Father Sergius, Artyom, Matvey and Matuska Larisa Nezhbort
It still seems that it was only days ago that I was hearing cries of astonishment from my friends and acquaintances when they first met me at church with our new girl: "You had such a hard time with the boys. We cannot believe you went for a third adopted child". "We knew it would not be any harder than we had it with the boys," I replied, jokingly.
On a more serious note, however, the true reasons for our courage were somewhat different. The boys have grown, and my childcare leave is now long over; it took some searching around to find a daycare provider for our children; they go to a group for children from Christian orthodox families, and have been met with great patience and love. I have returned to work at the icon-painting workshop. At some point, my husband and I felt that we had the capability and time to help another child, benefiting from our experience with the boys, and our remaining contacts with the professionals who might help.
Also, as we were exploring the options for trading in our small flat to get a larger one, we looked at all the choices available around the Convent, including the older properties in need of repair; my parents had promised to help, but they did not like any of the variants on offer, and finally withdrew. I lost hope of finding anything, and it was hard. One might say, 'more the merrier' - why not wait with the move a little longer? The family of our friends lives in the same apartment block have four children in a one-bedroom flat. They did not move until they had a fifth child. But children are different. I used to go outside with the boys in any season and weather for many hours, and I did so several times in a day. When such long walks were no longer needed, I asked one mother in the playground how long she was spending outside with her two boys. "Six hours. But I would not be doing this if I were comfortable at home." How well I understand her! When the boys were still too young to go to daycare, we would go out even in the pouring rain and just go somewhere. We would go on bus rides or use the metro as a form of entertainment. Why not some park or a shopping centre? Only parents of adopted children in a period of adjustment would know the answer as well as I do.
One day, I decided to take a look at a pricey flat in a new apartment block opposite our own. I just loved it, especially when I saw its fourteen-metre kitchen, and I prayed: "Lord, if this flat ever becomes ours, we will take into our family at least one more child. Eventually, the miracle happened. On the day of the Protection of the Mother of God (which coincides with Mother's Day according to the secular calendar), we became the happy owners of that flat. It was our turn now to act on our promise.
The Convent keeps the relics of the Holy Righteous Joachim and Anne, parents of the Virgin Mary. It was decided to commission an icon for the Church of Saint Elisabeth Romanov. They commissioned the icon from me, as I had already painted most of the icons at that church. Saints Joachim and Anna are the intercessors in heaven for childless families; people pray to them to have a child, so I wanted to show in my icon their great joy at having their baby girl, the Virgin Mary. So I chose to work from the image "Caressing of the Holy Virgin Mary". We had just started to put our documents together for our next adoption, and I was praying to the saints so they could send us along with a girl according to our ability.
When we were adopting the boys, our most difficult period was the months preceding their arrival, when we were making our choice and taking the final decision to accept these children into our family for the rest of our lives. It was a time of great uncertainty and the fear of the unknown was tormenting me so much that I had to go on sedatives for a while. One comparison that came to my mind at that stage were the minutes before taking the dip in icy water on Christmas tide. I had been taking that plunge each year for several years in a row, and one thing I noticed about myself was that my most frightful moments were just before taking the plunge; as I was barely feeling anything during it, and the moments afterwards were filled with pure joy and elation at having done it; there is also a substantial difference in the temperature outside and in the water, so so hormones may also have kicked in, but the most comforting thing is the power of God's grace that stays with you throughout, as I was doing it for the sake of our Lord, to get his help in my fight against sin! So after several years, I developed the following tactic to make the plunge easier for myself - not thinking about it at all up until the last moment - just not letting any thought of it enter my mind at all. I lure myself into thinking that I was taking my swimsuit and towel just to have them and that I was only going to look at the others bathing, but not to bathe myself.
Likewise, in preparation for the new adoption I was telling myself that we were just putting together the documentation, no strings attached. I was telling myself that was not going to make the next move until I finished the icon (which normally take several months to paint, as I work very slowly) and that I would not go ahead with the choice of the child until that time.
To speak of 'choosing' a child is very problematic from an ethical perspective - children are not commodities to be 'selected’. To some extent, however, I was still choosing. I was measuring up to the challenge ahead of me and looking for a child according to my capabilities. I understood that I could not count on my husband too much, because he was always at work, and our grandparents are living in other cities, so their ability to lend us a hand were also quite limited. Our boys were still a handful, and the older one was about to go to primary school, which was going to be quite a change. As a mother, I was still having a lot on my plate, and at times I felt that my patience as being tested to the limit. Overall, the risks seemed quite high and numerous. Yet at the same time, the desire to have another child was still there, and it was as strong as ever in me and also in my husband, Father Sergius.
