The Experience of Parents Who Adopt Romanian Children

Christine P. Rochford, PhD,

Gordon N. S. Davidson, EdD,

Private Practice

Vernon, B.C.

 

National Adoption Conference

Vancouver, B. C.

March 2, 1997

 

This research is based in part on the doctoral dissertation of the first author. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Christine P. Rochford, #101, 3005 35 Avenue, Vernon, B.C., Canada, V1T 2S9.

Abstract

A qualitative heuristic analysis of ten couples who adopted Romanian children revealed a number of core themes. Mothers reported bonding more readily than fathers, and those who made the trip to Romania reported restraining any feelings of attachment until the legal process was completed. All parents felt unprepared for the more involved parenting required. Parents of children who exhibited difficult behaviours attributed negative behaviours to the child's genetic background. Parents of children who did not exhibit difficult behaviours attributed positive behaviours to either a mix of heredity and the adoptive environment or due largely to the adoptive environment.

The Experience of Parents Who Adopt Romanian Children

In December, 1989 the Romanian communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in an unexpected and violent revolution. One of the more tragic legacies of his reign was tens of thousands of children, seemingly abandoned in state orphanages. Most of these children were not true "orphans," in that they had living parents. These children were the consequence of a Ceausescu plan to increase the population of Romania, while denying the Romanian people adequate resources with which to care for additional children. Contraception and abortion were illegal and families were taxed if they failed to produce large numbers of children. Desperate parents then placed the children they were unable to care for in institutions (Johnson, Edward, & Puwak, 1993). Shortly after the revolution, an explosion of media coverage revealed the plight of these "orphans" to the world and prospective adoptive parents flocked to Romania to adopt these children.

Ames (1992) who visited several Romanian institutions in 1990, as part of a fact-finding mission, reports that the children had been reared under extremely severe conditions of deprivation. She describes infants and toddlers confined to cribs for 20 out of 24 hours, with no stimulation. Children under the ages of one and one-half or two years received all their food from bottles and many were small and malnourished. Many of the Romanian orphans also suffered from a variety of health problems such as anemia, skin infections, and gastro-intestinal disorders. Some had hepatitis B or were HIV positive as a consequence of blood transfusions given instead of food, which was not available (Jenista, 1992). Adopting parents have reported very poor child-caregiver rations ranging from 5:1 to more than 20:1 (Marcovitch, Cesaroni, Roberts, & Swanson, 1995). Children had little control over their lives as all activities of daily living were carried out according to a rigid schedule. Ninety five per cent of the children had significant cognitive and social developmental delays when their parents first met them (Morison, Ames, & Chisholm, 1995). Ames notes that the average two and one-half year old could neither walk nor talk.

An estimated 5000 children from Romania were adopted by families in North America during 1990 and 1991 until stories began to circulate about some birth families accepting money in exchange for relinquishing for adoption either their institutionalized or home-based children (Ames, 1992). Consequently, eighteen months following the beginning of private international adoption, the Romanian government decided to call a moratorium on private adoption, until a government-regulated system could be established. While such a system was eventually established, the country lacks the infrastructure and trained staff to implement the process and very few adoptions have occurred since 1991 (Johnson et al., 1993). Ralph (1994) notes that while some ministers and senior education officials wish to improve the conditions of the orphanage children, many still feel that abandoned children are the castoffs of society.

International adoption, such as Romanian adoption, is becoming more common as a means to building a family. Several societal trends are paving the way for greater numbers of international adoptions, as compared to domestic adoptions. The heightened availability of and access to birth control and abortion and the social acceptability of single parenthood mean that fewer infants are available for domestic adoption. While Canadian public agencies placed 2736 children under one year of age in 1981, this figure had decreased 74.5 %, to 698 children, by 1990; and it is estimated that there were approximately three international adoptions for every two infant adoptions in Canada in 1991 (Daly & Sobel, 1993). More prospective adoptive parents are turning to international adoption and this option typically involves children who have been institutionalized.

This study explores the parenting experience of those who adopt internationally, as opposed to domestically, as this route to creating an adoptive family is becoming more common. In exploring the parenting experience of these adoptive parents, families and professionals in the adoption community will learn more about the special challenges and rewards in building an international adoptive family.

Parents, for the purpose of this study, are married mothers and fathers of adopted Romanian children, and the adopted Romanian children are children who had been living in institutions or with their families, and adopted from Romania during the post-revolution period during 1990 and 1991. At the time of adoption, the children ranged in age from newborn to early school age. The presence of these children in British Columbia provided a unique opportunity to study the experience of parenting the children following the adoption.

