Matuska Larisa, Matvey, Artyom and Father Sergius Nezhbort
It was not after two months from our first meeting that we finally went to court to file for adoption. It took us that long to make up our minds. Normally, the adoption hearing takes place within three weeks. I used this time to stock up on clothing and toys for the children; we rearranged the furniture in our flat to make room for the beds. But even as we were making the preparations, I was seized by another bout of despair at the imminent change. I continued to visit the children often throughout the weeks. I took them for walks, and they were not listening to me at all. This only made me still more apprehensive: how on earth was I going to manage? I was seriously thinking about withdrawing the adoption papers from the court before it would become too late. At that stage, Father Andrey intervened; he found the right words to reassure me and inspire in me the hope that it would be fine in the end.
I also remember myself standing at a confession, and sharing all my doubts and fears, tearfully. I take out some piece of cloth to rub my eyes and nose. When I stepped away, I saw it was my older boy's mitten that I forgot to give back to him when we last met. The mitten had a green spot which I thought was a flower, but on closer look, it was a number; each glove in the pair was numbered. And so were all the other pieces of their clothing! This made me want to cry even more.
The original date of the adoption hearing was set for 3 June, but then it was postponed until 7 June because the court had not received the papers. Previously, I had been picking on everyone concerned so they would deliver the papers on time; I even offered to do it myself, but the bureaucrats got the upper hand. Just two days before the new hearing date the younger boy suddenly had an accident at the infant orphanage and broke his led. The director called me and asked me to go to the hospital and stay there with the boy. I came immediately after the hearing. I could not imagine that it would all begin like this.
Matvey in the hospital
Here I was, in a hospital ward in a strange city; four of the occupants were elderly ladies with broken hips, and the fifth was my boy. He was lying on his bed and rolling back and forth, with a toy in his hands. A nurse from the infant orphanage was sitting by his side and reading a book. At first, everyone took me for a new nurse. Later, when they asked me about my relationship with the child I did not have the courage to call myself his mother. I just said nothing pretending that I had not heard the question. At the hospital, we shared a single bed, and each night he was rocking so hard that the bed was shaking. Getting some sleep was completely impossible. During the day, I was doing my best to keep him busy and distracted. I set a goal for us - to stop the rocking. I knew that he was doing it out of fear, pain, or boredom.
To view the orphaned children just as poor defenceless things waiting to be hugged is a dangerous delusion. They are used to living by themselves. It took my boy at least seven months to feel comfortable falling asleep on my shoulder. But when we were in hospital together, any attempt to hug him, or pat him on his head made him bristle; he pushed my hand away with a lot of anger, which saddened me a lot. Another thing that was putting me off was his way of crying. In fact, he was not crying, he was screaming, terribly, and for no apparent reason. He was yelling at me, but not anybody else. He was very good with the nurses, and always did what he was asked, but responded to all of my actions - like giving him something to eat or drink or helping him change position - with a loud scream. To me, it sounded like the growling of a hungry dog trying to scare another dog away from his bowl (please forgive me for this graphic description). I was so petrified by this endless screaming, and so annoyed by it that I was too afraid to go near the open windows with my boy in my arms. The ward was on the seventh floor, it was hot, and the windows were always open. I feared that I would not be able to resist the desire to throw this loud and yelling thing out the window. I was not feeling any love for him, and he did not seem to have much love for me. I was so horrified that I was seriously considering absconding from the hospital.
I had several days before the court decision would come into force, and I seriously thought about using these days to reverse the adoption at the last moment. It was only the support of my loved ones that kept me from acting on these thoughts. Father Sergius, who had been saying to me: "If this is what you want, I will let you do it", suddenly changed his tone and told me that it would not be fair to return the children at this stage. I know this may sound surrealistic, but one should really be in this situation to understand what we were feeling. Some might say that this situation was nothing unusual. All little children cry sometimes, all will not listen. Still, I can barely find the right words to name the whole range of emotions that we were having as inexperienced parents of a traumatised child. After a short while, I got a call from my psychologist from the National Adoption Centre. She asked me how we were doing, and before I could say anything she told me: For now, the most important thing is to reserve judgement and not to draw any conclusions. It is all going to pass, just do not let yourself do anything to yourself or to any of the children. I realised that I was not the only adoptive parent who was afraid of being around an open window while holding their child.
One thing that was not clear to me then is why we needed just another crisis on top of all the difficulties that we were already having. It was not until much later that I realised that we both needed to go through this crisis together to form an attachment; I was with him at his most difficult moment, I was holding him as he was ill and helpless. We bonded. We survived the crisis with the younger boy while he was still in the hospital, but we still had to go through the same with the older one. I cannot imagine what it may have been like to have this experience with the two of them at the same time! I am not sure if I would have survived.
The arrival of a child starts a period of adjustment for every member of the family. Its duration and difficulty will depend on the child's age, how badly it has been traumatised, and the personalities of the adoptive parents and their preparation. For a cute little baby, the adjustment process may not even be noticed, with older children who have suffered long periods of trauma and disruption, there are going to be quite a few difficult moments for everyone. I have been told that the adjustment period may last anywhere from six to twelve months, but may take years, depending on the time spent by the child in an institution. Our children had lived in an infant orphanage for two years, the younger one had been there from birth, and the older one from age 1. Even after nine months in our family, the adjustment period was far from complete.
