Jen Lilley and Husband Jason Wayne Share Their Moving Foster-to-Adopt Journey: 'You 'Have' to Get Too Attached'

The actress and her husband open up about their journey to becoming foster parents, and the surprise of adopting their foster kids: "I would get my heart broken in 1,000 pieces, 1,000 times if it meant saving his"

Jen Lilley
Photo: Brooke Parker

Actress Jen Lilley (who can next be seen in Royally Wrapped for Christmas Nov. 27 on GAC Family) and her husband Jason Wayne are the proud parents of three — Kayden, 5, and Jeffrey, 3, whom they adopted from foster care, and daughter Julie, 2 — with another baby on the way in 2022. Lilley has long been an advocate for children in foster care and has lobbied Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services for foster care reform, specifically to stop premature reunification.

As excitement for the holiday season and the new baby builds, Lilley and Wayne are also busy with their second annual Christmas is Not Cancelled toy drive with the goal of donating 20,000 toys to Toys for Tots. For more information about their toy drive, click here.

As part of PEOPLE's celebration of National Adoption Month, the loving couple opened up about their family's journey so far: becoming mentors to children in foster care through Childhelp, how adoption has changed their lives for the better and what resources they personally rely on and recommend.

Getting to know the foster care system

Jen Lilley: My parents were kind of unofficial foster parents, meaning we had people who would live with our family from time to time who maybe had just fallen on difficult times and needed some assistance getting back on their feet. So the idea having someone outside of my family unit stay with me for extended periods of time was not foreign or scary to me. That's where my empathy and seeds of my love for foster care really started.

Listen below to Me Becoming Mom to hear Jillian Michaels' adoption journey and her unique road to motherhood.

Jason, like many Americans, didn't know a lot about foster care and really believed the myth and misconception that kids in foster care are associated with the juvenile delinquent system, they're "bad kids." Where the truth is these are children who have found themselves in an extremely broken system through no fault of their own, but generally due to severe neglect or abuse.

The goal of foster care is not actually adoption; it's actually to reunify the families, but in some cases it's just really not safe for the child, and those children become eligible for adoption. So when one of my mentees was facing reunification, that was a very bad, unsafe idea for her. That was the catalyst for Jason, and we decided to get licensed.

Jason Wayne: Well, she just asked me, "What's the harm in taking the classes to find out more information? Rather than coming to your own conclusion without knowing all the details." That was very logical to me. I thought, "Okay, we can do classes to find out about this." And so we did.

Lilley: And that's something I say to people who are interested in adoption or foster care in general: There's no harm in taking an introductory class and learning more about it. That's how everybody's journey gets started.

Some people will take those classes and find out, maybe at that time in their life, it's a better time to be a mentor and that's okay. I was a mentor for four or five years and I still do that. Everybody has a role to play and that's something that I always say to people: "Not everyone's called to foster. Not everyone's called to adopt, but everyone is called to do something for these children who are so overlooked and marginalized in our country."

Wayne: For me, it was just becoming familiar with everything and removing the stigma or, I guess, the ignorance of not really knowing much about the system. The more we took classes, I think it just alleviated some worries that I had and helped me understand: these are just kids.

Jen Lilley
Brooke Parker

Deciding to adopt through foster care

Lilley: Our son Kayden's case was really scary. Both of our boys share the same birth mom, who I love so deeply. She also came from foster care, she came from brokenness and I know that she was not a willful child abuser, but she didn't know how to make good decisions. And that's something she's still learning and something I have the honor of [supporting] with her. I still chat with her a bit.

But part of her bad choices, unfortunately, were that she was in a lot of domestic violence situations. For Kayden's particular case, it was so dangerous I have no doubt in my mind that he would not have survived to his third birthday had he not been adopted by us. So his case was very stressful and very dangerous and very high stakes.

That what you'll find a lot of times with children who do become eligible for adoption through foster care. It's not that the child is the problem. I mean, Kayden was only four months when we got him and he was three by the time we finally adopted him. He's always been delightful and wonderful. But his case was just so severe, we were just praying that we could adopt him because the idea of him going back meant imminent death. And that's what scary about foster care: At the end of the day, even if everyone advocates for [the child's] adoption, you don't know how the judge is going to rule.

The good news is that 29% of children who have gone through foster care are already eligible for adoption, so you don't have to go through the heart-wrenching task of being a foster parent and then [having the child be reunified with their parents]. You can go straight through foster care to adoption, and it's completely free; I think you even get an adoption subsidy, and medical assistance and all of that for those children as well.

