Friday, March 22, 2013

Nia Vardalos on Adoption, Movies, and Her New Book

“I’m not judging anyone for their questions and concerns about adopting. I had fears too, and it’s one of the many reasons I want to tell this story...”
“Anyone who ever wondered how much they could love a child who did not spring from their own loins, know this: It is the same”    - Nia Vardalos, Instant Mom

Nia Vardalos desired to be a mom, but Mother Nature stood in her way. Instant Mom is Nia’s story of fighting Mother Nature and then finding a way around her. But it’s also Nia’s story of waiting through times of uncertainty in the adoption matching process. And it’s also Nia’s story of meeting her daughter. It’s the story of her daughter immediately making Nia’s house a home, and Nia and her husband Ian eventually helping to make their home, their daughter’s home.  With humor and sensitivity, Nia shares her journey through infertility treatments, adoption education, fost-adopt matching, parenting, finalization, and more parenting.  She casually shows the need of older kids to be adopted, the potential for openness in adoption to include grandparents, and the value of pets in helping a child feel secure in a new home. Along the way, she deals with people who unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) say hurtful things, media who learn when to keep secrets, and a coyote masquerading as a dog.
I read it from cover-to-cover in one night. I smiled when Nia’s daughter told the family dog, “Manny, you’re adopted, too!” I laughed out loud as Nia and her daughter drew ire from their elevator companions by making fart news. I was intrigued as Nia and her husband helped their daughter participate in choosing her own new name. I cringed inwardly as her daughter screamed through her baptism. I jotted down notes as Nia gave advice worthy of foster care trainings, like, “Don’t make everything a teachable moment.”  I was touched by her sensitivity, as she encouraged waiting parents that, when you finally do meet your child, it’s like an oven fan turns off, and the noise that you didn’t realize was bothering you is silenced. I was particularly impressed at the thorough, informed, and sensitive “How to Adopt” appendix. You can pre-order Nia’s book on Amazon right now.

Nia spoke with Addison Cooper of Adoption at the Movies to share about her book and her journey towards parenthood.

Addison:   Nia, you said that you’re an inherently optimistic person that was in a bleak situation, and many folks that are wanting to adopt are nervous, anxious, or frightened. How did you stay hopeful?

Nia: I gathered information, and statistically, even the most doubting person would have to admit and accept that this does work. There are just so many adoptions that are viable forms of parenting; why are only listening to the few (negative stories) that the media has picked up?

Addison: There are so many horror stories, even if adoption does form a family, that adopted kids are going to have problems or challenges that are going to be insurmountable. (In your book) even a guy in the park said, “Aren’t you afraid that your child is going to be damaged?”  What would you say to folks who are considering adoption but are kind of scared away by what they’ve heard?

Nia: I would just say gather the facts, listen to the statistics, see how many adoptions stick, work, form wonderful, wonderful families, and just follow your instincts.

Addison: Nia, what part of the adoption process came really easily to you, and which were the parts that were more challenging?

Nia: The part that absolutely was challenging was when I went to the State and met with some abrupt social workers that day. Now, I’m not saying that most are (like that). As I say in the book, I know that there are wonderful state social workers. Eventually, I did meet them. But that day, the two people that I met were really pessimistic and a bit condescending, and I thought, well, I’m not going to be dissuaded, so I just kept doing my search.  (After this) is when I found out about foster family agencies. And it’s not the same at the foster family agency. It’s not the same. It’s confusing, but foster family agencies are the free services that are available in every state, where your master social workers will guide you through the system. Completely different; it absolutely led us on the path to our daughter.

Addison:  You said that, in spite of some of the stories and some of the people you met, the majority of foster parents and social workers that you ran into were really positive and inspiring people. Without breaking anyone’s privacy, what’s a story that you’ve come across that really touched you as you were journeying along the road?

Nia: I met a woman in, let’s just say, another state, who has been foster mother to approximately 40 kids over the years, and her picture wall is filled with letters and cards and pictures of them at college, all over the walls – at college with their families, pictures with their kids; I walked around that room, it was a museum of good karma.

Addison: It sounds so beautiful that she fostered forty kids, and in a very real way remained family with them for the rest of their lives.