The literature review reveals that much of the work on family relationships and adoption tends to be problem-oriented, and emphasizes the child's perspective, to the detriment of the adoptive parents' point of view. In fact, Kirk (1988) notes that the literature tends to focus on the development of adopted children, and has particularly failed to address the post-adoption experience of the parents. Similarly, studies which have researched international adoption also have focused on the subsequent development of the child. The two exceptions are the Bernthal (1990) qualitative study of internationally adopting mothers and the Mainemar, Gilman, and Ebbern (1997) quantitative study of parents of Romanian adoptees. Bernthal's study, while moving towards considering the experience of international adoptive parents, was limited to adoptive mothers, and the exploration ended soon after the arrival of the adopted child in the adoptive home. Mainemar et. al's longitudinal study of Romanian adopted children and their families focused primarily on the problems experienced by the children and their families. In addition, the quantitative nature of the Mainemar et. al study did not allow for an in-depth exploration of the experience of parenting these children.

Method

Qualitative research methods have recently been advocated for use in family research (Seawright & Young, 1994). The heuristic qualitative approach was utilized in this study. Heuristic inquiry is a process that begins with a question which the researcher seeks to illuminate or answer. The question is one that has been a personal challenge and puzzlement in the search to understand one's self and the world in which one lives. Moustakas (1990) describes seven concepts of heuristic research. 1. Identifying with the Focus of Inquiry. Moustakas (1990) states that through exploratory open-ended inquiry, self-directed search, and immersion in active experience, one is able to get inside the question, become one with it, and thus achieve an understanding of it. 2. Self-Dialogue. In addition to becoming one with what one seeks to know, the researcher enters into a dialogue with the phenomenon. One's self-discoveries, insights, and understandings are the initial steps in the process. 3. Tacit Knowing. Tacit knowing is a basic capacity of the self of the researcher which gives "Birth to the hunches and vague, formless insights that characterize heuristic discovery" (Douglass & Moustakas 1985, p. 49). 4. Intuition. The bridge between the explicit and the tacit is the realm of the intuitive. Intuition makes possible the perceiving of things as wholes, and guides the researcher in the discovery of patterns and meanings which will lead to enhanced meanings and deepened knowledge. 5. Indwelling. Indwelling involves turning inward to focus on factors of an experience to draw from them every possible nuance, texture, fact, and meaning. This reflective process allows the researcher to move toward the ultimate creative synthesis that portrays the essential qualities of the experience. 6. Focusing. Focusing facilitates a relaxed and receptive state which enables the researcher to determine core themes, identify and assess connecting feelings and thoughts, and achieve cognitive knowledge. 7. The Internal Frame of Reference. Heuristic processes relate back to the internal frame of reference. In order to know and understand another's experience, one must have an empathic understanding of that person's internal frame of reference or context in which perceptions, thoughts, and feelings occur.

Moustakas (1990) identifies six phases of heuristic research which guide the design for this study. 1. Initial Engagement. The task of the initial engagement is to discover an intense interest that holds important social meanings and personal, compelling implications. 2. Immersion. Once the question is discovered, the researcher "lives" the question and is alert to all opportunities for immersion in the question. Primary concepts for this process include self-dialogue, pursuing intuitive clues, and drawing from knowledge within the tacit dimension. 3. Incubation. Incubation is the process in which the researcher retreats from the intense focus on the question. It is the period in which the seed has been planted and then requires silent nourishment, support, and care to produce a creative awareness or integration. 4. Illumination. Illumination occurs naturally when the researcher is open and receptive to tacit knowledge and intuition. It may be an awakening to new constituents of the experience or it may involve corrections of distorted knowledge or disclosure of hidden meanings. 5. Explication. Once illumination occurs, the researcher enters into a process of explication in order to fully examine what has been awakened in consciousness. Focusing, indwelling, self-searching, and self-disclosure are utilized. Ultimately a comprehensive depiction of the dominant themes is developed. 6. Creative Synthesis. The final phase is the process where the researcher is challenged to put the components and core themes into a creative synthesis.

Description of Research Participants

Adoptive parents of Romanian children were the focus for this study. This group was selected for a number of reasons. First, most of the adoptions took place during a relatively brief period of time (1989-1991) under similar conditions of haste on the part of the adoptive parents, a history of institutionalization and resulting problems on the part of the children and in a climate of political and social upheaval in Romania. These conditions provide a similar, although not entirely homogeneous, context for these parents in embarking on their journey of parenting. Second, most of the parents have been living with their adopted children for three or four years and have a similar duration of the parenting experience. Third, as adoptive parents of a Romanian child, the authors have a direct autobiographical experience with the phenomenon being investigated, a necessary condition for conducting heuristic research (Moustakas 1990).

Approximately 20 families belonging to support groups in two major British Columbian cities were contacted by mail regarding their interest in participating in this study. In addition, parents of Romanian adopted children were contacted from a personal network, either by telephone or in writing.

Ten families responded affirmatively and with enthusiasm. These 10 families constituted the final sample and there was no attrition. Moustakas (1990) suggests that the depictions of 10 to 15 participants will yield rich, deep, and varied meanings. While common themes and patterns of the parenting experience may be more difficult to determine due to the heterogeneity of the sample, it was seen as important to determine if there were some universals to the Romanian adoptive parenting experience which transcend some of the differing variables.

