8 more days and we will wrap up our summer. The kids go back to school, and on that same day I will drive Alina to Boston to return to Ukraine. 10 weeks has flown by faster than any summer I can recall. It has been an entire cyclone of emotion in such a short time.
We have packed so many things into the last couple weeks. Our community continues to amaze us, and we received an offer for a free eye exam from Dr. Grove. We are so thankful for the thorough exam and future negotiations to try to get her to wear glasses. (She adamantly denies the need, thankfully her functional sight isn’t yet affected).
We threw a birthday party and she experienced love and generosity like she had never imagined.
“It was so much more than I dreamed”. She had never before had presents on her birthday, certainly never an entire party dedicated to her. She was happy, embarrassed, and overjoyed. Emotions she irregularly feels. She hid her face in her hands while we sang to her the songs that had never been sung, but recovered in time to blow out the candles and turn red when everyone cheered. Thankfully she has learned to navigate awkward moments, in our house that seems to be an area of expertise.
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When we first started to talk about adding another child, we decided we wanted someone to fill the age gap of our own children and set out to find a girl that was between 7 and 11. We started this journey talking about different countries, I wanted a Syrian orphan, he wanted eastern block. We agreed on Ukraine after hearing testimony from our dear friends the Cousineau’s about their African adoption, their participation with Host Ukraine, and subsequently their adoption process from Ukraine. As we searched through the listings, there were no girls in this age. We had to consider if we would wait, or adjust our expectation. Seemingly as if preplanned we read about orphanage syndromes and behaviors that are long forgotten since American orphanages closed. We learned just in time that every 3 months in an orphanage normal emotional development is delayed by 1 month. That means for a girl that is 14, who has been in the orphanage since she was 2 months old, her emotional age would be more around 9 years old, which is exactly the middle of the range we were looking for. When you learn to adjust your definitions of what you THINK you are looking for and be open to thinking outside the box, opportunities present themselves. Ted and I made our top three lists, and for both of us Alina was #2. We moved forward with her, and looked forward to her arrival. As we navigated our summer, and watched the girls we didn’t choose enjoy their families, it has been crystal clear to me that following our decision making algorithms we executed selection perfectly. Neither of the other girls would have fit into our family so perfectly as Alina has. None of the other 112 kids we brought from Ukraine were meant for our family, and somehow making these decisions based on few details we could obtain we picked the girl that would inevitably fill the gap in our family in ways more than we dreamed, as soon as we let go of what we THOUGHT we wanted. When you learn to bend and compromise amazing things happen.
Alina is 14 years old, however she struggles in areas a typical girl her age would not. When asked questions like “what is your favorite thing about America”, or “what is your favorite thing about being in a family”, she literally cannot answer, she replies “I just like it”. It isn’t because she doesn’t truly love it here. It isn’t because she doesn’t love us. It is because she doesn’t have the CAPACITY or skill set to answer such an abstract question. I can choose to take this personally, I can chose to play victim and let my feelings be hurt because of my own EXPECTATION of reciprocation, or I can UNDERSTAND that she doesn’t know HOW to give answers that comfort me. This is the moment I need to remember I’m here to serve her. It is not the time to throw a tantrum that my expectation of thankful wasn’t shown. She shows it in her smile, in her floods of messages of emoji’s in messenger, in her struggle to learn English phrases though she despises the language, and in her excitement to open an American Flag shirt and matching sunglasses and shoes while squealing “AMERICA!”. She shows it in the ONLY way she knows how, and I can’t EXPECT her to do anything but what she knows how to do. I wouldn’t expect Ollie to write a thank you letter after opening Christmas presents, and I can’t expect Alina to complete tasks she isn’t developmentally ready to do. When I feel myself wondering “why is she acting like this” and I reply to myself by asking “would this be typical if she were 9”, the answer is almost always yes. She is normal, for her circumstance.
Alina struggles with decision making and identifying her feelings. She has never had practice picking out her favorite anything, because she’s never been allowed to make a choice. She also is stuck with the disadvantage of having the hormones of a 14 year old with the emotional intelligence of a 9 year old.
We took her out to dinner after her birthday party. In the car on the way to the restaurant I asked her “what would you like for dinner? This place has pizza, pasta, and sandwiches.
“Sandwich if possible” she said.
“There is ham, turkey, and chicken”, I have learned through the summer she needs choices that are reduced to three or less.
“Chicken” she said with confidence.
Upon arrival to the restaurant I requested small sample of chicken salad, to make sure she had an understanding of what she was ordering. I explained there is mayo and celery inside it. She tried a sample and exclaimed “this is our New Years celebration dish! I love it!”