Wayne: As soon as we began to foster Kayden, I jumped in. I felt like, I'm just going to treat him like he's my son.

Lilley: I actually was more reserved with my emotions. I really tried to play more of an actor role, where I was really trying to protect myself and my emotions. That only lasted a few days, because even though he was four months, I felt like he could tell that I was reserving a piece of my heart, thinking 'This isn't my child and I'm going to have to give him back.' So I kind of gave up after 48 hours. I would get my heart broken in a thousand pieces a thousand times if it meant saving his.

Invaluable resources

Lilley: There's an amazing hashtag that I follow on Instagram: #gettooattached. I love that hashtag because what I find is that people would always say, "I could never become a foster parent. I would get too attached." But the truth is is that you have to get too attached because these children deserve and need your attachment more than you need to protect your adult-sized heart. Not that any parent is perfect, but [most people] probably had a bit of a better childhood experience or maybe developed some coping skills that these children aren't equipped with, so you have to just kind of dive in and get too attached.

My understanding is that the journey of adoption is hard and can be painful. Even though it's filled with joy, it's also full of doubt, no matter what route you go. And it's the same with birth. There's no easy way to have a child, through foster care or adoption or doing it yourself, it's very difficult.

But for anybody already in the trenches of foster care, I would highly encourage them to look up #gettooattached. Because for me, that's what kept me in the game. A lot of foster parents burn out and it's because they don't feel like they have community, they feel like they're the only ones. So if you follow that hashtag I promise you're going to find super-quality people on Instagram that are like-minded.

The Foster Care Institute does a great job of connecting foster parents. I have a podcast called Fostering Hope with Jen Lilley and it's everyone that I've interviewed on there is so amazing and just so encouraging. The most encouraging resource for me has honestly just been the hashtag.

November is National Adoption Month, and PEOPLE is celebrating by highlighting the many extraordinary ways families can grow via adoption, featuring real stories from celebrities, everyday parents and adoptees, as well as information on the varied ways to adopt. For more heartwarming, heartbreaking and happy-ending stories, visit our Adoption page.

Jen Lilley
Katherine Lilley

Surprises along the way

Wayne: A big surprise about foster care was doing visitations with the biological mom. Because I thought [the agency] would coordinate them, but for the most part, we were doing all of that. They talked about it in training, but it seemed like that wasn't going to be what we had to do, but it definitely was.

Lilley: For me, the idea that we were adopting him was shocking, because I thought we'd just foster and then experience reunification and then foster again. It was funny because I didn't think that Jason and I would ever permanently have kids and here we are making our own football team.

But as to what Jason said, I would say that that's probably my reality as well. They call it "playing middle mom." The most difficult part of foster care is loving the birth parent and rooting for them, but also having to protect their biological child from their poor choices. And that's a really hard line to walk because if you're trying to do it well and you're trying to do with grace, you have to love both parties, but at the end of the day, your number one role is to protect that child. And it's difficult. I would cry almost after every visit. Those are heart wrenching.

Jen Lilley adopts son Jeffrey
Jen Lilley, husband Jason Wayne and son Jeffrey. Together We Rise

The best moments from their family's adoption days

Lilley: Oh my gosh, I'm going to cry. When they were reading Kayden's new name and they asked us if we fully understood that he was now our heir and everything we have is his ... just the depth of what it really means to rewrite someone's history and know that they were in our family. And then for Jeffrey's adoption, my favorite thing about that was actually something Jason said. Biologically they're half brothers, but he said, "Well today, they're full brothers." So it's like forever and ever, now they're full brothers legally. That was my favorite part of that adoption day.

Jeffrey's adoption was so sweet because at that point, as you can imagine, my relationship with their birth mom had really been layered and I think she really has learned a lot about love through that journey.

I remember the first visit we had with Jeffrey, I was watching her walk toward me and because I'm an actor, I'm studying human behavior and I could tell it was like a walk of shame. She was just scared to death of what was I thinking about her. She was probably judging herself, right? Like "How can I get myself in the situation again? Same story, different dad, what is she going to say to me?" So I just walked up to her and hugged her.

By the time we adopted Jeffrey, it was so awesome because for him it was a more completed story. His birth mom and his birth dad wanted us to adopt him. So it was really healing. It was really kind of a full circle experience for us.

The life changing magic of foster care and adoption is...

Wayne: Knowing that you're changing the course of someone's life for the better.

Lilley: Oh, I'll leave it at that. I would also say if anybody has questions about it, honestly, if they follow me on Instagram I'm really open to talking to anybody about it.

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