With her big brown eyes, dark curly hair and caramel-colored skin, 5-month-old Arianah looks just like Daddy – or so she’s told by well-meaning strangers when they meet her and her parents.
Juan’s reply: “Thanks, but I hope she has her mom’s looks – she’s the good looking one.”
In reality, Arianah won’t have the genetic features of either of her parents, since she’s their adopted daughter, but looks and otherwise, the girl blends in perfectly, completing their “family: circle of love,” in the words of the plaque on their living room wall.
A little more than a year ago, in late December, Juan, 41, vice president of an area financial firm, and Michele, 31, who asked that their last names not be used, scheduled an appointment with Kami Needham of Catholic Charities to inquire about adoption.
Married in October 2009, the couple, members of St. Joseph Parish, Waukesha, desperately wanted to become parents, but after three years and no children, they began thinking of other ways to create their family.
“I knew she wanted to be a mom and I wanted to be a father. Once we knew we wanted to become parents, it took a long way to get to where we are now, but I think our biggest fear was we wanted our parents to understand and accept where we are going,” Juan told Catholic Herald Family in a recent interview at their suburban Milwaukee home.
Juan, who is Puerto Rican, has two siblings and his father is one of 14 and his mother is one of 12. Michele, whose family is Mexican, has two brothers and one sister, and her parents, too, come from large families: her mother has 10 siblings and her father, four.
He explained that adoption is not prevalent in the Hispanic culture.
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Catholic Charities is a leading provider of Pregnancy Support Coordination and Adoption in southeastern Wisconsin. For information, call (414) 769-3524 or visit www.ccmke.org.
“It was new to us and new to (their parents),” he said, explaining their hesitation in going this route, due to an unrealized fear that their parents wouldn’t accept an adopted grandchild.
Adoption is not common in the Hispanic culture, agreed Needham, Catholic Charities adoption worker, adding the agency is making efforts to diversify its pool of birth parents seeking adoption, as well as families wishing to adopt.
“We don’t have a lot of families that are Hispanic. On both ends, the adoptive families, as well as the birth families, there is such a strong sense of family connectedness. We’ve heard from birth parents in the past as well, that adoption is not necessarily very common in the Hispanic community,” she said.
The couple chose Catholic Charities as the agency with which to work because of their Catholic faith, and then began the process with Needham without expectations of the ethnic background of a potential adoptive child.
After the first meeting, Needham said she quickly received their application, the first step in the process.
The next months brought a home visit and the creation of a portfolio, a scrapbook-type book filled with photos of the couple to be shown to any prospective birth mothers.
Needham noted these portfolios reflect the personalities of the adoptive parents. Some are scrapbooks, others are online. Juan and Michele’s contained wedding photos, images of their large, extended families, pictures of their home and some taken on a trip to Puerto Rico.
One young mother in Green Bay who was pregnant with twins initially liked what she saw in the portfolio, but that fell through for Juan and Michele when she decided against adoption for her babies.
In July, another ray of hope for them when a birth mom asked to meet with Juan and Michele, yet again their hopes were dashed when she never made it to the appointment.
They had another appointment set for July 10 with another birth mom, but when Juan’s phone rang on July 5, he was prepared for the disappointment of another cancellation.
Much to his surprise, however, Needham was calling to tell him that a birth mom – the one who had cancelled their earlier appointment – had seen their portfolio and had selected them! Could they pick up the baby the following day?
Needham told him the baby was a girl.
“I was really happy for Michele because I knew she always wanted a girl,” said Juan, adding that Needham said the birth mom had one more request. She wanted the adoptive couple to keep the name she had selected for the baby.
Juan said he hesitantly asked Needham what the name was, wondering what it could possibly be.
He was stunned when Needham said she called her Arianah, “as Michele and I had said, if we had a girl, we would name her ‘Arianah.’”
Juan quickly called Michele and, after learning she was in the car just leaving her mother’s house, told her to pull over.
Michele said she was expecting the worst, when Juan asked, “Are you ready to be a mom?” and told her they would be picking the baby up from the hospital the following day.
“My mind was going a mile a minute,” said Michele, recounting the joy she felt hearing those words.
That evening they scrambled to purchase needed baby supplies. Months earlier, Michele had suggested they purchase a few items like onsies to have on hand if the day would come that they’d be given a child. They had also considered setting up a baby room, but Juan rejected that idea feeling that he didn’t want to walk past that room and see baby things in the event it would never happen for them.
So instead, they quickly purchased a car seat, crib, clothing, bottles and other supplies to prepare for their new arrival.
The next day, the couple, along with Needham and a pregnancy support worker from Catholic Charities who walks the birth mother through the process, met Arianah and the birth mom at the hospital.
They learned, in part, the birth mom selected them because of Juan’s Puerto Rican background. Arianah is Puerto Rican, along with other ethnicities, including African-American, Native American and Caucasian.
The meeting was short, but since it’s an open adoption, Juan and Michele keep in touch with the birth mom through email, something that’s beneficial, said Michele, when questions about her health history arise.
While Juan called Arianah’s arrival a “life changer,” he added she’s been welcomed with open arms by their extended families.
Gradually, Juan added, their parents are asking more questions about the adoption process.
“When she goes to see Grandpa now, it’s all about the baby,” he said, laughing, noting that before the birth parents’ rights were terminated in September, their parents were a little more hesitant to bond with her, perhaps fearing she would not remain in their home.
Arianah has united their family, said Michele.
“We’re always very close and communicate a lot, but since the baby has come around, we enjoy each other even more. There was an emptiness before, but now even just going for a walk or going to the mall, just the three of us, we’re a family and that’s the change we were looking for.”
Juan noted she’s also united their extended family.
“My mother doesn’t smile a whole lot, but when the baby comes, she’s smiling all the time,” he said.
The happy ending is satisfying to Needham, too.
“It’s a very exciting thing, very amazing to witness a couple becoming parents,” she said, reflecting on the day in the hospital. “I was going through so many emotions; you are feeling for the birth mom, but are very excited (for the couple) and have to make sure you are a balance for them. I’m very happy for them; it’s a very unique situation and I feel very special to be part of it.”
She noted that last year Catholic Charities placed five babies in pre-adoptive homes and finalized 11 adoptions. So far this year, she said they have placed seven infants in pre-adoptive homes.
The last step in the process to adopt Arianah is expected to take place early in the new year when the adoption will be finalized.
Happy the process is drawing to a conclusion, Needham said of Juan and Michele, “It was very evident they were excited and anticipating becoming parents. They appear to have a strong, stable marriage and have supportive families so they were in a good position to become parents.”
She added that they are not only respectful of the birth mother’s situation and are committed to having an open relationship with her, but, above all, they have Arianah’s best interests in mind when making decisions.
Hoping their story will inspire others, Juan and Michele recently spoke to prospective adoptive families at a Catholic Charities event.
“It’s nice to be able to talk to other people who were where we were when we started, and more than anything, let them know that while it takes a little bit of effort, the prize at the end of the rainbow is definitely worth it,” said Michele. Maryangela Layman Román