The Adoption Diaries: What It's Like to Meet Your Institutionalized Child, Warts and All

Tima had spent the first year of his life in the care of neglectful and alcoholic parents and the second institutionalized with hundreds of other children, never having a toy or shoe or caretaker that was his own.

Nov 6, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

Our first Thanksgiving together was spent in a hotel room overlooking the White Sea in northern Russia.  We forced a few exhausted smiles between us in an attempt to celebrate, acutely and painfully aware that we should be more thankful on this day than any other.  

The day before, my husband Chris and I stood before a stern judge in a Russian courtroom and had been determined fit enough to be the parents of a two-year-old boy named Tima from a remote logging village in the southernmost part of the region.  

The three of us spent our first afternoon together quietly playing, reading and simply marveling at one another. Chris and I gently offered our hands for Tima to hold in his tiny, pale fingers, and we stroked his fine blonde hair that had been hastily and sloppily hacked into a mullet to make him more presentable. Occasionally his face would break into the smile that displayed his underdeveloped teeth and face full of dimples.

Tima gave no indication that he remembered us from our visit to his orphanage three months prior, but continued to charm us throughout the evening with the same shy smile and timid, gentle ways as when we’d met. 

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The calm before the storm.

But by the next morning, something had shifted. Tima awoke surprised and quite seriously displeased that he was still with these two strangers. Every attempt to engage with him was met with the same reaction: chin tucked to chest, stepping backward into a wall until he slid down it into a puddle of flailing, kicking, thrashing rage. He’d had a nice time visiting with us, but now he was ready to go home.  

And he let us know, not with a cry of displeasure, but with a constant, primal, guttural scream that came from a place of absolute terror that sometimes wracked his little body so horribly that he began to vomit.  

He recoiled from our touch and thrashed against our attempts to hold him. Chris and I tried to soothe him in any way we could, but our desperate attempts at consolation were the last thing he wanted.  

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For illustrative purposes.

Of course, in the year leading up to his adoption, Chris and I had had training to prepare us for the emotional and psychological condition that we might find Tima to be in. I believed myself prepared for a son who wanted neither a mother nor all that came with it. He didn’t even know what that meant, and he only wanted back the comfort and familiarity of what he’d known.

Tima had spent the first year of his life in the care of neglectful and alcoholic parents and the second institutionalized with hundreds of other children, never having a toy or shoe or caretaker that was his own. Experience taught him that caretakers were variable and utilitarian, kind at best but never with an expression of actual love. Eventually they would always leave him, even if just at the end of a shift at the orphanage.  

And now here he was, uprooted again and replanted with Chris and I -- two strangers who looked, smelled, and talked strangely, even when we tried to speak to him in Russian, our clumsy and halting words probably sounding just as foreign to him as our English. He had no concept of what a family was or what we represented, and he was terrified.  

Rationally I understood, but each day he slid further into survival mode, and I began to slide along with him.  

What I had never doubted was my own capacity to love him, but I began going through the motions of changing, bathing and feeding him, mechanically and without emotion. I began thinking back to the stories I’d heard in adoptive parent support groups, the ones I’d been certain I’d never relate to.  

I remembered one woman’s account in particular. She had described the very slow development of her affection for her adopted daughter, likening it to first wanting to throw her daughter in front of a train, and only after years did she finally feel like she might be willing to step in front of one for her.

The following week spent in Moscow was a chaotic spectacle of neon lights, homicidal drivers, illegible signs and frantic screaming. Embarrassed by the disapproving looks we received from strangers when we were unable to control our wailing, writhing child in public, we seldom left our hotel room.  

By the second day, I informed the front desk of our situation, in case neighboring hotel guests reported the ceaseless shriek that came from our room.  

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The crowd at Lenin’s tomb distracted and quieted him momentarily.  I at least look happy, right?

Tima quieted only while he was busy eating everything that we put in front of him, and then slipped back into a panicked howl when the food was gone. On more than one occasion he fell asleep at the table in the hopes of more food, and several hours after every meal we found his little cheeks stuffed with food, stored for later.

During sleepless nights, Tima sat in the bed between Chris and I, rocking himself like a caged monkey. One night while he rocked, he chanted the same words in Russian over and over to himself.  

I sat up and listened. He was repeating “mama…papa…aunt…uncle…family…” in an attempt to soothe himself. Likely he’d been told that he would have all these things, but without any frame of reference he had no way of knowing that Chris and I were it, we were that thing called a family he expected to be so wonderful. And there was nothing I could offer him.

Chris and I took turns escaping each day for an hour or so, to simply wander the snow-covered sidewalks among men gathered on corners, talking quietly and seemingly secretively to each other, makeshift shops selling greeting cards and imitation Faberge eggs and nesting dolls, and impeccably dressed women using their stiletto heels as ice picks to chisel each step into the frozen sidewalk as they marched purposefully along.  

It was during these walks that the gnawing feeling of doubt and failure began to grow. I’d spent so much time trying to understand Tima’s experiences and his potential reaction to being thrust into our family that I’d completely neglected to address whether I was prepared to deal with it all. I’d never considered how it would feel to enter a room and have him scream in fear at the sight of me.  

I had expected to immediately know that I would do anything for this child, but instead I felt absolutely no desire to care for him; in fact, my instincts were more of self-preservation, to distance myself from him, to shield myself from his relentless storm.

At length, the thought finally formulated itself in my mind, against my own stubborn will, that perhaps we had done the wrong thing. Perhaps I was never meant to be a mother at all. Each day proved to be just another series of circumstances that illustrated my incompetence, and I was deeply ashamed.  

The only hope that shone dimly in my mind was that we would eventually be going home.  Perhaps then we would be able to start to construct some semblance of stability and that in time, things might be easier. Please let things be easier.  

I wasn’t willing to let go, not quite yet, of the idyllic scenes I’d formed in my mind of our future as a family. I desperately clung to the idea, probably more from pride and a refusal to fail than anything else, that we would adapt. We would adjust.  

And someday, please, I would be willing to step in front of that train for him.