Matushka Larisa Nezhbort
Three summers ago, two important changes happened in our family, and in this part of my account, I would like to focus more on one of them. The ordination of my husband, Father Sergius Nezhbort, was a long-expected change. But the second change - the two little boys who joined us that year, was a real revolution.
I would imagine that every family that does not have children will consider adoption at some point. However, translating the idea into reality may not be very easy. My situation was not very different. I, too, was having thoughts along those lines, but was still undecided; I think I would have found it a lot easier to make up my mind if I had had a sign from above, such as thunder amid a blue sky, or a voice from Heaven. But we had none of these. We had lived together for 15 years. Our lives had been measured, orderly, habitual and pleasing in many respects. There was no apparent reason to blame ourselves for living egoistically - we were serving God after all, and working for the benefit of others at the workshop and in the Sisterhood. What more could we wish for? However, there were still a few things that we were mindful of. In my childhood, my grandmother used to tell me about her own mother, my great grandmother. She married in the 1920s and had several children all of whom died at a very young age. She grieved a lot, and her friends advised her to adopt an orphan, so God would help her with her future children. She took the advice and adopted an orphaned girl. She did not live with her for very long. Eventually, the girl’s family found her and took her back. My great grandmother soon had three girls, one of whom was my grandmother.
Matushka Larisa and Father Sergius Nezhbort
I also remembered travelling to Zalit Island with Fr. Sergius to get the blessing to our church wedding from Starets Nikolai Guryanov. On the island, an older married couple was waiting to see the Starets to get his blessing for an adoption. They were about as old as we are today. He gave the blessing very quickly, and they left the island on the same boat that had taken them there. We received our blessing just as quickly. We caught up with the older couple and asked them to let us share the boat with them. I was surprised at how quickly they left the island after receiving their blessing. I assumed that they had been there several times before or were living somewhere nearby. It turned out that they had travelled from afar, and had met Starets Nikolay for the first time. So we were sailing together - the bride and groom and a family couple with a blessing for an adoption. I thought about this incident many times afterwards.
Another push towards making up our minds came from the Convent’s spiritual father, Andrey Lemeshonok. As I was speaking at a meeting of our lay sisterhood on Sunday, sharing my spiritual thoughts and torments with others, Father Andrey stood up and said: “What you need is to realise yourself as a wife, mother, and in work like most others”. I did not even think of taking offence. I fully agreed with the part on realising myself as a wife and in work, but the part on being a mother sounded to me like saying to someone with no legs: "Why aren’t you walking like all other people?” I decided that Father Andrey had said this by mistake or had meant somebody else. But as he was celebrating the liturgy on the next day with my husband, he said to him: What I said to your Matushka yesterday - I never expected I would have said this. This must have been providential.
I may have misunderstood or misheard his words - as Father Andrey often says, we often hear what we are most willing to hear. However, I never asked any questions, as I thought I was quite clear about what he meant. He said becoming a mother, and so I would. Even people with no legs can sometimes walk! I went on the Internet to read about adoption. I stumbled on the website of the National Adoption Centre of Belarus. After reading their material for some time, I finally made up my mind to call them. They told me about the psychological training courses that were about to begin for the would-be adoptive parents and invited me to come and listen in. I asked Father Andrey what he would recommend, and he told me, without much enthusiasm: “Do as your husband will tell you”. Father Sergius said I could go if I wanted to. So I went. I met so many interesting and unusual people over there. There were some childless families and families who had just one child and wanted a second. Some wanted another child of the desired sex. In one family that already had two girls, the father desired a boy. Another family with four boys wanted a girl without the ‘risk’ of having the fifth boy. Some families had no difficulty having children and were motivated by their desire to help a child who had no parents. One woman told me that her second baby had difficulty sleeping at night, so she had to rock him in her arms all night. One night, it occurred to her that there were so many children who had no parents who could hold them in their arms and comfort them. So she became a volunteer in a hospital ward for babies abandoned by their mothers. After some time, she brought home a little baby girl whom she adopted against the advice of the entire ward’s staff - the baby girl was very frail and weak.
Matushka Larisa and Father Sergius Nezhbort
Long before that, one adoptive mother (the only one I knew at that time) told me that absolutely all adopted children possessed at least some undesirable traits or presented difficulties for their parents. The course at the national adoption centre enlightened me about the reasons for this. The main source of the difficulties was not bad inheritance, which adoptive parents seem to fear the most. It is true that perhaps 90% of all orphans have living parents, and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. But who of us could boast an ideal genetic background or inheritance? For example, many of my ancestors came from problematic backgrounds, and not a single one of them was a genius artist. The main reason why children from institutions are so different is the abnormality of their lives. It is not normal for any small child to spend even a few days without their mother; how could it be normal, then, for a child to spend years without their mom? At the training course, we saw a documentary called “John” (1969), which shed light on the experience of a child from an unproblematic family of being placed in an institution for several days away from his parents. How must it be for a child who has no parent to take care of him? How can a small child be able to realize his deprivation?
The present-day recommendations for babies to have skin-to-skin contact with the mother and for rooming-in are not accidental. Volumes have been written about the importance of early contact between the newborn and the mother, and its critical role in the life of the child. For an infant, even several hours of separation from its mother can be critical, let alone several months. Many people who have encountered abandoned children or children who had been removed from their parents will say: "They are well looked after at the institutions. The staff are doing their job very well". Many people have said this to me, even the mothers of these children and their relatives. This is an awful misconception. The first thing a child needs is someone close; that person does not need to be its biological mother, but always someone who stays with him all the time, and not comes and goes in shifts, as their carers do at institutions.