Having been to many remedial education sessions, and watched the professionals work with some very difficult children, I learned to appreciate their ability to make an intuitive judgement about the problems and needs of the children in their care before even talking to their parents. I wanted to find a girl without a serious neurological condition. I realised that most of the children who end up in an orphanage would have problems running in multiple generations. Many of my self-appointed sympathisers had forewarned me about it. True, an orphanage is a very unlikely place for the children of professors and ballet-dancers who lose their parents in a road accident. Girls are even harder to come by - people are generally more willing to adopt girls, so very few are put on the adoption list.
I had several considerations that were most important to me. First, I was not considering adopting from a foster home or a family-type orphanage, as I know many people from the system, and I am confident that they treat these children like their own; I still do not know what these children are doing on the adoption list while many children are still living outside the family setting. Formally, the work of the foster parents or carer at a family-type orphanage is considered a regular job. However, I do not see how this could be seen as just another job, as people are with the children day in and day out, they work with full dedication, with little help and very stringent control from the child protection authorities. Again, this is just my opinion, and I may not have the whole picture.
Matushka Larisa with Artyom and Matvey
As far as the neurological conditions were concerned, there were a few things that I learned intuitively from my exchanges with the other adoptive parents which I thought might be useful for us later on. Many professionals have told me that it was not possible to make any projections for an infant (our preference was for a child below age one) with concerning their personality and development, and most conditions of relevance to us could not be diagnosed at all before age 1, and many before age 3. Initially, I hoped to find an infant who had not yet been placed in the orphanage system, and who were still in the hospital or an infirmary. These hopes did not amount to very much. Nor did I have any desire whatsoever to put me on a waiting list for the adoption of a small child. I did not want to wait indefinitely, especially as the documents that we had collected were only valid until a certain date.
I opted to use the regular procedure to look for a child by accessing the list on the adoption data bank, but I extended my search by including in it children who were not available for adoption. The database has many children whose biological parents are not fit to care for them, but who may not be adopted, and are only available for guardianship or foster care. These arrangements are different from adoption in that the child will keep their surname, the parent-child relationship with his guardians survive until the child has reached the age of majority, whereupon the law treats them as completely unrelated; there is no legal requirement to keep the fact of the child's adoption in secret, and the biological parents and blood relatives of the child have the right to know the child's whereabouts and to keep in touch with her. None of the above stopped me, although most potential adoptive families will find this problematic. At that time, however, there were a lot of girls below age listed on the database as available for guardianship.
How come? In the majority of cases, the mothers of the children have been diagnosed with a medical condition which prevented them (or was believed to prevent them) from exercising their parental responsibilities. However, they could not, under the law, be stripped of their parental rights, which ruled out the legal possibility of adoption. One example of such a situation is when the mother is doing a jail term. Details about a child could only be released with permission from the local child protection authorities, so I wrote out the names of the girls I was interested (who had been placed in the care of the infant orphanage in Vitebsk), and travelled to Vitebsk to see the responsible officers from the city government. I had with me two different sets of documents - for adoption and for guardianship, as I was still not sure which we were going to settle for. As I was approaching the city government I saw a priest coming towards me, and I went up to him to ask for his blessing. He understood that I was not local and asked me caringly why I was there. I told him that we were looking for a child to adopt. The priest praised us for our decision and gave me the blessing.
Was this unusual? As I later heard from several Orthodox faithful, they had encountered from their priests' strong disapproval of their intention to adopt. This kind of reaction does not come from anywhere, and most likely is based on the sad experiences of some adoptive parents that they had confided in their confessors. Adoption, just like monasticism, is probably one of those decisions that should be made only one cannot imagine living without them. However, the doubts and fear that precedes it are also natural and are not necessarily indications against it.
We once had a conversation with my husband, father Sergius whether our decision to adopt was indeed God's will and not a mistake. It partly reflected the fact that our spiritual father also did not welcome my idea to adopt with strong enthusiasm. Knowing how intent I was on this idea, all he said was “Do as your husband tells you”. During that discussion, there was some confusion over the apparent lack of any visible positive change from the adoption in the children and in myself. My husband told me then that God's will was not some constant or static thing. Instead, it was very dynamic, just like a road navigator would rebuild the recommended route of you made the wrong turn, so would the Lord design a different, if a longer or more difficult route towards your own salvation.
