Russian care of abandoned children prior to the twentieth century

Mothers of Misery: Child Abandonment in Russia
David L. Ransel, professor of History at Indiana,1988
Ransel looks at the establishment of foundling homes or hospitals in Russia to answer the concerns of the government for the fatalistic and devalued view of people toward infants.
For 150 years, ending with the beginning of the 20th century, a system of foundling homes shifting to fostering and back was intended by the Tsarist rule to deal humanely with unwanted children. And comply with the Church’s pressure to protect the sanctity of the family with the growing problems of
infanticide uncomfortably practiced in the face of economic pressure as belated birth control (p.11). Infant mortality due to a delay in the progressive thinking gaining ground in Western European countries, abandonment for reasons of shame, poverty and job pressures were also reasons to discard a child. As
the homes developed, conditions in the homes, unintended economic motivations, and opportunity for the homes to serve as social laboratories for educating artisans and craftspeople were further if
unexpected reasons to continue the problem of devaluing the life of a child. Mortality rates in foundling homes were upwards of 80% of children taken into care by the age of 22(47-48,257). Ransel’s
observation on page 103 is that people actually saw the homes as a means to rid society of unwanted children.
Thomas Malthus, the Pessimist, while visiting in 1789, provided his take at a positive spin on the mortality rate of the foundling homes, “If a person wished to check population, and were not solicitous about the means, he could not propose a more effectual measure than the establishment of a sufficient number of
foundling hospitals, unlimited in their reception of children.”
(page # lost)
The period followed a trajectory of high infant mortality becoming an uncomfortable state of affairs, leading a paternalistic government to demand programs which initially show some success but ultimately return to high rates of mortality, which loops back to forcing the government back to instituting reforms or a new program all through the 150 years, if for no other reason than to look good on the European stage.
With a delay in progressive thinking, a paternalistic approach to care, the lack of value placed on the life of an infant beginning to wane at the end of these 150 years, what kind of changes did the twentieth century in Russia bring for these children?

Is this ‘letting go’ or ‘moving on’?

The following thought may take a more circuitous route to clarity than is helpful, but it seemed amazing to me, at least initially. Right now I am making my way through a book by James Breech, The Silence of Jesus. It is not that in this particular book I expected to find anything blog-oriented. (Understand that I come from somewhere between fundamentalist and evangelical Protestantism more steeped in all things biblical than I am likely aware of. I was given the book and so felt I should work my way through it because it may counter some of the ideas I was exposed to in my actively protestant years. (I am also currently reading a detective novel, some tree and bird books, a Lewis Mehl-Madrona, The Unmade Bed, Goldacre’s, Bad Science and two books on attachment theory.) Somehow I manage to find something about our relationship with Yasik in almost anything I read.
James Breech has made a study of the parables of Jesus, pulling out what he most likely said from the cultural context and interpretation of those who recorded his words. A week or two ago I was reading my one or two pages for the day in Breech. Here’s the backstory. Breech is examining the story in the Gospel of Luke of the Good Samaritan. First he strips away what he considers are the trimmings in which Luke couches the story. It becomes simply a story of a man assaulted by robbers. Two people passing by do literally that, pass by, even crossing to the other side to do so. A third person comes along and having wine and oil, cleans the assaulted man’s wounds, puts him on his donkey or horse and takes him to an inn. As Traveller Three prepares to go on own his way, he instructs the innkeeper to take care of the wounded man and promises to settle whatever expenses are incurred when he next returns to the area. And then the good fellow continues on with whatever business brought him to the area.
A few years ago I chose to explain to myself why I am on earth by buying into the concept that we are each on a journey through life (yes, Joseph Campbell influenced). Traveller Three is on a journey that metaphors our individual life experiences. Breech suggests that Jesus’ point in this story is just that a man with wherewithal shares with another in need to aid the wounded man on his particular journey. The phrase from Yasmin Mogahed’s thought of “It’s about what you can give others because you are full” now takes meaning I am less cynical of. It was not the third person’s intention to go about helping people. In fact no motive for helping is offered other than obvious, immediate need. Traveller Three recognizes that harm has been done, but that does not need to be the end of the story. Because he has some medical supplies with him, he can reorient the story in a different direction, a better possibility. As Breech stresses, the storyteller is not asking his listeners to dwell on whether or not the victim recovers, just that Traveller Three takes care of what he can. He suggests that Jesus is telling this story to make the point that helping is simply part of going forward each on our individual journey and helping others on their equally valid journeys if at some point they need a boost. We give that boost because we see ourselves as having enough to be free to share. So parents often adopt to aid another on his or her journey because they want to share. (Note: there are lots of other reasons to adopt as well, just as there are other reasons for the choices of the other characters in the parable) But once we have offered aid in a difficulty we carry on with our own journey, assuming the other will be quite capable of also carrying on. Is this the “letting go” concept or the “moving on” concept we are encouraged to embrace over staying in a slumped tear-drenched heap of guilt.
At any rate, when I read the bit about Traveller Three taking care of what he could and then moving on with his own journey, I did not think it was about dusting my hands of my son, but I did feel some sense of release from guilt. Or maybe this essay is simply about Breech’s thought on the parable being a boost for me on my journey, helping me get back on my feet and moving forward. And actually thereby giving an boost to my son for in my giving into guilt, I am denying my son the respect that comes from believing he yet has within himself the strength to continue on his journey.
Yes we have taken on responsibility for a life. Yes we are ‘Parents Forever’ (see fgta.ca). But our hand-wringing guilt is not a boost to our child in his or her difficulties. The FGTA site would encourage parents to get past self blame for guilt does little more than sink a parent in a sodden heap or urge a parent to “cross the road to the other side and hurry on by” the problem. As FGTA encourages, there are helpful steps to be taken.

