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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

A Child’s Looks: Let’s Be Honest Here

Our first son’s referral photo was so cute. He stood tall and straight like a little soldier. Just before we traveled to meet him, more photos came to us. These were disturbing.

The bright smile was still there, but now his back appeared misshapen, and his head spread wide and flat. Could it be the same child? Were these the foibles of Photoshop? Petya was also dressed in an odd New Year’s costume, making him look buffoonish. The photos would not have been out of place if they had hailed from an insane asylum.

“I don’t know,” I started to waffle. This, from the one who had BEEN SO SURE in the beginning.

Many are the parents suffering nightmares, wondering what their referred child will look like. I recall hearing from one adoptive mom as she waited for her Chinese referral. She thrashed in bed, awaking with a start, drenched and delusional: she and her husband had been referred a 30-year-old Chinese man-! In the nightmare, he quietly got into the taxi and they took him home. They had no other choice.

Russian adoption referral photos might be helpful or harmful. Numerous children have been overlooked or bypassed because the person snapping their photo was less than an Annie Liebowitz. Frequently, even with the best photographer, it was hard to touch-up a chop-job haircut, helter-skelter clothes, and green or purple medicinal blotches on the face. Why they didn’t tell the kids to smile I found out one day at the dyetsky dom.

“Smile!” I encouraged some kids gathered with their teachers, as I took their picture for posterity.

“We don’t smile,” said Galina Andre’evna. “We are Russians. Russians have bad teeth.”

I found out just how bad when my kids came home and our millions were used on their dental decay issues.

“Horoshoh,” I changed tactics. “Ras, dvah, tree: don’t smile!”

In our daughters’ case, I never saw their official referral photos, which is just as well. Imagine concentration camp inmate meets furious federal prisoner. The shaved heads and foul looks on their faces said it all. They had just been forcibly taken into custody, disoriented and angry, suffering from lice and other maladies. They would have to go to school for the first time in their lives and they were not at all pleased. No one would want these two preteen terrors.

Yet, instead of presenting such a disturbing scenario, the adoption agency showed me an unofficial photo that one of their reps had snapped of semi-smiling girls in bright clothing about a year later when they both had hair again. The older girl actually sported bleached blond locks which I didn’t know for some time to come.

In the case of older children, packaging was everything. This agency worked hard to seal the deal. We were not even looking for girls, but their constant e-mails pushed us in the right direction.

Younger kids were different. A baby is a baby and in high demand. Hard to tell what they would look like when they got older. Agencies often used that to their advantage, some refusing to give out any information whatsoever.

See, agencies want you to travel to Russia. Agencies need you to travel, since this is a lucrative business for their drivers, interpreters and facilitators over there. If nobody travels, there’s no work for them. Agencies will try to make PAPs feel shallow and inferior if the prospective adoptive parents ask for a photo. They will say that you need to travel “blind”–no info, no photo, no idea if you’ve just delivered boy, girl, kitty cat, or chimpanzee.

Nonsense. Why travel halfway around the world to meet a child you would never accept into your family? Cross-eyed, cleft palate, and club foot can all be altered through surgery, but not everyone has the time, private funds, nor health insurance to undertake such interventions. Other unalterable conditions, such as Downs, or FAS, can be seen in certain children’s facial features. Doesn’t a parent deserve to know this before travel? I think so.

Look through the Russian orphan database at www.usynovite.ru and observe how many of the kids do not look normal. At all. There are parents making more than one referral trip to Russia these days, because the first child visited had no chance of ever living a productive life. Forget Russia’s oil and diamond reserves, it’s adoptive parents that are keeping things economically afloat over there as four or five trips are no longer unheard-of to complete one adoption. Folks just pray for a healthy referral, even if it’s a baby that’s blue with yellow polka dots. Appearance means nothing to them.

And then there are those who would turn down a referred child based on looks alone.

I don’t know. But if you feel this way, you need to acknowledge those feelings, and wait for a child meeting your criteria. To “force” yourself to accept a little light-skinned child, or a deliciously-dark beauty WHEN THEY REPULSE YOU, is a recipe for disaster, sooner or later. To thine own self be true. You’re the one who’s going to be living with the child.

Why do you want to adopt children? To help a child with no prospects for his future, to have an attractive “accessory” in life, or to mold a mini-me? For some, it’s all about the child, for others, it’s all about the parents and what the child says about them.

