Leaving Yekaterinburg With Our Son


By Kirsten Holmberg | Twitter: @Kirsten828


I knew right away. It just felt different somehow.

As a mother of (then) five- and nearly three-year-old girls, I’d perched toddlers on my hip innumerable times. I’d mastered the art of wiping counters, answering telephones, and skewering juice boxes with a straw one-handed, while cradling one of our daughters with the other arm.

As I lifted this two-year-old boy from the ground for the first time, I was, subconsciously at first, aware it wasn’t the graceful maneuver to which I was accustomed. I tried to settle him onto my hip in an introductory embrace, but we were as awkward as two mismatched puzzle pieces. His body didn’t mold to mine; we didn’t “fit” together.

It wasn’t entirely surprising. After all, we didn’t know each other at the time. Just moments before, I’d watched with my husband as he was escorted from the orphanage playground to meet us. The doctor and orphanage director introduced us as “Mama” and “Daddy.” I’m certain her words rang hollow, devoid of meaning, as no one had ever filled these roles in his life in any way but biologically.

There we stood, just beyond the grove of birch trees that surrounded the cinderblock building, meeting one another for the first time. My husband and I had been praying for him for more than eight months but hadn’t known his name or age, or seen his photo, until the day before. I wanted to do what mothers do, what should have been done for him for years gone by: to hold him. So, after a few tenuous moments of introduction, I scooped him up.

Pulling my daughters up to my embrace had become something of an ice dancing lift, in which both partners move artfully and deliberately in anticipation of the choreographed pose, rehearsed time and time again.

My knees bending low, my hands under their arms to raise them up. Their legs swinging to either side of my body as their feet leave the ground. My arms encircling their waists to secure them to myself. Their heads tilting to rest beneath my chin.

It was clear this young boy hadn’t been held. Not lovingly in the care of a parent, anyway. He simply didn’t know how to be held. Rigid and board-straight in my arms, I coaxed his legs around my body. I pulled him gently toward me with a hand behind his head, bending mine toward his. My smile and murmurs didn’t seem to assuage his fears, his face still largely expressionless with just a hint of puzzlement.

I understood, on a much smaller scale, the depth of his losses. Losses for which he didn’t even have language. My own father had died when I was just nine. My mother filled that gap in every way she could, with an abundance of physical affection, hours of availability to talk and process, and heaping grace upon me as I rebelliously wrestled through my anger for years to come.

I knew that losing a parent changes a person. He’d lost two, but hadn’t any conscious memory of either. All he knew was the transient care of shift workers in a dilapidated building, pushed to the edge of town so no one would see it. Or him. He didn’t know how a loving embrace should feel.

We left Yekaterinburg, and him, just days later, crossing 12 time zones to return to our daughters and wait what would be four interminable months before being appointed a court date to adopt him. The girls greeted us home by launching themselves into our arms with adoring smiles; the contrast was jarring and evoked tears of both joy and gut-wrenching sorrow. I ached so deeply for our soon-to-be-son to know the safety and warm embrace of family as our girls did.

After our adoption hearing months later, we had several days’ worth of appointments in Yekaterinburg and then Moscow. We traipsed through the streets of Russia, often carrying our new son, while holding the sum of his legal life in just one manila folder under the other arm. Each time I picked him up, I gently guided his arms and legs around me, teaching him, if you will, how to be held. Physically, at least.

Once home, we began the process of teaching him how to be held emotionally, too. While his legs and arms began to know their rightful place in an embrace, being “raised up” into his place as a son in an adoptive family has been much harder for him emotionally. Learning a physical embrace has proven to be the simplest of all the lessons we’ve taught. I confront my own losses through his eyes and understand his fear. In faith, I see the redemption of my own hardships and anger through sharing this journey with him.

God holds us together when history and pain try to wedge between us.

His story—our story—is only partly written; difficult years lie ahead, ripples of those behind. Whatever they bring, my son knows the safety of being held in the arms of one who loves him. And we know the One who holds the future.


About Kirsten:

Headshot - Kirsten HolmbergI am a writer, speaker and recovering multi-tasker. My family of three kids and a husband is my greatest joy and the biggest challenge to my penchant for tidiness. I blog on faith, and its intersection to all aspects of life, at www.eighttwentyeight.org, and have authored an Advent devotional book and several Bible studies.