Eastern European Adoption: Our Siberian Treasure

It may not be often that you hear this, but infertility in our case turned out to be a blessing.   I’m so grateful to be one of those “older moms” you hear about;  I was in my early forties when my husband Derrick and I effortlessly conceived our first child.  I gave birth to healthy, beautiful Nicholas in December of 2004, and no one could have prepared me for the love and joy that motherhood would bring at this rather unlikely time in my life.  Back then, I felt like the happiest mom in the world, and Eastern European Adoption was not even remotely on our radar. 

Eastern European Adoption

Nicholas, our biological child, in 2005. Parenthood is a gift at any age! What a beefy baby!

Fast forward 2 years.  We gave the fertility Roulette Wheel another spin.  And another. And another.  I wasted a small fortune on pregnancy tests, obsessively hoping the Over 40 Motherhood Gods would once again answer my prayers.

Eastern European Adoption:  Infertility was a blessing for us. 

The Over 40 Motherhood Gods did answer our prayers, but wow, not in the way we expected!   Derrick and I looked at our options:  fertility treatment was the most obvious, including the possibility of using an egg donor.  (I told him he could choose someone smarter and more beautiful than me from an In Vitro Fertilization clinic but he wasn’t up for it!)  Instead, we chose adoption, something that had been in the back of my mind for years.  My family has a lot of Russian heritage and I had covered numerous news stories about summer hosting programs from Eastern European countries, so that was the area that pulled hardest on our heartstrings. You’ve got to follow your heart!  

Eastern European Adoption: We went to Siberia 

We signed with an agency in the Fall of 2008, (which is akin to choosing a college!) We completed an avalanche of paperwork, then waited.  We requested a boy, age 0 to 3, which helped speed the process quite a bit since many adoptive parents wanted little babies.  (Russia at the time had many more boys than girls available for adoption.  It is now closed due to political differences with the U.S, which is just heartbreaking.) 

We initially hoped to adopt a child from St. Petersburg, a beautiful, historic city where a mandatory 14 day waiting period on the second of two trips to Russia might actually be fun.  Derrick and I joked, ” We’ll end up somewhere in the middle of Siberia.”   Yup, exactly.  Chita, Siberia, in far eastern Russia. 

Eastern European Adoption

One of the little villages outside of downtown Chita, Russia. May 2009.

In January 2009 we received a picture of a burly looking blonde, blue eyed 2 year old:   Yavgeniy Alexandrovich Yakimov.  Jhenya is the nickname for Yavgeniy, which is a popular Russian name that translates to Eugene in the U.S.  Jhenya lived in an orphanage in Chita, where his birth mother had relinquished all rights to him when he was born.  She had received no prenatal care, his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck twice, and he was placed on a ventilator, according to his Russian medical records.  But he survived all of that… and so much more!

Eastern European Adoption

Our First Glimpse of Jhenya

I was taken aback looking at this unhappy looking, slightly scary child who was nearly bald, steely eyed and jowly. I’m being honest here!  I worried he might have health problems that we might not be equipped to handle.  But I was also intrigued by his sad, angry, exhausted face with chapped lips and circles under his eyes.  I wanted to know more about him.  I really wanted to meet this chubby two year old and hopefully, adopt him. 

When Derrick looked at his picture, he said ” Whoa! I don’t think so… I don’t know.  Is that a kid you want to have crawling in bed with you in the middle of the night?  He looks like a Russian Truck driver.”  But we both knew this had nothing to do with truck drivers.  It was about a frightened two year old.  His photo had been snapped in one quick moment, like a mugshot or driver’s license video.  We hoped it didn’t personify him, but it was disconcerting. 

(Please don’t judge us, I’m not going to sugar coat our adoption story… there was some doubt.  I admit it and own it.  Adoption is not always a flowery fairy tale.)  

