When Deborah Bailey and her husband Edward, first met their then three-and-a-half-year old daughter, Ola, in a Russian orphanage, her first words to them were, “You’re late.”
They immediately realized that this little preschooler was a force to be reckoned with. Deborah says that at the same time as Ola was being so forthright, she had a single tear in her eye. This was an early indication of Ola’s desperate need for belonging and her intense fear of it.
Deborah remembers agonizing that same night over whether they were doing the right thing in adopting Ola. Even before they left for Russia, they had received a social worker’s report that contained worrying information about the little girl’s early years — there was a period of six months where no one knows exactly with whom or where she lived. Deborah recalls Edward’s reaction to her torment: “What are you going do? Leave her here?”
When they went to collect Ola the next day, she had all her worldly goods with her — an empty roll-on deodorant.
It didn’t take the couple long to realize that, as confident as she may have seemed, Ola’s life in the orphanage had been extremely limited. She had never used a toilet or worn a seat belt. She ate crayons, cigarette butts and all sorts of other non-digestible items. Her survival skills were honed though. She was hypervigilant, always on the watch, and she had an amazing sense of direction.
But her survival of the fittest modus operandi learned at the orphanage — like foaming at the mouth to get attention — did not translate well in Canada. “Not long after we came home, our social life was shot,” says Deborah. “Many of our friends couldn’t cope with it. We were intellectually prepared for the adoption, but not emotionally.”
Life at home wasn’t easy either. Ola couldn’t sleep by herself, and she woke up screaming every two hours. She couldn’t self-soothe — calm herself down — either. Life was a nightmare for Deborah and Edward. Controlling and “re-educating” Ola was exhausting. Deborah had to get used to Ola’s constant — I don’t need you but don’t leave me response, and she had no concept that she could really depend upon her parents.
“Around this time I saw a mom and daughter holding hands, yet I felt like a linebacker or a security guard, not a mom,” says Deborah. She remembers waking Ola up in the car after a shopping trip and the little girl socking her on the nose. “I was very upset. But my father, who had suffered early losses in his life and was adopted, helped when he told me that it would take years, not months, for Ola to change.”
It was then that the couple decided to rethink how they parented Ola. Everything they did with her was designed to gain her trust and attachment. This meant that they read to her until she fell asleep; they did activities like swimming, which allowed for close body contact and showed her they would keep her safe; they played lots of physical contact games; they did staring competitions and allowed her to use a baby bottle and played baby with her.
“We also used the power of language,” says Deborah. “We would say how lucky we are to be a forever family and that we should have found each other sooner and how we loved being her parents. We viewed her behaviour through the lens of attachment — we still do, and it never fails.” says Deborah. Within six months the change was dramatic. Deborah recalls the day, at around four years old, that Ola described herself as Ola Bailey instead of Ola Isatova.
Of course there are still ups and downs — Ola was devastated when her Grandpa died. She became defensive, defiant and difficult. At first her parents were annoyed, but when they realized that what was going through their daughter’s mind was that people you love leave you and you have no control over that, they made a special effort to draw her back in.
Ola, now almost 11, is full of life, enthusiasm and energy. She also loves school — she is lucky enough to attend a school where the staff understand her attachment needs, and, she has a close relationship with her parents.
While not romanticizing the reality of day-to-day parenting, Deborah says she’d do it all again in a heartbeat. “My life is richer but more complicated, and I am reminded everyday that parenting is not something you can learn in a textbook. We should believe in the resilience of kids but not wait for their behaviour to improve through osmosis. I’ve learned that you have to think for your kids and fill in the blanks,” says Deborah.
The family have come a long way since Ola reprimanded her new parents for being late, but as in the case of all older child adoptions, better late than never.