In the memoir, When Love is Not Enough, the author coaxes her reluctant husband to fly with her to Siberia to adopt a teenage Russian girl, only to have this child upset the carefully-honed equilibrium in the household.
A marriage veteran with five grown children—bio, step, and adopted—and resolved to offer one more child a leg up in the world, the author recalls her earlier struggles mothering teens, a tricky process exacerbated when children are marked by the death of parents, abandonment, and divorce. Add in language and cultural differences and the complexities increase.
Though the painful clashes between mother and this new daughter are buoyed by tender moments, the author falls short of the ideal parent she’d aspired to be, and this third marriage is strained. When it becomes painfully clear that love is not enough, the author accepts that it isn’t only adopted children who must adapt.
I was my first husband’s second wife, my second husband’s third, and my third husband’s fourth. In some crowds, it makes for spicy conversation—in others, it’s poison gas.
That hadn’t been the plan. I’d dreamed of a big messy family of my own. On Sundays and holidays my kids would sit around a huge table eating and laughing with cousins and aunts and uncles the way my sisters and I had at our paternal grandparents. Annually we’d trek toward extended family the way my parents had taken us west to my mom’s home town of Washburn, North Dakota where my sisters and cousins and I had carried lilacs in the Memorial Day parade then cantered back to Grandma and Grandpa’s for a family reunion picnic marked by stories of the old days and comments as to how we’d grown.
My like-minded husband would help me create a fantasy family where all was as well on the inside as it looked on the outside. Our children would feel loved for who they were, not what they did, loved for, not in spite of, their dips and quirks. As young adults they’d follow their dreams instead of mine, their success gauged by measurements they chose. Though I am in the background of this picture, I must admit, I’m basking.
Part of me wished I could have left it at that: one hard-working husband, two or three well-adjusted kids, me, and a station wagon.
March 23, 2000
Norm split the fifteen thousand dollars in pristine $100 bills he’d wheedled from our banker into five piles. It had taken more than a month to amass this stash because Fargo banks don’t keep them on hand, segregated from the dirty old money. Each week a teller offered us the best of the big greenbacks, and we selected a thousand bucks worth here, a few hundred there. Russian money changers want bills stiff enough to slice skin, free of scribbles and stains, and though international currency exchanges weren’t supposed to require new money, who were we to make demands? We’d be able to use our credit cards only at the Moscow Marriott, and Norm was determined not to be caught short. Rita, our U.S. adoption contact, told me that when she first visited Magadan, the city where we hoped to adopt Svetlana, a banker had asked to see her Mastercard; he’d heard of them but never seen one. Magadan Region was thinly populated by indigenous tribes until Stalin built the city up from nothing on Russia’s Far Eastern coast in order to process prisoners in and precious metals out of the gulag. Until that time, the gold and silver had been protected by weather and distance.
I’m not sure where to start. I never thought I going to have a family. One day in the winter in my orphanage, my counselor and I talk about children who in America. She told me that she want to ask Marina to find me a family because she know I don’t have any people on the world who remember me.
One day I went in my group and a boy come, and he says, ‘Sveta go fast. Marina here.’ I so nervous. I went and director of my orphanage tell me I need to change my clothes because they take my picture to find me family.
From that day I start to think about to be adopted.
Though we lived on a lake in rural Minnesota and weren’t unaccustomed to cold weather, we prepared to enter a different world in Siberia. Norm was nervous, but I was game for adventure and read all I could about the place, enthralled by what visitors before me had said. In his book, In Siberia, Colin Thubron wrote that ‘Among the native peoples a myth exists that in the extremest cold words themselves freeze and fall to earth. In spring they stir again and start to speak, and suddenly the air fills with out-of-date gossip, unheard jokes, cries of forgotten pain, words of long disowned love.’ Though the calendar had announced the arrival of spring, we’d face a return to wintry weather in Magadan region. Still, I fantasized that some of those thawing words might touch my ears. And I wondered whether our daughter-to-be would be able leave her tragic past in that frozen air in order to embrace life with us.
In five days, we’d be in a Russian courtroom. With travel expenses, adoption fees, and donations, it would cost more than 25 grand to bring home the fourteen-year-old Russian orphan I’d encountered on the Internet, but it wasn’t possible to calculate the emotional, practical, and additional financial costs to come. Or the benefits. Thousands of miles away, our potential daughter was preparing for our arrival, for a journey to America, to a family, to a life where she didn’t even share our language.
I slipped a wallet necklace over my head, then a turtleneck; Norm patted his own envelope, adjusted his money belt and said, “I hope it’s enough”.
Then we both snapped pouches around our ankles, the last step before we left the comforts of home for a world we’d only read about.