Category Archives: First Adoption

November 24, 2010: Part 2

Hannah found missing second part! Yay, Hannah, thank you. Apparently, I added it as a page, not a post, but I also did schedule it to add, which added my confusion. Guys, you need to realize, I work on my computer and websites all day, so I’m generally pretty computer saavy. But, 4 letter words that start with the same letter stump me every time. Anyways, here you go…

So, back to a knock on the door. The door opened and Lena walked in. Tiny and real. There she was. She knew that we were there for her, and after orienting herself and being handed a doll, she stood at my knees. I gently picked her up. She was light, soft and real. She seemed comfortable, almost right away.
If you’ve never experienced this, you might not know the strangeness of it, having a child you only know in pictures now on your lap. You know a child by their photos or maybe by a brief description. And suddenly, they are 3 dimensional. You can smell their scent, feel their skin, and hear their little giggles. So strange.

This little person finally in front of me was, formally, Olena. As they called her at the orphanage, Lenushka. Or, as we came to know her, Lena.

Before we could get too caught up in that moment, the door opened again and there he was. He looked like a startled deer. Staring, eyes scanning the room, then running to the social worker. Everyone gestured for Aaron to take him, and with some encouragement, Ilya let him. We knew him as Ilya, but they called him Ilyusha.

He was warm, sweaty and obviously tired. I have a feeling that they had just woken him up from his nap to come meet us. He was understandably stiff, and while we talked sweetly to him, he kept his head tucked down in great apprehension.

While these few moments were exciting, the nerves rose again. What if we didn’t seem comfortable enough? Were the doctor and social worker judging these first moments to see how we behaved as instant parents? Ilya’s head stayed down, but Lena was relaxed and quiet. Our facilitator snapped a few pictures of us, which truly excited Lena, to see herself on the tiny screen and she gestured around the room.

More of this is recounted in my original blog post.

It was only a few minutes, of this nervous playing, before they told us the children needed to go. Back to the their groupas. We could come again tomorrow. Although the excitement was over, I released tension walking out of that room. No longer did we have the social worker and Ludmila observing our amateur parenting.

Down the hallway, then the stairs, and back to squishing in the car. Sasha began to tell us how happy the children seemed. “Ilya, I was so worried. He had a woman visit him before. She came many days, but he always cried. She wanted to adopt him, but he cried so much that she did not think he would be comfortable. He did not cry with you. That is very good.” Huh. So already things went much better than we thought.

“Do you want to adopt them? We can start the paperwork or if you want to spend a couple more days with them first, you can do that.” Aaron and I exchanged some edgy, excited glances and some short, awkward phrases like, “what do you think?” Yes, we are ready. We don’t see why not and we don’t want to wait.

Off we went. We dropped off the social worker, back at her university-like building. Sasha explained, “I need to prepare papers. Shall I take you where you can get some lunch?” To the mall, we went. Sasha dropped us on the curb. She explained that we could gesture in the food court to point out what food we wanted and she would call us when she was done. We choose pizza. Easy enough to know what we were getting. We sat down at a little table and breathed deep sighs of relief.

Again, we were alone. Alone together. In a mall, yes, but we knew the likelihood of someone around us fully understanding our conversation were slim. We could process all that had just happened. Beside us, was a children’s play area. It was strange. The contrast of the baby house and this wealthy mall play area was just bizarre. Adjacent cities, two different worlds.

Eventually, Sasha called. I’m not sure what else happened that day, but the next thing I remember was the notary. Eastern European notaries are independent little offices all over. You can just walk in and pay to have something notarized.  A quick flash of our passports, many signatures and we were out the door.

Then, Sasha offered to take us to the grocery store. I believe we needed to exchange some money first, so we did that. Then, to the store. We had been to little markets in Kiev, but this grocery store was large, bright. Shopping carts and a parking lot. It seemed so… normal. To the left and right, as you walked in, were little shops. almost like a mall. You could grab freshly pressed juice. Or get some home goods. Just a bit further and you entered the store through a turn-style. Check your bag if needed or just go past the security guard.
(Again, not my photo– click for source. But this is the same chain that we sometimes shopped at in Ukraine.)

