Community & Current Events

Nia Vardalos on adopting her daughter

Photography by Anne Marie Fox Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Anne Marie Fox

Community & Current Events

Nia Vardalos on adopting her daughter

When Nia Vardalos was growing up in Winnipeg, family was defined by a gaggle of blood relatives, devotion to Greek heritage and strong ties to tradition. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the acclaimed movie Nia wrote and starred in, she lovingly parodied her close-knit immigrant family, joking that Greek women have three jobs: "Marry Greek boys. Make Greek babies. Feed everybody until the day we die." In reality, Nia married a non-Greek (actor Ian Gomez, who was baptized in the Greek Orthodox church—just like in the movie) and struggled with infertility.

Desperate to become parents, Nia and Ian spent a decade working with doctors, eastern-medicine practitioners and surrogates. After 13 failed attempts at in vitro fertilization, they turned to adoption.

Having spent so much time trying to become parents, Nia and her husband told the social workers involved in the adoption process that they were open to a child of any gender, age or ethnicity. But for some reason, Nia kept envisioning a girl with blond streaks in her hair. She had seen her in her dreams. When she met her daughter for the first time, all she could think was "I found you." Then she noticed the blond highlights running through her hair.

Nia became a mother to an almost-three-year-old girl with only 14 hours’ notice, and though they aren’t tied by blood or background, her family seems destined to be together. It’s not just that her now-nine-year-old daughter, Ilaria, has a sense of humour that fits right in with Nia and Ian’s comedic instincts, or that passersby have told her they look alike; it’s what Nia felt the moment she met her. She had, quite literally, found the child of her dreams. Nia wrote about that moment—and the entire adoption process—in her book, Instant Mom (HarperCollins, 2013). "Being a mother," she writes, "actually being my daughter’s mother has changed me. My daughter filled a raggedy hole in my heart. She is the love of my life."

Long before the adoption, Nia knew her child was out there. She remembers the feeling starting the day after a visit from her best friend. "We had an argument like you can only have with your best friend," says Nia, her usually boisterous voice quieting as she begins the story. Sitting outside under the stars that night, her friend asked if she had given up on adoption. "I said, ‘I can’t be disappointed anymore. I can’t go through so many failures.’ And she said to me, ‘So you’re not going to be a mom?’ " Years later, when looking at her daughter’s birth certificate, Nia discovered that the argument happened the night she was born.

It seems fitting, then, that her daughter’s name is Ilaria Isadora, which is Greek for "a funny gift from God." Nia’s eyes light up when she talks about Ilaria. She tells stories about her mischievous exploits and does a wide-eyed impression of her seeing her first dirty word written on a school bus.

Despite their very special beginning, Nia is now a regular mom:  She’s a playdate chaperone, a carpool driver and a Scooby-Doo lunch-bag packer. Her daughter tells her daily that she’s not cool, and she takes parenting advice from her own mom, like how to keep quiet in the car in order to learn about what’s going on in Ilaria’s life (a challenge for the admittedly loud Nia).

Nia adores the family she came from but loves the way her own family evolved. "Because I was raised so traditionally, I’m able to step away from it, and yes, make fun of it for fun and for profit," she jokes, "but I truly believe in the traditional family unit—and the way we spin off from it only enhances it."

Nia also loves that her daughter is part of a generation that will see all kinds of family constructions as the norm. She recalls a time she was sitting at a café with Ilaria when she noticed two men kissing at the table next to them. Ilaria’s only question was: "Do you think he asked him on a date, or did he ask him?"

"That’s the way kids are," says Nia. "They come out fresh and new, and we instil judgment in them. Everything comes from us. I saw in a moment how she has been surrounded by acceptance and by love without boundaries." That’s a love that Nia wants to extend to others. In addition to adopting Ilaria, the family has rescued two dogs (Ilaria delightfully squealed "You’re adopted, too!" when she found out), and Nia volunteers for National Adoption Day, raising awareness about adoption from foster care.

Nia knows her family was a gift. As she writes in her book: "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. The feeling of love is so incredible, it’s surprising.

For more inspiring adoption stories, read about one man's struggle to become a dad.
                                               
This story was originally titled "The Greatest Gift" in the December 2014 issue.
           
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Nia Vardalos on adopting her daughter

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