The couples resided in a range of communities from fairly rural areas to the suburbs of large cities. The women were mostly in their mid to late thirties, with ages ranging from 34 to 47, while the men were mostly in their late thirties or early forties, with ages ranging from 34 to 51. Six of the mothers were full-time homemakers. Three of the women worked part-time in the professions of nursing and teaching, while one was a para-professional. The husbands were all employed in a variety of vocations. Most of the families had more than one child, either through adoption or birth. While eight of the families adopted only one Romanian child, one family adopted a group of children, aged five, four, and three years old and a second family adopted two younger Romanian children, aged nine months and seven months. Five of the families had two other biological children, in addition to one Romanian adopted child. In one of these families, the father had two grown children by a previous marriage. One family who adopted three Romanian children had one grown child by a previous marriage on the part of the mother. Another family was composed of a previously adopted child, in addition to the Romanian adopted child. The only two couples with no previous direct parenting experience adopted one Romanian child and two Romanian children, respectively.

Many of the children were infants at the time of the adoption. Eight of the children ranged in age from one month to nine months, while one was eighteen months old at the time of arrival to Canada. Four of the children were either pre-school or kindergarten age, ranging from three years old to five and one-half years old. Eight of the families adopted children from orphanages or hospitals while two families adopted children from very deprived family settings (typically in situations of extreme poverty and parental absence, neglect, or abuse). The children had all been in their adoptive homes for a period of about three and one-half years at the time of this study and were now pre-school to primary school-aged.

Data Collection

From the outset, the initial approach utilized self-disclosure and invited dialogue. The interviewing approach selected was that of the informal conversational interview which relies on a spontaneous generation of questions and conversations in which the researcher and the participants engage in a naturally unfolding dialogue. Guiding questions were formulated for the interviews, however. Interview questions were constructed to provide a forum for the adoptive parents to voice their experiences of parenting their children. The questions were crafted both by reviewing the pertinent literature and determining the existing gaps and by reflecting on personal experience as adoptive parents of a Romanian child. During the initial interview, the participants were invited to describe their experience of parenting.

Each family was interviewed on two occasions and each interview was approximately one and one-half to two hours in duration. All interviews were tape recorded and selected segments transcribed. The first and second interviews were separated by an interval of about six to eight weeks. This time interval was to allow time for immersion in the tapes and notes of each interview, to develop a written portrait of each participant, and to return these depictions to the families for feedback and validation. In the time period between the first and second interviews, some recurring themes were identified and a second interview guideline was developed to explore these themes in more depth. The second interview began by asking the participants for feedback on the portraits which had been mailed two weeks prior to the return visit. Most parents felt that the "stories" captured the essence of their experience, while some made some minor corrections in terms of factual information, or provided some clarification or elaboration on some of their quotations as reported in the original portrait. They were also asked to elaborate on emerging themes derived across couples in the first set of interviews.

Data Analysis

The first step in data analysis in this heuristic research was to gather all the material from one participant (tape recordings, notes, personal documents, etc.) and enter into immersion and reflection until it was understood. Knowledge of the participant's experience as a whole and in all its detail was pursued until it was comprehensively understood. The data were set aside for an interval of several days and reviewed again. The tapes and notes were reviewed until it was possible to construct a narrative portrait for each family which accurately reflected the facts and the qualities and themes of the experience of parenting. The next step required returning to the original data to determine if the portrait developed fit the original data and revising as necessary. The same series of steps was undertaken for each research participant. As discussed previously, some preliminary analysis was conducted between the first and second interviews in order to identify and explore some of the emerging themes at the time of the second interview. The individual depictions were then drawn together until the universal qualities of the experience were thoroughly understood. The themes of bonding, expectations, and parental attributions were identified and described. A composite depiction was developed which captured the core meanings of the phenomenon of parenting an adopted Romanian child. The final step was the development of a creative synthesis. This synthesis represents the culmination of the tacit-intuitive awareness, which was incubating over time. This is expressed as a metaphor, which was developed from a beginning metaphor first described by one of the participants.

Findings and Discussion

The findings of this study add to and support the existing literature pertaining to international adoption and parenting. Since few research efforts have focused on examining the experience of adoptive parenthood, from the point of view of the adoptive parent, this study adds significant knowledge to adoption studies in this area. This work adds to the research of Bernthal (1990) as the parenting experience of both mothers and fathers is considered. In addition, the parents' reflections on their experience with their Romanian-born children four years post-adoption adds a longer-range aspect to the Bernthal study. This research also extends the work of Ames and her associates (1997), in their longitudinal study of adopted Romanian children and their parents, as the parenting experience is studied using qualitative methodology in order to obtain richer understandings of the phenomenon.

Bonding and Attachment

Bonding and attachment were frequently mentioned as an important issue in parenting a Romanian-born adopted child. This study supports the findings of Smith and Sherwen (1984) in that most of the mothers described the first meeting with their child in vivid detail, and generally reported feelings of "love at first sight." This study further differentiated between parents who first met their children in Romania, prior to the completion of the difficult adoption process and those who met their children at the airport, after the legal adoption process was finalized. Those who met their children at the airport felt freer to attach to their children, since they were not concerned about the adoption "falling through." One mother, who became a parent at the airport, recalls approaching her husband and, "Unzipping the `snugglie'....She was very small and her eyes were crossed and she stuck out her tongue at me. I just cried. It's like she was home and I'd just been waiting so long".