“More like a Russian Hockey Player?” I suggested hopefully.  This 2 year old was nothing like most of  the detached, skinny, sickly orphans I had seen while combing the Russian Adoption Database online and translating the language via Google.  I was a bit apprehensive about this almost sinister looking photo, too but I was also determined to adopt this child. We reviewed Jhenya’s health records with an international adoption expert and received a fairly optimistic prognosis. We soon headed to Russia with a giant stack of new, unmarked hundred dollar bills to be turned over to the Russian Ministry of Education, which facilitates adoptions. (With the help of a few middle men, but that’s another story.)   

Eastern European Adoption:  The Trip of a Lifetime

Eastern European Adoption

Our Eastern European Adoption Trip (It’s Faux Fur, I promise!)

Day one was spent in Moscow.  Our first trip ever without Nicholas!  We missed our 4 year old son, but enjoyed watching a wedding in Red Square, exploring the city, and making pathetic attempts to speak Russian.  And we knew Nicholas was in good hands with my Mom. 

Eastern European Adoption

Not sure if this was a faux pas, but I shot video of the snowy little wedding in Red Square.

That night, we flew to Chita.  It’s about an 8 hour flight east of Moscow, with a surreal, snowy layover in Ekaterinburg.

Eastern European Adoption

Can you imagine this weather for 6 months?

Some of our fellow passengers were very drunk,  others were hygienically challenged. We were sleep-deprived, stressed out and bickering with each other.  We had spent eight months and close to $60,000 waiting for this trip, what if things didn’t feel right when we got there?  What if we had no feelings of love or even affection for this child?  What if it just felt wrong? 

That morning, on little or no sleep, our wonderful guides, Eugene and Katia, brought us to Baby House #2, on the outskirts of Chita.  It is a somewhat depressing city with an outlying village of ramshackle wooden, Eastern European style cottages.  But it is also the city where the intellectuals known as Decembrists, who challenged the authoritarian Czar, were exiled in 1820’s. Kind of cool, right?  

The orphanage was a drab, brick building that smelled vaguely like boiled chicken.

Our son'a orphanage was a typical Russian orphanage

Our son’s home was a very typical Russian orphanage

We were brought to an empty playroom.  I barely had time to pull a camera out of my bag when in came a social worker holding the hand of the most adorable, precious child imaginable to me. 

Eastern European Adoption

Clothing and diapers are in short supply in Russian orphanages, in this photo Jhenya was “dressed up” to meet his adoptive parents,.

He was wide eyed and scared to death.  Jhenya wanted nothing to do with us.  But I instantly felt I was his mother and he was my son.  I felt protective, like I must take care of him. Liked I needed to take care of him. 

Eastern European Adoption

Our first day with Jhenya.  His favorite word was “Nyet!”

Three caregivers put him on my lap and spoke to him in Russian.  In response to their coaching, he said “Mama,” with his giant blue eyes and quivering lip. I tried to take video and pictures, but my hands holding the camera were shaking uncontrollably.  

Eastern European Adoption

Our first visit with Jhenya

Yes, I was in love but Jhenya had other ideas.  He burst into tears!   All I wanted to do was comfort this adorable, frightened baby, but he had his Baby House Mamas already. They were the parents he knew and loved, and they loved him.  Baby House Number Two had very few toys, diapers, or clothes. It had no crayons or books. Baby House Number Two was the only life Jhenya had ever known.  He really didn’t want anything to do with Derrick and me that first day, except when we gave him snacks and when I blew him bubbles. One of the happiest moments of my life was Jhenya saying “More!” in his speech-delayed Russian baby talk as I blew bubbles all around the playroom.

Eastern European Adoption

“More Bubbles!”

There were many tears during those first visits,  along with detachment and indifference on Jhenya’s part. Still, I was so in love with this scared little Russian toddler!

Eastern European Adoption

My Sweet Baby!

Jhenya didn’t like the American strangers, but did sort of like like the toys we brought him and our laptop.  He grew a little more accepting of us every day, but only if his favorite caregivers were close by.  We were over the moon in love with this clever little boy who figured how to look at family photos on our laptop within an hour, and was so curious about his big brother Nicholas!

