A Tangled, Beautiful Mess Your Story

A Tangled, Beautiful Mess: Living out God’s love for the orphan

by Tonia Pankova

“We sometimes wonder if we are doing anything right. Do our kids know how much we love them? Are their hearts being healed?”

One evening recently, our three kids and I sat around the table drinking tea—like a good Russian family. They were telling stories about the shenanigans they got into at the orphanage, the constant fist fights the boys had, how the older girls would gang up on the younger ones, and the countless ways they tried to avoid the mean orphanage workers. There was lots of laughter. But as they talked, the look in their eyes told me that they didn’t want to go back. They may not fully understand what family means, but they know they don’t want to go back to the orphanage.

My husband and I have been adoptive parents for almost four years. Still, almost every day, we ask ourselves dozens of questions. What do our kids need? How can we connect with each of them? What form of discipline will work best for them? Are we providing the kind of home they need? Our prayer is, “Lord, help us because this is taking everything out of us, and we haven’t the slightest idea what to do!”

Dima, our oldest, joined our family just after he turned 12. This summer he will be 16. Alyona and Losha, who are biological siblings, have been with us for six months now and are currently 13 and 12 years old. Dima’s biological parents died in a tragic accident when he was seven years old. Before showing up in our lives, he lived with a foster family for a couple years and then went to the orphanage. The younger two have a different story. They’ve never known their dad. They have other half-siblings, and their real mom lives in our area. After the mom’s parental rights were taken away due to her alcoholism—a problem far too common in Russia—Alyona and Losha were moved around between hospitals and foster homes until their life at the orphanage began. 

I think of our kids experiencing abandonment, loss, rejection, heartache, confusion and loneliness at such a young age. Then, all of a sudden, they find themselves in our house—a strange and foreign environment. I remember the culture shock I experienced during my first years of living in Russia. The only language I had spoken all my life was of no help to me. Nothing made sense. I felt scared, alone and excited all at the same time. In a similar way, our kids’ worlds were turned upside down when they moved into our home. They were going through their days at the orphanage wondering if things were ever going to change. Then out of the blue, a tall Russian guy shows up with his Canadian wife inviting them to spend a week in their home and hopefully become their children.

So many emotions are wrapped up in this word adoption. It is sad, happy, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. It brings both loss and gain, it’s almost always difficult, and yet we wouldn’t want it any other way. The kids we’ve been blessed with are amazing. We couldn’t imagine our life without them. But I can honestly say that nothing I’ve experienced in life is as emotionally and mentally draining as parenting preteens of a different nationality who have been through more hardships than I will probably ever encounter, who have trust and attachment issues, and who can’t yet communicate in my first language. The only strategies they’ve known are lying, cheating, and getting revenge. No one taught them basic things like telling time, table manners, doing homework, or sharing. No one ever told them they are special, or that they have the potential to accomplish great things, or that they are loved just for who they are. I had expected our adopted kids to start doing what we say and changing their behaviour almost immediately. Now I realize how wrong I was! How do you teach a 13-year-old not to answer every question rudely? How do you teach a teenager the proper use of a fork and knife at the table? How do you convince them that you aren’t going anywhere, and that they are part of your family for good? 

Last year, within a few months, our family almost doubled. The house got a lot noisier, stress has become a close acquaintance of ours, and money is tighter. We jumped past potty training and went directly to discussions about peer pressure, pornography, puberty, and everything else the teenage years throw our way. We sometimes wonder if we are doing anything right. Do our kids know how much we love them? Are their hearts being healed?

When things become overwhelming, I tell myself that life will look so different a year from now and I thank God for this privilege of being a mom for our kids. I look at their faces and quietly ask God for wisdom, patience, and the ability to love them like He does. I remind myself that once, in a spiritual sense, I was also an orphan, unaware of my Father and unsure of who I was. Then God accepted me into His family and that all changed.

We know we make mistakes. There are fights and tears. We get frustrated when one of the kids lashes out or withdraws for days because they don’t know what to do with their emotions, or because they’re afraid of being given back to the orphanage. In spite of it all, I choose to love Dima, Alyona, and Losha as my own. God’s Word says to take care of orphans. His heart breaks for them, and He loves them unconditionally. God brought these children to us, and I’m convinced that God doesn’t ask us to do something without preparing us for it.

Adoption is about love and acceptance. It is God creating families in surprising and unique ways. Like living in another culture, being adoptive or foster parents can be a tangled, beautiful mess—nearly indescribable, unimaginably challenging, and extremely rewarding.

Tonia Pankova and her husband serve as PAOC global workers in Russia. She grew up going to Elim Church in Saskatoon, Sask., and has been living overseas since 2002. 

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This article appears in the March/April 2016 Issue of testimony. 
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