Learning from Artyom’s plight

Update on July 2, 2010: Here is a link to a recent article that gives information on where little Artyom Savelyev has been, and his pending second adoption by a Russian family.

Like many others, I have been captivated, outraged, and saddened by the story of the Tennessee mother who sent Artyom, her 8-year-old adopted son, back to Russia as an unaccompanied minor, with a note in his pocket saying that she “no longer wish[es] to parent him,” basically because he is too screwed up. I feel compelled to write about this saga, and maybe my blog followers are wondering where I stand on this. So here (after the infamous letter from his mom) are my reactions and thoughts so far, and what I hope we can learn from Artyom’s plight:

The first thing I thought of when I learned the news about little Artyom was, “How rejected the poor kid must feel.” As an adopted person myself, I carry with me an undying, lifelong sense of rejection that I trace back to my relinquishment as a baby. The very next thing I thought of was how scared of further rejection other adopted children of all backgrounds must be feeling. Whether from Russia, China, Korea, and other nations abroad or whether adopted from foster care or through private measures with no agency involvement, young adopted children must be wondering, even if they don’t verbalize it, “Will my parent send me away like Artyom? Will they get tired of parenting me, too?” The third thing I wondered was, “What is the other child in the Tennessee family’s home feeling and thinking? Who is checking in with him about his emotional state?”

As an adult adoptee, I continue to live with a pervasive sense of adoption loss that my heart, mind, and soul experience fundamentally as rejection. No matter how many books on adoption that I read, no matter how many adoption conferences I go to, no matter how many therapy sessions I attend, and no matter how many well-intentioned people tell me that my birth mother was selflessly acting out of love by placing me for adoption, there remain no words to convince me that she did not flat out reject me. Here’s why I feel this way: For nine months literally I had been part of my birth mother while I grew in her womb. Then at birth, the  physical separation I experienced following relinquishment was processed in my baby consciousness as rejection, because that’s what it felt like at the time. When I couldn’t find her milk-filled breast to nurse from, when she suddenly and permanently disappeared from my sensory world, I felt rejected, plain and simple. No words can ever alter my newborn sensory and emotional perception of that profound experience, I think, because it was preverbal. The trauma caused by relinquishment is what is known, in some circles, as the primal wound (Verrier, 1993).

Nowadays, my adoption trauma-related issues show up in different, sometimes surprising ways. Sometimes I am aware that my reaction to a certain life situation is all about my adoption issues. Other times, I am completely unaware. I find that the more I pay attention, however, the better able I am at keeping things in perspective and living a relatively balanced, well-adjusted life, even though I experienced the trauma of relinquishment and experienced a profound sense of rejection as an infant. My point is, although adoptees may experience adoption as a “primal wound,” by finding support and education, we can recover from it and find contentment, if not joy, in adulthood.

I am certain that many adopted children, as minor dependents, must be wondering whether they are “good enough” to stay with their new adoptive families. For this reason, I urge adoptive parents to demonstrate and reinforce their emotional commitment to their adopted children. It is so important that parents reinforce their attachment to their adopted children, particularly during the current media circus. Even if children don’t watch a lot of television, they will undoubtedly overhear adults or even other children talking about this story that is everywhere in the news—on radio, on cable, in newspapers, on the covers of magazines. As long as the media is infatuated with Artyom’s plight (and it will no doubt go on for quite some time), adoptees will be confronted with hearing ongoing discussions of adoption and passionate denunciations of the Tennessee mother who “gave back” her son.

Furthermore, I would imagine that even after the media frenzy subsides, the feelings that have been stirred up for adoptees will take much longer to go back into hiding, somewhere deep below the surface of the normally calm and apparently tranquil waters that mostly happy adoptees present to their families and the outside world. Given the current media spectacle, parents should be on the lookout for signs that adoption-related feelings have been stirred.

As adoption experts and child development specialists such as Joyce Maguire Pavao, Maris Blechner, and Holly van Gulden remind us, acting out behaviors can be understood as the child’s language of adoption. Parents can watch for drastic or subtle changes in behavior. Do you see signs that your child is acting out his feelings about relinquishment? Is your child expressing nonverbally her feelings about her birth mother? Is he telling you that he is worried that you might send him back the way Artyom was sent back? The irony is that the more attached she feels to your family, the safer she may feel to act out in challenging, even explosive, ways. (Click on the links above to read more about available supports to help you parent your adoptive child.)

On the other hand, even if your adopted child appears well-adjusted and well-behaved, he could be holding onto his intense insecurities and keeping his fears tightly wrapped on the inside in an attempt to “be good” all the time. Understand that he could actually be scared to death to show you his imperfections, in case you find out how “flawed” or “bad” he really is. Believe me, on some level many adoptees feel deeply flawed, and thus, responsible for their own relinquishment. In their minds, they are asking, Why else why would my birth mommy reject me? And if I was so flawed to be rejected by my first mommy, what guarantee is there that my own adoptive parents won’t ever send me back?

The question for adoptive parents is this: Can you guarantee to your child his or her place in your family? Can  you promise never to give up on your kid? In a culture that says it believes in marriage until “death do us part,” yet in which half of all marriages end in divorce, is it any wonder that kids figure out that even the most somber, religiously sanctioned promises are not really meant to be taken seriously? We live in a society that describes adoptive families as “forever families,” yet adoption disruptions (when a child is sent to live somewhere else, as in a group home, psychiatric hospital, or therapeutic foster home) and adoption dissolutions (when legal ties are formally dissolved and adoptions are annulled) are all too common. Because adoptions often cost thousands of dollars (especially international adoptions, such as Artyom’s from Russia), we act as if adopted children should come with some sort of money-back guarantee. That is a major problem, in my view.

