Sunday, February 8, 2009

Friends in Need

A few weeks back I attended a party of about fifteen Russian adoptive families; eight families present had hosted, adopted, or done both through the Lighthouse Project. The most veteran had been home with their children about six months; the least, five weeks. Trivial interactions like kids asking for money or car keys, expecting parents to hold things, and even fighting with siblings thrilled me, since these trifling behaviors are so normal for families. Orphans in the recent past, they are now sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and acting the part.

Sergei, fifteen and home six weeks, beamed as he introduced his taller but months younger new sibling to me as his “little sister.” Already popular around his neighborhood for the rounds he makes with the family snow blower after each dusting, his parents raved about him and his transition, ebulliently sharing their plans to add a Russian twelve-year-old to their family within the next few months.

A newly-minted mom of an eight-year-old boy, home four months ago from my kids’ orphanage, told me how her son had hated math when he started school. Now she hears how easy it is, and math papers wearing stars all over their refrigerator prove it. She told me she loves being a mom.

Maybe a party is not the right venue, but beyond merely finding homes for orphans I am on a mission to support and encourage parents through some of the emotional dissonance I know from personal experience is common to newly adoptive families. Families excited about adoption expect the euphoria to continue once their child arrives home. The post-adoption let-down, as families try to establish a “new normal,” distresses some who don’t recognize how typical it is. A recurring refrain is new families feel like babysitters; early on I wondered when “someone” would come to pick up my kids and take them “home.” While far beyond this stage now, it reassured then to know I was not the only mom waiting for the doorbell to ring. (It never did.) Families who fought to get their kids feel a shame in sharing the transition challenges with others they worry wouldn’t understand. Having been there, I want new families to know they’re not crazy, or at least not alone.

The newest family had been home five weeks with their fourteen-year-old daughter, who is already attending school. Her dad told me about the different girls they are inviting home, and their work to structure visits to ensure their daughter is making friends and succeeding in the interactions. Unusually, he hadn’t noticed the babysitter phenomenon and was working hard to “enjoy every moment.” Lamenting the time he has already missed, he consciously values what remains to him. I was refreshed by his sentiments, and left the party believing his perspective surely smoothed the jolts inherent in older child adoption.

Children sixteen or seventeen are allowed to enter the United States on an orphan’s immigrant visa on the coattails of a biological sibling under sixteen being adopted at the same time. Russia also requires kids ten and older to consent to their adoption in court for the adoption to be approved. At the party, the mom of seventeen-year-old Misha and his now sixteen-year-old biological sister Tanya, both home six months, told me they are adjusting well to their new school. This past fall, Misha started for his high school soccer team, while Tanya was a cheerleader. Back in Russia, Misha pondered the ramifications of an earth-shaking decision, foreseeing the difficulties he’d face living in a new family and country. Without parents to guide him, he turned to his best friend, a boy with a family. His friend told him to go, that it would be best for his future. Knowing they’d probably never see each other again, Misha’s friend’s generous advice has likely saved his life. His friend had the safety net of a family, and was magnanimous enough to wish on Misha the same blessing.

Both kids have friends here now, though Misha’s Russian friend has left some big shoes to fill. Sometimes we Americans suppose we’re the only ones who care for orphans, but Misha’s friend contradicts this self-congratulation. A friend in need might come from anywhere, and the miles that separate Misha from a boy whose name I don’t even know lack power to rescind the gift he’s given.