I Spent the Winter in Kazakh Siberia Adopting a Baby and This Is What I Learnt About Living Through a Pandemic

I’ve been trying to pinpoint something that has been eluding me since we went into lock down mode.  Something in the back of my mind that I couldn’t quite bring out into the cold light of day, when chatting on a WhatsApp group with some friends a couple of days ago it suddenly materialised.  This situation reminds me of what it was like almost 14 years ago when I travelled to Kazakhstan to adopt my lovely boy.  The reason that it’s been eluding me is that it has no obvious parallels and yet the feelings that it stirs in me are so very similar.

The blog I was planning was the standard “I normally work from home and here’s what you need to know” but it just wouldn’t write itself.  It became pretty obvious pretty quickly to everyone that the only important thing is to get yourself a proper comfortable office chair and everything else is just preference and circumstance.  Separate your home area/time from work… blah blah, or don’t, whatever works for you.

So instead I’m here writing the:

“I spent the winter in Kazakh Siberia adopting a baby and here’s what you need to know to help in a pandemic” blog.  It’s only a working title.

So the background…

I travelled to Kazakhstan in October 2006 to adopt my lovely boy.  I had no idea he was going to be my lovely boy then, Kazakhstan operate a system of “blind” travel, you travel to meet a child within criteria approved in your home study without knowing who they are or having any information about them.  I was approved for a child of either sex and any ethnicity under two.  I’m not sure it specified it had to be human so for all I know I could have been travelling to meet a pony and after an almost three year process I probably would have fallen upon a lovely pony in glee and called him Horace.

I travelled alone as I was adopting as a single parent and initially met two lovely Irish couples who were using the same local coordinator.  Bonding (with each other) was pretty much instantaneous – there wasn’t actually that much choice as there was no-one else much around who spoke English.  We had been selected to travel to a town called Ust-Kamenogorsk in the far North Eastern corner of Kazakhstan in the area where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan meet.  Winters there are a little chilly.

I’d studied Russian for a couple of years so I could read and write a bit and speak a little too.  Enough to not make the rookie error of buying the milk in cartons that LOOKS like milk (Hello grazing cow picture) but is in fact a litre of Kefir (yum, fermented yoghurt with your tea anyone?).  I was much in demand with the other couples for on the spot translation services although they did start overestimating my language abilities at the point I was asked what kind of English texts were used at the equivalent of our A levels.  I pointed out that they hadn’t covered this in my “introduction to Russian” course at Hammersmith Adult Education Centre but if they wanted to know the way to the police station I was very happy to direct them to that in Russian.  (In fact it’s more likely that I just asked the person for a beer in Russian, which I could also do fluently, and lied to my companions about the A level syllabus, in the process making everyone happy).

In Kazakhstan in 2006 the connection to the outside world was via landline phone or a 56K dial up connection (using the same phone line) – it doesn’t escape me that there will be people reading this who have no idea what “56k dial up connection (using the phone line)” even means and I’m not sure I have the ability to describe it.  Just imagine the slowest internet connection on your worst day and slow that down by about a factor of 100.  I decided to blog so that I could get news out to everyone in one go rather than trying to tortuously email or phone everyone individually and I used to prepare my blog for the day offline and just cut and paste it into the blog when I managed to get a connection.  A large part of every day was spent trying to get a connection.

The bulk of the rest of the day was spent trying to bond with my new child.  The law was a bonding period of a minimum of two weeks with daily visits so that the director of the “Baby House” could report to court on whether bonding was going well enough for my petition to adopt to be granted.  What I didn’t share with the wider world at that point was my daily visits of 2 x 2 hrs daily were tinged with anxiety about this baby’s prognosis.  He had been a 980gr 26 week premmie and in hospital for the first 3 months of his life and was at 11 months the size and had the development of a 6 month old, being unable to sit up unaided.

And then the freeze set in.  Temperatures dropped to minus 20 the snow stopped melting and just laid on top off the previous snow.  Walking about became treacherous, hell’s teeth, BREATHING became treacherous – the freezing air hitting your lungs made you cough and you fast learned to breathe through a scarf.

