Single adoptive mom counts herself lucky
ROME – Ten Mother's Days have passed since I adopted a girl as a single woman. And during those years I've occasionally been asked, if I could go back in time, would I do it all over again?
Yes, I reply, without hesitation. I feel blessed. Lately, I must add: lucky.
For in the last few years, nations have increasingly been shutting the doors of orphanages to unmarried foreigners. Among them is Ukraine, one of the world's top countries for foreign adoptions, and the place where, in summer 2000, I found the nearly 7-year-old child who became my daughter.
By the time Kiev banned non-Ukrainian singles from adopting in 2008, Anjelica's memories of her orphanage years had largely faded, although she still recalls, with delight, towering sunflowers reaching up to second-story windows, and, with a shiver, bladelike icicles hanging from eaves in each of her winters there.
The orphanage is still there, full of lonely children facing precarious futures.
Another country is China, for the last two years the largest "source" nation for adoptions by Americans. Beijing recently reopened the door slightly — but only to single women willing to take "special needs" children, such as the ones who are older or disabled.
In Italy, where I live, adoption law bans singles, reflecting powerful Vatican lobbying in favor of traditional families. I was able to adopt Anjelica because I'm a citizen of the United States, which allows single parent adoption.
The debate raging today in Italy over whether to lift restriction against singles sounds to my ears jarringly oblivious to reality. The head of Italy's international adoption commission recently declared there was no need for singles to "jump the already endless line of properly married couples" waiting to adopt.
But what about all the children waiting to be adopted, I thought? Excluding singles doesn't help all the waiting children, especially those few people readily take.
Throughout Italy's debate, the sound bites of experts, ranging from psychologists to ethics specialists, has made the children seem like abstract creatures from another universe.
But I know at least one child, right here, who takes it out of the realm of the theoretical. My daughter shared school benches with Italians' children, traded snacks with them at recess, kicked not a few soccer balls back and forth with them, was invited to their birthday parties and invited them to hers.
In fifth grade, Anjelica and her classmates played the Italian national anthem on the flute so well they won first prize in a nationwide contest.
Many of her classmates didn't know she was adopted, or didn't care. But their parents were sometimes perplexed that she had only one parent, not realizing that other countries like the United States did permit singles to adopt.
The difficulties being a single parent of an adopted child largely mirror those of singles bringing up biological children: affording reliable child care on one income, missing a partner to lean on when your child's sick or troubled, or to rejoice with over her accomplishments.
But it can be tougher for adoptive parents.
Children who grew up in institutions are frequently traumatized, sometimes physically, almost certainly psychologically. With revolving door caretakers often the rule in orphanages, these children are reluctant to love, open up emotionally, trust. Being single means not being able to tap a spouse's mental and emotional resources when yours run dry.
But sometimes being a single adoptive parent can be an advantage.
For orphanage children, the art of manipulation can be a survival tactic: the kid who does the cute curtsy, who has the prettier smile, might get that rare extra piece of candy when visitors drop by.
Children, of course, are masters of pitting parent against parent to get what they want, or to bend house rules. But when there's only one parent, it's just you and your child, and that can make bonding more straightforward.
Only a few days in her home, my daughter decided she would explore her new environment at will. Were there snacks to be found in the kitchen? Never-before seen appliances like dishwashers to be switched on and off? It didn't help that she would go on these expeditions at 1 or 2 a.m.
So one night, armed with a book to keep me awake, I positioned myself like an unbudging drawbridge across the threshold to her room to make clear that late night wanderings were off limits.
She tried, and tried, to pass, until finally, yawning, she sat back down on her bed and toppled onto the blankets. I won that tug-of-war. But one of the early lessons of being a single mom was it would require a lot of tough love.
Anjelica laughs when I recount that story and swears she has no memory of it.
But a few years ago, while we were watching the movie "The Miracle Worker" on TV, she was mesmerized by the tussling between Helen Keller and her stubbornly dedicated teacher Anne Sullivan. Anjelica cuddled up to me on the couch and wondered aloud how much of a struggle I must have had with her in our first years together.
On our way back from her village in Ukraine to our new life in Rome, a journey that took us to several cities over several weeks while paperwork was processed and stamped for approval, each time I opened the door to another hotel room, or an acquaintance's apartment, or a relative's home, my new daughter would plaintively ask: "Is this my home?"