Nia: Yes, some people aren’t able to adopt. Some people are looking to foster and give kids a loving home. They’re fantastic people. And that’s what was so surprising to me, because all I’d heard in the media were like, “the story of the person who did it for money,” or “the story of this,” and it’s so disheartening how jaded the media can be. So I thought, well, I’ve just got to write this book and push back with the good stories, the ones I saw with my own eyes.  As I mentioned, I got an award in Washington, and I met a man who runs a group home for kids. These kids all looked like a basketball team of happiness. And they’re all surrounding him and loving him, and they were honoring him that night.

Addison: That is so happy.

Nia: Yeah, those are the stories that I want to tell.

Addison: I wish I could have been there.   One of the things you said that really stuck out was that some people rappel really quickly into adoption after fertility issues, and you said a decision made in fear is a reaction instead of an action. But at the same time, when you met your daughter – when you actually heard about your daughter for the first time, you knew right away that she was the one. So, two really different types of decisions can happen really quickly, how do you distinguish between the two?
Nia: I think the answer is fear. If there’s a nagging feeling inside that “you have to do this. You have to do this.” You probably should question that feeling and ask yourself are you doing it out of fear. If there’s an urging feeling, a feeling of “this is it,” usually I respond to that better. When I met my daughter, – I mean, when I got the call, I actually got a tingling in my fingertips, and knew this was it. It was such a strange feeling. And when we met, as I describe in the book, there was no doubt that this is why it all happened. I felt the connection to the Universe, in the, “Ah – you have a plan, and God has a plan, and your plan doesn’t count.”

Addison: One of the things that I really liked was the ceremony of blessing for her at your church where your church acknowledged and honored the many different ways of forming families. For a lot of adoptive parents, their faith is something that they draw strength or a sense of perspective from. How did that play into your journey?

Nia: I confided in very few people during this time, and I think my priest, Father John, knew I was going through something, because over the years, a few times he would say to me, “Hey, you and I should have coffee,” and I’d say, “Oh, I’d love that, Father John,” and then surround myself with a couple of girlfriends so that it couldn’t get personal. I just refused to allow myself to bawl all over somebody about something that I felt was eluding me for a reason. I hadn’t figured out the reason yet, but I just couldn’t feel sorry for myself. Eventually I did go to church. I had sought solace there, and I received it, in just silent prayers to God. That’s my relationship with God. I believe in a benevolent God, and a God who has a plan, and ultimately, it all worked for me.

Addison: It sure did! Some folks that I’ve met with as a social worker worry that if they adopt an older kid, they won’t be able to influence the child or they won’t be able to experience the “firsts,” and in the world of adoption, bizarrely, even a kid who’s not quite three is considered old. What are some of the “firsts” that you’ve experienced with your daughter (who you met when she was nearly 3) that have been your favorites?

Nia: Definitely the birthday parties. I would urge a person who adopts an older child to realize that everything you experience with that child will be for the first time. From the first time you try Thai food to the first time you ride bikes together. It doesn’t matter the age; you will have your own firsts. And anyone who worries that they can’t influence the child, again, I want to point out all of these kids that I’ve met who were adopted at the older ages, some of them as old as 16, who have gone on to graduate from college and stay so connected to the families.

Addison: I think that’s amazing. Some of the favorite families I’ve worked with have adopted sibling sets, and maybe they were hoping to take in younger kids, but they expanded their age range to keep sibling sets together, and the older kids have thrived.   One of the things you said that was really touching was that you started to see the world through your daughter’s eyes, even the way that a vine looks enchanted as it wraps around a tree in your neighborhood. What ‘s something recently that you’ve seen through her eyes that caught you fresh?

Nia: Humor! We’re watching Animaniacs and every time someone gets hit in the face, she laughs so hard she almost falls off the couch, and I realize that that’s what formed my humor – cartoons! And I’m seeing so much of the environment I was raised in, in her environment, in that everybody laughs, there’s a constant stream of visitors coming over. It is a controlled chaos in that she has a proper bedtime, and she does her homework, and she has to help with housework chores, just as I did. I had a lot of laughing in my house, so I see her experience that – in the fact that she gets to stay up an hour later. I see her becoming a grown-up before my very eyes, and it’s so touching. If we have a special dinner over, and I say, “You’re going to sit with us for a half hour at the table,”  she’ll go and put on her fancy shoes and come back downstairs!

