04/16/2014 04:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Mistake Adoptive Parents Never Need to Make Again

Oh, I talk the talk. I try to walk the walk. When it comes to difficult circumstances, I always try to focus on what is best for my children rather than my own feelings. A week ago I came to the understanding that I have been falling short without realizing it for nine years, now. I say "not realizing it," but maybe I just didn't want to know.


Sarah is 14, now. She was five when we took her and her little sister away from Russian orphanages. Sarah has Reactive Attachment Disorder, brought on by the first few years of her life being a failure by those who were supposed to care for her. She has come so far in nine years, but we still have a ways to go. Sarah has told me since she came home that she thinks she loves her first mother, but sometimes she hates her. She always asks me of that's okay. We have been through it so many times. Her feelings are feelings; not right or wrong. She has a right to those feelings. My wife, who also came from a first family fraught with abuse, tries to help our children to forgive, so that their own lives can be happier. All of my children have made huge strides in that respect, though we leave them free to have their negative feelings, when that is what they believe they need.

The actions of my daughters' first mother were so horrific that trying to help them has often focused on coping with memories of that abuse. The signs of my failure have been present from the beginning. I just wasn't listening.

"Papa Anatole was the good one." "Papa Anatole was funny." "Papa Anatole was silly." "When Mama Oksana would hurt me, Papa Anatole would yell at her and she would yell back. Then he would take me for a walk."

If he was worth his salt, why didn't he stop the abuse that his wife handed out so liberally?

I always responded with a "That's nice," or "Good," before redirecting the subject as quickly as possible. As an adult, I wasn't impressed. When I returned to Russia to photograph the shack where two of my daughters had lived before being removed to an orphanage, a neighbor couldn't stop laughing about a long-gone Anatole and what a funny drunk he was. I didn't care if my kids thought he was fun. If he was worth his salt, why didn't he stop the abuse that his wife handed out so liberally? Why was it that Sarah never got medical attention for a third degree burn -- that covered her entire chest -- until it almost killed her, and social workers took her away? Oh, sure, it was an accident! Sarah told me about how Papa Anatole had tripped over her with a pan of soup. With no evidence other than my opinion, I attributed it to drunkenness. How's that for a nice guy? Me, with nine kids... judging a father for tripping over a child. I couldn't count the number of times I have tripped over one of my children!

While I wanted my daughters to be comfortable in having positive feelings toward first parents, I didn't think that was my job. If they wanted to believe that Anatole was a fun little man who would have taken care of them, but for the big-bad wolf, I could live with that. I wouldn't write the book, though.

Recently, my family watched The Book Thief. In the movie, a World War II social orphan is left with a gruff, insulting step-mother and a kind-hearted-softy for a step-father. After the movie and -- more importantly -- after I was away, Sarah told her mother, "The man in the movie was like Papa Anatole. He was so nice."

I didn't need to ask why Sarah hadn't told that to me. She knew I didn't want to hear it. She didn't want me to question her loyalties or wonder who she loved more. So she quietly held back her feelings. How shallow of me!

My wife thought I would be interested in hearing what our daughters' first father was like, so she told me about what Sarah had said. I was immediately ashamed that my daughter hadn't felt like she could tell me. I resolved to do better.

Why did I need to blame anyone?

A few days later, I asked Sarah to tell me about her first father. Initially, she was apprehensive. She only told me what he looked like. It took some reassurance from me and a little bit of mining for her to express positive feelings, but soon she opened up.

For the next hour I was treated to stories of a little girl and her daddy, the only friend she had in a home and place that could only be compared to hell. He took her for walks, told her stories, held her hand, and loved her. And she loved him. Why did I ever try to avoid hearing about the only positive things that ever happened to my daughters in those homes?

It was because I blamed the father of my daughters as much as the mother. Why did I need to blame anyone? It was the government's job to determine if my daughters were safe in their first home, not mine. They did their job. They also did their job in trying to find a safe home for them when they sent them to live with my wife and me, in our family.

Did Anatole leave my daughters in an orphanage, never trying to get them out because he was a drunk who didn't care about them? Was he a drunk who couldn't care for them, but still honest enough to admit it? Or was he a dad who couldn't bear the thought of his wife continuing to abuse those daughters? Was he giving them the best chance he could?

I really don't care what the truth is when it comes to those details. The only truth I need to know on that subject is that my daughters did not feel like they had been left with no one. They always knew that someone loved them. In a real-life house of horrors, they always knew they had a friend, even if he was their only friend in the world.

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