February 7th, 2011
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photoI just finished a book for my book club tonight—the book is Janusz Bardach’s Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag. It is a powerful book about so many things, and I am really looking forward to our discussion. (An interesting note about Bardach is that after the war he came to the U.S. and worked as a plastic surgeon. He developed a surgical procedure for dealing with cleft palates, the Bardach palatoplasty, a procedure still in use today–so all of those international adoptees who undergo surgeries to fix their cleft palate can thank this man.)
Before he was to come here, however, he lived in Poland, and during WWII he was sent to the Soviet gulag. His account of all that he had to endure caused me to think about all of the older children who come to live with us, either from foster care or from orphanages in other countries.  I also thought about a class from college, specifically Psychology 104, where we learned about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.*  At the bottom are all of those physiological needs such as food, water, shelter and clothing. Once those have been met then we go onto security needs such as the need for a stable family and society so we don’t have to worry that these needs won’t be met tomorrow. Above that is Love and Belonging, or the need to receive and give love, friendship and appreciation. Then there’s self-esteem and finally the need for self-actualization. Maslow’s theory is that if you don’t have basic needs met, you can’t progress up the ladder to those higher aims.

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What I thought about with Bardach is that you can really see Maslow’s theory in action—every day in the camps is a struggle to survive—at one point he is working in the gold mining region near the Arctic Circle and is thrown into solitary confinement. His description of what he had to endure those five days is hard to read, as are many sections of the book. We watch him as he is taken from place to place and, depending on the amount of food he is rationed, or the quality of the clothes he is issued, how he can move up the ladder in the hope of finding friendship and community. But, because he is always a prisoner and dependent upon others to provide for his basic needs, his position is precarious, at best.
Bardach is able to bounce back from his experiences, I believe, in part, because of what his parents provided for him early on—he is able to maintain his dignity and more important, his compassion for others, despite all of the hardships.
Bardach’s experiences informed me as an adoptive parent, and reminded me about the thousands of children who come to our homes either from the foster care system or from orphanages in distant countries, and how we have to take them where they are starting from and help to move them up along this hierarchy. Is it any wonder why so many of these kids who are not accustomed to getting their basic needs met are angry and act aggressively? Why so many of them hoard food and steal things from others?
I know that my job as a parent is to understand where my kids are coming from and help them to move along these steps toward self-esteem and self-actualization.  My hope is that all of those children who come to us from places where their needs weren’t met can find a stable environment, love and belonging, and self-esteem so that each one can reach his maximum potential.

*This picture is of my notes from class many, many years ago!

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