It isn’t uncommon for a happy couple to want to expand their family. Some people even choose to do so by introducing a furry four-legged friend into the home. But for Tina Traster and Rick Tannenbaum, there was only ever one option.
On the surface, Tina and her husband, Rick, appeared to have it all. For one thing, both had established successful careers – Rick as an attorney and Tina as a seasoned journalist. Interestingly, Tina’s work has previously appeared on NPR, and she’s also had her own column in the New York Post.
Nevertheless, this Upper West Side couple longed for something more: a baby. Initially, though, it seemed that this was never going to happen, as the couple struggled to conceive naturally. But, reluctant to give up on their dream of having a biological child, Tina and Rick turned to non-invasive fertility treatment.
Unfortunately, the treatment program would ultimately prove unsuccessful. Moreover, Tina’s concerns about “more aggressive, hormone-altering” fertility treatments, such as in vitro fertilization, meant that the pair were quickly running out of options.
And so in 2003 the couple, both aged 40, made what would be a life-changing decision. Yes, they decided to adopt a child of their own. Soon after, and without having read a single parenting book, Tina and her husband headed to Russia to visit their soon-to-be daughter.
However, what the couple witnessed when they reached Russia was harrowing. “I have seen many grim things in my lifetime,” Tina later recalled on her blog, Julia & Me. “Few rival the sights, sounds and smells I experienced in the Siberian orphanage where my daughter’s life began…”
A stone’s throw from the orphanage, Tina and Rick witnessed a man stood in sub-zero temperatures peddling meat from a carcass. And nearby, a rosy-faced drunkard lay incapacitated in the street. And in the “frozen fortress” where their baby had spent the majority of her life so far, things weren’t much better.
Inside the miserable, gray building, the stench of ammonia hovered. And yet, in a small crib in a crowded room, there lay Tina and Rick’s new baby. “She was beautiful,” Tina reminisced on her blog. “[She had] a broad alabaster face with slightly slanted deep brown eyes.”
Julia, as she would come to be known, had been rejected by her birth mother, who’d been unable to look after her. Unfortunately, after being deserted by her mom, the newborn’s start in life didn’t get much better. In fact, she spent her first 12 weeks in hospital with multiple infections, and following that, she was taken to the orphanage.
But now things were finally looking up for little Julia. And just half a year after the soon-to-be parents had first been told that there was a baby waiting for them in Russia, the three were reunited in Tina and Rick’s apartment in the Big Apple.
However, things quickly a turn for the worse. You see, Tina and her adopted daughter just couldn’t establish a bond with each other. And this began to have a devastating impact on Tina. “I was as blue as I’d ever been,” she wrote on her blog. “I’m pretty sure I felt what despairing birth mothers feel – isolation, angst, regret.”
And unfortunately for both Tina and Julia, these feelings didn’t go away. Indeed, Tina’s clinical depression became more and more severe. Racked with guilt and shame, Tina hid her true feelings from the rest of the world. Eventually, however, she could no longer keep things to herself.
Things came to a head in 2005 when Julia began attending pre-school. There, the little girl’s reluctance to bond with others became all the more obvious. Naturally, her worried mother decided that it was time to confide in someone. And so Tina looked to Julia’s pediatrician for advice. But she was not prepared for what he had to say.
The doctor began to explain to Tina that he believed Julia suffered from Reactive Attachment Disorder. This condition is prevalent in institutionalized children and is often triggered by traumas – such as being separated from their birth mothers at an early age. As a result, it becomes hard for children to bond with adults again.
This must have broken Tina’s heart. And as a result, she initially tried to convince herself that the diagnosis could be wrong. But the doctor’s words would often drift into Tina’s thoughts as she continued to be unable to forge a bond with her daughter. And eventually, after Julia’s fourth birthday, Tina decided that it was time to take action.
To begin with, Tina and Rick began researching the disorder by analyzing case studies. But the techniques that they adopted to try to deal with Julia’s condition often left their friends and family feeling uneasy. Indeed, on her blog Tina explained, “[We] learned that parenting a child who has trouble bonding requires counter-intuitive parenting instincts.”
So Tina and Rick would laugh when Julia threw tantrums, and afterwards they would pretend as if nothing had ever happened. And as Julia would often refuse to give them hugs, her parents chose not pester her for them – something that others found hard to comprehend.
Nevertheless, they soldiered on. And although there were those who still couldn’t get their heads around the techniques that the parents implemented, Tina and Rick weren’t about to give up on their little girl.
Eventually, they began to make progress. “Some advice was invaluable, some failed,” Tina wrote on her blog. Still, Julia gradually started to open up and engage with her new family – a development that her mother undoubtedly treasured.
Now Tina has chosen to share her experiences, outlining the tumultuous journey that she has been on in a book. She is fully aware, however, that developing a bond with her daughter is likely to be a “life-time endeavor.”