Furthermore, as these adoptive parents were able to choose a prospective child (which is not usually the case in international adoption), all of the parents mentioned the importance of a sense of beginning attraction as critical in their decision to pursue the adoption of a particular child. Perhaps this ability to choose provided parents with a sense of being in control (in an otherwise uncontrollable environment), a perception which Smith and Sherwen (1984) suggest facilitates bonding in adoption. Another mother recalled feeling attracted to her son immediately:

He was in the orphanage in a crib...and he was the only one sitting. He had these Fisher Price things that you chain together. He just looked like he needed somebody to pick him up. I got quite hooked on him and started worrying that was going to be a problem because you know what the paperwork is like.

This study also extends the work of Bernthal (1990) since the experience of fathers as well as that of mothers was explored. Differences between mothers and fathers were noted. As in the Bernthal study, most mothers reported bonding readily with their infants, while both mothers and fathers reported a more difficult and a lengthier attachment process with older children. Like the participants in the Bernthal study, most of the mothers in this research spoke of the importance of nurturing activities, such as diapering, bathing, and holding, as facilitating bonding with their children. In contrast, fathers commented on the importance of activity-based bonding, such as shared participation in sports, which is in keeping with traditional gender stereotypes, but has not been reported previously in the adoption literature. One mother commented that her daughter, "Is very loving and responsive. She's very sensitive". Her husband noted, "She is the most athletic child in the family. She doesn't throw a ball like a girl. She can do all the same stuff the guys do. She can skate, she can ski. I think it's a real bonus". Bonding was found to be easier with a child under four years of age and facilitated when the child is physically and emotionally healthy, supporting the general theories of bonding as cited by Smith and Sherwen (1984). The parents in this study who adopted older children or sick children all reported more difficulty in bonding. Children in this study who were perceived as difficult or unresponsive also elicited feelings of distance on the part of their parents. One father recalled,

I was trying to feel attached to Jeffrey, but he just wouldn't give back, so it was very discouraging. He just didn't want to have any part of me. It drove me away. Jeffrey is more attached to me than I am to him. My anger and frustration is keeping a distance.

Negative behaviour of the children was the most often-mentioned barrier to parents' feelings of attachment and posed the greatest source of distress to all of the parents. This finding echoes that of Mainemer et al. (1997) who found that behavioural problems caused much more parental concern than developmental delay or health problems in families with adopted Romanian children.

The kinds of problems exhibited by the children of the participants were similar to those well-documented in classic studies on the impact of institutionalization on children. Most of the children were still experiencing developmental delay, particularly in the areas of adaptive behaviour and language development, as described in earlier studies of children from orphanages (Yarrow, 1961; Dennis, 1973), and in more recent literature concerning Romanian orphans (Kaler & Freeman, 1994; Marcovitch et al., 1995; Morison & Ellwood, 1997). Morison and Elwood found that at the time of adoption, 78 % of children who had spent an average of 18 months in orphanages (Romanian Orphans-ROs) were significantly delayed in all four areas of development (fine and gross motor, personal-social, and language), compared to Canadian born children (CBs) and Romanian children adopted before the age of 9 months (EA-early adoptions). However, the authors found that a majority of these children made remarkable progress in development at a median length of time of 11 months after placement (Time 1) in their adoptive homes. Only thirty two per cent of these children remained delayed in all four areas at Time 1.

A few of the children in the present study exhibited behavioural problems, particularly in terms of aggression, and, to a lesser extent, passivity, as well as social immaturity. These behaviours have been articulated in earlier research (Goldfarb, 1943; Pringle & Gooch, 1966; Tizard, 1977), and more currently in literature on Romanian orphans (Fisher, Thompson, Ferrari, Savoie, & Lukie, 1997; Marcovitch et al., 1995;). Fisher et al. found that 32 per cent of the ROs had problems with peers when assessed at Time 1. These problems were primarily "internalizing" behaviours such as passivity and avoidance of peers. However, 39 months after placement (Time 2), "externalizing" problems such as aggression with siblings had also emerged, and the children had become increasingly unpopular with peers. Forty eight per cent of the sample were rated by parents and teachers as above the clinical cut-off on a measure of social skills, and thus were assumed to need professional assistance.

Difficulty in the participants' bonding to their children in the present study appeared to be associated with difficulty children had in bonding to their parents. Attachment problems have been noted in early work on orphanage children (Ainsworth, 1955; Bowlby, 1951; Klaus & Kennel, 1972; Spitz, 1945), and more recently identified in the research on Romanian adoptees (Chisholm & Carter, 1997). Chisholm and Carter found that parents rated their ROs as significantly more unattached than Canadian born children, or the early adopted Romanian children. One third of the ROs showed very atypical insecure patterns. Insecure children had lower IQs and more behavioural problems than did secure children. They theorize that the low IQs of the insecure children may have interfered with their capacity to express their attachment needs clearly, and therefore, may have interfered with their parents ability to understand and respond sensitively to the children.