Guilt

Somewhere in one of Joseph Campbell’s books referencing our individual life journeys, I came across his observation that in our communication with God we should be encouraged not to dialogue from the place of “Father, forgive me for I have sinned” but rather “Father, look at all the good I have done.” And though a protestant would not say ‘Father I have sinned’ to a priest as a Roman Catholic has been taught to do, as a Protestant I was also taught to come at my religion from the position of a sinner. I orient more quickly to ‘Father I have sinned’ than ‘Hey Father, look at the good I have done’. And when it comes to banishing my son from my home before he was 18, I find it almost impossible to accept the comfort some have offered by trying to reassure me that I am a good mother.
Several times in any given month I screen several movie shorts set on a loop in my brain. In one, I am standing outside a classroom talking with a colleague about a student who has been kicked out of his home. The colleague wonders aloud how she would be able to cope if she ever did that to her daughter. My response: I deal with that every day. She is silent. What can she say when she doesn’t know if I have done the right thing or not.
In the other, I play and replay the night we decided to deny Yasik further access to our home, in less civilized terms—kicked him out. We are standing at the window in his bedroom. He is outside in the
dark with nothing but the clothes on his back. We tell him he can’t come in. There is some back and forth. In frustration he sits down on the front step. Inside, I slide to the floor, slumped and
overwhelmed with tears while the back and forth continues between Yasik and Dave.
We sat down with him after he returned from a juvenile pretrial treatment center stay to make clear that if he wanted to go forward with us as a family, we could not continue dealing with drugs and theft. Return to school or get a job was a must. After a couple of incidents with theft and drugs and absence from school, we had decided that if he took any more money from either of us, he would have to go. We barred him entrance that night because the story he told us about his plans for the evening turned out to be untrue and $3.00 was missing from my wallet. I have never carried much change in my wallet. We carried out the refusal to allow him in even as he pleaded he wanted at least a belt for his pants because we were uncertain whether we could handle him once he got in the house and we didn’t want him taking more of the stuff he had ready for a pawn shop. Yasik walked back into town that night to stay with a friend. I probably called in for a family day from work. In the morning we took our client to his day program, stopped at Macdonald’s to pick up some breakfast and went knocking on doors looking for Yasik to see if we could work something out. When we found him, he resisted our overtures for help. We tried to step inside the apartment we found him in so that we could talk more privately. He called us
rude for trying to step unasked inside the apartment of his friend. He refused the breakfast we offered. He has always had a strong sense of justice. We were the wrong doers and needed to be put in our place. We had tried to reconnect, felt somewhat justified, ate the breakfast and went back to our home and daily responsibilities. He once made reference to our kicking him out for taking $3.00 dollars from my wallet, and I stopped him quickly by saying we found him the next morning and he refused to reconnect with us. He did not remember that, he said. Our kicking him out over $3.00 was also the story he told his probation officer. As we assured her, there was more to the story than some wallet change.
But we have never dusted off our hands, shrugged and moved on.
Our son has not lived with us other than a few short term stays since that day when he was not yet 18. At first he couch-surfed, then lived for a few years in a homeless shelter and spent one winter in a tent city. But he remained angry and resistant to offers of help for many of the first half of these past eight
years.
There was nothing beautiful about that night. It was awful enough to still bring me to tears as I write. Does it trivialize the night to say it was the worst of my relatively serene and comfortable life? And what do I say to it? “Father I have sinned” or “Father, look at the good I have done”. I have not been able to let go of all the “what if”s and “maybe”s. I do try to work the mindfulness meditation idea that while we cannot control the thoughts that intrude, we can try to keep them at an observational
arm’s length. And it’s true, most pass through even the most well-worn pathways in our brains in about 90 seconds. But are they resolved or just helplessly brushed aside?
Of course wisdom tells us that if we refuse to engage with or are able to let go of the guilt ridden thoughts about our relationship and interactions with our addicted loved one, we may be freer to move forward to more helpful thoughts. Outside of seeking to daily practice a conscious thought of letting go, I do not understand how ‘letting go’ operates.
However, one of the first points made in the Coping Kit prepared and made available to the families of
addicts by the association, From Grief to Action, www.fgta.ca is the following:
Don’t blame yourself. Guilt is not a useful emotion.
Other people’s actions generally do not cause alcohol/drug dependency.
Admit it when you’ve blown it, apologize, and move on.
Focus on what you can do, and let go of what you can’t.

