Talk about your big fat surprises: With one phone call, Nia Vardalos had a daughter. In this exclusive Mother’s Day essay for PEOPLE, the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding talks in detail for the first time about the shock, chaos and “peaceful gratefulness” that came after she and husband Ian Gomez adopted a 3-year-old girl.
My daughter is a preschooler but I have only known her for a while. She is adopted.
After years of wanting to be parents, my husband and I were given 14 hours notice … then a little girl walked into our house.
Trying to adopt had been a long and frustrating process. But, when we connected with an American Foster Family Agency, it happened very quickly. One night, the phone rang – the social worker told me we’d been “matched” with a 3-year-old girl.
I hung up the phone and stood still for a second. Then, I had to sit down. Within a minute, I was lying on the floor. Yeah, this was real: A little girl was coming to our home. Tomorrow.
There wasn’t a baby shower, there wasn’t time to discuss with family and friends, there was no way to really prepare for her arrival.
She arrived without an instruction manual. I didn’t know if she had a sleep schedule, food allergies – there wasn’t even a note pinned to her shirt. She just walked in and looked up at me, like “got lunch?”
There isn’t a word for the elation I felt. I grinned like a maniac and jumped into parenthood.
We got to know each other: we blew bubbles in the backyard, drew with sidewalk chalk, threw the ball for our dog, (who looked up at her, like “dibs on the big bed.”)
Together, we decorated her new bedroom – arranging white furniture, laying out a pink rug, messily peeling and sticking purple flower decals on the walls.
I was delighted by her: Every facial expression, every tantrum, every small thing she did was fascinating and fantastic. Mornings were now a flurry of juice spilling, tiny clothes washing and frenzied kid-chasing. It was thrilling chaos.
Our families and friends were so happy for us, and our priest sweetly asked if he could bless her.
So, that Sunday we headed to church. Our daughter silently took in the chanting and the smell of incense as the sun shone through the stained glass windows.
After the service, the priest softly gestured for us to join him at the front of the church. He began to read. But I wasn’t hearing a standard blessing. This was new to me. It was a special prayer for … adoption.
The words and ceremony were a beautiful acknowledgment that some families are created in different ways, but are still in every way, a family.
The priest said the words, “Today you have given birth to your daughter,” and I began to cry. It all poured out. All the grief, all the anger, all the angst at the difficult and long journey to parenthood. And that outpouring of tears was quickly followed by a peaceful gratefulness.
I held my daughter in my arms and thanked God for bringing her to me. If the standard route of creating a family had worked for me, I wouldn’t have met this child. And I needed to know her. I needed to be her mother. And in that moment, I knew why it had all happened this way: So I could meet this little girl. She is, in every way, my daughter.
Curiously, we humans seem to need these rituals to get things into our skulls. There isn’t just one reason we need these rites. Sometimes we need to witness, sometimes we need the catharsis. That ceremony on that day was healing and more importantly, helped it sink in that I am a parent, no matter how my child came to me.
I thanked the priest for the ceremony and we headed home. And I realized … while I have walked into the church many times … on this day, it was the first time I walked out as a mother.
• 2004: Nia opens up about her struggle with infertility
• PEOPLE covers: Hollywood’s baby boom!