The results of this study can be interpreted as providing an optimistic perspective on the bonding experience of parents and their Romanian-born adopted children. Like most biological parents and their children, most adoptive parents and their children developed warm and loving attachment relationships. The sample of children in this study (mostly children adopted as infants) probably influenced the positive attachment reported by the participants, in light of the findings of Fisher et. al (1997). The exception concerned children adopted at a later age and those who exhibited severe behavioural problems. However, one family in this study who adopted three older children, all of whom had extremely difficult histories and displayed disturbed behaviour and attachment, reported remarkably strong positive feelings towards their children. Perhaps the explanation for this finding lies in the notion of "claiming," the process by which a parent says, once and for all, "This is my child" (Tem, 1992). Tem clearly differentiates between claiming and bonding. Bonding is described as a slow, growing process of loving, which develops most strongly when there is mutuality. Bonding is also characterized as something over which people have little conscious control. In contrast, claiming is viewed as a conscious act of will and is not incremental; a parent either does or does not claim a child fully.

The family in this study with the three older children who seemed attached had probably unconditionally "claimed" them. At no time during the interviews did they mention having considered relinquishment or any feelings of regret. They had therefore dealt effectively with a major potential barrier to bonding and attachment with children adopted at a later age. Chisholm et al. (1995) propose that parenting these children may require a higher level of commitment than for other children.

Expectations Versus Reality and Coping With the Difference

Similar to the findings of Ames (1992) and Marcovitch et al. (1995), most of the participants felt unprepared for the special challenges of parenting children who had been institutionalized. In addition, the first-time parents were struggling with the transition to parenthood in general, and the demands of a caring for a young child or children. These findings support the parenting literature such as the work by Miller and Myers-Walls (1983) which suggests that having a first child is one of the most dramatic changes in life. The fatigue, loss of freedom, and loss of spontaneity reported by the first-time parents in this study are common complaints of any new parents. The findings further support Rossi (1968) who contends that the shock experienced by new parents lies in the fact that the roles and tasks of parenthood are acquired abruptly. This shock was particularly pronounced for these adoptive parents as the decision to pursue Romanian adoption and the preparation for the trip were made under conditions of great haste.

The families in this study which reported experiencing difficulties showed wide variation in their degree of preparedness for the problems inherent in parenting children who have been adopted internationally. However, all these parents stated that they did not fully anticipate the magnitude of the problems or the great stress which the entire family experienced, similar to findings of Fisher et. al (1997). Even parents who were experienced and well-prepared experienced great distress if their child demonstrated severe behavioural disturbances. Mainemer et. al (1997) found that one third of the parents of Romanian Orphan children at Time 2 had child related stress high enough to suggest the need for professional help, and that the stress had increased from Time 1. One father in the present study noted that "We had expected six months of chaos, followed by a lifetime of bliss. The problem is the bliss is missing". In describing their son's screaming if he did not receive his food immediately, he noted,

The screaming was so bad that a neighbour came over one day. He thought he was being beaten....he had about a one minute window of time to get his bottle to him and it took forty-five seconds in the microwave, so you really had to run.

Families who reported that the parenting experience was as expected or even better than anticipated were all experienced parents who had adopted children with few or no problems, except for minor health problems such as anemia, and who had adopted children who appeared to be a "good fit" with their new families. Even if the child was temperamentally different from the adoptive family and seemingly a "poor fit," parents expressed satisfaction with the adoption if they were able to see the child's differences in a positive way that enhanced the family as a whole. For example, one very talkative little boy who had been adopted by a rather quiet family was seen as "the icebreaker" who "took the pressure off" the rest of the family in social interactions. The adopted children perceived to be a "good fit" were also of the opposite gender to the existing children in the family. Perhaps the fact that the adoptive parents seemed to be exercising gender preference (although this was typically not acknowledged) contributed to a sense of satisfaction with their new family composition. The wish for a child of the opposite gender may have been at last fulfilled. One mother with two older birth sons stated "I love the way she plays with her dollies, the tea parties and imaginary games...and all the little baby things for girls. I love making clothes for her, she's my friend and we do things together".

The kinds of coping strategies used by the parents in this study fell into two of the categories suggested by Miller and Myers-Walls (1983); support systems and professional help. Most of the families reported finding great help in talking with friends, particularly those friends who also had adopted Romanian children. Surprisingly, only two of the families found organized support groups for adoptive parents of Romanian children helpful. The two families involved in such groups seemed to be primarily fulfilling altruistic leanings, rather than seeking personal support. Parents in this study tended to rely heavily on each other, a finding which supports Zur-Szpiro and Longfellow's (1981) work on parenting. These authors found that a crucial supportive relationship for mothers is with fathers. One mother stated that "Sometimes when I lose it, Jeff brings it to my attention and tells me to lighten up. It seems like we both don't lose it at the same time".