I agree that guilt is not useful. I have acknowledged failure a fair few times to Yasik, though to be honest I don’t know exactly what I did wrong. That is, of course, why I am reading and writing, seeking to understand and also perhaps find ways to more effectively support him in hopes that he will be able to return to wholeness.
But “don’t blame yourself….let go of what you can’t.” Some days I am still praying,“Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” Some days I am looking at what might be done to turn things around.

Thoughts on Yasmin Mogahed’s comment on Attachment

Yasmin Mogahed urges her followers to”Try not to confuse “attachment” with “love”. Attachment is about fear and dependency and has more to do with love of self than love of another. Love without attachment is the purest love because it isn’t about what others can give you because you are empty. It is about what you can give others because you are already full”. I do not know the context of this comment. Perhaps in terms of altruism or aspiration, this quote is a noble sentiment. Maybe she is referencing what Larissa MacFarquhar explores in Strangers Drowning:Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and Overpowering Urge
to Help
.
But I latched on to that one word, attachment. It is one big word in the context of adoption. Google it. Attachment is connection. Attachment is not the evil twin of love. You may see
yourself as an independent bag of chemicals or a being infused with something which makes you part of a wider universe; either way attachment, whether to a person, place, thing or idea is something that binds/connects/ties. “Attachment” refers to a vacuum cleaner hose for sucking up dust but it also refers to reasons and ways to connect to an emotion – whether love or another of a fair variety of emotions. And having worked this paragraph over a few times now, I admit ‘attachment’ is very difficult to adequately define. I still say though that it is not in competition with ‘love’.
But having accepted that perhaps Mogahed sees attachment as the emotion itself, my perhaps pompous mind has a question. If attachment is about fear and dependency, what generates this ‘purest
love’? How does a person become “already full”? I do, of course, recognize that fear and dependency motivate attachment for the little one who worries about who will be feeding his or her tiny, hungry tummy. But how love blossoms in a person has to be asked.
Then again, maybe, maybe, just maybe, my mind is connecting the word ‘attachment’ to the ways we find to cultivate love rather than disparage attachment as an emotion in competition to love because of
a book I have just finished reading. The title might even suggest where such love may come from, Born for Love by Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry. On page 315 they talk about introducing reading “…in the laps of caring parents, siblings or grandparents….” This they suggest is just one way to encourage love to grow and hopefully fill one more person with love.
My thanks then to Yasmin Mogahed for giving me a nice segway to the many considerations of attachment as it relates to adopting families.

Update on a still vague plan

The blog was the way to go they said. So OK I started a blog about two years ago. (And fittingly I have two entries so far). In my defense, lots of reading must be done they said. I have been reading and reading and reading some more. (And doing other stuff that falls into the living life category). There needs to be so very much more reading to be done, (and more living stuff as well) if I want the blog to say more than “Hello, my name is ______ and I am the mother of an adoptee.”
But reading and living may be better experienced by looking more closely much as mindful meditation looks at thought life. Writing can aid in closer looking. So I will just start writing, shapelessly for now perhaps, but writing as I read and live. Later I may be able to set it all out like a puzzle and pull together a picture.

