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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…!

The Older Adopted Child’s First Year as Newborn

Most of my “newborns” have been in the 40 to 90 pound range. It helps one’s mental health to think of it this way, since the newly-adopted international child is often at this diminished emotional or psychological level. If you consider the child simply to be needy, demanding, uncooperative, etc., etc., it will wear you down. You believe she’s acting this way to spite you. Instead, she knows of no other way. She’s a baby.

The older child adoptee, whether 5 or 15, is like a newborn or toddler, at best, needing constant care and supervision. And your life as you know it, will probably end, for at least the first year, because the baby has needs. You will have to juggle feelings of resentment in yourself, as well as jealousy rising up in the family, since the new child will require you 24/7. If there are other children, or a spouse, good luck with that. Pretend like you’re auditioning as a master juggler for the Big Apple Circus.

It can be done, it just takes lots of thought, as well as understanding (or resignation, lol) that the first year will probably be more intense than you ever could have predicted. Imagine everyone in the house suffering with PMS round the clock while reciting the alphabet backwards, chanting alternating math facts from the times tables, while conducting a fire drill, and teaching the children under 7 to drive. That gives you half the picture of the possible pandemonium of the first year with your “newborn”, be they large or small.

I get a lot of e-mails from people in various phases of the adoption process, from contemplation, to finalization, to assimilation. I try to fill them in on the basics:  what to expect, how to prepare, what they might encounter. But, the fact is, you never know until you do it, like with anything else.

May you be pleasantly surprised! We were. (Well, in at least one out of four Russian adoptions, but who’s counting, right?)

Before adoption, let’s face it, it’s all shadow and mirrors. The child usually won’t flip out in the orphanage in front of so many onlookers. It’s only when you get him to your hotel, or the airport, or some other place where you’re all on your own that you learn: he’s a runner, she’s a screamer, this one refuses to listen, and that one will not stop crying. The 12-year-old often acts like a 2-year-old (with some 20-year-old ideas thrown in for good measure).


It all gets better, it does. Just brace yourself for the initial adjustments. The child will need you. Maybe you discover that you can’t easily run out for a quick Starbucks, or spend one-on-one time with the kids or spouse. The bio daughter was used to being the only girl in the house. Who among us likes to be slowly sidelined, edged out of existence, even if for a good cause?

Everything changes. Nothing is seamless or smooth.

But isn’t that true with any “newborn”? The baby will cry, and poop, and spit-up. We don’t resent them for it. It comes with the territory.

Your older child may challenge your authority, and huff and puff and threaten to blow the house down. She might not understand how to make friends, how to occupy herself (read, “Entertain me!”), and how to make pleasant dinnertime conversation. Horoshoh, okay, with a toddler you’re happy if even part of the food stays on the highchair tray. Lower the expectations is the mantra of the day.

The older child faces a world that has literally changed for them overnight. Rumpelstiltskin is not a fairy tale, he has come to life in our sons and daughters, awaking from a long slumber in the orphanage, and stepping into a new life. The culture is different, the language is different, the parental expectations are unknown and inconceivable. The kids have no frame of reference. And, if we’re honest, that can make us angry at times, too.

In a perfect world, we would all be well-rested, and well-read, and well-advised when facing the first-year transitions.How many times does that happen with a newborn?You’re sleep-deprived, and receiving advice from absolute strangers, in addition to well-meaning relatives (we’re giving them the benefit of the doubt here), all trying to second-guess your decisions.On the other hand, after adoption, you’re pretty much on your own, jet-lagged and hyper-vigilant, winging it as best as possible, with a big bruiser of a preteen baby-!The agency disappears into the woodwork until your first post-placement report is due.

The best thing is to talk with other adoptive parents. They know the real score, which is a score you should avoid keeping in terms of winning or losing. It’s a game where each side scores a few points here and there, and where you’d actually be happy for the other side to score occasionally. Keep in mind that the playing field will not be even for years to come, and that’s alright, too.

The newborn needs so much done for her. My youngest, who is almost 10, recently said she would pack her own bag. Sashenka should be an expert at packing, since we do it every week, twice a week. Usually, I lay out the clothes for the kids, according to our planned activities, and then they pack it. But this time, she wanted to gather the clothes from the closet, herself.

Sounded reasonable enough. (That should have been the first red flag.)

I reviewed a list with her.Most of the outfits I got out myself, leaving only a few items for her to collect:one, two, three.It was too much.We arrived in Location B and she put on some sort of get-up the next day.

“Where are your black pants?” I asked. “Didn’t we talk about black pants?”

She had packed some odd color of blue and I’m not even sure where she found them, or what size they were. Maybe they were meant to be capris? Maybe she was meant to be a clown. Maybe I was not meant to be a mother. Maybe this was Early Immigrant Mix-and-Match Chic.

I had to remember: she was a baby, a newborn, incapable of the simplest tasks without constant supervision. Why hadn’t I checked up on her?

Probably because I was exhausted, myself, helloooo!, and hoping for once that she could do something right. Her little foray into independence had wreaked havoc with my schedule, because now we had to scramble to find something else for her to wear in the public eye. (Parents, make a note of this: live your first year or two on a farm, or somewhere else sequestered away-!)

Every once in a while, I forget: these are not homegrown kids with extensive experience under their belts. Their resumes were lacking, while I treated them like corporate recruits, and they were already stretching enough to reach for the role of stockroom clerk.

What was my big hurry? What was so wrong with being a baby, if you’ve never been allowed to enjoy a real childhood? Burdened by adult responsibilities and worries, these kids needed to regress and kick-back. Meanwhile, their Type-A mother struggled with her own thoughts of being laid-back, not in her normal vocabulary. As I mentally calculated that the kids had to complete at least three or four grade levels per year in order to finish high school before they turned 40, I wondered how necessary it was that they do well, RIGHT NOW, in readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic. Perhaps we should smile and be satisfied with a goofy grin, a hand slipped into ours, the calling out of “Mama” or “Papa”.

Lowered expectations were so counterintuitive to everything I stood for, fell for, or hoped for. “Let it go….”

Why obsess over where they should be in their schooling, or why they don’t understand the same word we’ve reviewed 100x, or how the grabbing and gobbling of food was so deeply ingrained that it might overshadow every mealtime from here to eternity? We would gently remind, and coddle, and cajole, and accentuate the positive:  an easy idea to expound upon in a motivational meeting, harder to hash out in everyday life.

They were babies, pure and simple.For now, we needed to enjoy them, interact with them, and love them.We would spend time playing on the floor, cuddling on the couch, and singing in the car.

(Benedetto’s insertion: Would you be referring to yourself, or to me?  Alexandra has always been one unafraid of using the royal “we”. Playing on the floor, indeed.)

Eventually, our older child adoptees would grow up. All babies do.

(Even me!–Alexandra’s note to Benedetto)


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