The word orphanage, especially when preceded by the word Romanian, brings to mind images of dark places populated by listless children with vacant eyes. A warehouse for unwanted kids. That's definitely not the case in Kazakhstan. Baby House No. 3 is more spa than orphanage. In our baby's group, there are six women looking after nine babies. That's the kind of staff-to-passenger ratio you'd expect on a cruise ship, not at an orphanage. The staff also includes a music teacher, a massage therapist, and a gourmet chef. Well, not exactly gourmet. The menu consists of potatoes, vegetables, and the Kazakh national dish: horse meat. The thought of our daughter eating horse meat disturbs us on a number of levels. For one, it gives her drool a pungent odor, to put it mildly. Also, what happens when we return to Miami and she craves her daily dose of horse meat? Does Publix carry it?
We are finally allowed into the babies' private room, the sanctum sanctorum. It's cozy inside. There's tea brewing in one corner, a TV on in the other. An oversized playpen is in the middle of the room with five or six babies inside. On the wall, there are pictures of adopted children, formerly of the baby house, now living in the United States.
We sit in on our daughter's near-daily massage session. They knead her from her little hands to little toes and slap her little baby butt—so hard, in fact, that later, on the video I recorded, it looks like evidence from a child-abuse case. I assure you it is not. The caregivers are loving and competent. We find all of this care comforting but also, to be honest, worrying. How can we compete?
I swear sometimes she is looking at us with those beautiful charcoal eyes thinking, "You guys don't have a clue; you couldn't change a diaper to save your life. I want out." I can't blame her. We are rank amateurs. That became clear when Sharon tried to change her diaper, under close Kazakh supervision, of course. Within a matter of minutes, Sharon clocked our daughter's head on the changing table, tangled her little hand in a sleeve, and nearly trampled another hapless child sitting on the floor. Thankfully, the workers seemed more amused than alarmed. Maybe they've seen worse. Maybe they were just being polite. Either way, we're grateful they didn't sound the Incompetent Parent Alarm.
Even though we've come this far in the process, my mind still spins all kinds of wild, catastrophic scenarios. I am worried that our daughter's primary caretaker at the baby house will decide that she wants to adopt her and will snatch her from us at the last minute. I also worry that some Third World calamity—coup d'état, natural disaster, disease outbreak—will disrupt the adoption. Intellectually, I know these are irrational fears, but I can't seem to shake them. I think these fears stem from our powerlessness. As adopting parents, we have few rights. Also, we have been through so many delays and false starts that we can't imagine getting on an airplane with a child, our child.
*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.