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Instant Mom

After 10 years of pursuing parenthood, Nia Vardalos and her husband had just 14 hours notice before they brought home a preschooler via U.S. foster care. AF is pleased to share this excerpt from Instant Mom, her hilarious, poignant new memoir of her adoption journey.

by Nia Vardalos

The Home Study worker makes notes about us I cannot see, no matter how hard I bend over pretending to wipe the counter. She then asks Ian and me what we see in our future as a family. We reply that we see ourselves with a child. She asks us to be more specific. I want to be matched and say we are open to any sex, any age, any ethnicity. The Home Study worker waits, head down, listening. She is patient.

Ian then says quietly...he sees us with a little girl. I am surprised at this revelation. This is the first time he's admitted he has visualized someone too. I then loosen up and tell the worker about the girl I see, the girl I dream about. The worker smiles and makes a note of it, and I peek to see if she's checked a box that says "crazy." We are worried we won't be matched with the available waiting children, and we say again and again, we are open to any sex, any age, any ethnicity. We mean it. We want to be parents. We want to scream: we know there is a child out there that we could be good parents to. Just match us, dammit.

But we just smile hard, really hard, at her as the kitchen clock ominously ticks.

It's been several months since Ian and I have been cleared as a foster home--and over nine years of trying to be parents--and we're still waiting for that elusive match. Yet, impossibly, I am optimistic. I feel the phone will ring.

One day, it does.

It's a nice man I've met who works to place foster kids.

He tells me there is a little girl.

She is almost three years old.

She'd been relinquished to foster care by a young couple whose relationship did not last the birth.

She is presently legally freed for adoption.

The man says he has contacted our social workers and they all want to know if Ian and I would like to meet the little girl.

I nod my head, not realizing he can't see me. I'm not nodding yes to the meeting. I'm nodding yes because I know this is it. I know this is the match.

Running through the house, I find Ian and, gulping air, tell him about the little girl. I don't know anything about her background, but we can meet her tomorrow. I am jumping up and down, saying over and over "this is it." Ian tries to calm me down, so worried I will lose my mind if this doesn't work. But I know it will.

As we drive across the city, Ian and I are completely quiet in the car.

The way it works with foster care is, you have to have a chemistry meeting so everyone can determine how you get along. It isn't a test--they just want it to be a suitable pairing. That's why it's called a match. Wisely, they don't want the children to experience any more rejection, so the child is not told she might be meeting potential parents. The child probably just thinks it's more social workers, foster care workers, lawyers, etc. So today, this little girl is being brought to an office so we can all meet.

Ian and I drive into the parking lot of this office. As we park we see a small group of people standing in the middle of the lot. As we get out of the car, we can see a little brown-haired girl is in a social worker's arms. And as we walk toward the group, the little girl turns and looks at me.

At me.

And she smiles.

Everything goes quiet. I hear nothing at all.

All I think is, "Oh, I found you."

Because now I know who I have been waiting for. I know exactly why the other processes didn't work. I know I was supposed to wait for this little girl.

I put my hands out to her, and without hesitation she leans forward. As I cradle her, I can't hear anything. I am looking at my daughter. Finally. And I feel a peacefulness come over me like I have never known. I waited a long time for her and she is worth every minute of anxiety. I am holding my little girl and just inhaling her scent.

She is apprehensive, not sure what's happening today, and she clings to me and hides in my neck. I kiss her and whisper in her ear that everything will be OK. I tell her I love her. I hold her out now and smile at her. Ian puts his warm hand on her and they look at each other for a long moment. He is smiling. The little girl smiles shyly. She is truly beautiful.

Ten minutes later, we're all in the office watching this pretty little girl play with a red-and-yellow plastic toy train. She is dressed in a light shirt and cotton shorts over a cumbersome diaper. We can see she is very curious and imaginative as she takes each toy from a box and acts out scenarios without words. Her small face is fully absorbed in her play-acting, but now and then I see her sneak peeks at Ian and me. She wants to know what's happening, but I see how calmly she takes in the situation. Actually, I see now, she is not unruffled...she is pretending to be cool about it all. She gets it.

The social workers take us aside and are now telling us everything about her background. Following the protocol of foster care, there is a very thick file filled with information, from vaccinations to birth parent health history. Some is positive information; some could be worrisome. The little girl, they tell us, does not speak. The social workers don't label her, but they indicate a doctor has said she should be speaking by now. They tell us she can be withdrawn, is not responding to her name, therefore renaming her would be a healthy, fresh start for her. Ian and I don't even have to look at each other to know we want to move forward.

I'm listening, but I don't absorb very much, I'm watching this curious, sweet little girl. I look up at Ian--he's watching her, too. I feel like I've seen this scene before. Is it because we wanted it so badly, or is it because it feels so natural?

The social workers now leave us alone with her. Ian and I look at each other--what should we do? Immediately, the little girl finds a metal pole and bangs it against another pole. It's loud. She bangs it again and again and now looks at us, with an impish expression: You going to try to stop me?