And, we shopped. Gallons of water. Juice and crackers for the kids. Boring, ordinary grocery shopping, while we still held the slight nervousness of such a monumental day.

Back to the car, and then back to our apartment. Sasha stayed with us that night and read through our children’s files again. She went over details again and expounded on certain things. Breaking down nuances which we might not have understood the first time around.

The day ended mildly, nerves slowly being taken over by exhaust. In retrospect, it’s one of the most life-changing days we’ve ever had. Meeting our children for the first time, the first steps to becoming parents, really saying yes to adopt. Wild and pretty much amazing.

November 24, 2010: Part 1

I woke up entirely around 5am, wondering where on Earth, literally, we were. I listened at each of the stops, wanting some indication of our location. Time passed, 6 am, 7 am, 8 am, 9 am, 10 am, 11 am. We played cards and munched on snacks that we had packed, while I craned my neck to peer out the window at the foggy Ukrainian countryside.

The train stopped again, and this station was a bit busier. A woman smiled at me, then jolted, as gracefully as a person can, towards the train. We heard her talking to the conductor for a minute, before she came to our car, instructing us to gather our luggage in a hurry. She introduced herself as Sasha. “I knew it was you right away. They told me you looked very young. And, you look American… so, apartment or baby house first?”

Sasha is awesome. Warm, friendly. Ukrainians, along with Russians and other Eastern Europeans, are known for their stoicism. Their smiles are rare and only if truly earned. I think this is a wonderful idea, more honest than our American plastic smiles. But, Sasha has mastered the art of connecting with Americans with the warm smile and kind chatter that we need. We both instantly felt comfortable with her.

We picked apartment. Perhaps it sounds silly, to pick before the much-awaited baby house trip, but I was desperate to change out of my going on 26-hour outfit. Oh, and a bathroom. Maybe TMI, but if you’ve ever tried to pee in a Eastern European train bathroom, I know you understand.

A quick trip to drop off our stuff and change, before we began our long, exciting day of many stops. By this point, nerves were boiling up. What if they said we were too young. What if the kids hated us. What if we didn’t react appropriately at our first meeting.

First, we had to meet a social worker. We went to a large building, almost resembling a university building, up a flight of stairs and were instructed to sit and wait. Waited a bit longer, while Sasha made small talk. I can’t imagine I was much for conversation, with all of the nerves. The social worker was out to lunch, so we’d have to wait a bit longer. Just a few minutes more and we were pulled into her office.

This is one of those moments were culture shock struck me hard. First, the social worker was beautiful. But, far more made up than what you would see in an American office. Her nails, her hair, her jewelry. Please understand, this is not a judgement, only an observation. But, I think her style would have given her some trouble in an American office.

The next culture shock, the escalating voices, eventually yelling. I knew this was how Ukrainians communicate, but it still left me wondering if something was wrong. Was the social worker saying we were not suitable and Sasha was arguing back? This went on for a couple of minutes, before Sasha began translating for us. The questions were mild, about us, where we lived, our age, too, but the social worker was pleased with us.

She gather some papers, and now, we all headed back out to the car, social worker included, where we piled in. Aaron, Sasha and I squished in the back, social worker up front with the driver. Ukrainians have no issues squishing in a car.

This was it, off to the baby house. Twists and turns and bumpy roads. We had seen a bit of Ukraine, but now for the real stuff. Babushkas, bundled up, slogging up the side of dirty roads. Laundry lines hung on balconies. Women in heels and mini-skirts traipsing up tree-lined streets to important looking buildings. Children bundled up in every possible layer of clothing. Wild dogs, looking more cold and hungry than dangerous. Each day of our trip to Ukraine, we saw all of these sights and more, but it was incredible to see it all for the first time.
Kopat Kartoshku...
(This is not my photo– click for source. This is likely not even Ukraine, but is a similar sight to what we saw.)

The trip to the baby house took us out of the bigger city of Donetsk into the neighboring, industrial city of Makiivka. You could almost see the change as we slowed down a bit for the train tracks and passed by a blue and white sign, defining the border. Up a small hill, then down a street. The pavement breaking up down, our driver dodging pot holes, babushkas and wild dogs. Then, another turn, onto a dirt road. Slowing down to let the three men in leather jackets, with cigarettes in their hands, move off to the side. Passing by two dogs, one black and white with longing eyes. And slowing down for the finally turn.