We sat down and waited for the food to arrive. When the food was ready about ten minutes later, she was delivered her sandwich and refused to eat. “I don’t like this” she said.
“This is what you chose, you just said you love it.”
“It is not what I want. I’ll have something else.”
“No, you chose this and now you will eat it. There will be no popcorn until you eat the dinner you chose.”
The negotiations and consequences have changed as the summer progressed. The first day she arrived she had never requested what she wanted to eat. This summer she has practiced this, and understands her choice. The first day she ate chips and coke for lunch. As time passes the expectations are raised at a reasonable pace. This is a challenge I know she can handle.
She rolled her eyes and started eating. The 14 year old argument from the 9 year old mind. She ate her sandwich and when she finished I dramatically exclaimed “You did it! Good job! I’m proud of you for following through on your choice!” She beamed.
Teaching children lessons out of natural order isn’t a small task. Decision making that my preschoolers are struggling with is where her skills fall in this area. She learns through watching them make decisions, then having to stick to the reward or consequence of the decision they make. For a girl who struggles to stick with her choice of dinner from ordering till consuming, how can I expect her to reliably decide her future when the court asks her if she’s consenting to adoption? No one would ask my 6 year old where he wants to go to college or what state he’d like to live in, but we are legally required to ask a girl who struggles to order dinner what country and what family she wants to entrust her future. This is a terrifying time, not only looking at the insurmountable fundraising, paperwork, and government variances in reliability, but also sending a girl back to chaos that needs to know how to make the most important decision of her life with minimal help.
Keeping a view that is wide as possible has helped me to quickly assess what lessons are most important, and which messages must be the loudest. Following rules, personal responsibility, managing hormonal mood changes, respect, the list is endless in the things you race to teach a girl who is a legal adult in 18 months or less. Adoption will give her a few more years before she is a technical adult in our country, but how can we ensure the hormonal 14 year old won’t play a power card and refuse adoption after a $30,000.00 process? We can’t. The only thing we can do is send messages loud and clear that when you trust us, we will help you to navigate good choices. Trust must be the loudest lesson. Make the right choices and you will have positive reinforcement. When you make dangerous choices you will hear loud guidance. When you make choices that are not safety issues, but are not desirable, you will have no reaction. Through making good choices and trusting the praise is coming, you will be motivated to continue to make the choices suggested to you. All I can do is hope that my constant praise and reinforcement will be enough trust building to encourage her to want to come back, and want to be here. I hope the relationships she built with each sibling will be strong enough to endure the next trial that we fight through, the enemy of distance.
As we make her memory book, and we reflect on the summer she says “This summer flew by”.
I reply with “It is already almost time to return”.
“Yes, 8 days.”
“We will be very sad and we will miss you.”
“Yes, I am sad, and I will miss you too”.
We look through the memories of her playing games with Jake and Millie, pictures of her protecting Ollie from running to the street, photos of her rising to be responsible and dance in the beautiful performances the Bates Dance Festival challenged her to participate in. She laughed at Jake’s jokes, she raced with him up and down our street, she cuddled Millie and took selfies. She laughs at photos of burying Lori in the sand at the ocean, and riding her bike on adventures with Lori, Tula, and Bella. She smiles at the photos of the amusement park, riding a roller coaster was her life long dream. We reflect on our summer and it has been made clear to me, this girl wasn’t just a stand in for the gap we had in our family, she WAS the missing puzzle piece we didn’t know we needed. She developed relationships so naturally I can’t remember what life was like before 6 kids, and I have tears in my eyes thinking about putting her in a yellow shirt in 8 days and sending a piece of my family away for 3 1/2 months. I dread the drive home, the dinners with an empty spot, the grocery store trips without buying gallons of yogurt. As I step back from my broken heart, I rejoice. I am happy for the pain, I’m glad we will be missing her. I’m thankful she will have the opportunity to return to her normal and process all the fun she had and the relationships she built. The pain has a purpose, it is hard to miss what you never knew, and hard to be thankful for something you never missed.
At the end of the summer as my heart feels the fresh scars of returning my yellow shirt, I realize that even this pain has a purpose because we changed a girl’s world, but more importantly she changed ours. Was it worth it? A thousand times yes. Will the next chapter of struggle and sacrifice be worth it not only to save her life, but to enrich us all in our future together, it is certain. Hosting saves lives, sometimes it saves life you didn’t even know needed to be saved.
Thank you Host Ukraine, Thank you to all the people that have made this summer possible, and Thank you to all the people we haven’t yet met that will hold us up while we compile endless paperwork, fundraisers, and wipe our over-tired tears of exhaustion while we fight to give #HopeForAlina.