From Russia With Love

Denise Matyka and Margaret McMurray found their 
dream come true in the form of a little girl named Maria.

Our daughter, Maria, was born on December 29, 2002, in a maternity hospital in Yaroslavl, Russia—it was our 21st anniversary. We took it as a sign that this precious little girl born halfway around the world was meant for us.

The journey that brought Maria to us was a long, challenging, and joyful one. Our family, now complete, began when we fell in love during the equal rights amendment campaign in Oklahoma in 1981. We had both been hired to work as field organizers by the National Organization for Women. Margaret was from Iowa and had been working in California, and Denise was from Wisconsin. After the campaign ended, we moved to Madison to start our new life together. We had wanted a child for a long time and wondered if we should try artificial insemination with a known donor. But none of the potential donors seemed right, and we were concerned about potential legal issues.

We decided to adopt and began the process hoping to bring home a baby girl from China. At the time, many lesbians and single women had successfully adopted children from China. After a lengthy effort, our hopes were dashed when the Chinese government began placing limits on the number of single-parent adoptions. We couldn’t openly adopt as a couple. We were devastated.

Then some friends recommended we talk to a lesbian couple they knew who had adopted two girls from Russia. We met them and heard about their experiences working with an international adoption agency that respected their relationship. We decided to try again and began a second application process to adopt a baby girl from Russia.

Again, we had to remain in the closet to all Russian officials; only our American adoption agency and the Wisconsin social worker who conducted our home study knew of our relationship. International adoption was and still is a lengthy and costly process. We began again to compile and complete the numerous documents required by the Russian authorities.

Months later, our American adoption agency contact passed away. She was a wonderful, compassionate woman who promised to “take us under her wing” when she heard about our struggles. The sad news of her death devastated us, and we wondered what it meant for us. Would this sad news delay, defer, or end our dreams of being parents?

More time passed. We called our adoption agency to see if a referral for our baby girl would be coming soon. Agency staffers told us to be patient. We were anything but patient! Finally, around Memorial Day in 2003, we received a videotape of our baby girl. She was five months old, healthy, and beautiful, with big brown eyes and a winning smile. We cried when we saw the tape. She was so beautiful, and she was our daughter.

We couldn’t decide on a name for our baby. The videotape was labeled “Maria from Yaroslavl.” She was named by the social worker at the hospital. We loved her name and we decided it would be a wonderful connection to her hometown in Russia that she could carry forever. It also honored the people who cared for Maria during first the six months of her life.

We went to Russia twice within a month in the summer of 2003; the first time to see our new baby girl and the second time to go to court to finalize the proceedings. This was an exciting and stressful time—we had less than 30 days to prepare to bring a baby home, and we had no experience as parents. We bought a book about baby care that provided simple, step-by-step instructions for changing a diaper, warming a bottle, preparing a bath, etc.

When we arrived in Russia, we met our English-speaking guide at the airport. She drove us to our first stop, a nice Radisson hotel overlooking the Moscow River. We were not alone at the hotel, as four other couples from Alabama, Texas, and Ohio were in Moscow too, hoping to adopt new sons and daughters. Two of the couples had previously adopted children from Russia, so we leaned on them for advice.

We caravanned from Moscow to Yaroslavl with our translators and drivers, all of whom were friendly and eager to help us. Our primary translator shared stories of the food shortages her family experienced in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. She had to stand in line for bread for three hours each day and was so anxious about the declining political situation that she sent her three young children to the country to live with her mother. As we drove across the countryside, she told us about her 18-year-old son who was old enough to either go into the army or into the university—she worried she did not have enough money to bribe someone to keep him out of the army.

The Russian countryside reminded us of northern Wisconsin—beautiful evergreens and birch trees. Yaroslavl, Maria’s birthplace, was a bustling big city the size of Milwaukee. It housed a Russian military academy and a terrific hockey team, as well as a McDonalds and a cyber café. It had been an important stop on the Volga River during the Middle Ages and was still a tourist destination for cruise ships traveling to Moscow. Many of the Russian orthodox churches in the city survived the Stalin era intact.

We climbed to the top of a bell tower in an old monastery and looked out over a beautiful cityscape of dozens of brightly painted onion domes decorating the churches. Nine years ago, tourism was still struggling to gain a foothold in this part of Russia. Our hotel was considered modern and upscale. However, it still housed a woman on each floor whose primary purpose seemed to be tracking our comings and goings. This practice was a remnant of a bygone era when everyone spied on everyone else.

We finally got to see and hold Maria at the local maternity hospital. We met her social worker and the doctor who supervised the medical care for the new babies. We held her for the first time. Several other parents with us said they had been grilled by Russian authorities about being suitable parents, but they didn’t ask Denise one question. They just looked at her and smiled as she cried tears of joy.

Maria had lived at the hospital for the first six months of her life. She lived in a room with a caretaker and three other babies. As a six-month-old, she was too young to transition to an orphanage.

After Denise went to court to finalize the adoption (Margaret could not participate, as we were closeted to the authorities), we returned to the hospital. The social worker fussed over Maria as we were dressing her to leave the hospital, admonishing us to put socks on her even though it was hot outside. The pediatrician who cared for Maria carried her down several flights of stairs before she handed Maria to Denise at the door to the van taking us back to Moscow. She touched Maria’s head, and the interpreter told us she said, “Have a good life.” She had tears in her eyes. So did we.

Back in Moscow, Maria’s feet never touched the ground. We spent hours just looking at her. We woke up the first morning to see Maria staring at us from her crib. We were getting to know one another. Moscow is so far north, the sun shines until nearly 11 p.m. in July. We spent several magical nights gathered by the huge fountains in front of our hotel, watching local families and their children splash in the water and holding our precious daughter.

We came home with our new baby in July 2003 to a wonderful welcome. Many friends met us at the airport with balloons and gifts, as they couldn’t wait to see our little girl.

Since that time, everyone in Madison has been wonderful to our family. Our fabulous neighbors on Sidney Street, the teachers at the Big Oak daycare center and at Lapham and Marquette Elementary Schools have been completely supportive of Maria and us. We know we are lucky to live in a city where lesbian moms and their children enjoy widespread acceptance.

We have one more story to share about our family during this political season. We were visiting Maria’s grandparents in Iowa for Father’s Day in 2007. A young senator, Barack Obama, was campaigning for president in the local park. He posed for a picture holding Maria in his arms. Six months later, we were again visiting Maria’s grandparents when Obama spoke to a huge crowd just before the Iowa primary. He autographed Maria’s photo with him with these words: “Dream Big Dreams.”

Later this year, we will celebrate our 31st anniversary and Maria will turn 10. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for our bright and beautiful daughter. Even though we became parents in our late 40s, we still feel young as Maria and her neighborhood friends run through the house singing and laughing. As President Obama said, we hope Maria dreams big dreams. We know she is our dream come true.