When doubts about the wisdom of my choice tormented me further down the line, I always remembered that meeting with the priest; the blessing that he gave me the heart to persevere.
At the city government, I was given a less than friendly reception. They told me that adoption was not a shopping tour, and that they would let me meet just two children and only the ones that they would select. Long before my visit, I was browsing the adoption database, showing the children's photos to my friends. I was asking them how I could choose among them. One of my friends pointed at the smiling one-year-old girl photographed in front of the icon of the Mother of God. They let me see exactly that girl, and also an older one. So I went to the orphanage to meet the children. As soon as I entered the door, and breathed the air inside I was almost paralysed with horror and panic; I felt as if I had a lump up my throat. - But my past experience with my obediences in the hospital and nursing homes for children and adults gave me the strength to withstand the shock. I felt so horrified from the realisation that I had not come there for a short visit, to keep someone company for a few hours. I was going to leave with someone in my arms - someone I will meet for the first time, and spend the rest of my life with.
Fortunately, the staff met me warmly and did their best to help me. I do not know how this visit would have ended, if not for their attitude. Unlike them, the director of the institution told me upfront as soon as she saw the authorisations to meet the children that she would not let me have any of the girls. She added that I was not the first person coming to meet them, and all of the candidates before me had left in tears. I did not expect this kind of treatment. The director of the institution in Borisov was a lot more friendly to me when I was adopting my two boys there. However, by some sort of miracle, I was not confused by this treatment and remained calm and confident throughout, and there was not a shade of disappointment, anger or frustration in my response. Later, I read the following remark in a forum for adoptive families: If the child protective authorities give you the cold shoulder, take it as a test of your seriousness and wisdom. If you can remain civil, polite, friendly, persevering and confident throughout the encounter, you can be sure that things will work out well for you. This advice turned out to be prophetic in the end.
They read out the social background file of these children, and I learned about their family tree and found out why they had been placed in an institution. A neurologist showed me the medical records of the girls and tried to convince me in the strongest of terms that their future was dark and nothing good would come out of them. He also spoke about their extended family. Some of the mildest definitions that he used in the process were "stinky" and "anti-social. Somehow, I felt as if I was in the middle of a Kafka-esque spectacle. I felt as if it had been put up in order to intimidate me and make me leave. One of my friends who had also come to meet the child whom she later adopted told me that when she asked the orphanage director about the child's family she handed her the bus timetable for Minsk, saying: "I think you need this, young lady."
Orphans are certainly not the easiest children to care for, and it would not be entirely wise to ignore the warnings and advice of professionals. Back then, however, I wished that the tone of the encounter had been more constructive in the best interest of the child. I gave more credence to the observations of the social workers and nurses who saw the baby girl every day.
Almost immediately, they let me see briefly the two girls in the middle of a corridor in front of many pairs of eyes. I did not know what to do. I do care for every child. My first impulse was to take both of them, but this was totally unrealistic in our situation. The younger girl appealed to me more, I felt that she would be easier for me. On my way back, I thought a lot. Next morning, a social worker called me to let me know that another candidate called bout the little girl we met, and she also had the complete set of documents. She was upset about being just a day late. The social worker asked us to make our minds as soon as possible. That made me even more confused. It was not of critical importance to me which girl to take with me; I was prepared to let the other woman have her. On the other hand, I thought: what is that woman, too, would be upset by the way the director treated her; she might leave the institution in tears without the little girl, and the girl would stay in that orphanage. I called an experienced adoptive mother I knew and asked her for advice. She said: "All adoptions are made in heaven". She advised me not to hesitate and not to panic and go forward with our plan of action, and leave it to the Lord to provide for what is best for the little girls, the other candidate and ourselves.
Matushka Larisa and her little girl
To make our final decision, we travelled to the orphanage together with my husband. At first, he was concerned that the girls were not available for adoption, and that her blood relatives would know their whereabouts. He already had nightmares of the girls' 'anti-social' relatives banging on our doors to ave them back. He would have preferred to wait for a little girl who was available for adoption. But then they showed us the little baby girl, she gave us a lovely smile, and all of our doubts and misgivings went away at once. I said: "Why are we waiting?". We made up our minds.
By Larisa Nezhbort
In our interview with Fr. Sergius and Matushka Anna we focused on their roles as parents in a large family and asked them questions about different aspects of their lives.