As we're coming to the end of the second week since Cava's come home to live with us, I am taking time to reflect on the immediate changes his arrival has brought to our family. First, I'd like to address all of the people who have commented, "Oh, he must be so grateful." Wrong! At least not any more so than our other son, though Cava will gladly say, "Spaseeba" or even "Thank you" when we give him something he likes or wants (just as he will motion with his hands for things he doesn't want, especially in relations to different foods). Yes, he may have eaten whatever they placed in front of him at the boarding school, but not here. He hadn't even left Kiev before he became a picky eater. Also gone, was making his bed in the mornings. At the boarding school, all of the kids made their beds in a way that would make any drill sergeant proud. Here at home, however, this is typically how it looks:
This is something we're working on because one thing we have realized quickly is that Cava needs a daily routine. Back at the boarding school, their days were very regimented. The kids got up at 7 am, did their chores (such as making beds, sweeping), then exercises, got dressed, ate breakfast (usually milk porridge and a warm compote fruit juice to drink), and then went to school. From there, meals, play time, and bedtime were all set to a regulated schedule. Once Cava got here and all of that was gone, he dealt with the lack of structure in the same way he does any situation he finds overwhelming: a meltdown. This involves screaming, throwing things, his face getting redder and redder, crying, making fists, and so on.
Now Danelle and I are having to approach how we parent Cava completely differently from how we parented Benjamin. Benjamin has had us there for him since the moment he was born. He has grown up knowing that we would be and also the expectations we have for him. Cava hasn't. As an infant, he was put in the baby house. As a toddler, he was moved to the orphanage. And then, finally, at the age of 7, he went to the boarding school. That is three different major changes. During that time, we don't know how many caregivers he has had or how good they were to him. Danelle did tell me that his last caregiver at the boarding school teared up when Cava was leaving. She also gave us her phone number, e-mail, and address if Cava ever wants to contact her. But she was one of how many? And how were the others towards Cava? Or by other children in those institutions? We don't know. With Cava there are so many unanswered questions about his background.
Unlike Benjamin, Cava hasn't been lovingly nurtured but has had to grow up developing his own survival skills. Who has helped him to understand the world? To make it less frightening? Add to that he has been uprooted from everything he knows and is put into new surroundings with total immersion in an unfamiliar language. Needless to say, there are times when he becomes so overwhelmed that he acts out in anger and aggression. I'm currently reading Dr. Patty Cogen's book Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child and in it she writes about how children who grow up in orphanages have "stress-shaped brains." She further explains that, "A child whose brain has been shaped by stress expects danger and reacts immediately without conscious thought . . . Having a stress-shaped brain is like seeing through eyeglasses that make the whole world look threatening . . .This is the 'simple' explanation for why internationally adopted children have difficulty with identity, connection, and emotional and behavioral self-control, the cornerstones of development."
We have definitely seen this happen at least once a day with Cava. What we have begun doing is picking him and holding him while we talk in soft, soothing voices to calm him down. At first, being held only makes him more furious in his tone and movements. Still, I rock him back and forth and rub his back, all the while telling him things like, "I love you." His response is, "No love you!" "That's fine. You don't have to love me, but I love you." No matter how many times he tells me, "No love you," I simply respond with, "But I love you." Sometimes I sing the theme from Barney ("I love you. You love me. We're a happy family . . .).
In absolute hot-fury he will shout things that it's probably for the best that I don't understand what he's saying or calling me. I continue to tell him I love him and to tell him things I love about him. Once, when I got to, "And I love your smile because it makes me smile." He stopped flailing and screaming. Then he smiled a small smile. I always end with, "And I love Cava for just being Cava." No matter how much he screams and yells, I talk softly and tell him, "You don't need to yell at me. I'm right here. I'm not yelling at you so you don't have to yell at me."
Oftentimes, when he is upset about something, I will bend down when I talk to him, look him in the eyes, and try to get him to do the same by saying, "Cava, please look at me." I want to establish a connection with him.
The last time he had a melt-down, I began to tell him of how Mama, Papa, and Benjamin flew in a plane over the ocean to another country where we were shown pictures of many different children. I tell him how we saw his picture and wanted to meet him, so they drove us to where he lived. I continue with how, when we did meet him, we decided we wanted him to be in our family. I tell him these things because I want him to know he is loved, he is wanted, and he is part of our family no matter how hateful he acts.
Cava is having to learn how to be in a family just as we are having to learn and rethink and readjust our family for him. This isn't easy. Having grown up as he has, what does words like home, Papa, Mama, or brother really mean to him? How does he see us? How does he see himself? As Dr. Cogen writes, "The basic question, 'Who am I?' is derailed by loss. With each new set of caregivers, whether foster parents or orphanage workers, and then adoptive parents, a child's identity and life story grow more complex. Often a child with such a . . . background concludes that he is a 'nobody'."
So how does Cava see himself?
Those are just a small sample of the self-portraits he's taken. One thing I've noticed is that Cava not only loves to have his picture taken, he relishes any chance he can get to take pictures with either my iPod or Benjamin's camera. He likes to take photos of us, his surroundings, and (his favorite subject) himself.
For his birthday, we may have to buy him a camera, which may help him find a means of not only self-expression but a way of exploring the world around him safely. And we want him to find his place in both.
When he first started in his new school, when asked his name, he gave his Ukrainian name. Today, when I was helping him with his homework, I pointed to the top line where it said "Name" and told him, "Okay, this is where you write your name." Normally he just writes down Cava, but today he both told me and wrote, "Cava Blackwell." I teared up hearing him say that. Now he may just be learning his new name at school, but to me it also shows him coming to an understanding that he is part of our family.
One of the most important things we can do is to help Cava realize that he is loved, that he is somebody, and that he is part of our family.