By Heidi Stevens, Tribune Newspapers
May 10, 2013
Nia Vardalos made an art of airing the family laundry. A delightful, bighearted, lucrative art.
The Canadian-born, Second City-trained actress and writer netted Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the 2002 film about her real-life family, that grossed $367 million and that she wrote and starred in.
Still, when friends urged her to write a book about her long, winding path toward motherhood, she blanched.
"I said I'd 'think it over,' which was my polite way of shrieking, 'No waaaaaaaaaay,' " she writes in "Instant Mom" (HarperOne), the book she did, eventually, write about adopting her now 7-year-old daughter, Ilaria. "The simple fact is my daughter deserves her anonymity."
Vardalos spent 10 years trying to become a mom — failed fertility treatments, thwarted attempts to adopt a baby and every painful step in between. In 2008, she and her husband, actor Ian Gomez, received word that they were matched with a 3-year-old girl who had been relinquished to foster care and legally freed for adoption.
When the adoption was final, Vardalos hugged her social worker and asked, "For all those years, why didn't I know about the kids in foster care waiting for parents?"
"Well, we've been waiting a long time for someone like you," the social worker answered.
"They needed a spokesperson," Vardalos writes. "They needed an advocate. They needed a blabbermouth like me."
She became a spokeswoman for National Adoption Day, appearing on talk shows and giving speeches about matching children with adoptive parents. Telling her story became therapeutic. And easier. And effective.
"Keep talking," the director of a child-placement agency told her. "The kids are flying out the door."
And, finally, the idea of writing about her family again — in its new, more intimate form — began to make sense.
"I've realized there's a difference between secrecy and discretion," she writes.
(Vardalos and Gomez have a strict policy against allowing their daughter to be photographed by the media.)
We sat down with Vardalos over coffee during her recent book tour. We covered everything from the Disney Channel to false eyelashes. ("This awesome guy did my makeup and I'm telling you in seven minutes I went from 'I'm asleep' to 'Hello, my baby, hello, my darlin'!' I could take it on the road with Debbie Reynolds.") Oh, and her book. We chatted about her book.
Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: What's surprising you right now about motherhood?
A: How innocent she still is. It might be because we don't let her watch the Disney Channel or see our movies.
Q: Not even the McKenna movie? (Vardalos plays American Girl doll McKenna's mom in 2012's "McKenna Shoots for the Stars.")
A: I asked her, "Would you like to see that movie?" and she said, "No. I really don't want to see any kissing." Ugh. Who would? I don't even want to see myself do kissing scenes. I really wouldn't want to see my mom in one.
Q: You wrote this book not just to talk about motherhood — you wrote it with a specific goal, right?
A: To get kids adopted. As surprised as I was, I see that look in people's eyes now when I tell them there are children who are legally emancipated. They're freed from any parental rights. I see the look in people's eyes like, "Wait a minute. This might be the way."
Q: Do people think birth parents can come back and take foster children away after they've adopted them?
A: That's what I thought. I was so irrational in my fears. I thought that even after our daughter was placed with us and I was assured over and over again that she was legally emancipated. I want people to know, "I understand why you think this. It's what we thought too."
Q: Is that why it's part narrative, part how-to guide?
A: Yes. My goal is to get kids adopted in this country and Canada and hopefully from orphanages in other countries. I'm not trying to push adoption as the only option. If a woman wants to have 19 biological children that is her God-given right. This is just to say, "There are so many options. So many choices. Here are some."
Q: You write about nature versus nurture. Did you also write the book to dispel some myths about adopted children?
A: I did. It's so fascinating to me. Ilaria wanted to be part of the local production of "Little Shop of Horrors" and I didn't push her, I didn't help her learn her lines. I sat in the lobby with the other moms and chatted and texted. She did the entire show and friends of ours looked at us during the show and said, "What is happening?" She's got an innate gift. Now, is that because she lives with us? In a funny household? You are rewarded if you can squirt your dad in the face with a water bottle. I will high-five you. Or is it just a match made in heaven? I don't know.
Q: What did you learn in the process of telling your story?
A: I just told you in my book what I went through and I'm finding this amazing network of women who are coming forward and telling me what they've been through. I'm, again, in awe of the strength of the human spirit and what we can get through. And yet, who's the bravest person I know? My kid.
Nia Vardalos is spokeswoman for National Adoption Day (this year Nov. 23), which promotes adopting foster children. Go to http://www.nationaladoptionday.org to learn more.
Adopting foster kids in Illinois
Over the past decade, about 17,000 children in foster care were joined with permanent families in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. About 40,000 foster children nationally found families during that time, according to representatives of National Adoption Day.
Adoption laws vary slightly by state, but here are a few key facts about adopting a child through the Illinois DCFS. (Go to www.state.il.us/dcfs.)
•Adoptive parents can be single, married, in a civil union, divorced or separated.
•It takes about two months to get licensed as a foster parent so a child or children can be placed with your family. Once a placement is made, it takes about six months for an adoption to be approved by DCFS and the courts.
•There is no income requirement to adopt a foster child, and adoptive parents don't need to own the home in which they live.
•The birth parents' legal rights to the child are terminated before the adoption, so any contact between the child and birth parents is determined by the adoptive parents.
•Adoptive parents participate in a mandatory training program after they've been matched with a child.
•The Illinois DCFS provides post-adoption services that include support groups, counseling and training sessions.
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