From Dream to Reality

Humming along on my morning commute, listening to the radio, an over-the-top lead-in question caught my attention. What is being done for someone who has had ‘his soul ripped out’? I had happened on a discussion of PTSD. In that context, the sense of histrionics fizzles out. But always quick to make personal connections, my thoughts picked up the question and moved it to my context ¬– concerns I have with the family in adoption. It became the question which initiated this blog as I joined the search to understand the adoptive family when the adoptee has spent some part of his or her early years in an orphanage – and what this start to a life brings to the struggle of the adopted person and his or her parents, both biological and adoptive. The blog is about my search for information about life in a Russian orphanage in the 90s, the adoption process of that decade, the early years with our child, the changes that came in the teen years, and what our family has learned and experienced as my son moves into adulthood. And once some of the markers of these years surface, hopefully guidance will begin to come to light.
Before the search officially begins, I offer my story.
One summer afternoon when I might have been seven or eight, I watched an afternoon TV movie. A woman who apparently knows she is dying goes to an orphanage and adopts a girl of five or six. They become very close. And yes, then she dies. The husband draws into himself in his grief and so the little girl feeling shut out runs off to sit on a big rock on the seashore to cry out her loneliness to the ghost of her mother. Of course, the father comes to his senses in time to recognize that his wife knew she was dying. She had planned to replace his loneliness with a child. The movie comes to a crescendo as he rushes out to rescue the child before the tide comes in to wash her away.
With even deeper impact, in my teens, I dreamt one night that I had been given a child, a little boy with blond hair. For some reason I spent most of the dream struggling to get around a rock slide (I like to think it was around Angel Rock on the Port Alberni highway) with this little boy in tow but the impression I was left with was that, though there was some kind of struggle, this boy was for me. My memory holds that I had this dream more than once or at least with enough impact that with it and the afternoon movie, I always seemed to have planned to adopt. Creating a child from the eggs within me never compelled me in the same way. Adoption had become my romantic ideal.
Samuel T. Coleridge wrote of it in this way:
And what if you slept? And what if in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awake, you had a flower in your hand? Ah, what then?
Yes, “Ah, what then?”
In my twenties and thirties I entertained half formed thoughts of adopting children I was asked to help with, but not until I was in my forties could I begin to act on what seemed to me to be simply what I must do, rather than a romantic notion. I secured sufficient financial independence and I accepted a date with a good man, Dave. Together, over two years, we completed the requisite orientation and exploration of adoption options. Check, Check and Check. As many who have adopted internationally know, the flurry of the final weeks make up for the dragging months of the years leading up to the adoption. After rushing about getting medicals, references, finances and a wardrobe for a child of indeterminate size, we flew to Russia, drove to a large provincial town, and were introduced to our little, blond, four year old son. It still strikes me as noteworthy that at the end of the day we met our new son, we slept in a lovely old hotel in single beds – no sex required for the making of this family. The next day we stood before a very young judge who appeared charmed by our shy happiness, drove around town to remove this child from the Russian record system and then picked him up at the orphanage. In less than 24 hours of meeting him, and only having been told that he seemed to love music, he was our child. It never occurred to us at that time to think that amazing. We (read ‘naively’ here) assumed that we likely knew as much as any set of parents holding their just born biological child. Besides which, as international adoptions only took off in the ‘90s, little easily accessible literature was available other than memoirs offering the theme “God has given us the forever child we were destined for”. These were usually written about the pre-adoption period and the first two years post- adoption, a kind of honeymoon period for most adopting families. Any memoir we might have wanted to write at the time would have produced that same story line.
Only once in that period was our bliss punctured for a moment. An American couple called and tried to engage us in a conversation about why their child seemed so easily disruptive. We looked at each other blankly and tossed the problem off, assuming the parents lacked parenting skills.
Yasik (the diminutive of his Russian name) was beautiful, sweet and cuddly. We cocooned with him in the nuclear family dream. But this blog would not have been created if that nice and normal dream had not taken a turn toward the need to understand why adoption creates a special kind of family drama. Yasik began to challenge our ideas of the best choices for his life soon after he turned 14. We chased him down a rabbit hole for several years but around the time he turned 18, the downtown community of our town became the family and home he sought out more and more. We were asking him to make choices he could not maintain, and eventually we lost our son to the streets. As Coleridge asks, “Ah, what then?” The search to understand became unavoidable. We needed help for ourselves and for our son.