Past the bare trees and the colorful playground equipment to our right, there stood the baby house.

Except that you approach it from the other side, but I do not have a photo of that.

It’s amazing that I could climb out of the car, my nerves as wild as they were. Out of the car, through the two heavy sets of doors. Then, upstairs. Two flights, I think. Then down a hall to the director’s office. But, the director was on holiday, a vacation. So, to meet the head doctor and deputy director instead. Another thing that may be botched in my memory now, but I think her name is Ludmila.

It’s funny I don’t remember her name, because I am fond of that woman. The first thing you notice is her presence. Strong, firm and intimidating. But, the second thing that you notice is her smile. Another rare, warm smile. So genuinely happy to see someone here for her children.

She sat us down and read us their files. Before they brought the children in, so that we could focus. This was a bit of a game, her reading, Sasha translating. And Sasha saying “do you understand? do you know this word?” Often, it was a bit of charades before we’d realize it was only her accent, not the medical terminology that was confusing us. We had a bit of apprehension when we had been read Lena’s file in Kiev, based on some of the language that was in it, but hearing these records put us at ease. Nothing too scary.

We finished up the records and waited, awkward small talk filling the silence. Then, a knock on the door.

To be continued. Like that suspense there?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

3 years ago, we met Reed and Lena for the first time. I realized that I never took the time to blog about our early days in Ukraine, before we met them. I blogged a bit about our time in Kiev, but I never went into great detail about the day we met them, because I was so eager to share about our actual first meeting. So, I am choosing now, before I forget to share this with you and even more so, to put it down to share with Reed and Lena some day.

I am going to start with the day before we met them, Tuesday, November 23, 2010. I am going to break these 2 days up into 3 blog posts, and this is going to be the most boring– my apologies. The photos in this blog post are not my own. I will use photos from Flickr and if you would like to see the source of the photos, you can click on them.

We realized shortly after arriving in Ukraine that Aaron had forgotten his gloves. In late November, the weather was still pretty mild, a lot like it usually is here. Jacket weather, but hat and gloves not quite necessary yet. But, we knew it would get much colder over the duration of our trip, so we knew we had to find a pair.

We asked the advice of our new friends who were on their second Ukrainian adoption. They were very familiar with Kiev and offered to take us out the next day to a cheap, warehouse-type store to find gloves. So, that’s how we spent our Tuesday, waiting to pick up our referrals and taking the subway in Kiev with Meredith and Mike. It was a totally rainy, gross day. We took the subway to a huge store, sort of resembling a Costco, right next to Hillsong Kiev.

Ukraine Kiev Subway Platform


(a Kiev subway station.)


After finding gloves and picking up a few other items, we had lunch at McDonalds. Mike and Meredith took us back on the subway and walked us back to our apartment, where we hastily packed things up so that we could go get our referrals and hop on the train. Our friends wished us well and left us to prepare.

4pm. We hauled all of our stuff down the several flights of stairs from our apartment– I think we were on the 4th floor. No elevator. We drug it all outside, into the now-cold, dusk fall air. And waited. Time ticked by. Another set of new friends, Patty and Tom, who would also be going to pick up their referral called us to see if we knew where our driver was. Nope. So, we waited some more and it grew colder as the evening turned to total darkness. We eventually piled our suitcases in the tiny alcove just inside the door of the apartment building and took turns standing outside. It was around 5, an hour after our designated pick-up time, when our driver pulled up. Patty and Tom were already in the car, so we to squish to all fit in the little SUV.

The race was on. We were supposed to be there by 5:30 and Kiev is a big city with horrible traffic. It’s really quite beautiful by night, old buildings all lit up, but the traffic is awful. Stop, go, jerk one direction, jerk the other, stop, go some more. We finally pulled into the SDA, what the building where you received referrals, closer to 6 now. Our driver banged on the door. No answer. He banged on another door. No answer. Tom, Patty, Aaron and I stood around nervously, wondering if we would get the needed paperwork. Our driver banged some more and finally someone came to the door. They argued in Russian for a minute, then he said they would let us get our referrals. Phew.