One of my sons was placed in a “forever” adoptive family with a single mother of three boys, where he lived for four years, after spending most of his life in different foster homes. When he was twelve, his frustrated and overwhelmed adoptive mother decided she couldn’t handle his acting out behavior anymore. So she sent him back to the agency, at which point he was placed in a group home, where he probably never would have been adopted had I not already gotten to know him. When he was thirteen, I applied to adopt him, and he moved in with our family. Believe me, life has never been easy for us as a family, but through thick and thin, I have tried to fulfill my promise to be his dad, and the best dad I can be, no matter what.

As I said, family life hasn’t been easy, and continues to present challenges, even though both of my adopted sons are now grown and living on their own. But that’s what adoption is all about, maintaining family ties despite adversity. Indeed, that’s what parenting is all about. Think about it: If your kid turns out to have bipolar disorder, if your kid has leukemia or HIV/AIDS, if your kid “comes out” to you as gay or transgender, that’s still your kid! What part of “parent” don’t people understand?!

Children who have lived in institutions, survivors of the foster care system, and other adoptees who have experienced neglect and rejection on some level, all adoptees deserve and need unconditional love, acceptance, and unwavering commitment from their parents, who hopefully understand and prepare for the challenges that often come with adoptive parenting. Incidentally, this is one of the incredible things that my adoptive parents did for me: they stuck by me, even as I put them through hell during the tumultuous years of my adolescence and young adulthood. (Interesting to note that Mom and Dad, now in their seventies, have managed to stay married for more than fifty years. I love and respect them more and more with each passing year.)

While it is true that kids don’t come with a parenting manual, thankfully there are numerous resources available to teach parents about adoption losses, the lifelong grieving process, attachment issues, and so on. For example, there are adoptive parent groups and conferences to seek out. There are free online blogs by adult adoptees who teach using  stories from their personal experience. There are growing numbers of therapists and counselors trained in adoption-related issues. There are post-adoption services that offer classes, groups, and other programs where families can find short-term or long-term support and education.

Now for the most controversial statement (in this post) so far: If parents find that they don’t live near such services, it is their responsibility to MOVE to an area where such resources exist. Sorry to have to be the one to say this, but you probably should have thought about that before you adopted. But it’s never too late to relocate. Look, if your kid were in a wheelchair, you’d move to a more accessible home, or minimally, you’d build a ramp up to your house, wouldn’t you? You’d make some accommodations. If your kid were diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition, you’d seek the best medical attention you could. You might move closer to the facility that provided the assistance your child needed. So if your kid shows signs of attachment disorder and other behavioral issues, doesn’t it make sense to get help now? Instead of throwing the child away?

Parents should accept that most adopted kids have special needs, just because they were adopted. This is not to say that all adoptees are emotionally unstable or have problems with adjustment. But we know enough about adoption and its lifelong effects on many, many individuals (not to mention families) that to willfully ignore the potential impact of adoption is simply foolish. This is why I tell parents to MAKE A SUPPORT PLAN. It is smart to prepare for the worst yet still hope for the best.

The bottom line is, adoption should be forever—unless parents become abusive. And even then, the parent-child bond can be nurtured and honored in creative ways as the family gets support, goes through recovery, and as broken attachments begin to heal. If a child must be removed temporarily (say, for legitimate safety concerns), the ties between parents, the adopted child, and other siblings can still be maintained. The important thing is to preserve the adopted child’s sense of attachment and belonging. In other words, as parents, we need to do what we can to make sure our children do NOT feel rejected again–this time, by us, their so-called “forever family”.

After all, our kids never asked to be adopted. It was our own desire, our need to parent, that brought them into our families. We made the adoption happen, they didn’t. They are not to be blamed for their shortcomings, or for the disappointments we might feel as parents. It wasn’t our kids’ fault that they experienced relinquishment, or that they were traumatized by that fundamental dislocation from their birth mothers that resulted in a primal wound.

As my friend, colleague (and wise adoptive parent) Beth Hall of Pact frequently reminds me, our kids are on their own journeys, whether they were born to us or came to us through adoption. Our children will act in ways that surprise and delight us. Sometimes they will scare us or alarm us. They will make decisions that cause us to worry. They will make choices of which we disapprove. Because of the early trauma many adopted kids have suffered, they may take longer to develop and mature and leave the family nest. Our children are following their own developmental timetables and listening to their own inner voices, finding their own guides through the challenging life circumstances they have inherited.

But regardless of how they end up living their lives, they are still our kids. And we are still their parents. As grown-ups, it’s up to us parents to learn how to manage our feelings so that we can model appropriate responses to life’s ongoing challenges. Bottom line is, our kids need us—at all ages and stages—for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Until death do us part. That’s what adoption means, that should be what parenting is all about.

I hope and pray that little Artyom will find the healing and happiness he rightly deserves. May his widely publicized plight serve as a lesson to all of us about the misguided practice of exchanging huge amounts of money for children in the international marketplace of adoption, a practice that all too often results in a consumer-like mentality among adoptive parents–and those disreputable agencies that exploit their desires to become parents.

May Artyom’s experience remind us, too, to focus more on the needs of adopted and waiting children, and not so much on the desires of adoptive parents or the business interests of adoption agencies and self-appointed adoption “facilitators.”

May we as adoptive parents recommit ourselves to meeting the needs of our children, by demonstrating our awareness of adoption issues and by helping kids to communicate their feelings and thoughts at different ages and stages of development. Finally, may we learn to pay more attention to the words and experience of all adoptees, big and small, who can help us to become more conscientious allies in the struggle to reform adoption. I think that is the only way in which the promise of adoption can ultimately be fulfilled.

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