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Friday, April 30, 2010

Mothers and Daughters

I've read about women who said that their mothers were their best friends. That started me thinking about my relationship with my mother, who died in November 2006, and with my daughter. My mother and I were never close, both geographically and emotionally. For whatever reason, I never felt the closeness that many women have with their moms. I have a friend who has a very close relationship with her mother, and they are more like friends than mother and daughter. When my friend and her husband moved out of state, her mother moved, too, to a city nearby.

I never gave the mother/daughter relationship a great deal of thought until my mother died rather suddenly. Then I realized that there were some things I wish I had told her. Now that I am the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, I have found myself hoping to have a much closer relationship with her than I had with my mother. I am trying to do things that might help us develop a close relationship. She has told me that I am not just her mother, but also her best friend. That's a pretty special statement from a 16-year-old these days.

Hearing her say these things is rather amazing. I adopted my daughter from Russia when she was 11 years old. She never had much of a relationship with her birth mother, and what she had was not a positive experience for her. She has said that she didn't deserve a loving mother. It took a lot of time and hard work for her to be able to accept that I love her and will always be there for her, and it took a similar amount of work for her to be able to admit that she loves me, too. Opening herself up to love also meant exposing herself to potential hurt. Despite the fact that coming from a traumatic background has made attaching to and trusting me very difficult, we do have a good relationship, one that is improving and growing stronger all the time. I know how important our relationship is to her.

I want my daughter to be able to tell me or ask me anything. Learning to trust when all the adults in your life have betrayed your trust and abandoned you takes a huge amount of effort and a big leap of faith. She also is very worried that she will hurt my feelings if she tells me something I may not want to hear. I have told her that I would rather deal with what she needs to tell me than to know that she is being less than truthful with me.

My daughter is her own person; she is creative and artistic and outgoing, all things I am not. She learns best through hands-on experience, I through listening and note-taking. We share a love of animals, photography and reading. And we enjoy spending time together, even when it involves hard work such as cleaning the garage.

My dream for her is simple: that she become the best person she can become, whether she is a teacher, an artist, fashion designer or mechanic. I want her to find a career that she enjoys and that will provide her a comfortable life style. I have a master's degree in education, but she may well not go to college. If not, she understands that she will need to attend art school or a vocational program of some kind. My dreams are not her dreams.

I just want her to be happy. And being happy, for someone with her background, cannot be taken for granted. It isn't a natural feeling. But she no longer feels doomed to a short, unhappy life. She knows she deserves a good life and happiness. She knows that she deserves love, and a mother who will always be there for her. I hope she understands that as humans, we all make mistakes, and we all hurt others at some point in our lives. But that doesn't mean the relationship is doomed.

As I have told her repeatedly, and I believe she now accepts this, she and I are a team. We will face life's challenges together, as mother and daughter, and as friends.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Russia: Do the Right Thing for the Children

As the mother of a child from Russia, I, like so many others, was appalled to hear of the Tennessee woman who put her adopted 7-year-old son on a plane by himself and returned him to Russia. She and her mother claim that the boy had a 'hit list' of people he wanted to kill, was violent and was caught trying to set the house on fire. The boy, Artem, was adopted last September, a mere 7 months ago.

Now the Russian government, understandably outraged by this betrayal of a child, is threatening to suspend all adoptions by Americans. While I understand the government's anger, I cannot understand how government officials can believe that denying hundreds or thousands of children in Russian orphanages a chance at a better life in America is going to help anything or anyone.

The outrageous actions of one woman do NOT represent me or the thousands of Americans who have adopted from Russia and who are providing loving homes to their children. I know from personal experience and from talking with other adoptive parents how much they sacrifice to care for their sons and daughters, and how hard they work to address their problems in a loving, supportive way.

Adopted children, whether from Russia, the U.S. or any other country, often suffer from emotional problems. Children who have been institutionalized are prone to attachment problems, which affect their ability to bond with their parents, give and accept love, and trust others. Many of these children also suffer from trauma and abuse (physical, emotional or sexual), resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have been malnourished while in the orphanage or received inadequate medical care. And significantly, many languish in orphanages without the all-important sense of love, without a caring touch, without the nurturing that children need in order to thrive.

I believe that most adoption agencies do not adequately forewarn or prepare adoptive families to recognize and deal with the most common emotional problems they are likely to face. But families do NOT just give up on their children and 'return to sender' those kids who have difficulties. Treatment may not be easy to find, and it is definitely expensive, but there is help for the children and for the families struggling with difficult children. When my daughter had behavioral problems, I got help for her. I am fortunate to live in a part of the country where therapists knowledgeable about attachment disorders and PTSD in children are available. Most therapists do not know how to treat children with these issues, as I learned from personal experience. But help is out there. Support also is available for parents struggling to raise difficult children. It is not clear whether the woman in Tennessee sought professional help for Artem. It also remains unknown whether she reached out for support to other adoptive parents, or to any of the family support organizations in the U.S.

