After their year-long adoption journey, Thomas Rhett and his wife Lauren welcomed their new daughter, Willa Gray Akins, home from Uganda on Thursday — and the musician says it felt like Christmas in May.
“On the way to the airport, it was like Christmas Day,” the country star tells PEOPLE, sharing exclusive photos of the family at home in Nashville on Friday.
Adds Lauren, “It felt like a dream. I’ve dreamed of us all being on the same continent for so long. It finally feels like everyone is where they’re supposed to be.”
Lauren first met the 18-month-old, aptly nicknamed “Blessing” in her home country, in 2016 when Lauren visited Uganda with 147 Million Orphans. At the time, the couple had been trying to conceive without success and had just begun to discuss adoption.
When Thomas Rhett saw a photo of Lauren holding Willa, he was struck by his wife’s obvious bond with the baby, who had been orphaned when she was still a newborn.
“Lauren had this amazing glow about her and it just felt like she was already our daughter in a weird way,” the singer, 27, says. “‘I just blurted out, ‘We should bring her home.’ “
It was far from that simple — many months of documents and red tape followed, and between Lauren and Thomas Rhett, the couple made a dozen trips to the African nation over the past year.
In the meantime, they discovered Lauren was finally pregnant (another girl!) and due in early August, which meant that her window for bringing Willa home was closing fast.
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Nearing her third trimester, Lauren traveled to Uganda in April, hoping to bring Willa home, but the adoption wasn’t finalized before she needed to return to the States for a pregnancy check-up.
“I probably could have pushed it, but I just didn’t want to think something could go wrong with my pregnancy,” Lauren tells PEOPLE. “It felt weird leaving one daughter and making sure the other one is okay. But I couldn’t do it another way.” Instead, Lauren’s mother and father brought Willa Gray home to Nashville.
The couple has had to adjust to full-time parenting quickly — during the day “she never stops moving!” Thomas Rhett, who recently took home male vocalist of the year and song of the year at the ACM Awards, says. They’ve already had one nearly sleepless night – but they’re relishing their new roles.
“It is very weird to be called ‘Dad’ by a little human being,” says Thomas Rhett, as Willa can be heard in the background calling out “Dada… Mama.”
“But it is one of the coolest feelings in the world. Nothing beats that.”