In their beautiful book Everyday Blessings, The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn suggest we could learn a great deal from trying to imagine the world from our child’s point of view (p.384). To this end, I would like you to imagine what the world might look like from the point of view of a 6 or 7 year old orphan.
Imagine what the world looks and feels like to a child taken from his mother at the age of 1 or 2. Imagine that no one has really prepared him in any way for this transition and there is no one he knows there to help comfort him during this process. Imagine a little deeper if you can at the impact of any possible abuse, neglect and drug or alcohol exposure.
Now imagine this child being taken to an orphanage full of strangers. Imagine the repercussions of spending the next 4 or 5 years in that orphanage. Having worked in an Eastern European orphanage, I can assure you that it is not a place in any way that promotes loving growth and development.
Children in orphanages have few opportunities to grow and develop in a healthy way. They have little if any consistent one-on-one loving attention. They often do not even have their own beds much less bedtime stories and rituals such as being tucked in, bath time, bubble baths or rubber duckies. They don’t grow up in a house with a kitchen to watch mom cook dinner, help set the table or share in the important ritual of family meal times. They rarely have their own set of clothes or shoes — and certainly few if any that fit properly. No special stuffed animal, no blankie, no family photos or albums, no special books with their names in them. Children in orphanages do not have the attention, love and nurturing so vital to healthy development. And this is all under the best of circumstances. This is assuming there is no abuse. Neglect is the nature of growing up in an orphanage.
Now imagine that one day a complete stranger arrives at the orphanage. She speaks a language the child has never heard. She spends a week or two with the child and then takes him from the orphanage to a plane and they take a long journey to a strange place with nothing that looks, sounds, feels, tastes or smells familiar. And she begins calling him a name he has never heard before.
More than likely in the entire 7 years of this child’s life, no one has attempted to help him make any sense of all that has happened to him. What is expected though is for him to be happy, well adjusted, loving, affectionate, well behaved and perhaps even a little grateful. No one anywhere seems to have any understanding what is really going on in his inner world, and no one is able to understand the feelings of sadness, despair, hopelessness, loneliness or anger he may have.
Now, switching gears slightly, imagine you are the woman arriving at the orphanage to adopt this child. Most likely no one has given you much if any of this child’s relevant history. No one has educated you about how early childhood development can be severely compromised by the kind of neglect, deprivation and emotional upheaval in this child’s life. No one has advised you on what may be necessary to understand the experience of this child or to prepare you to be the parent of this child. There are most likely no follow-ups on how the adoption is going, no post-adoption support, no community awareness of the difficulties that may arise, and certainly no consequences for adoption agencies and orphanages who have in any way misrepresented the physical or mental health of the child you have made this long journey to adopt.
I believe that the recent situation of a mom in Tennessee returning her adopted child to Russia is the result of a complete failure of the adoption process both in the US and abroad. A 7-year-old child allegedly threatening violence and drawing pictures of his house being engulfed in flames are the desperate actions of a child begging for help. A mom putting her 7 year old child on a plane, alone with no support or explanation, and having a stranger pick him up on the other end only to take him back to an orphanage is also, I believe, a very desperate act.
If any thing positive can come of this recent tragic incident, let’s hope it is to begin a global open, honest, informed and collaborative conversation about the meaning, process, reality, needs and expectations of adoption. Adoption is an amazing and rewarding way to have a family. It is how I started mine and nothing has brought me more joy and happiness. Adoption does take a great deal more than love and the desire to parent a child. Adoption truly does take a village – and a well-informed, open minded, accessible, educated village to be sure.