With each turn of the key, I wondered what this girl's vision of a home was like. And what was mine. Both of us needed to figure out, day by day, just what makes a home.
She even needed to figure out who was her mother. As with many other working single parents — or married parents, for that matter — child care was crucial. The state lawyer assigned to represent Anjelica during the adoption hearing in Ukraine asked only one question: who would care for my child when I was at work?
My response convinced the judge: I'd find a live-in nanny from Rome's large eastern European immigrant community. The adoption was approved, bringing tears and hugs in the courtroom.
Barely a few weeks into her life as my daughter, Anjelica scrutinized the new nanny, looked at me, then at the lady again and asked me, "Is this my new mother?"
The words cut into my heart, a twist to the anguish countless new mothers feel when they head off to work and leave children with caregivers. In Italy, which has one of the lowest percentages of working women in Europe, I imagined stony stares from many stay-at-home mothers.
But some Italians gave welcome support, even championed me, including the nun who taught her for five elementary school grades and repeatedly reassured me in difficult moments that what I did was fine, that my daughter would be fine.
A few Italians were wistful, even envious. One single woman told me she was sorry that as an Italian she couldn't adopt. An unmarried Italian colleague confided that she regretted not acquiring a second passport when she had the chance, because that second country's citizenship would have made it possible for her to realize her dream of becoming an adoptive mother.
Still others challenged me. More than once the question came: isn't it better for adopted children to have two parents?
My answer often startled them. Yes, these kids need all the love, support and sense of security they can get. Two parents are generally better than one.
Then I'd throw another curve-ball. There is something even better, in my view, for these children, especially older ones, I would add. It's a family with two parents and a house full of siblings.
With siblings to share secrets with, to copy routines from, my daughter would have had some models to ease her into her new role as daughter. And she would have had ready-made playmates.
But I'm convinced: A family of two — mother (or father) and child — is far better than a childhood spent in an orphanage.
Those pondering this route, however, should keep in mind: there are unique sensitivities to consider when bringing up an adopted child.
Experts advise that when children are adopted from foreign orphanages, it's better to keep the child's room simple, almost spartan, when they first start their lives in a real home. Cruel as it sounds, little is what these kids are used to, and too many toys might be overwhelming.
These children are also used to rooms full of other children, and I got an eardrum-shattering reminder of how lonely it can be for an adopted child adjusting to her new world.
One afternoon after school, my daughter decided she would play with her first friend — and soon best friend: a boy one year her junior who lived in our apartment building. I brought her to her friend's door, we rang the bell, but her playmate wasn't home.
She sat down on a staircase and let out an anguished howl that went on forever, it seemed, and brought several neighbors running out into the hallway. Nothing, no one, could comfort her or make her budge. She fixed herself to a step and wailed and wailed.
I had long ago tucked this unsettling episode into my mental memory book under the convenient category "emotional trauma" from years of institutionalized living.
Recently I asked her why she was so upset that day.
Simple, she said. She missed all those kids from her orphanage and really wanted to play that day.
Lately my daughter has been thinking again about those children in her former orphanage, but this time about how their lives may have followed a much darker path than hers.
A few weeks ago, she attended a talk by an Italian nun who works with volunteers to combat trafficking in women to be sex slaves. Many of these women, some teens like my daughter, come to Italy from Eastern Europe after answering ads for purportedly legitimate jobs like waitressing, but end up being enslaved and put on the streets as prostitutes.
After the lecture, some in the audience went up to Sister Eugenia Bonetti to congratulate her on her work. My daughter waited her turn, took a breath, and got straight to the point: "Hi, my name is Anjelica and I was adopted from Ukraine." Isn't it true, she asked, that some of these trafficked women were orphans, including from her own homeland, who, after turning 18 and leaving orphanages, find themselves on the street and easily lured by enticing offers of work?
Yes, the nun replied, that is true, and she thanked Anjelica for reminding her of this heartbreaking fact that wasn't in her lecture. My daughter added that she considered herself fortunate to have escaped that possible fate.
At that moment, I felt immeasurable pride at my daughter caring about those not as lucky as her.
AP reporters Maria Danilova and Anna Melnichuk in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.