Professional help was sought by those with children who exhibited problematic behaviour, although some parents in this study, like those in Ames' (1992) study, reported that they were unable to locate professionals who had expertise in the problems of families who had adopted internationally. Those with difficult children tended to have firm rules for their children and structured the environment to prevent behavioural outbursts. These approaches were more effective than relying on the application of strategies, such as "time-out" or logical consequences, which are typically taught in parenting classes. Fisher et. al (1997) found that parents of RO children used harsher means to deal with a larger proportion of behavioral problems than parents of Canadian born children, or the early adopted Romanian children.

When parents were stressed by the behaviour of their children, many found strength in the use of inner resources such as coping self-statements and either a reliance on a religious faith such as Christianity or a generalized notion that the adoption "was meant to be." Another mother used coping statements such as, "They're tired, I'm tired. They will leave home by eighteen. They will be in bed by nine o'clock. They're kids, I'm the parent". One mother noted,

I couldn't have done it without a faith in the Lord and the children have a strong faith now, too. It's a real thing to them. There's times when I stood at the kitchen sink and cried. There was a lot of tension, anger, and frustration. I needed to have a faith.

Parental Attributions

Attributions are the explanations parents hold for why their children behave as they do. Most of the families in this study who had difficult children believed strongly that genetics (eg. personality) or fetal environment dictated largely the behaviours of their children. Distancing themselves from the personal responsibility for the difficult behaviour of their children was perhaps a coping mechanism for these parents. In contrast, parents of non-problem children reported that they believed in a combination of heredity and the home environment. These parents tended to see positive behaviour as reflecting child disposition, and also held themselves and the environment which they provided as the reasons for these positive behaviours. Most parents did not seem to consider the possible impact of the pre-adoptive environment.

Parents of difficult children have been found to attribute child misbehaviour to genetics or personality dispositions (Baden & Howe, 1992; Dix & Lochman, 1990; Gretarsson & Gelfand, 1988). One father acknowledged, "One of the things I kind of hide behind, for lack of a better word, is the fact that he is adopted. If it were one of our (biological) daughters, I'd take it more personally". One mother commented,

When you read about the gypsy people...Emma's personality fits. She's right in there. I knew that something wasn't right with Emma... I don't have any control. All I can do is teach them the basics to survive, teach them nice manners, give them a good education.

All of the parents in the study with difficult children rated their effectiveness as considerably lower than their effectiveness with their easier children, similar to the findings of Johnston (1996). Many of these parents reported significant decreases in their overall sense of self-esteem. One mother in the study commented,

My self-esteem has probably gone from 100% to zero at times and then it bounces back up. I've worked a lot on my sense of perfectionism. It's been an emotional rollercoaster at times, where I've been so far down, I have to say I need help.

 

Creative Synthesis: The Fruit Tree

The processes of immersion and indwelling enabled the capturing of the essence of the experience of families that parent an adopted Romanian child. By alternatively withdrawing and incubating, a creative synthesis was constructed. While searching for a story, poem, or metaphor that would accurately capture the experience of parenting a Romanian adopted child, the metaphor of a young fruit tree was reviewed, which was first described by one of the families. The metaphor was developed more fully and seemed to portray the essence of the experience of parenting a Romanian adopted child. The creative synthesis and the explication of the metaphor follows:

The young fruit tree which was just barely rooted was suddenly uprooted and transplanted into an entirely foreign climate, amongst a group of evergreens. The chemistry and composition of the soil were different and the amount of sun and rainfall were unfamiliar. Unpredictable storms and winds bent and twisted the tree, at times almost tearing the tree from the ground. The gardener had never seen a fruit tree of this variety before and was uncertain as to its proper care. So the gardener experimented, trying different fertilizers and different amounts of water. He pruned when the branches became unwieldy and staked when the tree needed support. He sheltered the tree from the elements when necessary. The gardener looked at his old gardening books and consulted gardening friends and experts when faced with new problems with his fruit tree. Gradually, over the years and with much careful nurturing, the tree developed stronger and deeper roots. Eventually, much to the delight of the gardener, the tree blossomed and then bore succulent fruit. As the tree grew, the trunk thickened and the branches became larger and stronger. It no longer required the watchful caretaking as it had during the early years. Children climbed and built forts in the sturdy branches. The fruit tree still needed pruning and watering, but it stood fast in the midst of the evergreens, separate and yet part of the grove.

This metaphor illustrates the essence of the experience of adopting a Romanian-born child for many reasons. Effective parenting of these children lay in fully understanding where they had come from. They had been "suddenly uprooted" from a familiar, albeit an institutional or otherwise marginal environment, and were experiencing feelings of loss, confusion, and rejection.

The children then found themselves "transplanted into an entirely foreign environment" quite literally. The chemistry and the composition of the soil were different and the amount of sun and rainfall were unfamiliar. These children were dealing with the industrialized world for the first time, and reacted with bewilderment and "negative" behaviour due to such things as the abundance of food and the presence of vehicles. In addition, the rules, both formal and informal, of living in a North American family were completely alien to these children. The children were more accustomed to the survival-of-the-fittest values of life in an orphanage or a large family struggling with poverty. As the gardener had not seen a fruit tree of this variety before, these parents, most of whom had raised other children, had not encountered children who presented such a myriad of behavioural and emotional problems. They were used to nurturing evergreens, not fruit trees. All felt unprepared for specialized care which was required in parenting their Romanian-born children.

