Sheila and Matt Cina live in Minneapolis and run an electric business. They have three children–Jack, 14, Kate, 10, and Irina, 7. Sheila and Matt adopted Irina from Russia when she was 5 years old.
1. What’s your adoption experience been like?
It’s been a great experience. It’s like getting married. You put so much thought into that special day when you will be united. It is so hard to know what life will be like after that big day that most of the thought ahead of time is trying to get yourselves to that day. And, like marriage, after the big event there were surprise difficulties that we couldn’t have imagined but so many more wonderful experiences and a new way of life that we enjoy more than ever.
2. What made you decide to adopt?
We wanted another child and had several miscarriages (9 in all). We also saw that there were so many kids out there without loving homes that we felt it would be best to provide that place for a child who wanted it.
3. Why did you choose to adopt an older child and why did you pick Russia?
We wanted an older child because we knew they were harder to place. We asked for a wide age range to make it easier to get a referral, so 2-7 was the official range we would accept. Kate was 8 at the time. I do believe having adopted a child older than Kate would have been very awkward and difficult for her especially.
We chose Russia after being moved to adopt a little biracial girl who was living in Russia. Her father was African and her mother Russian. It was explained to us that life would never be normal for a child like her in Russia and that she would never really be accepted. We knew that there were plenty of places to grow up where her beauty would be celebrated. In our neighborhood there are children with all kinds of different ethnic backgrounds and families from many cultures, often in the same family. We really wanted her to grow up in that kind of place and in a family that would love her for who she is.
All that being said, we began to get the paperwork in place to adopt this little girl. But by the time we got all of our paperwork together to send over there she had been adopted by another family. We were sad for a bit, but then rejoiced for her because she had found her forever family–which is what we wanted all along. Since we were already set up to adopt from Russia we just kept moving in that direction.
4. What was it like going to pick up Irina? And in Russia you have to make two trips–how hard was it to come back without Irina the first trip?
I was nervous to travel but also very excited. Matt was excited as well. Neither of us had been out of the country much. We were given very little information before we left and, actually, never got any info. until right before they felt we needed it. There was a lot of waiting and wondering involved on the trip, but at that point it seemed pretty natural considering all the waiting and wondering we had done up until that time.
It was amazing to meet her and very hard to leave. We only got about one hour with her before they sent us off. She was in an orphanage on a military base so even for Russia the security was tight. There were so many rules. We had to sneak out a camera to take a few pictures and then jam it back in my purse when someone heard footsteps in the hall.
It took four months to get the rest of the paperwork together and OKed by the people in Russia so it was very difficult to wait. I was worried that they would not be reminding her that we would come back for her, and recently I found out we were right. They didn’t say another thing to her until we came back for her. She never got the birthday card we sent with our paperwork.
5. How did Irina respond to you? Did you bond quickly or did it take a while? What were the first few weeks like?
She responded well. She called us Mama and Papa from the moment we took her away from the orphanage. At first she was a little uncomfortable around Matt. She didn’t want to sit on his lap at first. We are pretty sure she hadn’t been around too many men before that–certainly not at the orphanage. But, it only took a couple of days and some amazing and silly magic tricks from her playful Papa to get her comfortable being with him. She really adores Matt! They have a special bond I think. They have similar personalities so he understands her better than Jack, Kate or I do. People have been commenting, starting with the women at the orphanage, that she looks like Matt. I can see that she is very happy about that lately.
On a side note, she really preferred our young beautiful blond translator, Valery, to me. What five-year-old wouldn’t, as she actually could speak to her? Most of what I tried to say to Irina, or ask her, came out of the translator’s mouth the day we met and the day we came back for her. Valery let Irina sit on her lap and she read to her. When I tried the same thing my Russian pronunciation was so poor that Irina looked totally confused and lost interest right away.
Irina asked about Valery several times after we took her home and loved to look at her picture. I admit a bit of jealousy. I put only the Irina half of their picture together into her memory book. Is that petty? Of course I kept the pictures of Valery–I just got tired of the comments about wishing she was her mom.
Besides that story, our bonding has been fine. She had lived with her mother for three years so I believe she was bonded to her. We have heard that can make a big difference and we have not had the type of bonding problems that you hear so much about. We have certainly had what I call adjustments but she is so confident that we are her mom and dad and always will be. She’s very cuddly.
The first night in America was strange. Here was a little person we hardly knew, yet she was family. Very strange. We waited so long for that moment. I was so happy, and very tired from the traveling and the welcome home group of friends and family at the airport. Matt and I had learned a little Russian. I had about 150 words so I could ask all of the basics, “Are you tired?, “Are you hungry?”, “Do you like it?”, “Do you have to go to the bathroom?”, etc. Jack and Kate had learned a few words too, like brother, sister and I love you. We all worked hard at communicating. She learned English really quickly, so the Russian faded quickly as well. She was pretty eager to please at first, so discipline was not a big deal right away.