Russian Adoption

I couldn’t stop laughing at Jhenya and his stuffed puppy we brought him playing on the laptop.

We immediately agreed to move forward with the adoption and signed the initial documents but had to return home to Atlanta without him and wait for our hearing before a Russian judge.

Eastern European Adoption

Da! (Yes) Where do I sign? With my Russian friend, translator, adoption facilitator Katia, who made our trips amazing. She is also an adoptive Mom and we’re still friends eight years later!


Eastern European Adoption: Coming Home

Two months later, another surreal trip.   We appeared in court, signed the adoption papers, and brought our child out of the only home he’d ever known.  For more details on how those first few days went, click here. 

International Adoption

Finally leaving Baby House Two!!

I looked back, and saw dozens of other little faces looking out the windows.  We had hardly gotten to meet any of them, but my heart breaks for those children.  Some have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, others have sensory or attachment disorders.  Many are just fine or could be helped.  There are close to a million of them in Russia alone; many live in the underground sewers.  As they get older, the orphanages are no longer a safe place. 

Eastern European Adoption

Where are these crazy American strangers taking me?

Jhenya had not been outside of the Baby House for eight months in the frigid Siberian winter. He was intrigued by Moscow in May:  the sounds, smells, cars, people and food.

Bonding with Daddy (Russians bundle up their children, it was about 60 degrees and people were lecturing us to put a hat on Jhenya)

Bonding with Daddy (Russians bundle up their children, it was about 60 degrees and people were lecturing us to put a hat on Jhenya)

Jhenya had never left the orphanage except to go the hospital for pneumonia several times.  His caregivers said he LOVED going to the hospital because he got to see the outside world.  

Once we left the Baby House, he clung to me for dear life and slowly began to smile, to relax, to trust.

International Adoption

Our adopted toddler’s first time smelling flowers in Moscow.  One of my favorite moments. 

Jhenya cried at bedtime because he’d never had shoes of his own and didn’t want to take them off.  He was scared to death during his first bath and screamed bloody murder. (Yup, only sponge baths in the orphanage!  No teeth brushing either)  Yet, he was clean and healthy.  Our agency prepared us to to deal with lice, scabies, and parasites but his Russian Mamas appeared to be doing a great job with the limited resources they had.  He quickly became an inquisitive and courageous little boy. Actually, he probably always had those qualities. He is amazing.   

Eastern European Adoption

Our apartment in Siberia:  This kid needs some spoiling!

We took that gigantic leap of faith six years ago, at a time when many of my friends were feathering their empty nests.  It was a rather convoluted journey that led me to Middle Aged, Last Minute, Sliding into Home Base Motherhood.  That trip of a lifetime opened the door to the best chapter of my life.  And yes, we now have two little people sneaking into our bed at night.  They are getting big, and we’re running out of room.  But I love it.

My Boys

My Boys.  Jhenya is now 9, Nicholas is 10 1/2

Eastern European Adoption:  Gratitude

Jhenya is a thriving, healthy, smart, funny, determined 9 year old third grader who is a rock star in sports, loves performing arts and hates homework.


He is one of the three three greatest loves of my life.  He is empathetic and caring. Jhenya was always the first to ask how I was feeling when I had breast cancer.  I tell my boys how much I love them a zillion times a day, and Jhenya always replies, “I love you more.”  He is my comedy clown; we have so many secret looks and gestures to make each other laugh whether it’s across the kitchen table or across the baseball field that it’s like we can read each other’s mind.  We didn’t introduce him to love, he was already loved by his caregivers, so in the grand scheme of adoption this was easy compared to what some of my friends have gone through.  Yet, we all feel it has been a miracle and a “this was meant to be” journey.

Jhenya was once one of millions of parentless children that exist all across our city, country, and world.  Whatever place people choose to adopt from is irrelevant to me; they are following their hearts, taking a leap of faith and in return, receiving a most precious gift.

I am so very, very thankful and grateful for mine.  Adoption is a special kind of love.

Valerie Hoff