Unpredictable storms and winds which bent and twisted the tree were either internal or external. Internal storms included such things as aggressive, even violent behavioural outbursts, nightmares, rocking, etc. These storms were probably in response to external "weather" such as having a history of abuse or neglect, being inadequately attached, beginning school, or learning the give and take required in relating to other children.

While the parents' resources were tested, and many expressed great frustration, anger and even regret about the adoption, most seemed to "hunker down and wait for the storm to pass." None of the parents seemed prepared to completely "uproot" their child or consider relinquishment. The children had thus been "claimed." As "the gardener experimented with different fertilizers and amounts of water," the parents tried different parenting strategies, not unlike the experimentation used in parenting their other children. All the parents acknowledged that all their children, whether adopted or biological, were unique and needed specialized approaches. As the gardener consulted trusted "old gardening books, friends and experts," these parents tried to find new resources to assist them. Most parents found that the traditional child development books were of little help as the children were so developmentally delayed and that "experts" had little expertise in dealing with the specialized problems of their Romanian children. Most found the greatest assistance and support from their spouses and their friends, particularly those who also had adopted Romanian children.

The "gardener pruned the tree when the branches became unwieldy...staked the tree when it needed support...(and) sheltered the tree from the elements when necessary."

The parents, particularly those confronted with very challenging behaviours on the part of their children, provided firm guidelines and structured the environment to manage the children' behaviour. As the years passed and the tree blossomed and bore fruit, the children developed and became more bonded to their families. The intensive caretaking of the early years was no longer necessary for these parents, although the children, as all children, still required guidance and nurturing. The children, like the rooted fruit tree in the evergreen grove, were different from and yet a part of their new families. The composition of the family was changed forever, for the present family and for future generations.

Participants' Advice For Parents Who Are Adopting Internationally

The participants in this study typically had strong views and offered clearly articulated and thoughtful advice to other parents who were considering international adoption. The most frequently mentioned theme concerned that of having realistic expectations and being prepared to accept children with problems. One mother expressed this view succinctly:

If you adopt internationally, you must be totally prepared to accept a child ranging along the spectrum from completely normal and integrating into the family to a child who is high risk, special needs, and will not adapt at all...If you can accept the stress, do it, and if you can't, don't.

Several parents also stressed the need to be educated as to possible developmental delays and behavioural and emotional problems often exhibited by children who have been institutionalized. One mother commented that some of the other adoptive parents that she met were "surprisingly unprepared, believing love will conquer all." She felt that is was important to be prepared for some of the potential problems parents might face with their child and also the reality that some children are relinquished post-adoption. Another father suggested that parents spend time as part of a foster parenting program or even provide respite care for special needs children. Another mother advised families to choose a child who is young, possibly between the ages of six months to one year. Her rationale was that "the child would be young enough to adjust, but old enough so that potential mental or physical problems would be more apparent."

Most parents who were experiencing difficulties commented on the lack of post-adoption resources for parents who adopt internationally. When professionals are consulted, a common concern is that many of these professionals lack training and experience in the specialized problems of children who have been adopted internationally. Some parents spoke of numerous labels which had been applied to their children, depending upon the particular therapeutic orientation of the professional. One couple talked of learning to trust themselves in terms of "which approaches feel right for our son" in their search for definitive answers to the identification and treatment of their son's problems.

Families with children were also encouraged to consider the dynamics of adding another child to the existing family. One father cautioned families, "not to expect that things will stay the same as they were. It will change the dynamics...and it probably takes five years or so to adjust."

Implications for Further Research

The notion of motivation to adopt and how that impacts the experience of parenting would be important for future research. In this study, the decision to adopt seemed to be due primarily to reasons of infertility or altruism; therefore, a possible study would compare these two groups in terms of coping, bonding, and attributions.

A further area for research would be to study the role of religious or spiritual beliefs and the impact of these beliefs on the parenting experience. In addition, as a number of the participants described personal transformations or changes in world view, due to their experience, this topic would be of great interest.

Finally, as international adoption is becoming increasingly common and parents so often report feeling unprepared, it would also be helpful to implement and evaluate the impact of such interventions as pre-adoption educational programs, "buddy" parenting, and support groups.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Aboud, F., & Mesfin, S. (1991). Intellectual, social, and nutritional status of children in an Ethiopian orphanage. Social Science and Medicine, 33(11), 1275-1280.

 

Ainsworth, M., Blear, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

 

Ames, E. (1992). Development of Romanian children adopted in Canada. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the Canadian Psychological Association, Quebec City, Quebec.

 

Baden, A. D., & Howe. G. W. (1992). Mothers' attributions and expectancies regarding their conduct-disordered children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 20, 467-486.

 

Bernthal, N. L. G. (1990). Motherhood lost and found: The experience of becoming an adoptive mother to a foreign-born child. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Union Institute, Ann Arbour, Michigan.

