by Denise Dellarosa Cummins, PhD
Nearly twenty years ago, my husband and I adopted two little girls from a Russian orphanage, so we cannot possibly remain silent in light of President Putin’s recent decision to ban Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
In 1992, after two years of arduous but unsuccessful infertility treatments, we decided it was time to move on, to shift our attention away from the hope of creating children of our own and toward addressing the plight of the millions of children worldwide who were in need of parents. We attended meetings at several state and private adoption agencies, and filled out endless paperwork to get on their adoption lists. We were told by domestic agencies that we could not adopt an infant because my husband was over 40. There was a mandatory waiting period because we had just ended fertility treatment, and, as the state agency put it, we needed time to grieve our misfortune. We were fingerprinted, had our backgrounds checked, and attended adoption classes. More than a year went by as we waited and hoped. Then, at last, the call came.
One of the private agencies had begun handling adoptions from Russian orphanages, and wondered whether we would consider adopting an older child from that country. Communism had fallen, the Russian economy was in tatters, and the country was in the throes of re-inventing itself. As is always the case during a nation’s upheaval, it is the children who suffered the most. There were 400,000 children in Russian orphanages, children who had been abandoned by parents who could no longer care for them, or whose parents had died in dire circumstances.
We met with the adoption agent, a woman who, with her husband, had founded the agency and managed foreign adoptions for more than 10 years. They had matched us with two little girls at an orphanage in the Kostroma region of Russia, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow. They showed a videotape of the orphanage in which children dressed in flannel dresses (girls) and simple shirt and pants (boys) went about their daily routines.
We had heard it said that when prospective parents view such tapes, they “recognize” their children. That was certainly the case for us: Two little girls, ages four and five, jumped off the screen and into our hearts—the same ones that the agents thought would be a good match for us.
Over the course of several weeks, we completed more paperwork, were interviewed again by a social worker, and had a home study. We were approved for adoption in the US, but our Russian approval was tentative, pending our obtaining the proper signatures in Russia. Furthermore, Russia was even then threatening to terminate foreign adoptions, and we were advised to go there as soon as possible to finalize our adoption.
We were advised to bring gifts for the officials we would be meeting. We asked whether these were bribes, but the agency bristled at this, saying that this was simply the way things were handled in Russia. They needn’t be expensive gifts—boxes of chocolate, small electrical appliances, briefcases—these would all be appreciated due to their scarcity in provincial Russia. And so we flew to Russia, loaded up with gifts for the people we would be meeting, along with clothing and gifts for our to-be-adopted children.
I remember many things from the weeks we spent there finalizing the adoption: The gracious warmth of the Russian physician and her husband with whom we stayed, and the bag of homemade cookies she pressed into our hands for the trip back home. The town mayor, who strolled with us in the icy streets, chatting comfortably about Russia’s mild climate. The dignified Russian official who asked us frankly whether we could love these children even though they were not even the same nationality as us. The pediatrician who gave us their vaccination certificates, and urged us to have our children examined by our family physician because, as he pointed out, orphanage children are usually underweight and developmentally delayed. The orphanage assistant director who nervously looked about the large and colorful common room before asking our translator, “Does this look poor to them?” The Kremlin guard who stopped our translator as we entered that great museum to ask whether we were Americans, and, upon hearing that we were, insisted that we be shown the best exhibits. The Russian Orthodox Church that our translator took us to in order to have the priest bless our children in their new life with us. The walk into town where our daughters had their first taste of ice cream, because, as our translator put it, who could buy them ice cream? The farewell ceremony at the orphanage where all of the workers were in tears, and the director said it broke all of their hearts to see them go but they had to think of what was best for them.
Most of all, I remember meeting our children for the first time. They were huddled together on a sofa, clutching the small photo albums we had sent them containing pictures of us. They looked so small, so vulnerable, and yet so alive and curious. The emotions that I felt at that moment are impossible to describe, except to say I knew right then that I already loved them.
Once home, the adoption was still not finalized. The social worker continued to make home visits, collecting evidence to present in court nine months later for final approval of the adoption. The judge reviewed the evidence, interviewed us and our daughters, and finally—finally—the adoption was finalized.
During this agonizing waiting period, we came to understand why our adoption agency and the orphanage officials were so anxious that we, as academics, adopt these little girls. Katya and Masha were eager to learn, with bright futures ahead of them if they could only receive the loving family every child needs and the opportunity to be educated. If they had stayed in the orphanage, their chances for adoption were slim, their opportunity for formal education nonexistent.
Instead, this is what happened: Katya was in love with the written word, reciting flawlessly every story that had been read to her. Of all the gifts and clothes she received from us that day, her most prized possession was a notebook and set of colored pencils. During the next few months, she laboriously and voluntarily practiced forming the letters of the English alphabet over and over to get them just right. That single notebook grew into a veritable library of personal journals over the years. She is now a graduate student in a creative writing program. Her sister, Masha, showed talent for the visual arts. The drawings she made with her colored pencils were intricate, capturing the spirit and form of the objects and people she saw around her. Over the years, these grew into paintings that adorn our living room walls, and then finally coalesced as a talent for fashion photography and makeup artistry.
I would be remiss if I did not also point out that Russian adoptions are not always easy ones. Katya needed eye surgery that should have been done when she was an infant, as well as occupational therapy for a vestibular problem. Both suffered from reactive attachment disorder, which made forming stable emotional attachments to new parents challenging. But all four of us did our best to face these challenges. There is no question in our minds that it was all worth it.
This is just one story of how two Russian orphans gave us the gift of parenthood and we lovingly gave them the opportunity to become who they were meant to be. Thousands of other similar stories are flooding the internet and print media now, in light of Putin’s decision to play Russian roulette with the most vulnerable and needy of his people.
Denise Dellarosa Cummins is the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas that Influence the Way We Think (Cambridge UP), and The Other Side of Psychology: How Experimental Psychologists Find Out the Way We Think and Feel (St. Martin's). She is also co-editor of two scholarly volumes: Minds, Brains, & Computers: The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science (Blackwell Publishers), and Evolution of Mind (Oxford UP). She has authored over 40 scholarly publications on reasoning and decision-making from evolutionary, comparative, and developmental perspectives, and serves as a reviewer for scientific and philosophical journals. She has been an invited scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and an invited speaker at St. Andrews University, Durham University, the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, Illinois Public Radio, and other distinguished venues.