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The McCarthy Family

Leonty with Harriet and Gene
Harriet and Gene with Leonty
Our story started in 1993, the year we adopted six-and-a-half year old Leonty. My husband was 56 and an experienced father. I was 46 and a first time parent. Leonty had lived his whole life within the walls of an orphanage in Moscow and although we suspected there might be "issues" when we began the process, adoptions of these formerly institutionalized children were just beginning, and we were unprepared for many of Leonty's behaviors. As frustrating, confusing, and sometimes frightening as my first parenting experience during those first several months, it was also the most remarkable learning experience of my life. In short, I found Leonty' behaviors absolutely fascinating, and once I conquered my fear of becoming the world's worst parent, I set about reading and learning about what it was I was seeing. By researching his symptoms and communicating on-line with other parents of post-institutionalized children, I learned about Sensory Integration Disorders, Language Processing Disorders, Auditory Processing Disorders, phobias, autistic-like behaviors caused by institutionalism, and childhood depression. Although my wonderful son had severe language issues, he and I developed a deep and loving relationship. Leonty came to us speaking approximately 225 Russian words, but he lacked any sentence structure - a hint at the language issues yet to come. What he could do was communicate with his eyes. He depended on me as his translator and his language lifeline. Although this wasn't the kind of childhood I had expected, I loved the experience and accepted Leonty unconditionally with all his needs and limitations.

The wealth of knowledge I amassed learning about Leonty gave me a false sense of self-proficiency. I truly thought I had learned everything there was to know about post-institutionalized children. That was a near-fatal assumption because in 1996 we adopted again. This time, we adopted two little boys, 6.1 and 5.2 years, as "artificial twins". Artificial twinning is defined as simultaneously adopting two non-biologically related children who are less than a year apart in age. (Link to my article on Artificial Twinning) The younger of these two little boys, Sergei, suffered from a life-threatening psychological condition known as Failure to Thrive (Link to my article on Failure to Thrive). To say that my overly inflated sense of ability was a gross miscalculation is an immense understatement. Nevertheless, as fascinating as Leonty was, Sergei was even more so, in spite of my difficulty parenting him. (Link to my article on Post-Adoptive Depression). Although we walked through his psychological mine fields for over six years, we did make it to safety before he lost the battle. Tenacity is a post-institutionalized parent's best weapon. Sergei's challenges have been extraordinary and, I'm glad to say, fairly unusual within the post-adoptive community.

Gene, Sergei and Alexei in Moscow
Gene with Sergei and Alexei
in Moscow (1996)

We had help - lots of it - from a huge team of professionals. As with Leonty, Sergei's challenges were more learning opportunities for me. I could now add an expanded knowledge base to my parental resume, (Tourette's Syndrome, Motor Tic Syndrome, Occupational Therapy, Speech/Language Pathology, Anaclytic Depression, Dependency Disorders, neurological damage, memory Issues, Dissociative Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, Independent Education Plans, self-contained classrooms) not to mention the experience with psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, vision therapists, nutritionists, social workers, speech/language pathologists, school personnel, and special education teachers. We did manage to avoid some things….we never saw true Reactive Attachment Disorder, (although we did have definite attachment issues) or mental illness, but in terms of experience, Sergei was a book. He might even be a book and a sequel. By the time several more years go by, he may be a trilogy. As difficult as he was to parent early on, we had no intention of giving up on him for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, he has the sweetest disposition in the world. He is a wonderfully kind, sensitive, intuitive, and humorous child. And although it took testing to determine it, he's very intelligent although severely learning disabled. Once we started understanding the pieces of Sergei's complex personality, we knew there was a bright little bubble of a child buried inside a very damaged body and mind. We just couldn't give up on him until he was strong enough to stand on his own.

And what of the middle child? Although he arrived at the same time, Alexei was eclipsed by his younger, non-biological brother's issues. Nonetheless, he had his own baggage - post-traumatic stress disorder being his biggest issue - which he unloaded by fits and starts during the first eighteen months after he joined our family. Because he had spent a considerable amount of time on the streets in Moscow, he brought completely different issues than the other two boys. My little thuglet had an extensive repetoire of colorful and expressive language along with an extremely "take charge" personality (a mandate from his early independence). Alexei is classically AD/HD and learning disabled. Both these issues can be caused by early trauma, and he may have acquired one or both prior to being abandoned to the orphanage at age four-and-a-half, or he may have inherited them from one or both of his parents - we have no way of knowing. Fortunately, his challenges have been fairly minor in comparison to both his adopted brothers. Alexei is a child who has "caught up" over the years. He's a terrific kid - athletic, handsome, personable, kind, intelligent, and plucky. His determination has served him well in his personal and education life. He falls into the category of "resilient rascals" as the very successful young survivors of lives of trauma and abandonment are often called.

On vacation in 2005
The family on vacation in 2005
(l to r: Alexei, Sergei, Harriet, Leonty, Gene)

Our three boys are currently 18.5, 15, and 14 years old. They are young men who love being Russian Americans. They are proud of their heritage and their Russian culture while still understanding the advantage of having found a forever family in the United States. As we move with them through their teen and early adult years, we often reflect on how much they have changed and matured and how very far they've come. Although we've had our difficulties, we count ourselves among the luckiest of adoptive parents and our adoption experience has been intensely rewarding.

Leonty, Alexei, and Sergei currently live in the beautiful Southeast United States with their aging parents, three beautiful collies, three cats, and one cockatiel. All the boys are extremely athletic. Leonty plays basketball and manages his high school's varsity basketball team. Alexei is one of those naturally gifted athletes who seems to be able to do everything well. He plays ice hockey, basketball, rollerblades, rides bikes and wants to be a chopper-head. He can fix almost anything and has his own lawn service. Sergei is a fish and would live underwater year round if we'd let him. When we do make him get out of the pool, he plays golf, rides bikes, and plays basketball. Eugene is a year-round golfer, coaches Y-basketball and dotes on his granddaughters. In his spare time, he's a book-worm. I spend a lot of my time volunteering to help adoptive parents, but I do manage a flower garden and keep the collies in line. We have a busy, happy life made all the more rewarding by our three fine boy.