bring my little girl home? It would be easier if I had a partner in this journey. I finally committed after a conversation with my then boyfriend, the last in a line of hopefuls for marriage.
It went like this:
“I’m thinking of adopting a daughter. Will you be my partner in this journey?”
“No…I can’t do that. I’m too old and I don’t want the responsibility of a child. Why can’t we just continue doing what we’re doing?”
The thought occurred to me: I’ve been waiting for a man to change my life. I can’t wait any longer.
The weeks before my trip, I fantasized daily about my new toddler daughter. I visualized gently brushing her glossy hair and carefully placing colorful barrettes on her cute pigtails. I saw myself wrapping my arms around her, rocking her to sleep, our eyes lovingly locked together while I sang a soft lullaby. And when frightened, she would run to me for comfort and I would swoop her up in my arms, whispering soothing words until she was calm.
Liliya had been abandoned at six months by her birth mom, left in a baby carriage in a train station in Moscow. The Russian police took her to an orphanage where she lived for a year and a half. Demckuit Dom, they call these baby homes in Moscow and there are twenty-five of them. Liliya looked like a little boy when I first met her in baby home number five. Her straggly, brown hair curled around her head like a bowl; her skinny legs wobbled as she rocked back and forth. Toys scattered on the floor but nobody played with them. Cars and rocking horses stood motionless in a corner. Toddlers cried and no one responded. I ran around, frantically picking up one child, then another. As soon as I put one down, he cried louder. I gave up; I couldn’t reach them all, but I consoled myself that I would hold Liliya and protect her. I couldn’t wait to bring her home.
Home included the Pittsburgh family I made for her before I left. With no biological family of my own close by, I knew I needed a support system and quite frankly, considering my luck with men (one divorce and several long term relationships that ended), I was not confident I would re-marry. I wanted her to have a male role model–an uncle, if not a dad. So my two closest friends became Liliya’s aunt and uncle.
Our first year together was not easy for either one of us and soundly dispelled my earlier fantasies. I wondered how her brain processed her new life. After all, I had whisked her away from all that was familiar and flew her halfway across the world. I was a stranger to her. Despite having some insight into her plight, her avoidance of me at family gatherings or activities with friends, sparked pops of ugly jealous feelings, like firecrackers shooting through my body. She snuggled up to anyone but me. I felt invisible to her.
I knew fostering attachment was critical so I made sure that only I fed and rocked her to sleep every night. On the advice of a therapist, she sucked on a bottle, while sitting on my lap, but twisted her body away from me. She loved her ba-ba but wouldn’t look at me. When frightened (ambulances and loud noises scared her) she sobbed on the floor in a corner of the living room. I couldn’t get near her.
By age three, her distancing behaviors softened but she was a challenging child, hard to please, resistant to limitations and bossy as all get-out. She was also playful, affectionate, smart and very curious. Mama, look at the bird, the nest, the clouds. Mama, look at the sunset. There were times of pure joy.
Bedtime was one of those times. We had a ritual, Liliya and me. First, a gentle bath with lots of bubbles that made her giggle. Next, we rocked on her Winnie the Pooh rocking chair, while I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song I had loved from childhood. One night, she sat straight up on my lap and sang along with me. This was a feat because she had no language when she left Russia and we communicated with signs and gestures those early months. She learned English with the help of a speech therapist and Barney, her favorite television show.
When I tucked her into bed, I softly recalled how I found her; step by step. Her adoption story became her bedtime story. Every night, she stuck one thumb in her mouth as she leaned over; with eyes closed and traced my face with her fingers: my nose, my lips, my cheeks. I imagined she wanted to remember me–just in case, I, like her biological mother, disappeared. An exquisite memory that both hurts and warms my heart.
Liliya’s eighth birthday marked the beginning of a happy year. It was a time of fun and laughter. Trips to Florida to visit her grandparents brought us closer together. We danced in elevators until the doors opened, then greeted waiting riders with poker faces. We giggled and sang songs in the car on the way to school. Our favorite was an old Smokey Robinson hit, “My Girl.” It became our song and we pointed to each other as we crooned; I got sunshine on a cloudy day and when it’s cold outside, I got the month of May. I guess you’ll say, what can make me feel this way- my girl, my girl. Liliya was my girl.
But interspersed with these joyful times were ominous signs of trouble. Her anger was easily ignited and saying “no” to her precipitated lengthy, intense tantrums or relentless negotiations. I don’t know which was worse.
Then adolescence exploded at fifteen. Liliya’s attachment issues ran rampant. Intense rage toward me, scattered with fuck you and leave me alone, when limits were placed upon her. Episodes of running out the door and not coming home until 2 am, 3 am (or not at all) consumed my heart with paralyzing fear…and guilt. I panicked when I glimpsed cuts on her arm and wondered what depths she would go to self-destruct. My mind raced frantically like a puppy chasing its tail. Did I cause this? Was it the time I walked away from her because she was yelling when I refused to buy another toy? No, wait; what about those nights when I needed a time out and retired to my bedroom with the door closed, for fear of losing control and slapping her? Did she feel abandoned? No, no, it had to be that first night when she wailed from deep inside her and though I went to her and held her, I didn’t bring her into my bed. Would she have attached to me if I had let her sleep with me that first night, that first week, that first year even? I wondered: what had I done by adopting her?
During this dark time, I created Mom’s Coffee Club, a support group for mothers who had adopted internationally. Although their children were born all over the world: Russia, Poland, Guatemala, Korea, there existed one commonality. If their child lacked a consistent, loving caretaker during their first few years, their issues were similar. We spoke the same language. As the psychotherapist and facilitator of the group; I encouraged moms to express their real feelings, no matter how ugly. I feel like that too, you’re doing the best you can, we understand–all comforting words that eased our turmoil inside. A bond existed among us; we knew, really knew, the joy and challenges of our children. We didn’t flinch from our harshest feelings and we embraced our moments of loving connection.
My daughter turned twenty-one recently. Life is calmer now (after years of therapy for both of us) but I’ve had to adjust my expectations and wishes for her. There was no college (and maybe never will be) and she chose to withdraw from a program that would have offered her a substantial career. I’ve had to come to terms with her finding her own way. And yet, as I listen to my friends proudly list their kids’ achievements; I feel some jealousy in the pit of my stomach. I nod and smile but the ugly feeling works its way to my heart, like a slimy worm. Sometimes I yearn for that success story and yes, sometimes I feel cheated.
But the other day, I was driving to my Zumba class and I had an epiphany of sorts. It was an early Sunday morning; the streets were quiet and snowflakes were trickling down on my windshield. I was feeling a bit blue, listening to a song on the radio from my college years that reminded me of my senior year. Just one semester shy of graduation, I left school and moved out of state to live with my then boyfriend. My parents were shocked and appalled. “How could you do this!” my mother cried, “you’ll never finish school now. You’ll never have a career.”
Two masters degrees, a solid career, and many years later, it occurs to me that each of us must navigate life at our own pace. Never say never, as the saying goes. The ending to the story hasn’t been written yet.