All we had to do was show our passports and sign our names. We were handed a bulky packet of papers. Perfect! We tucked them in a safe place, waited for our friends to do the same, and we were off once more. We made another stop for our driver– I’m not sure where, before heading to the train station. We were going to take a train leaving just after 7.

Kiev Central Train Station

Our driver picked up our tickets while we consumed more McDonalds with Patty and Tom. A fully packed McDonalds on a Tuesday night. I remember having a conversation with a stranger, perhaps in the military and something about family in New Jersey, but it’s very possible that I made that part up, mixed in with all of the craziness of that week.

After we were done at McDonalds, we were off to the train. I love train stations. Something about all of adventure and the history. But, I was glad we had our driver to guide us to our train and help us find our room. They were sold out of second class, so our driver had to buy us (at our expense, of couse) first class tickets instead.

Saying goodbye to the driver, sitting down on the little train beds, was such a relief. Here we were, able to just sit, in privacy, for the next several hours. We took off our shoes and extra layers and pulled out a deck of cars, to play on the tiny table. The first class train car was really quite nice.

We enjoyed the quiet for awhile, to play cards and just talk, before we decided to go to sleep. 9:30, I still remember that detail, oddly enough.

In theory, sleeping on the train isn’t bad. If I had my pick of long-distance travel methods, that would be it. You can stretch out and relax, in privacy. Two little beds, all to ourselves. The usually-gentle sway of the train is lovely.

However, we did not sleep well.  No one had told us how long the train ride would be, what time we would arrive, or how we would know to get off. Mike and Meredith told us they thought it was about 12 or 13 hours to our destination. But, what if it was less?

As the night passed, the train regularly slowed and light poured in from outside. There would be an announcement in Russian about where we were and the train would come to a complete stop. Occasionally, it would get noisy, with the sounds of suitcases and voices as people got on and off the train.

To be continued tomorrow, with the next day’s adventures.


I find it hard to believe that 2 years ago we were in Ukraine. Hard to believe that it’s only been 2 years since Reed and Lena became part of our family. It seems like a lifetime ago.



I miss our time in Ukraine– we had so much fun there. While our first few months of parenting were very difficult, the journey to become parents was a lot of fun. So many great memories there. Nothing like the nervous, excited energy of meeting your children for the first time and finding your way in an unfamiliar culture with a language barrier!

And 1 year ago, we were in Russia. That seems impossible, too.

I think about this sweet girl every day and wonder where she is and what kind of life she is living. It’s hard not to know, to have any clue. Unfortunately, she is still on the Russian database for orphans, which is not promising. 😦 But, I pray that she has a good life, beyond what I can imagine. She was a part of our incredible story which brought us to our amazing Gus, and I hope that her story is just as incredible, even if I don’t know how it ends.

Our Eastern European Life Book Template

Whenever someone talks about telling their child their adoption story, I bring up life books. I’m a life book evangelist, shouting “LIFE BOOK!” to everyone who can hear. Okay, not quite, but I do get excited about them.

A life book is a book that tells your child’s story, from birth. The story of their birth family and how they came to be a part of your family. The point is to facilitate talk about adoption. Give them something to read to help them understand their stories in a positive way.

Our social worker strongly encouraged us to write life books for Reed and Lena. And when we met to do the homestudy for our second adoption, we did not have them done. Again, she encouraged us to do it. So, I stayed up for hours one night working on them. I searched and searched for examples of life books for Eastern European adoptions and found nothing. I took bits and pieces from all over and wrote my own. Whenever I share it, it is always a big hit, and while I wanted to share it here, it’s just so personal. But, I edited it for an imaginary child. Some of the wording is nearly the same as my kids’, but none of the details are.

Please feel free to use this as a starting point, but edit it to be age-appropriate for your child and with the language that your family likes to use. Each child has their own story, so write your child’s life book to fit his/hers!

Edited to Add: I used Snapfish to make and print the books, because it was the cheapest, but you could use whatever format you want, even just printing them off of the computer. Obviously, for some kids, the more effort you put into making it look published, the more they will appreciate that. Our social worker recommended making 2 copies– 1 for your child to have free reign over and a second to keep somewhere safe, in case your child colors in it, rips it up, etc.