Addison: That is so cute!

Nia: I thought it was cute!

Addison: One of the things that really resonated with me as a social worker, is when you said, really insightfully, “She’s not starting a new life when she comes to live with me. She’s the same person in a new situation.” I wondered – do you see yourself as starting a new life, or is it the same Nia in a new situation?

Nia: The reason I really see very clearly that it’s not starting a new life is because when I went through college, I was very overweight, and then when I lost some of that, I’d run into college friends later, and they were telling things like, “Oh my God, one time we were in a bar, and these guys were looking at us, and they were thinking, ‘She has such a pretty face. Lose some weight.’” And I said, “I’m the same person, you know. I don’t want to hear uncharitable thoughts you used to have towards me.” Another guy told me, he was at the ballet bar behind me in theater school, and when we went down he thought, “Oh my God, that huge butt!” And I said again, “I’m the same person, you know.” So, I do the same thing with my daughter. I make sure that she knows that everything is a continuation of her life, including if she wants to meet her birth parents. It’s not that, “Oh! Things will change;” it’s just part of her journey. It’s her life.

Addison: I’m sure as she ages, her understanding and her interest in the adoption part of her story will probably grow and wane. And in the book, she said, “I love my first parents.”  I’m wondering how you help her connect the different chapters of her life into one cohesive story?

Nia: We talk constantly about when she lived with her first family – that’s who she calls them – or her birth family. We have a fish. The first Nemo died, we have a second Nemo, his name is Nemo 2. I said, “Hey, do you think maybe you had a fish when you lived with your birth family, and this one should be Nemo 3?” And she said, “Yes! I did!” I’m sure she can’t possibly remember that, but it’s saying, “this is a continuation of your life,” with just that small question. So now we’ve decided to call him “Nemo 3!”
Addison: That is so awesome! That’s really, really cool, Nia. On my website, I review movies and books from an adoption point of view to help families that are considering adoption or that are in adoption use film as an easy way into important conversations. What are some movies that come to mind that have really connected with you as you’ve journeyed towards adoption, or maybe that have even connected with your daughter?
Nia: Well, definitely “Martian Child.” John Cusack did an excellent job of conveying the dismay and sense of responsibility that go hand in hand with adopting an older child. There are other movies that I think don’t do a good job. I can’t remember what it’s called --- there’s a kid’s movie, it’s a cartoon, and the boy is searching for his “real mom” all the way through. It’s terrible.

Addison: Is it “Meet the Robinsons?”

Nia: Yup. Yup. That movie is just really damaging to any kid’s psyche. I think it’s irresponsible.

Addison: Because it’s kind of conveying the message that if you don’t have your first mom, you don’t have anything, and no one else will want you?

Nia: Yeah. Yeah. A few of the things were, abandonment. And, it’s just hard to watch. And I’ve been in a room of kids who’ve tried to watch that movie, and it’s too much.

Addison: I think sometimes, when movies approach adoption, a lot of the times, either the birth parents are vilified, or the child’s portrayed as an unwanted orphan that’s saved by these merciful parents. But so many times, I think it’s like you said, the good stories where it’s just, “a family gets formed,” that doesn’t make movies that people think people will buy, but it really could.

Nia: Yeah. I think there’s a thread that runs through that story that is telling kids that their DNA is what gives them their identity, and that’s just not the case.

Addison: Something that you said is, “It’s not giving birth that makes you a mom.” I think similarly, it’s not sharing DNA that makes you a family.

Nia:  That’s exactly right. And, by the way, Oprah is, I think, one of the biggest mothers on the planet. Look how many women and girls she has given a home to. She’s a mom.

Addison: She really touches a lot of lives!

Nia: Yeah!

Addison: The last question I had – you said that maybe part of why you went through this journey was to talk about adoption and to counteract some of the negative stories that are out there. And now you’ve got a book coming out. What are your hopes for this book, and what are the messages that you hope it gets across to folks?

