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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…!

Art Therapy and The Adopted Child

This weekend was the one year anniversary of going to court in Russia for Pasha and his becoming our son. Many days, I did not think we would make it this far. The Ministry of Education official warned us that, “He will destroy your lives.”

Against such ominous prognostications, we forged ahead. This was Petya’s friend from the orphanage. We worked four long years to get him out of the system. Each time Russia said, “Nyet,” we said, “Da,” and refused to go away.

When the foster system started in Russia and people were paid to take in children, they scooped them up by the handfuls. Some of our son’s friends became free farm laborers, and others brought hefty stipends to elderly pensioners. Pasha was placed with a “staru’cha” (old lady) who wanted to beat, berate, and have him do her chores, along with a couple of other kids. Bless his soul, he wrote the Ministry of Education a letter, asking to be removed back to the orphanage. Without this bold move on his part, he never would have come to our family.

So he is here. He has his struggles, he has his joys. We love him. I’m not sure he entirely loves himself, but that will come. Just yesterday he told me of a horrific event that he witnessed. No, he could not be making it up for several reasons too terrrible to mention. One year later, this is what comes out. Maybe he has guilt, survivor’s guilt, or the feeling that somehow, if he had tried harder, he could have reformed the adults around him. Naturally, it’s irrational, but that’s how kids can think at times. They want things to be right.

His personality has been oppositional mostly. We say up, he says down. We say white, he says black. He wants to argue with the smallest detail of life, not really to any parent’s face, because we would not allow that, but with the other children and with life in general. He is also passive-aggressive in his behaviors, losing or breaking about seven pairs of sunglasses in two weeks’ time during sports camps, slooowly eating at meals, leaving the house without a belt in his pants no matter how many times we remind him.

Since the girls have been home the last six weeks, Pasha has been acting like a clown. He has a willing audience for foolishness since they are younger. At almost 13, he at times acts closer to 8, which is really the age of our youngest. Benedetto tells him repeatedly, “Pasha, you are not a clown.” So this weekend, Pasha asks me how he can become a professional clown-! We say up, he says down….

As I explain to him the sad lifestyle of most professional clowns, and how clowning does not involve doing whatever you want whenever you want, my husband has his own revelation.

“We need to tell him he’s not a brain surgeon–then he’ll want to be one!” he enthuses.

I decide to try it on the dogs first.

“Misha, you are not a brain surgeon,” I whisper into the Scottie’s black ear. By noon, he’s found perusing medical school catalogs. Works like a charm.

So this weekend, I have the kids do a project. Papa/Benedetto is away on business, and I ask them to draw him a picture of our family. My only rules: it has to contain two parents, two boys, two girls, and two dogs, and maintain a slight margin around the edges.

You would think I had asked them to rebuild the Statue of Liberty. Some sit with blank papers and blank stares. Others cannot find their colored pencils or crayons. Different ones find it impossible to maintain a semblance of a white border around the paper, asking why they could not color off the paper entirely.

I also stipulate that they are forbidden to look at anyone else’s paper. Good luck on that. Mashenka and Sashenka live to cheat and it will be some time till they outgrow that orphanage behavior. I put the kitchen toaster and huge jars and cans inbetween the kids. Petya retires to the garden room to get away from the girls’ peering eyes, while the others sit at the big, long farm table in the kitchen. As their pictures grow and take shape, they reveal an intimate view of each artist’s psyche and family perception.

I recall once attending an art therapist’s workshop who had interacted with kids in Russian orphanages. She gave a slide show of their artwork and showed how those of different ages and life experiences would portray people. They might draw themselves as very tiny and powerless, or very large and angry. I think back to her observations as I see the shapes and sizes and placements unfold before me.

Petya and Sashenka, our oldest son and youngest daughter, are well-attached and happy as clams. They portray normal, simple sketches of all of us about the same size, and both have a house in the picture. Their drawings say loud and clear: “We are home.”  The others’ depictions are more tenuous.

Mashenka puts herself next to Benedetto in her picture. She has blond hair and gives Sashenka and me orange hair for some reason. I think she’s trying to displace me! I discuss with her the meaning of a husband and wife, and how, even though she never had good role models in the past, we want her to know that Mama and Papa are together for life. Her image wears a dress and high heels like I would, while “my” designated image looks kind of dowdy…. Now that I think of it, her blond in heels and dress might have really been “me” in the first place, but then she decided that it looked so good it had to be… her! and she requisitioned my identity, labelling me, as her– if that makes any sense.

Each of my children gives me tremendous food for thought by how they portray the family:  which one was next to which, their size, their placement. I discuss their drawings with them individually. Pasha, on his one year anniversary home, still places himself far away from the rest of the group. His figure is climbing a tree, towering over the family, while still keeping his distance. So I reassure him and tell him to start actively thinking of himself as a real part of the family. He spends the rest of the night playing video games in a different room by himself, while the other children are elsewhere.

“Still up in the tree by yourself?” I ask as I check on him, and he smiles.

As I tuck them into bed, I reassure every child of our love for them and how happy we are that they are home. I remind Pasha that he has to choose to come down out of the tree of his drawing and join the rest of us.

“You’re not an abizian…” (monkey) I tease him.

“Tomorrow, Mama, I think I will be ready. I will come out of tree,” he declares as he closes his eyes and settles in for the night.


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