For those of you who think parenting is a breeze, don’t waste your time with me today. Because even if my daughter had not spent her first 20 months in a Russian orphanage, this is tough stuff.
Even before we adopted in 2004, my husband made me promise that I would put away the stack of parenting books on the nightstand and just use my common sense. I still sneak one now and again and have tons of great conversations with smart, considered, dedicated moms about how to handle this or that.
But the truth is, there has not been much on the shelf to explain what we have experienced with our daughter, who is now nearly 12 years old.
Until recently, when I came upon “Rescuing Julia Twice,” a new book about Russian adoption. So much of Julia’s story resonated with me beginning with the story of her adoption from Siberia in the middle of the winter. Even though we brought our daughter home in early September, the physical place is so bone-chillingly cold and their customs completely foreign. Like Julia, our daughter was wide-eyed and curious to discover all. At 20 months, she had never stepped down a step, gotten herself off a couch, heard English spoken, or had even one item – toy or clothing – that was hers. Everything was brand new, scary, foreign to our daughters including their “forever families.”
Right from the start, our beautiful daughter was headstrong and willful, but graceful and smart.
She had no hair for a good long time, self-soothing strategies that were heart-breaking, and some health challenges (low muscle development in her face and chest, making it hard to eat and breathe at the same time, skin sensitivities and seasonal allergies). Her medical issues were all quite difficult to diagnose because of the language barrier and her reserve. She did not shrink from touch but sometimes would go to a place of despair where it felt impossible to reach her. I’m a terrible singer but had learned “Hey Jude” in middle school, and, oddly enough, it became a portal. I had a tool that I could count on; she loved it and it seemed to bring her back.
“Rescuing Julia Twice ” reminded me how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Traster’s description of her and her husband’s visits to Russia touched a nerve and felt so familiar.
We spent a lot of time with other adoptive families, went for speech therapy, visited plenty of doctors and engaged in weekly therapy a few times with varying success. The term “oppositional behavior” was as technical a diagnosis as we could ever discover, and “play therapy” seemed exactly the wrong approach. In here, you can do whatever you want. Out there (with Mom), you have boundaries that you hate.
The years slipped by. During the more trying times, I felt lucky on several counts. When we met our daughter, we knew instantly that she was meant to be ours. Yes, this may sound corny, but it doesn’t happen usually; we had had the very tough experience of meeting and having to decline another baby first. She had an instant bond with our biological son, who was 3 at the time. They found an easy, deep and, mutual respect and adoration. I knew that her symptoms could have been so much worse. I held tight to these at the toughest times.
When our daughter was little, we called her our “danger mouse,” and it was cute. She loved roller coasters, fast bicycles, swimming in deep water. She always had a bump on her forehead from bonking into something. We protected her from friends who were not good for her, walked her home from the school bus, explained why doing well in school was better than not doing well. But now she is at an age where she needs to make those good choices on her own, and, frankly, it scares me that she may not be capable. As I see it, it comes down to building self-esteem — with a special twist because of a profoundly rough start. But how? Traditional approaches don’t seem to apply here.
I took heart in reading that over the years, Julia, who is the same age as my daughter, has bonded with her parents. Traster and her husband developed and implemented counter-intuitive strategies such as placing your child in a “time in” rather than a “time out,” or ignoring bad behavior. This is not easy parenting, requiring patience of steel, and a fair measure of confidence as a parent. As Traster’s memoir points out, finding the way to a place of deep trust is an important first step toward self-esteem.
Another piece of Julia’s story that struck a chord is the line between what is public and what is private. How much information is important for teachers to know, for example? Parents of friends? For so many adoptive families, privacy is paramount. Every family’s challenges are their own. However, there is a great need to give this issue sunlight. My child and every child deserves the right to play out their lives without judgment. For our daughter, having come from Russia and particularly a Russian orphanage, does not define her. We have been so careful about this. It is one thread of a rich tapestry that will be her life and our lives together. But we must have a far greater understanding of our particular parenting challenges.
After reading Traster’s book, in all its truthfulness and love and hope, I discovered a chance to develop a community that is purposeful and helpful. I want to know what works out there, to mitigate issues that seem common. Bringing our children’s lives to their fullest potential is our life’s mission.
We adopted our daughter believing that love could conquer all. That if we showed enough love it would undo the primal stoicism that entered our child’s being at such a young age. But we need more than love. We need a toolbox with strategies. We need each other.
And so, thanks to Traster for being brave enough to tell her story. I am ever so grateful that her life as a storyteller compelled her to tell this one, which I believe will make her family stronger and help others. The stakes are too high not to develop this roadmap together.
Kim Honor is a mother of two and part-time community development consultant.
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