One of the toughest parts was watching her get scratched by the cat so many times because she was so excited to have pets that she just couldn’t stop herself from picking them up and hugging them. I didn’t have enough Russian to explain that cats don’t understand a hug as an expression of love.
6. How do you talk to Irina about adoption? Is she willing/eager to talk about it?
It’s a very natural part of our lives. She’s interested in talking about it sometimes. Like any kid and any topic, if it is something she is thinking about or wondering about she loves to talk and ask questions. If it makes her feel special she loves to talk about it. If she’s interested in other things at the time she doesn’t want to be bothered about it. We have had a few times when we have been alone and have sat and talked and cried about her past and what she has lost.
We have a lifebook that we have been making together that has a lot of words on some pages. She knows what pages talk about what and has often asked me to read the “sad” page about her mother. Usually I do that whenever she wants me to. She hasn’t asked for that in a while now–but I’m sure she’ll want to again. Soon we’ll add some more pages about what she’s done in the last two and a half years here at home.
7. Do you incorporate the Russian culture into your family? What kinds of things do you do? How does Irina feel about it?
We don’t incorporate Russian culture in the way I thought we would yet. We take her to a Russian store on her “Adoption Day.” She loves that. Whenever there is a list of countries somewhere we all get excited when we hear Russia. It doesn’t matter what the list is for. It is clearly a special place to us. We cheer for two countries during the Olympics, but Irina feels a special satisfaction when a Russian person is honored.
We have not made contacts with Russian people like I thought we would. It took Irina a long time to be comfortable around Russian people. We had translators come for her first several doctors appointments but she was afraid of them and didn’t want to cooperate with them. I remember one woman asking her, in Russian, “Do you speak Russian?” and she replied, “No.” Then she asked, in English, “Do you speak English?” and she replied, “Nyet.”
8. How do your other kids feel about adoption? Were they included in the initial decision to adopt? What kinds of things did you do?
They think it’s great. They were all for it from the beginning, although Jack made the stipulation that he did not want to share his room, so he’d rather not have a brother. He does have a tiny room, so we totally understood that. We actually did not want to include them too much in decisions we were making because it seemed like it wasn’t really their place. We did the best we could to explain to them how the decision might impact them and they were all for it.
Actually, one of the many books I read in preparation was one written by a mom who had adopted an older child from Russia who had some bonding trouble and acted out in some very disruptive ways. One day I noticed that the book was in a different spot. Jack, 10 at the time, had found it and read the whole thing. I was surprised, and asked him about what he thought of the book. He said it sounded like it could be pretty tough but he knew we were doing the right thing and, by the way, he was glad he wasn’t sharing a room.
9. Now that the adoption is a few years removed, how is Irina adjusting?
Irina has adjusted amazingly well. There are plenty of behaviors and attitudes she has that make family life a little more challenging. It is hard to know what is a personality trait that she would have had with any upbringing and what are affects of abandonment and adoption. I guess in a way it doesn’t matter on a day to day basis as much as I thought. We really just focus on helping her grow into a loving and helpful person, just like with the two birth-children. No doubt she has a lot of healing to do still, and I expect counseling will be in her future, and actually mine too, but we are trusting God’s timing in this just like we trusted his timing during the long waiting and wondering phase.
10. How has your overall experience been with adoption? Would you do it again? Would you recommend it to others?
Our experience has been rich, truly wonderful and amazing, sometimes a bigger challenge in parenting than I expected, sometimes painful for every person in the family, overall a life-changing and growth-inducing experience. We are so happy with her and she is very happy with us. It is so clear how we were meant to be together. Both Matt and I would do it again in a heartbeat. We would heartily recommend it to others.
I would suggest that especially with older child adoption the parents get some good support and counseling ahead of time. Parents, you know that being hurt yourself is a hundred times more desirable than seeing your child hurt, and adopting an older child is stepping right into that situation. Any child, birth or adopted, can have any number of challenges in life, but with older child adoption there are sure to be some deep hurts and children can be affected in many ways. I believe it is a challenge that one must feel called to. Also, it is an experience like nothing else. There is a deep sweetness and joy that comes with living alongside and loving someone who is being healed that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
As far as us actually doing it again, on one level we’d love to because it is such a positive experience, but on another more practical level we really feel like we have struck a good balance now. It is hard for me to say I am done “having” more children, but Irina needs plenty of attention and I’d rather not have mine split any further.
11. How did you pay for the adoption? Any creative fund-raising ideas? What worked and didn’t work?
We had just refinanced our house to remodel our kitchen right before we decided to adopt. We decided to use that money for adoption instead, and did fund-raising for most of the rest. Some of it we used a credit card–like a couple of plane tickets and some expenses in Russia. (The smaller stores sometimes could not accept our credit card in their system, so it was good that we had a little extra cash for groceries.)
We did three large garage sales with tons of donations from family and people at our church. When the neighbors saw what we were doing they brought over all kinds of things for us to sell, including some nice furniture, which really helped out a lot. We felt a lot of support through our fund raising efforts. We did not get a large percentage of the money through fund-raising but the support people showed, and the encouragement they brought was very meaningful.