Episode #5: When Passionate Parenting Isn’t Enough, with Paul Podolsky

When Passionate Parenting Isn’t Enough, with Paul Podolsky

When Paul Podolsky and his wife adopted an infant girl, Sonya, from Russia, they expected to have an innocent, loving child on their hands. Like any excited parents, they poured lots of affection onto their new kid, with the intent to help her grow up happy, healthy, and well adjusted. Everything seemed perfect.

But signs that things were awry quickly began to appear. Sonya wouldn’t drink any liquids put in front of her, and would then gorge herself sick with food. When they got her into preschool, she began strategically waiting for nap time and then stealing from all the other kids. Then she started exposing herself to strangers and defecating in public places. 

As she got older, the lying and misbehaving got worse and worse. She became extremely manipulative, pitting Paul and his wife, Marina, against each other. She even hid her brother’s inhaler, putting his life at risk. 

How did she become so inclined towards chaos? That’s the subject of Paul’s book: Raising a Thief, and the central topic of this interview.

How Do Parents End up Raising a Criminal?

The answer lies in early childhood. In Sonya’s case, her birth mother severely neglected her, letting her cry all day with very little food or attention. Authorities eventually took Sonya away from her home after the neighbors called the police, but she endured this parental abuse for the first few months of her life. 

In our interview, Paul informs me that going through an experience like Sonya’s so early in development has some very intense effects on the brain. Sonya’s mind was fundamentally reprogrammed, making her believe she was threatened by primary caretakers, and that to survive, she had to assert her control in every situation. That’s what her bad behavior boiled down to. By breaking all the rules, she demonstrated that she could control them––not the other way around.

So what did Paul and his wife do? Try to be the perfect parents. They’d both undergone trauma in their own youths. Marina’s father was an alcoholic, and Paul’s mother had died from cancer when he was very young. They didn’t want Sonya to experience a similar situation as they did, growing up without treating the lasting effects of trauma until adulthood. They poured in every resource: emotional, physical, financial, spiritual…but nothing helped Sonya heal. 

They checked her in and out of rehabilitation for years and although it felt like failure, Paul has learned that there was nothing more he could have done. In the episode Paul details how in life, there are some things you can’t control. In this case, he had to let go and hope professionals could help Sonya better than he could. Although there were periods of improvement, her temperament grew worse over time.

Thanks to professional intervention and her own self journey, Sonya started to come around. Paul recounts seeing her post a fundraiser on social media to help reduce child hunger, and he donated, prompting a phone call from her the next day to catch up. A day later, she called Marina too. I wouldn’t call Sonya’s relationship with her adoptive parents perfect, but they have had meaningful, positive interactions since she left home.

There are plenty of people out there with similar problems as Sonya, to various degrees. To help put them at ease, Paul decided to write and publish Raising a Thief. His goal is to help parents who are in a similar situation and feel frustrated, worn out, or confused. He’s been able to work with families from all over the world to help them understand their children.

Falling in Love With a Married Woman

On top of discussing the story of Sonya’s life, Paul and De’Vannon talk about Paul and his wife Marina’s love story. Strap in; it’s a bumpy one.

 It all started when Paul was living in Russia after finishing college. He was walking down the street one day, only 24, when he had the epiphany: He was ready to find his life partner. Then, very shortly after, he glimpsed Marina at a party, and knew she was the one for him. However, there was one one problem. She was married.

 He was able to get her phone number, however, and called her house frequently to chat. One day he picked up to the sound of Marina crying, saying she was leaving her husband. He felt bad…but not that bad.

Soon they began seeing each other. Everything was swell for a few weeks until Marina revealed that she was pregnant. She laid it out for Paul: She was having the baby, whether he liked it or not.

 Despite being young and broke with no plan, Paul decided it was time for fatherhood the moment he heard his son’s heartbeat. He tried to tell his father about it, who urged Paul and Marina to get an abortion. Disappointed but not deterred, they married without him present.

Surviving in Poverty

 Before their son Sasha was born, Marina was having issues and was confined to the hospital. However, she couldn’t stand the hospital food. Paul worked late, and couldn’t cook or make it to visiting hours. They ended up having to hire someone to cook during the day. Then Paul would disguise himself as a doctor to sneak into the Russian hospital. However, because of his American accent, he couldn’t get into the hospital with ease. In order to keep them from detecting his status as an American, he would approach the entrance and say “svaiey,” which means “yours” in Russian. This was a gruff, commanding way to signal that he was part of their team, so they let him in!

 After Sasha was born, Paul and Marina moved to the U.S. so Paul could attend graduate school. They were so poor, they slept on towels on the floor. Marina was used to such immense poverty as there was often no food in the grocery store when she grew up in Russia. In this interview, I share my own experience of homelessness and sleeping in cars, and I don’t hold back.

Losing a Child

 Later, when finances weren’t quite so tough, Paul and Marina wanted to have another child. Marina found herself pregnant, but she suffered a tragic miscarriage. Paul stresses the extreme pain of such an experience, and that there’s not enough dialogue about how to cope with miscarriages. Paul describes his wife’s cries as being primal, an expression of a loss essential to her being.

 So they decided to adopt. After dealing with a shady lawyer and going through an intense round of investigation and background checks, they received Sonya from Russia. Paul talks in the episode about the disparity of the process. Adoptive parents were intensely examined, while the kids were passed off without much attention. There was no history as to what circumstances led children like Sonya to become parentless in the first place.

Staying on Your Feet

 We may not all have a crazy love story or a disturbing adoption tale like Paul, but his story teaches us that sometimes we just have to let go of the plan. If you enjoyed listening to his story and want to hear life lessons from Paul Podolsky, you can find them in the full episode here and in Raising a Thief available anywhere books are sold. Paul can also be found at PaulPodolsky.com and on his podcast, Things I Didn’t Learn In School.

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