Lots of things come to mind when I think of the month of May. Everything from May Day to Cinco de Mayo to Mother’s Day to Memorial Day. Yet, for the past 17 years, the first thing that comes to mind is my son’s birthday, May 8. My second thought is that he made me a mother in May 2006. Not only is my son Jonah a bright, sensitive, handsome and thoughtful young man, he’s also a miracle. His birth was not celebrated as most births are, with cheerful poses for the camera by mother, father and newborn. Instead, my son was immediately taken from his birth mother and placed in an orphanage in his place of origin: Vladivostok, Russia.

Most Americans know nothing about Vladivostok, least of all that it is closer to Pyongyang, North Korea than it is to Moscow. Or that Vladivostok is the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to the Sea of Japan. Vladivostok—which means Lord of the East in Russian—is a strategically important location, a key hub for commerce, culture, science, and tourism in Far East Russia. As such, Jonah, who just turned 18, comes from a historically rich location, inheriting culture and customs embedded in the Russian people.

Uncertain Fate

I say he is a miracle because not all “orphans” or abandoned children in Russia are adopted by foreigners, much less by Russians (though the Russians will tell you otherwise). Like in many countries—the U.S. included—countless children never get forever homes, remaining institutionalized or becoming street urchins. It’s heartbreaking and avoidable (in my humble opinion). I imagine the situation in Russia is even worse since Putin banned Americans from adopting Russian children in 2012. According to the Reuters’ article I just cited, Americans have adopted more than 45,000 Russian children since 1999. I believe Americans seek international adoption because the end results are final. No long-lost blood relative coming forth to make a claim on the child many years later. International adoption is not necessarily an easy process, but it’s a lot quicker than domestic adoption. For my husband and me, it was a challenge every step of the way, yet we wouldn’t change a thing because of the gift we received.

Cultural Differences

Upon arrival in Russia to meet our son for the first time in early April 2006 (we were compelled to make two separate trips, three months apart), we immediately detected a distinctive sentiment by all involved in the process that the Russians were doing us a favor, never mind they were being paid very well for the service. Even with the difference in cultural norms, the Russians seemed resentful, unhappy and bothered. Clearly a remnant from centuries of oppression by Tsars and Communism. During the actual court proceeding, we were told and constantly reminded by officers of the family court—prosecutor and judge—that the best children were reserved for native Russians to adopt, insinuating that babies and children with deficiencies were the ones made available to Americans.

Undeterred, we kept our focus on our son, who wouldn’t legally be ours until the judge was convinced we would not get divorced and/or want to return him to the Motherland if we encountered any problems. We sucked up our frustration, bit our tongues, refusing to be humiliated or intimidated. Finally, the judge—after making an overly dramatic 10-minute exit from the bench before returning to the courtroom—sided in our favor. We then quickly celebrated before leaving the courthouse with Anya, our liaison/translator to pick him up from the orphanage. Our son was forthrightly handed over to us by his caregivers, straight out of a bath, naked and damp, but with a smile on his face. Nevertheless, we had another full week in Vladivostok as we waited for Anya to complete a 16-hour, round trip flight to Moscow to file the paperwork with the U.S. Embassy. It was the longest week of our lives. 

No Guarantees in Life

We vehemently resented the court’s assertion about children available for foreign adoption having deficiencies, with the probability of mental and/or physical problems, yet we were also in complete denial about that possibility. We really thought they were saying these things to maintain an illusion of control. But soon enough, we learned from the Russian doctor that gave him an obligatory physical per court instructions that indeed Jonah had muscular issues. When we took him to a board-certified children’s neurologist in our local area of Southern California, we learned that Jonah also had neurological problems. These are common defects not just found in children from Russian orphanages, but with babies who live many months in cribs with little human interaction and touch.

Common sense tells us that life can be unfair and often is unfair. Nothing is promised to us except death and taxes. By the same token, no one would expect their own biological children to be more perfect than adopted children. No one knows how a child will turn out in the end whether biological or adoptive. We had virtually no medical history on Jonah’s biological parents other than the fact his birth mother didn’t see an obstetrician during her pregnancy but visited a psychiatrist instead (insinuating she was depressed). Who knows if that’s true. We also suspected Jonah could have been affected by fetal alcohol syndrome. Sadly, we consistently got conflicting reports from the court that changed as often as the weather.

But none of that matters to us now; not even his autism diagnosis at the age of 3. After years of therapeutic services and caring educators and health professionals, Jonah has grown into a fit and fine human being, ready to enter the next chapter of his life with enthusiasm. The only caveat of him turning 18—and the only certainty he faces now that he’s an adult—is to avoid traveling back to Russia. As a dual citizen, he would likely be conscripted into the Russian military. And that would be a travesty.