I was born in Kiev, Ukraine on March 10, 2009.

Kiev is a big city and the capital of Ukraine. Just before my birthday, they celebrate Women’s Day. Women get flowers, candy and other gifts from the people who love them, like Mother’s Day when I make my mom a card.

Before I was born, I grew in a special place inside a woman. That woman is my birthmother. Her name is Yana.

She gave me my birthday.

She gave me my looks.

I don’t know her, but maybe I can guess some things about her.

Maybe she has brown hair and brown eyes like me. I wonder if she likes stripes and to do cartwheels like I do.

It takes two people to make a baby, a man and a woman. Everyone in the world starts with a birthmother and a birthfather.

I did too.

I have a birthmother and a birthfather in Ukraine. I don’t know much about my birthfather. I don’t even know his name. But, there are some things I can guess. Maybe he likes peaches like me. Maybe he has curly hair like me.

[picture of him swimming]

Maybe he likes to swim like I do.

I also have 2 biological brothers. Their names are Victor and Danil. They have the same first mother, but not the same mom and dad.

They were adopted by another mom and dad. They live in California now. Sometimes we fly on an airplane to go see them or sometimes they drive in the car to come to our house.

After babies are born, they might go live with their birth parents, join other families or live in a hospital or orphanage.

There are many reasons why I didn’t stay with my birth family. I don’t know the answers for sure now. But, I do know that that the reasons had to do with my birthparents and their situation, not me.

[oldest photo I have of him]

I was just a baby. A beautiful, precious baby. I didn’t do anything wrong. Babies can’t do anything wrong.

My birthname was Александра Влади́мировна Маркова, Alexandra Vladimirovna Markova.

At the orphanage, they called me Sasha.

My mom and dad gave me the name Sasha Grace Smith.

All of my names are beautiful and part of who I am.

I don’t know why my birthparents left me at the hospital.

But, it must have been a very difficult decision.

They must have thought hard about what to do.

I know they loved me and wanted good things for me.

But, they did not have a way to take care of me.

They couldn’t take care of me, so they left me in a place where I would be safe.

When I was born, my birthmother left me at the hospital.

After 2 months, I went to live at the “dom”.

Some people call it a “dom”. “Dom” is the Russian word for house. Russian is the language that they speak in Ukraine. Here in the United States, we speak English. In English, we call it the “baby house” or “orphanage”

[photo of dom, photo of group of kids at dom]

This is the dom. Lots of boys and girls live there. As little as babies and as big as 5 years old.

[photo of orphanage staff]

There are lots of people who work at the group home. They took care of me. They fed me, changed my diapers and put me to sleep.

[photo of him with a friend]

There are lots of boys and girls I lived with at the group. My friend [insert name] got adopted by another mom and dad. She lives in South Carolina now and we talk on the phone sometimes.

[photo of our family the day we met]

When I was two years old, just before my third birthday, my mom and dad came to the group home to meet me and my brother.

[like for an older kid, you might want to give more of an explanation about how you never met before or maybe how other mothers and fathers came to visit, but none of them were their mom and dad]

I said “paka”(goodbye in Russian) to the women who took care of me, my friends and the group home.

I went home with my mom, dad and brother.

We had to go in cars and planes to get home.

I learned a new language. In Ukraine, they speak Russian. Here, we speak English.

I tried new foods. Some of them I really liked– like watermelon and cookie dough ice cream. Some of them I don’t like– like lasagna.

I slept in a new bed, but my mom and dad were right there if I needed them.

Now, I am bigger.

I am taller and my hair is longer.

I like to do ballet. I like to cuddle with my mom and dad. I like to brush my cat’s hair and tuck my dolls in at night. I like to play with my brother, but sometimes I get mad at him too.

I am a big strong girl.

I still think about my life in Ukraine.

I love my mom and dad very much and wouldn’t want any other family. But, I will always wonder about my birthparents.

My life has been a huge adventure and I am a strong, brave girl to experience all of these changes.

I was born in Ukraine and now I live here. All of these experiences are part of me: one girl from two places, growing up to be strong and beautiful.