Ian and I laugh. We have spotted a personality we know well--mischievous and forceful. My husband and I have a niece who is the same age, so now we speak to this little girl as if she understands. We do what anyone would do: We get down on the floor and play with her for a while. Then we ask if she is hungry. She nods yes.

So we tell the social workers, and all begin to leave the office. The little girl is clinging to me again and, as I carry her, I keep whispering to her that everything will be OK. Now I add that I will always take care of her. She leans into me, her body is so warm. On the street Ian puts her up on his shoulders, and she grins widely, really liking it up there. I am beside them with one hand supporting, holding her up when Ian turns toward a plate-glass window so she can see herself. Our reflection stares back: We look like a family.

Later, as we walk back to the parking garage, they inform us that this is when they have to take her away. They've told us the process: The state will determine if we're the right fit for her. The little girl is living with a family as the system works to permanently "place" her. They've told us, legally, we have 24 hours to think it over. We tell them we don't want the 24 hours. We want to take her home now. We don't want them to take her. We already know we're her parents.

In muted, hushed voices, they firmly tell us we have to take the required 24 hours and they have to take her now. I'm upset. This is hard, beyond hard. I just found her; how can I let her go? But I know she is taking cues from me, so I relax my body, keep my voice low and subdued, and say to her, "See you soon." I gently give her back to a social worker. I feel my insides crease as she is carried away from me.

I follow them.

As they put her in the booster, I lean into the car and say, "Bye, sweetie."

She has not spoken one word all day, but now turns to me with a small wave and quietly says..."Bye, Mommy."

No one moves. Everyone heard it. No one can make eye contact. The car drives away, and Ian and I stand here for a long time.

I say, "Did that just happen?," and Ian says, "Yep."

Nia Vardalos is the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated actress and writer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. An alumnus of The Second City comedy theater, she also starred in and wrote Connie and Carla and I Hate Valentine's Day, starred in My Life In Ruins, and co-wrote Larry Crowne with Tom Hanks. Born and raised in Canada, Vardalos now resides in Los Angeles with her husband, their daughter, and many pets, and is currently working on balancing her acting and writing career with motherhood and adoption advocacy.

From the book INSTANT MOM by Nia Vardalos. Copyright © 2013 by Nia Vardalos. Published on April 2, 2013, by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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PHOTO: Nia Vardalos and her daughter, now eight, at home.


Q: Why did you write Instant Mom?
A: I kept looking for the reason that the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding happened to me. At that time, I was struggling to have a child. When we were matched with our daughter and I became a ridiculously, gushingly happy mom, it dawned on me--I think I'm supposed to be using my big mouth to talk about adoption.

Q: You write screenplays--what was the process of writing a book like?
A: Terrifying! My husband, Ian Gomez, who is on the TV show Cougar Town, and I are actors, yet very private people. To go public with our story is against everything we believe in. But I felt if I did it, it might get more kids adopted.

Q: You tell a lot of secrets for the first time. Why now?
A: I've realized there's a difference between secrecy and discretion, and I found the process of letting go of shame to be completely liberating.

Q: Why did you include the How-To-Adopt appendix in Instant Mom?
A: While researching adoption options I couldn't find that one resource that would explain terms and phrases and, more importantly, how to adopt, worldwide. I'd studied methods in the U.S., plus many, many international countries' rules. This way, it's all in one book for people to decide what's right for them--from domestic infant adoption, to fostering, to adopting from India.

Q: You adopted from the U.S. foster care system?
A: Yes, our daughter was almost three years old when we were matched. The book chronicles the years of trying to be parents, suddenly getting matched with only 14 hours notice...and what happened next.

Q: Did you have well-meaning friends and relatives advise against adopting from foster care because of the myths that the children are "damaged"?
A: Yes, and to be honest, I don't disparage anyone for worrying, because the media has done a good job of only picking up those rare, scary stories. Most people in Hollywood are more damaged than any child living in foster care!

Q: Was it difficult to transition a child of preschool age?
A: Well, my first mistake is, I had just bought a white couch. Now that she's eight, my daughter loves the stories of how she punched and kicked her way into our hearts. But even though it was challenging, it was interesting how she slowly learned to trust us, and it is, of course, the most rewarding thing that's ever happened to us.

Q: What do you say to people who want to adopt but are unsure?
A: If fear of the unknown is stopping someone from taking this step, I do what I can to provide information. When I was worried about adopting, I fought back the irrational thoughts by asking my psyche questions, such as: "What's the alternative? If I don't do this, will I live a life of regret?"

Q: Many adoptive parents later reveal a feeling that their specific child was waiting for them. In Instant Mom you say, "If the standard route of creating a family had worked for me, I wouldn't have met this child. I needed to know her. I needed to be her mother."
A: It's that secret we all share. Parents who got to adopt their kids...we all know something. We got invited to a club we didn't think we could ever get into.

Q: How has motherhood changed you?
A: I was always a happy person and enjoyed working, but now I'm downright giddy on set because I know I'm going home to a funny girl with soft brown eyes, who has just hidden a whoopee cushion in my bed.

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