These are self-evident truths to me now, but discovering them was a real journey. I had not had any direct experience with this aspect of life. I was aware of institutions for children without parental care, I knew that their position was tragic, but life is filled with tragedies to such an extent that weeping over every one of them is beyond anyone's powers. But I happened to work as a volunteer at a children's isolation hospital where babies abandoned or removed from their mothers are being kept before being placed in an infant orphanage and it was a real mind-changer.
It was a gloomy autumn evening. I walked into a dark isolation ward. The lights were off. Two infants about two years of age were laying in beds with cage-type protection walls. They were there all alone. The staff at the hospital have a lot of children in their care and are physically unable to spend much time with these two abandoned children. They are here for weeks, and possibly for months. How could one possibly care about their development or socialisation? A little two-year-old girl is staying in a neighbouring ward. She was recently removed from her mother, a drug user, and she is crying all the time. Next to her is a three-year-old toddler who is already well used to being alone, and is mostly quiet. I come in, and try as much as I can to distract the children by playing with them. It works - they start to smile and the girl stops crying. A medical team arrives with a dose of a sedative for the girl. Several people are needed to hold the child while one is injecting the sedative into her. When finished, they turn around and leave. The girl is now quiet. Beyond the sedative, there seems to be very little that the hospital can offer. On the other hand, no-one can be expected to be here day and night, doctors have to go home sometime. And so there is no way around the sedative.
Children of Matushka Larisa and Father Sergius Nezhbort
The little baby girl in an isolation ward in the neighbouring department is also spending all of her time alone. - Autumn days are short, so most of this time is spent in the dark. Even when she cries, hardly anyone can hear her behind the double glazed doors of the ward. Every three hours, a nurse comes to check on her and feed her. She raps the baby tightly, puts her on the couch, pours the infant formula into her mouth as fast as she can and leaves to take care of the other patients. There is almost an unwritten rule among the staff here to pick up the children as little as they can, to keep them from becoming attached and from protesting when they are left alone. Sometimes, volunteers may get scolded at for going against the grain. Admittedly, they have a good reason. Volunteers will come and go after a few hours, leaving the staff to deal with the crying children after they have left. What impact does this have on the children? Nearly all of the infants in institutional care will learn to rock themselves to sleep, by shaking their head, or the whole body. Some will roll over, get up on all fours and continue to rock the bed until they are too tired to continue. A very sad sight indeed. Nearly all the children are behind in their development, and many have abnormalities in their central nervous systems, resulting from in utero exposure to alcohol and drugs, infections, or hypoxia, but more importantly, the lack of a permanent caregiver and the resulting stress which takes up all of their energy, leaving almost nothing for development. Likewise, the staff of the infant orphanages are in no position to approach each child individually. With some fifteen children in their care at any given moment, the caregivers have little choice but line them up and give commands: "Sit down and have your lunch!"; "Toilet time!" In most cases, children are called by their last names, and they will address each other, and sometimes introduce themselves in the same way. When I first met my oldest boy who was three at the time, I asked him as we were walking past a mirror: "Who is it over there?" He did not say his name. He said his surname.
As my knowledge of the issue deepened, I came to appreciate the whole tragedy of these children's situation. I began to think about adoption not from the perspective of my childlessness, but also because I realised how much these children were in need of parental care. Father Andrey responded to this proposition with caution and a certain concern; he told us about the people he knew for whom adoption had not worked, and asked us to make a decision with Father Sergius which we would both agree. As for Father Sergius, he has always said to me: "If you have made up your mind about something, you will push like a tank; it is no use standing in your way. This was exactly what was going to happen this time; however, even if I might have seemed like a tank, the strength of my determination was overstated. I was still shaking and wavering, even as I continued to push against the grain. I had no idea where I was going to end up. The preparation for adoption was filled with apprehension and uncertainty. Throughout the six months of the adoption process, fear, anxiety, and doubt were my predominant emotions. People can vary greatly in their motivations and attitudes to the process. As for me, I felt as if I was standing on the brink of a high cliff and I was about to jump from that cliff straight into the water without knowing what was under it, or if my parachute would open. I often have the same kind of feeling even now, but I realise that the point of no return has been passed. Back then, however, I was facing a difficult choice, and making up my mind was extremely hard. I was afraid of the changes that were going to happen in my life. At 16, my strongest wish was to avoid monotony at any cost, so I would not know what to expect the next day. After twenty years, I have come to value stability and certainty. This applies to my established daily and weekly routines and thinks like the number of rooms in our house and the size of the wardrobes and pots in my kitchen. I was afraid to let into my life someone I had never met before, even though this stranger was a small child. The preparation process and the collection of the papers looked like preparing to marry someone I had never met before. It was like going to a dating service and being told: Go ahead with your application for a marriage licence, book a restaurant and send out the invitations, and we will find you the candidate in time for the wedding ceremony. Uncertainty made me apprehensive. I was thinking a lot about my motives, and whether they were the right ones. Psychologists know very well that the success of an adoption is strongly related to the motivation of the adoptive parent. Unconditional love for the child is believed to be the best motivation. Others, more elevated reasons, such as the desire to do the good thing, to perform an act of charity, or seeking consolation are the least likely to amount to anything good, and often result in great disillusionment in oneself and in the child.
To be continued...
By Larisa Nezhbort
We welcome to the monastic community a new member of our clergy - Priest Sergius Chernyak. Father Sergius recently turned 30. He was born in Minsk. We interviewed Father Sergius about his experience of coming to Christ, and his service of God.