Thanks to a Los Angeles billboard, acclaimed actress Nia Vardalos and her husband have a daughter to call their own.
May 31, 2014
There are signs in life. And if you’re looking, you’ll see them.
In my case, there was an actual sign, a giant billboard on Third Street and La Cienega. I must have driven past it a thousand times on my way to the supermarket or the shopping center. It was a picture of a child and the sign read, “Want to be a foster parent? Want to foster/adopt?”
No, I thought, that’s just one more path to disappointment.
I’m not proud of this, but I had a lot of misconceptions about American foster care. To me, foster care meant that a child would be placed with you, then taken away. I didn’t want to go through all of that.
For 10 years, my husband, Ian, and I had wanted be parents. We had tried everything. Then we looked into private adoption. We put our names on waiting lists in every state, then even in China and Greece.
But the phone never rang and the guest room—the room we hoped would one day be our child’s—stayed empty.
I don’t give up easily. I write most of the movies I act in, and if something doesn’t feel right, I rewrite the scene again and again until it works. Not this time. There didn’t seem to be any happy ending. I wondered if we’d exhausted all possibilities.
Now I can tell our daughter the whole story from start to finish, all the wonderful details, and I often do. I tell her about the phone call that came that evening, the call that changed our lives.
It was 9:00 P.M. and I was at home writing a screenplay when the phone rang. It was the social worker from the foster adoption agency, and she simply said, “You’ve been matched with a three-year-old girl.”
I was stunned. I sat down, then a minute later felt the cool floor on my forehead. I rolled over and stared at the ceiling. This was actually happening.
The social workers we’d been talking to for months were so hard-working, helpful, patient and understanding, I called them our super-pretty angels. When we met, they had promised this process would work, that I would be a mother. And here was that phone call I had been waiting for.
“When is she coming?” I asked.
Ian is an actor too. He was shooting then so I texted, “Call me when you’re done.”
When Ian called, I told him the news and we both laughed, then fell silent for a minute. What we’d wanted for so long was finally about to happen.
He got home and we stayed up giddily—and nervously—discussing everything from where she would sleep, what groceries we would have to buy, to if she might be afraid of the dogs.
The next morning, Ian took off with a shopping list. I will never forget the sight of him driving up a few hours later surrounded by pink stuff. I could barely make out his smiling face and two hands on the steering wheel.
The car was crammed with comforters, pink pillows, a Hello Kitty blanket, pink stuffed toys, Elmo, clothes.
We brought everything into the guest room. We’d had only 14 hours notice—but we made it her room. We wondered how she’d like it.
Our daughter loves to hear the story of how we all moved into that one room. She didn’t say very much at first. We’d explain that we loved her and she was going to live with us. She was very brave. But at night she was afraid. “Help her feel safe,” our social workers advised.
So we slept in her room. Night after night Ian and I took turns holding her in our laps until she fell asleep. I look at her now, and it seems so impossible. She’s so secure. So confident. But back then, she didn’t know us, she didn’t understand what was happening.
I will always admire her bravery. She walked into our house, into her new life, and embraced it. It was only at night that she cried. Who wouldn’t? It was all so new.
During the day we did fun things, like blowing bubbles in the backyard and playing with the dogs. We bought tons of stickers and put them all over her room. It was really satisfying and a relief to watch her slowly get used to us.
Of course, we had our exhausted, sleep-deprived moments when we wondered if we’d done the right thing. Were we capable of being sudden parents to a three-year-old? Had we taken on more than we could possibly handle?
But then we’d stroke her hair and look at her beautiful face, and we’d know she was meant for us and we were meant for her. She was all we’d ever wanted.
Our social workers gave us such good advice. “Even though she’s not talking much, speak to her as if she understands,” they said.
I tell our daughter how she grew in another lady’s tummy. I explain that a man made a baby with that lady. I tell her they weren’t ready to be parents, but we were. She loves to hear the story, and tells me she’s going to have four babies and adopt four more.
Someday I’ll tell her how little I understood about foster adoption, that there are some 115,000 children in America who are in foster care and legally freed for adoption.
I was worried if you adopted a foster child, someone from the birth family could still come and take her back. I was afraid that any child in foster care might have suffered such trauma or neglect that she would be impossible to reach.
I’m not proud of these fears. But I understand now when others ask me the same questions.
What I didn’t know then is that there is no damage that has been done to a child that can’t be undone with love. I have met so many kids who have been adopted from foster care and have gone on to live fantastic, productive lives. It’s why I became the spokesperson for National Adoption Day.
Our daughter was not damaged or hurt in any way. She was simply relinquished to foster care by two people who were not ready to be parents. I admire them for giving her the chance for a better life. And I am grateful they gave my husband and me the opportunity to be parents.
Someday I’ll tell our daughter about that sign, the giant billboard that changed our lives.
I had passed it so many times. Then, one day, heading home, I looked up at it again. Foster/adopt? What did that mean, exactly? Was this one possibility we hadn’t explored?
I pulled over and called the number. I soon learned a new term: foster family agency. It’s a network of social workers who guide adopting parents through the system. This process is cost-free.
These social workers help prospective parents with the paperwork and home study so they can match you with a waiting child. They explained to me: If you want to foster a child, there are 350,000 kids who are currently in the system, and need temporary placement in a loving home.
If you want to adopt, there are an additional 115,000 children who are legally freed, available for adoption. I didn’t know this. I was surprised. And for the first time in a long time, hopeful.
The social workers were there for us at every step. Including the day we finalized the adoption of our daughter. At the family courthouse we all smiled for a photo. The look on our faces is of such joy. These loving social workers helped me realize a life goal.
I am a mom.
All because I looked up and saw that sign.
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