Why would a family care so much about a child’s looks? Maybe the parents work in a very public setting and don’t want constant comments about their mismatched children. Maybe the family just wants to relax and not always be the spokespersons for international adoption. Maybe they want the child to feel more attached and not that he’s sticking out like a sore thumb.

There could be a difference between the wishes of those who have bio children of their own prior to adoption, and those who have been waiting a lifetime for children. As the years pass, subconsciously, the bar may be raised… or lowered.

Not to be uncharitable, but I’ve heard it postulated that maybe attractive parents desire attractive children. Maybe less attractive parents claim it doesn’t matter. Having seen a whole lot of photos over the years, I’m not 100% sure this theory works each time, every time. Or maybe nobody’s told you: you’re not as cute as you think you are!

I remember when we were much younger, being in India, or the Philippines, or Hong Kong, or Uganda. Many were the sweet orphan faces. It was not a far stretch to dream of bringing one or two home. Color and race meant nothing, but then I don’t live in a small town nor among rabid rednecks. Our friends are international and rainbow necks, you might say.

Another consideration might be those who may not appreciate their different-appearing children to be the constant source of comments and speculation. This I can understand. Some agencies actually ask for preferences in appearance. Our first agency, which we had to fire before we ever got to Petya, asked for us to list race, hair color, and eye color of a potential child.

So I did.

“Why did you fill out that section of the form?!” they screamed at me over the phone.

“Um, because it was there?”

No one had given us the secret decoder ring to figure out agency double-speak, nor told us that certain sections of the application had no purpose in being there. Ah, well.

Being blond over blue myself, our first son Petya looked nothing like me. This was brought to my attention at, of all places, a felafel stand in Jerusalem. I had just scooped some extra-hot zhoug into my pita–the green kind which is a step beyond the red hot sauce. Not a time to be trifling with me. I was already hot under the collar. A Joe-Cool guy sidled up to the two of us.

“Is he your son?” asked the leather jacket.


“He doesn’t at all look like you,” he observed.

There are few times in life that I am speechless. The term “chutzpah” sprang to mind. Some other more ugly things were percolating under the surface, as well. Though not flesh of my flesh, I could not be any more connected to this child, this son, this dear one whose personality mirrored mine step for step, and who was now being maligned in front of my face.

“Imagine that: a DNA expert at the local felafel stand,” I murmured in Hebrew, thankful that Petya knew nothing of the language at that time. He was safe in his Russian cocoon as I shepherded him out into the street, pickles dropping in our wake. I felt like telling Joe Cool that he was one big kosher dill himself.

I can remember staring for hours at each of our children’s referral photos. With older children it was not so much that they had been chosen for us by the Ministry of Education, but we had chosen them. Long story. But I had as many trepidations as those who traveled blindly. Numerous were the nights that I talked with the photos, their grainy images mute to my multiplied questions: “Are you my child? Do you want to live with us? Will you like it here?” Years ago, when adoptive parents received brief video clips of their intended children, scores admitted to watching the two-minute footage so much that they wore out the tape.

All of us created cute bedrooms, and bought attractive clothes, all the while insisting that looks didn’t matter….

Funny thing is, if it’s important to you, kids can be improved. (I aim to improve myself every day, as well. Some days, it actually works.) A new haircut, decent clothes, better posture, and a happy smile will lead to a mini-makeover for anyone.

Children can also be presented to look like they “fit”. Petya has more of Benedetto’s coloring, brown over hazel, even if their facial characteristics are not all that matchy-matchy. But put them both in white polo / white polo, or blue shirt, red tie / blue shirt, red tie, and the comments come pouring in, “Well, if he isn’t a chip off the old block!”  “No question about whose son he is!”  “Like father, like son!”

So is it shallow, is it vain, is it ridiculous to want a child who resembles you? Maybe, maybe not. I believe that most parents care how their children appear. I at least like mine neat, with well-combed hair, brushed teeth, and clean clothes. Do the best with what you have. Is that a crime?

My second son and two girls tend to resemble me. Whenever I’m somewhere with my daughters, chattering away in Russian, we get a kick out of anyone trying to interfere, trying to figure us out, trying to put all of the pieces together. Simple minds, simple fixes.

“Where are you from?” comes the inevitable question.

“Raseeeyah!” they reply.

“Oh, your mother speaks English so well.”

Genius. It runs in the family, even if the looks don’t.


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