Coming home from Eastern Europe, I was planning to blog more about the orphanage itself, and the other kids we were leaving behind. The transition home was rough, but that isn’t the biggest reason I haven’t written about what I saw there. The biggest reason is that every time I go to write, I look back through my pictures. As soon as I start looking at the place that my children spent the first three years of their lives, and the children they spent those years with, any words I have disappear.
The truth is, my twins were in a good orphanage. They had better food than many, they were given donations of some toys, the staff that we interacted with were doing the best that they could. I don’t fault their caregivers at all, and I am grateful for the time they put into my children’s lives.
However… even a ‘good’ orphanage is not a family. They have extremely limited resources and ability to spend one on one time with the kids. I have struggled with this post over and over this past year, because I do not know how to begin to describe the degree of impact the orphanage had on my babies.
They came home not understanding so many things. But the biggest thing – the bottom line thing – is that they had no concept of mamas and papas. They did not have any context for the idea of someone constant in their lives. Someone who cares for them because they are perfect, and beautiful, and worthy to be loved. Someone who holds them because they want to. Someone who will keep them safe. Everything else falls from that.
In the groupa, caregivers rotate every day, and they work different shifts and with different combinations of adults. They are in charge of feeding the kids, keeping them relatively safe, and making sure they sleep. Most of them are kind people, but it is a job. The kind of job that wears on your soul every day. Even the ones that care, and even the ones that try, are there because they are being paid to be there. They are working in an exhausting, thankless job taking care of children that their society would prefer to pretend didn’t exist. They go from there to their real homes, their real lives, and their real families.
The setup of the orphanage is that they can’t hold children, they can’t carry them, they can’t attend to their worries and fears and hurts. There are too many children, not enough of them, and if you were snuggle one child, you’d have to snuggle them all. There is chaos if one child gets attention, so no one does.
When we first walked in to the orphanage, all of the children started yelling, “Mama! Papa!’ at us. They all know the words, they all desperately want a mama and papa of their own, but no one knows what it really is. They see mamas and papas come through the gates for a couple of hours during the official visiting times. Some of them are the biological parents of children living there, some are parents there to adopt, and occasionally another relative or someone from a local church comes. They are there to see a specific child, and that child is taken out of the group. For a couple of hours that day, someone is watching *them*. Someone is there to see *them*. They don’t have to bite and push to get close to the Mama… the Mama has arms free for them. If they are lucky, the Mama brings a snack or a new toy. For a couple of hours, they have something to hold that is theirs. As soon as they go back to the group, it will be taken by another child – not out of spite, but because that child is also desperate for anything to love. They are all desperate.
And then the Mama leaves. Sometimes that Mama comes back, and there are a couple of hours of freedom again. Every once in awhile, the groupa watches a Mama and a Papa walk out the gates with one of their own, the one that was chosen, the one that the Mama cared enough to see… and that one never comes back.
When you live in the groupa, Mamas and Papas are strangers that come and go. Can you imagine living a life like that? When you most basic, intimate relationship is a shadowy mystery that is always there for no reason that you understand, never for long, and never for you. Just a word that you yell at everyone you see, running and grabbing to try to reach them in time, to make them see you – and then being shoved away. Mamas and Papas are confusion and pain and rejection for every child there.