Regardless of this woman’s actions -- and I agree that she did not handle the situation properly -- the fundamental question is, How does suspending adoptions protect children in orphanages? Suspending adoptions because of the thoughtlessness of one person is counterintuitive; prolonging a child's stay in an orphanage is not going to 'make things better.' On the contrary, the longer a child is institutionalized, the greater the risk of emotional problems. This is not to say that the orphanage staff don't care about these children. I believe they do. But they are poorly paid, and funds for caring for the children are limited. There also is a different cultural view of orphans in Russia and Ukraine (and probably in other countries as well) than in the U.S. Because caregivers often are not aware of the thinking in developmental psychology and how to help minimize the impacts of institutionalization, the children often languish, lacking sufficient human interaction, mental stimulation and a sense of being loved.

Although the number of Russian children adopted by Americans has dropped off in recent years, nearly 1,600 Russian children were adopted and brought to the U.S. last year. Adopting from Russia is a lengthy, expensive, paperwork-filled and laborious endeavor. Those who make their way through the maze of American and Russian legal requirements do so because they sincerely want to bring a needy child into their families. The National Council for Adoption, a U.S. adoption advocacy group, estimates that more than 60,000 Russian orphans have been successfully adopted by American families.

Sadly, a handful of Russian kids has died or been abused at the hands of their adoptive American parents. But never have I seen how this number compares with the number of Russian kids who die at the hands of their Russian parents, or on the streets, each year. It seems the Russian government doesn’t talk about that.

I join with other adoptive families and call on the Russian government to set aside its anger and national pride and allow adoptions to Americans to continue. Review the process and requirements if need be. But think about the more than half a million Russian children still living in orphanages. Who is really going to be hurt by the proposed suspension of American adoptions? Certainly the prospective families will be hurt, but once again, the real victims will be the children.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Time for Spring-Cleaning My Life

It's spring (or so the calendar says), a time of renewal, new life ... and spring cleaning. But new life doesn't mean just the outward manifestation of renewal seen in the blooming flowers and budding trees. Spring can be a time of new life inside, too. This year, I am spring cleaning my life as well as my home.

I usually don't do anything special for spring cleaning, and for the past few months, I've been involved in an on-going effort to declutter both my house and my life. It isn't spring cleaning in the traditional sense, but an upcoming move provides the perfect opportunity to get rid of things. A move is also a great time to get rid of people and situations that hold us back or bring us down. In better economic times, I would include jobs that don't work for us in that category, too, but most people these days feel fortunate just to have a job, whether they enjoy it or not.

In addition to bags of clothes, CDs, books and household items, this move will allow me to 'get rid of' a life that doesn't suit who I am. I appreciate quiet and the sounds of nature. All I hear in my current life is sirens, airplanes, traffic and neighborhood noise. I also want to be able to spend more time with my teenage daughter and be more involved in her life, something I can't do while working 40 hours a week, so my full-time job has to go.

My 'spring cleaning' includes retirement and a move to New Mexico, efforts to get rid of a lifestyle that doesn't suit me. I love, in fact, I need, lots of natural light in order to feel my best. My house in Rio Rancho is full of windows that let in the beautiful New Mexico light. The windows in the great room, master bedroom, dining room and office look out on the Sandia Mountains. In California, my living room window looks across the street at my cranky neighbors' house. My house is dark even on sunny days. In New Mexico, I can enjoy my 1/2-acre lot, which at the moment backs against another, as-yet-undeveloped, 1/2-acre lot. There are no neighbors on either side. In California, my city lot is filled with fruit trees, which are wonderful, but on every side of the yard are neighbors, barking dogs and screeching parrots. On one side, my neighbor's driveway sits just feet from my bedroom window.

A few years ago, I also 'got rid of' a friendship that had endured since high school. My friend was always so negative, so convinced that the world and everybody she dealt with were out to 'get' her. I used to dread getting e-mails from her, because I knew that they would be long rants about some perceived 'plot' by someone to 'get' her, or about how her boyfriend emotionally abused or betrayed her, or how her house was full of mold caused by a neighbor's leaking pipes and no one would do anything about it. She did seem to have more than her share of misfortune, and I did my best to be supportive. I was saddened when our friendship ended, but I was relieved at the same time.

We all need to rant at times, but too much negativity, whether generated by us or by others, brings us down. Who wants to live like that? 'Getting rid of' a relationship may sound harsh and uncaring, but sometimes doing just that is the best thing. Although I haven't had to do any 'spring cleaning' with other relationships, I do try to limit my exposure to people who are chronically negative. I was behind a man at the hardware store recently, who complained to the cashier about everything: why weren't there 'pull tags' for some large items he wanted, why didn't the store have enough of the plants he wanted to buy, why wasn't he charged the advertised sale price? Everything that came out of that man's mouth was negative. I was so relieved when another cashier opened a new line; I couldn't wait to get away from that man! If anyone needed a spring cleaning, he did.

I get a certain pleasure from decluttering my house. Seeing once-crowded cabinets, sheds or closets become organized is a great feeling. Removing excess furniture opens up not only the room, but my spirit as well. My unwanted items go to charity or to others who can use them, which also makes me feel good. In the same way, a freshly painted wall or a sparkling clean kitchen give rise to a feeling of not just accomplishment when the job is done, but of freshness and newness.

Spring cleaning, whether of a residence or a life, can renew us and help us set off on a new path. Look around. Do you need to do spring cleaning of your place of residence? More importantly, do you need to 'spring clean' your mind? Spring is the perfect time to open the windows of our minds, let the light and fresh air in, and discard whatever things, commitments, relationships or habits are holding us back.