And then the bureaucratic delays started and an expected five week trip and home before Christmas became seven weeks then nine weeks then eleven… and the uncertainty of just how long it would take was the most difficult thing. If I had known that it would take three months, it would have been easier to deal with.  But I had no control, my life was entirely at someone else’s direction and I had no idea who that someone was.   The things we normally take for granted like wandering out to get a coffee without gearing up for icy weather and practising in advance what I might have to say and bracing myself to try to follow the response became a huge chore and the underlying anxiety about whether I was doing the right thing taking this child with all his potential problems was so much harder to deal with.

When I realised that’s what I was reminded of, the sense of isolation and anxiety and of not quite feeling connected with the world around me made sense and made me consider what, if anything I’d learned from that time.  Because I did survive and I did adopt that lovely boy and I did come back a slightly different person to the one who left.

So here’s what I learnt, take from it whatever you want or need to:

1 – connections are important.  I worked so hard to stay in touch and so many people commented on my blog that I felt like they were all willing me on.  Many friends who were really little more than acquaintances when I left, worked to get me a Christmas parcel when it became obvious we were not going to get back for Christmas and although I have told them how much I appreciated it at the time, I think that they probably have no concept of how much it meant to me.  Not just the mince pies but the thought that someone somewhere was thinking of me and I will never forget them for it.

2 – for every person who made my life more difficult with needless bureaucracy, unhelpfulness or even spite, there were others who made my life easier by being pleasant and thoughtful and very often they were strangers.  The kindness of strangers became a big thing for me at the time and I was truly grateful to them. If you are not benefitting from a stranger being kind, BE the stranger being kind.

3 – live in the moment.  I spent way too much time stressing about things which might happen.  None of them did.  The things which derailed me were totally unexpected and unforeseen and were dealt with in the moment reasonably successfully without having spent copious amounts of time preplanning them.  It was a big life lesson for me.  I sometimes say if I had known how it was going to work out that I would have enjoyed it all so much more!

4 – People.  The main thing I will remember is the people.  The people who became life-long friends who now live all over the world and with the joys of technology we manage to stay in touch.  The strangers who cared so brilliantly for my son and were so delighted with my stuttering and sometimes inadvertently amusing attempts at conversing with them in Russian and who were so incredibly kind to me at a time when I badly needed it.  The people at home who had my back – some of them too were to become lifelong friends because you suddenly realise when the chips are down who you can count on, even if it’s just an email, a call, a comment, a care parcel. Keep in touch with your people, take care of each other in whatever way you can.

5 – a shared connection.  You will never be able to explain to anyone who didn’t go through lockdown (different country or children/grandchildren you might have in future) how it felt, you can talk about the mechanics of it but you can never make someone who hasn’t been through it FEEL it and that will give you a bond with people that you might have nothing else in common with.  A point of reference.  A conversation topic that you know you can share.

It is the weirdest feeling for me to look back at such a different life experience and think “I’ve got this, I know how this works!” but I think I do and I see others around working it out as well.  I make sure I keep in touch with everyone I would normally see week to week and have added in a few more just for good measure, I chat from a socially acceptable distance with dog walkers that I now know by name when previously they were just the owner of a dog in the same field and I take my time and try to appreciate a slower life.  I cook and bake and read and watch the National Theatre Live and I participate in virtual quizzes in a team with lovely people I met on holiday and I play bridge online with my sister and friends.

And appropriately I spend time bonding again with my lovely boy.  We dog walk together and eat together and plan for the future together.

I am not unaware that I am able to take this attitude as my nearest and dearest are largely untouched by the tragedy that Covid-19 is bringing to so many, so to the best of your ability, stay safe and may the odds be ever in your favour.

The Babyhouse in Winter


  1. Michele · · Reply

    It is so nice to see someone else put into words what I have been feeling. I adopted my beautiful boy from Schuschinsk in 2008. I’ve been feeling the same.

  2. Very interesting. Brave lady. I wish you well.and your boy for the future. Keep safe.

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