 

Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal Care and Mental Health, 2nd ed. Geneva: World Health Organization. Monograph series no. 2.

 

Chisholm, K., & Carter, M. (1997). Attachment security and indiscriminately friendly behaviour in Romanian adoptees. The Development of Romanian Orphanage Children Adopted to Canada. Simon Fraser University.

 

Daly, K.P., & Sobol, M.P. (1993). Adoption in Canada. Ottawa: Health and Welfare Canada.

 

Dennis, W. (1973). Children of the creche. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

 

Dix, T. H., & Lochman, J. E. (1990). Social cognition and negative reactions to children: A comparison of mothers of aggressive and nonaggressive boys. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 9, 418-438.

 

Douglass, B., & Moustakas, C. (1985). Heuristic inquiry:

The internal search to know. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 25(3), 39-55.

 

Fisher, L., Ames, E., Chisholm, K., & Savoie, L. (in press). Problems reported by parents of Romanian orphans adopted to British Columbia. International Journal of Behavioural Development.

 

Fisher, L., Thompson, S., Ferrari, M., Savoie, L., & Lukie. S. (1997). Medical, behavioural, and social problems. The Development of Romanian Orphanage Children Adopted to Canada. Simon Fraser University.

 

Goldfarb, W. (1955). Emotional and intellectual consequences of psychologic deprivation in infancy: A re-evaluation. In P. Hoch & J. Zubin (Eds.), Psychopathology of childhood. New York: Grune and Stratton.

 

Gretarsson, S. J., & Gelfand, D. M. (1988). Mothers' attributions regarding their children's social behaviour and personality characteristics. Developmental Ps/ychology, 24, 264-269.

 

Jenista, J. (1992). Disease in adopted children from Romania. Journal of American Medical Association, 268, 601-602.

 

Johnson, A., Edwards, R.L., & Puwak, H. (1993). Foster care and adoption policy in Romania: Suggestions for intervention. Child Welfare, 72(5), 489-506.

 

Johnston, C. (1996). Addressing parent cognitions in interventions with families of disruptive children. In K.S. Dobson & K.D. Craig (Eds.), State of the Art in Cognitive/Behavioural Therapy. Sage Publications.

 

Kaler, S., & Freeman. B. (1994) Analysis of environmental deprivation: Cognitive and social development in Romanian orphans. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 35 (4), 769-781.

 

Klaus, M., & Kennell, J. (1972). Maternal-infant bonding: The impact of early separation or loss on family development. St. Louis: Mosby.

 

Klaus, M., & Kennell, J. (1982). Parent-to-infant bonding. St. Louis: Mosby.

 

Mainemer, H., & Gilman, L., & Ebbern, H. (1997). Parenting stress. The Development of Romanian Orphanage Children Adopted to Canada. Simon Fraser University.

 

Marcovitch, S., Cesaroni, L., Roberts. W., & Swanson, C. Romanian adoption: Parents' dreams, nightmares, and realities. (1995). Child Welfare, 74(5), 993-1017.

 

Miller, B. C., & Myers-Walls, J. A. (1983). In H. I. McCubbin & C. R. Figley (Eds.), Stress and the family. New York: Bruner Mazel.

 

Morison, S., & Ellwood, A. (1997). Developmental Milestones and Intelligence. The Development of Romanian Orphanage Children Adopted to Canada. Simon Fraser University.

Morison, S., Ames, E., & Chisholm, K. (1995). The development of children adopted from Romanian orphanages. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 41,(4), 411-430.

 

Moustakas, C. (1990). Heuristic research. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

 

Pringle, K. M., & Gooch, S. (1966). Chosen ideal personal personality development an progress in school subjects: Longitudinal study. Human Development, 8(4), 161-180.

 

Ralph, M. (1994). Realizing the rights of institutionalized Romanian children. Educational and Child Psychology, 11(4), 35-44.

 

Rochford, C. (1993). Happy birthday, Ana Maria. Windows on Adoption, 1, 8.

 

Rossi, A. (1968). Transition to parenthood. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 30, 26-39.

 

Searight, H., & Young, R. (1994). Qualitative research and family systems medicine: A natural fit. Family Systems Medicine, 12 (2), 117-131.

 

Smith, D., & Sherwen, L. (1983). The bonding process of mothers and adopted children. Topics in Clinical Nursing, 6, 38-48.

 

Spitz, R. A. (1945). Hospitalism: An inquiry into the genesis on psychiatric conditions in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 2, 113-117.

 

Tem, M. (1992). The leap of faith: Claiming and bonding in adoption. Lakewood, Colorado: The Adoption Option, 1-8.

 

Tizard, B. (1977). Adoption: A second chance. London: Open Books.

 

Yarrow, L. J. (1961). Maternal deprivation: Towards an empirical and conceptual re-evaluation. Psychological Bulletin, 58(6), 459-490.

 

Zur-Szpiro, S., & Longfellow, C. (1981). Support from fathers: Implications for the well-being of mothers and their children. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Boston.

                                   back to media/publications