Nia: Well, obviously, it is about adoption; I hope that people who are interested in adoption pursue the book. But I also hope that people who are looking for messages of hope in anyway want to read the story, whether they’re moms, or dads, or  biological, or prospective parents, or just people who do not want to be parents; it’s just a book about hope.

Addison: It certainly left me feeling hopeful, and I think it’ll do the same for a lot of other folks, Nia.

Nia: Oh, I hope so.

Addison: Well, Nia, those are the questions I have. Is there anything that you want to say at the end to the folks who’ll be reading this later?

Nia: We don’t have an ad campaign obviously for this book; it’s difficult to get the word out, so I just wanted to thank you for responding to the message, “are you interested in reading the book and spreading the word?” Thank you for that. It was very appreciated.

Addison: Oh it was a joy.

Nia: Oh, thank you. And the same with all the people who read it. If you like the book, please pass it on, tell a friend, and help get the word out. Oh! Did you know, I’m sharing the proceeds with the many groups that helped me become a mom!

Addison: That is so great, Nia! I know that most FFA’s are non-profits, maybe even all of them, so that’s going to be a huge blessing to them.

Nia: Cool! Yeah, we’re going to go around. I’m gathering information. I met a man in another country who had an orphanage, we’re just gathering information and we’re going to find ways to just share the profits all over the place.

Addison: That is so great! Is there a way that people can follow that adventure as it happens?

Nia: You know, I’ll probably Tweet it!

If you're intrigued by what you've read here, you’ll love Nia’s book! You canpre-order Instant Mom on Amazon through the Adoption at the Movies store!

Thanks to Nia Vardalos for the interview and to Arnold Robinson for making it happen. Thanks also to Lori Holden for some of the questions!

Adoption at the Movies provides free Movie Discussion Guides to help adoptive and pre-adoptive families use film to enter into important discussions about adoption. Want to try them out? You might like the Adoption Movie Guides of:

            The Hobbit

Thinking about Adoption? You might enjoy

-          Too Single for Adoption?


  1. I am pretty much off the social networking aspects of the internet right now, and your blog is pretty much the only one that I read on a regular basis! Great interview, for some reason, even with all the gossip magazines I read, I had no idea that Nia Vardalos had adopted a child from foster care! The book sounds great :)

    1. Hey Rachel! It's definitely worth reading! And thanks so much for reading my blog :) It means a lot!

  2. What a great interview. I really liked this? “She’s not starting a new life when she comes to live with me. She’s the same person in a new situation.”

    Good luck with your book, Ms Vardalos :-)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. That was one of my favorite quotes, too!!

  3. I really look foward to reading her book, but I have to admit, as an adoptee, I actually related A LOT to Meet the Robinsons. Granted, I watched it as an adult (August Rush was another one that I could barely watch though). As an adoptee from a closed adoption, I could very much relate to that burning desire to know where you came from - and the confusing feelings that came up at that time. But, to each their own!

    Still looking forward to reading the book.

    My husband keeps saying I should write a book about what it was like to grow up as an adoptee. Since I don't know what the other side is like, I keep thinking, "Isn't that just an autobiography?"

    1. Thanks for your comments. The book is a really worthwhile read.

      I'm glad for your comment on Meet the Robinsons - I thought they did a pretty good job, in the end, of showing Lewis that he could have a meaningful life in spite of not being able to find his birthmother. And I also remember wishing that they had made it possible for him to find out some answers. The message of the film seemed to be "You thought that you needed the answers to have a meaningful life, but you don't need them." And I think a better message would have been "You thought you were nothing without them, and it turns out, you're very much a worthwhile person with a future, even without the answers. But if you can get them, you should!" Something that I've learned from the internet (mostly from Diana at "From Survival to Serenity") is that some scenes in movies can be triggering for some viewers - regardless of how the movie turns out. I try to be sensitive to that in my reviews, but it's probably difficult to catch everything.

      And you should probably write that autobiography :)

  4. Great interview! I interviewed Nia for my blog as well, and she was so wonderful to speak with...loved hearing her view of things!

    1. Thanks, Wendy! It was a fun experience, wasn't it!


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