SPIRIT AND CONSCIENCE: Building a family: what it takes

To become a parent is to take a giant step into the great unknown. Parenting is spelunking and bungee jumping all rolled into one. It takes a lot of bravery. And you have to be so open.

In giving birth one is literally and physically stretched to the limit. Adopting a child stretches one to another kind of limit.

The degree of effort required, both to give birth and to adopt a child, seals your commitment. And in both cases, the degree of risk is comparable. You can’t really control the outcome. You parent as well as you can. You go where you never thought you could go. It’s the mystery of love.

For example, your child might love animals so much that you end up sharing your house with a 16-foot python. (I know somebody like this.) The poetry of your child’s faith might inspire you to remold your own. Your child might bring home friends (and their parents) so strange, weird and different that you think you’ve landed on Jupiter. Or, your child could lead you halfway around the world to the Ural Mountains where Bashkir nomads used to roam.

Louis Hoffman and his wife, Rebecca Howes Hoffman, a couple of lawyers well-established in their professions, were married in 1988 and took their time starting a family. Finally, when Louis was 37 and Rebecca 41, Benjamin Edward was born on June 20, 1995. Strollers and diapers became as much a part of their life as dossiers and briefs.

Louis, satisfied to have grown up as an only child, leaned toward raising a family with one child in it. At the same time, both he and Rebecca thought it would be wonderful for Ben to have a sibling. Adoption entered into the conversation partly because giving birth at 44 or 45 seemed risky and partly because they thought it would be good to give a home to a child who didn’t have one. The idea was up in the air until one day an International Adoption Agency ad in the Star Tribune popped out at them: Orphans from Russia were available for adoption. Louis’ grandparents were Russian Jews who had left the Ukraine at the turn of the century so he felt a definite connection to that heritage. As a Russian studies major who had been to Russia in 1974, Rebecca also felt a kinship with their future child.

However, “It wasn’t like God spoke and said, ‘Do This.’ ” There was still a period of time in which they asked themselves whether adoption would be good for their family and whether they could swing it financially. Helping themselves to support from friends, family and their church community of St. James on the Parkway Episcopal, they at last arrived at “an inner conviction that everything will work out” and they moved ahead. Wherever children come from, building a family is always a “leap of faith,” said Rebecca.

They went to the adoption agency website and picked out photos of three children and then requested their medical information and videos of them. Rebecca couldn’t exactly describe the unpleasant feeling of picking children. Maybe it was too much like ordering at a restaurant or picking out a puppy at the humane society. Maybe it was about picking one and not the other, knowing that you can’t take them all; there are more than a half a million orphans in the former Soviet Union, about 1% of which are adopted each year by Americans.

Radik Nicholas, who eventually became their son, was one of the three. All the Hoffmans know about his ancestry is that his mother was Bashkir, a formerly nomadic Turkish tribe of whom there remain about 1.4 million members.

Fortunately, there is an International Adoption Clinic at the U of M—part of the Pediatrics Department— that provides the expertise necessary to interpret the medical records. According to the records for Radik, he had seven horrible sounding diagnoses and would be a vegetable. But, interpreted at the clinic, they meant that Radik was delayed, as is normal for kids living in orphanages, but wouldn’t have permanent problems.

The Hoffmans filled out the paperwork at Christmas in 1999. About 10 months later—approximately the length of gestation, as Louis said—they had another child. It was an intense and emotional 10 months.

After handing in the paper work in March of 2000, Rebecca and Louis were checked out thoroughly by every imaginable method to satisfy the International Adoption Agency. Their finances were scrutinized. Through the INS, the FBI studied their fingerprints. They were investigated by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Minneapolis Police Criminal Records Department, the Department of Human Services, and Hennepin County Child Protection. They had to be tested for HIV, which involves several tests over a period of six months. Embarrassed, they kept explaining every time they went in to the clinic, “It’s for adoption.”

