We dress our best for the meeting with the Education Ministry official. Our driver pulls up to an enormous, very Soviet-looking building that turns out to be the former Communist Party headquarters. We and the two other couples are ushered into a holding room where one of the Sisters briefs us on what to expect. We’ll be asked why we want to adopt a child from Kazakhstan. There is no easy answer. Yes, there were practical reasons—Kazakh children tend to be healthy. There were sentimental reasons—my father-in-law was born in neighboring Uzbekistan. And there were frivolous reasons. Our other option, China, seemed too obvious. Kazakhstan was sufficiently uncharted and, as a bonus, is known for fine Oriental carpets. (Adopt a child. Get a carpet!) All of these factors outweighed Kazakhstan’s one significant downside: Sacha Baron Cohen’s (aka Ali G.) Borat character who, while hilarious, has done real damage to Kazakhstan’s international image. (Although, truth be told, Kazakhstan never really had an international image until Borat came along.)
Next, they warn us that we may be queried about a recent case in Russia—a case that explains a lot about why there is so much “dif-fi-cul-ty” adopting in Kazakhstan today. The short, sad story is that an American woman killed her adopted Russian son, and now we are all potential child murderers. This might be a tense meeting.
We are led into the official’s room, one couple at a time. She turns out to be an ethnically Russian woman, with a not-unkind face. She asks us all of the expected questions, though, thankfully, not about the Russian murder case. Finally, after what seems like an hour, she utters the words we have been waiting years to hear: “You may visit the baby house.”
Our daughter is living in Baby House No. 3. It’s located on a quiet, leafy street. There’s nothing stolid or Soviet about it. The colors are bright and cheerful and there’s a nice playground outside. The women here are equally cheery—and bighearted. Clearly, they have not read Abai.
The director is a babushka of a woman, though Kazakh ethnically. I like her immediately. We chat about her recent trip to Arizona (“very hot, very flat”) and then a few minutes later, a baby is brought out. She doesn’t look anything like the one we saw in the picture. That’s because she belongs to one of the other adopting couples. The mother’s face lights up instantly, and the new dad is quick with the camera. The kid is all smiles, as if she already knows her new parents.
Finally, our daughter emerges. She has a huge head and enormous cheeks—more like jowls, actually. She resembles what I imagine Winston Churchill would have looked like if he were an 8-month-old Kazakh girl. She stares directly into our eyes and … starts bawling hysterically. This continues, without pause, for the next 90 minutes. She doesn’t stop crying until we hand her back to one of the baby house workers.
Here at the baby house, it’s all about bonding (the favored buzzword in adoption circles), and we will continue to visit our daughter every day for the next six weeks. The next visit is easier than the first: Our daughter cries hysterically when she is handed off to us, but she calms down after a few minutes. We take her outside, where she is mesmerized by the trees and birds. She rests easily in Sharon’s arms and smiles when I do the silly things that fathers do. It feels like love.
We have more hurdles, including an intimidating court hearing, but we are already beginning to feel like parents. And that’s the thing about adoption. It’s just like having a kid the regular way, only not. Unlike biological childbirth, there is no such thing as an accidental adoption. No equivalent of the broken condom or “forgotten” diaphragm. This is a deliberate, always conscious, undertaking. I can’t say that makes it better—I wouldn’t wish the process on anyone—but it does bring with it a certain sense of clarity. Why exactly do you want a child? What price—in money and sweat and tears—are you willing to pay? My answer, prompted by the two most beautiful eyes I have ever seen, is: as much as it takes.
*Correction, Dec. 22: Because of an editing oversight, an earlier version of this piece did not specify that the events in this Diary took place in September, not in December as the dateline suggests.