An adopted child will rarely express deep joy at his coming to the family; rather, he will view it as a big change that brings fear and uncertainty, and all of the shocking temper tantrums that he is likely to throw in front of everyone else will be a reflection of this fear. This is exactly what happened in our family. To the child, throwing tantrums may also be a tool in the fight for supremacy within the family. In our family, we have the feeling that this fight is far from over. The bulk of the responsibility, of course, lies with the parents, their inability to reach out to the child, their inexperience, poor intuition and self-confidence, and low expectations. In other words, being the opposite of what the child would like to see the most of in an adult. But parents are also under deep stress and shock. I was so stressed that I lost ten kilograms - and I was slim, to begin with, I wore size 44. When I stepped on the scale and saw my body weight, my first thought was that the scale was broken, and I needed to buy a new one. When the older boy threw a loud tantrum over some small thing, all of my five neighbours would open their doors and exclaim in horror: "Is anyone getting killed in there?" I had the feeling that my child did not know how to cry, and the only way he could express himself is by screeching, screaming and yelling. As he was sitting at the table, rocking from side to side and mumbling: "Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba"
I was thinking to myself, in horror: "Is he sane? If not, why had not they warned me?!" When I took him outside, he would grab a stick and hit all the cars with it that he could reach. If I asked him to do something, he would always do exactly the opposite of what I had asked. I was thankful that my younger boy was still in plaster. He was sitting and was not moving around very much, so I could concentrate on chasing my older one. To my shame, when my children tested my patience, I often lost my temper and responded in kind. I still have not learned to maintain enough self-control not to fly off the handle when they do that. They are growing and becoming better behaved. I do hope that I can change my ways, too.
After the crisis at the hospital, my younger boy always smiled when he woke up in the morning and saw me by his side. For the first few months after our return, he could cling to me and not let me leave him for a minute. He did not let anyone else hold him, even his dad. Afterwards, when I began to go out for short periods of time, he would greet me at the door crying out as loud as he could: "Mama's back!" It was as if he was afraid that I would never return. I was touched, of course. What would I use for a nickname for Matvey? I wanted to call him by some name that would sound nice and affectionate. It did not take me very long to think of one. Motya, Motenka! My husband said to me once: "I always found it difficult to understand why many people will soften up at the sight of an infant. Now I can understand them very well. Our Motya is so cute! I wonder why you did not notice that in a hospital!” It is all very good for him to be saying this now.
With the older boy, the adjustment process was even more difficult. It took him five months to begin to smile back at me in the morning. Until them, he always woke up with a grimace and began to whine and look for a reason to make a scene. I would greet him joyfully in the morning: "Good morning!" He would say nothing - just make a wry face, turn away and sulk. I repeat, this time with some less enthusiasm: "Good morning!" Same reaction. Barely able to hide my annoyance, I repeat the greeting again. Nothing works. I then try a different approach. "Would you like to have your porridge?" Say "Good morning!" - "Morning", he mumbles, barely intelligibly. - Our new day begins.
Of course, the great attention and even dependence of an adult on the expression of emotion by a child is evidence of immaturity and ignorance. It is not right for an adult to concentrate on one's own pain, and not the pain and trauma of the child, expressed in a strange, shocking and unexpected form.
Father Sergius, Matushka Larisa and their sons
As I was preparing for the adoption, I watched a series of video presentations by Timur Kizyakov, an adoptive parent. He spoke very eloquently about the need for the adoptive parents to give the child all the love and attention that they can without expecting anything in return. This made a lot of sense in theory, but I was not well prepared to follow this advice in practice. I have developed the habit of playing the game of give and take. You smile, and I will smile back at you; you listen to me, and I will show you that I am pleased; if you choose to reject me, I will give up on you; if you bite me, I will bite back. I am so sad and ashamed of myself to be guided by this sort of logic. And also for trying to find excuses to justify myself.
When people were calling me to congratulate me on the coming of the boys, my only desire was to go back to the good old days. I wanted condolences, not congratulations.
But after three days Father Sergius was ordained, and the ordination was not in Minsk but in the city where we took the boys from the orphanage. In the secular calendar, his ordination coincided with the international fathers' day. Another funny coincidence. After eleven years of talking about ordination with Father Andrey, and after a whole year of preparation for adoption, the ordination was decided in less than a week. How unusual! Perhaps this was the kind of sign and feedback from the Lord that I had been expecting? My husband at least sees these events as links of the same chain. Where is this leading us? Could it really be that someone else is leading us where we did not want to go, as written in the Book of John?
To be continued
By Larisa Nezhbort
In the context of the debate on Christianity and modernity, the spiritual father of Saint Elisabeth Convent Archpriest Andrey Lemeshonok shares his views on the challenges of becoming and remaining a Christian in today's world.
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.