In August, the Hoffman’s were notified that, within five days—for the first of the two trips to Russia required by Russian law—they needed to be in Magnitigorsk, where they would meet little Radik. Since they were on their way to New Hampshire to visit Rebecca’s family anyway, they just continued on, flying to Amsterdam, to Moscow, to the regional capital, and then catching a van to Magnitogorsk, which straddles the Ural River about 300 miles southeast of Moscow not far from the border with Kazakhstan. The whole trip took three days.

They were told to bring cash to pay their driver, interpreter, representative of the adoption agency and so on, all of whom were extremely well paid, earning more in one day than the average Russian earns in a month.

The van trip was a colorful event over bad roads through dry, empty land dotted with old wooden houses and their matching wooden fences. The entourage, which included two other couples—from Florida and Pennsylvania—spent the hours on the road deep in philosophical conversation about the nature of friendship while drinking Russian cognac—and pondering the official U.S.-versus-Russia animosity of yesteryear while searching in vain for rest areas.

The purpose of the first trip was for the adoptive parents to give a definite yes or no about taking the child they had chosen. When Rebecca and Louis met Radik for the first time, the child immediately put his arms around Louis and wouldn’t let go. Rebecca described Radik as a “silent, sweet child who clung to us. Very lovable.” There was no decision to be made. Just like when you give birth to a child, “Do you want to keep him?” would be a very stupid question.

Despite the obvious impossibility of each child in the orphanage receiving adequate personal attention, the children were physically well cared for. Louis mentioned several times the regimentation of meal time. All the meals were pretty similar. At dinner, there was fruit juice, a vegetable soup and a plate of soft meat or fish with some kind of starch and a little baguette. It was prepared so that a two-year-old could eat everything by himself with a spoon. The child would break the bread in half and use one half to sop up the soup and the other half for the entree. The children always ate on schedule and cleaned their plates. Louis says one of the “advantages” of Radik’s new higher standard of living is that he now knows he can pick and choose what he wants to eat.

In an almost symbolic first ice cream, Louis and Rebecca took Radik to a Baskin Robbins—next door to a BMW show room, several of many signs of Westernization in this 20th century steel town on the border between Asia and Europe.

Between the extreme summer heat without air conditioning; 12-story buildings with unreliable elevators; the bureaucracy (chocolates convinced one inspector that Minneapolis and Edina, both given as the address of the adoption agency, were the same city); grueling journeys; and a helpless feeling, the adoption went through.

Dealing with the bureaucracy in an unfamiliar culture was very difficult. Rebecca said, “It was a tough experience. Like giving birth, you just have to let go. Like many people, we’re control freaks. You have to let go and trust these people even though it’s against your every instinct.” It seemed impossible to get any questions answered. “You ended up answering your own questions.”

On Louis and Rebecca’s second visit to Russia, in November, they had a court hearing. Louis said, “It was especially hard, as lawyers, to deal with the bureaucracy of a foreign legal system. Our own lack of control was emphasized to me as I looked around at the Russian tri-color and the double headed eagle, symbols of the sovereignty of a foreign nation.”

Radik was issued a passport—stamped with a hammer and sickle—and given permanent resident alien status to enter the United States. In February of 2001 he became a U.S. citizen.

At first, when they returned to Minneapolis, Rebecca spoke Russian words to Radik to comfort him, to make him feel more familiar. Now he speaks English like any other 3 ½ -year-old American kid.

Rebecca and Louis want both of their kids to be familiar with the Russian connection and are involved with a cultural organization called Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA). At the same time, they have to allow Radik to decide, eventually, how much he wants to take on a Russian identity. He may be really interested. He may want to read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenyev, Pushkin, Chekhov, Gorky, Boris Pasternak—maybe even in Russian. (Considering Louis’ love for history and gift for storytelling, both boys may be drawn to Russian culture.) He may want to collect matryoshka (what we know as nesting dolls). He may not. He may just want to be American. His parents believe they will have to support his inclination.

Right now the brothers are two regular kids without a care in the world. They bounce off the walls trying to impress a strange visitor (myself). They play ducks and sharks and riding on the train—invented games with the kind of esoteric rules that only children understand. And they’re proud of their dog.

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