How Thomas Rhett and Wife Lauren Spent Daughter Willa's First Day Home from Uganda: She Had 'Never Seen Dogs Before'
"She constantly wants to see something new," Thomas Rhett says of his 18-month-old daughter Willa Gray, whom he and wife Lauren adopted from Uganda
When their new daughter Willa Gray arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, from Uganda last week to join her adoptive family, Thomas Rhett and his wife Lauren planned to take it slow — after all, the toddler had just traveled 7,000 miles and more than 30 hours to a country she’d never seen.
“But immediately, she got in my arms and was like, ‘Airplane!’ ” the singer tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “I thought, ‘Okay, you haven’t changed a bit and this isn’t fazing you at all!’ ”
In fact, Willa’s first 24 hours at home with her new family were a whirlwind of discovery for the 18-month-old. “She constantly wants to see something new,” adds Thomas Rhett, 27.
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The toddler went on her first neighborhood walk (“She had her cute little sunglasses on and she barely said a word — she was just taking it in”), tried out her new toy piano (“She’s obsessed with it, so we think she’s going to be a prodigy already!” he jokes) and boogied to Bruno Mars (“Anytime music comes on, she wants to dance.”).
Willa even met more than a dozen friends and family members who couldn’t wait to see the little girl who had captured the couple’s hearts more than a year ago.
A few things, however, will take some getting used to. “As bad as it is, they don’t do the whole car-seat thing in Uganda,” the singer explains. So when they first buckled Willa in to take her home, “She’s like, ‘Why are these straps over my shoulders? Why am I being locked into this weird contraption?’ ”
Stranger still for the toddler were the two furry creatures in her new dwelling. “Willa has never seen dogs before and we have two big ones,” Thomas Rhett says. “They are so sweet, but it’s been hilarious watching her try to pet them.”
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The couple have tried to make the house itself feel more familiar to the toddler by incorporating decorative nods to the continent where she was born. “I try to bring as much of Africa into our home as possible,” says Lauren, who met Willa on one of her many trips to the region doing aid work with the Christian charity 147 Million Orphans.
“I got to know that culture, and the kids sort of became my family 7,000 miles away,” she adds. “Now that we’ve got our little girl and her roots and blood are there, there’s a new meaning to it.”
Willa’s room is decorated with stuffed giraffes, a painting of elephants and a rocking elephant (rather than a horse). Several cowhide drums made in Uganda accent the living room. “Our house is taking on a new set of decorations in honor of Willa, and I love being able to blend the two worlds,” Lauren says.
In every way, the couple says, Willa is living up to her name. Nicknamed “Blessing” at the children’s home where she lived, the little girl’s legal name honors the singer’s grandfather, Willard.
“It means ‘resolutely brave and unshakable,’ ” Lauren says of her daughter‘s moniker. “She is this little survivor that was orphaned as an infant and she has come so far and done so well that we wanted to give her a strong name.”
Her middle name is for Lauren’s younger brother Grayson, although the couple first leaned toward naming her Willa Grace. “But one day I said the name ‘Willa Grace’ and one of my friends thought I said something about Will & Grace, the show!” Lauren says. “I love that show but I was like, ‘I don’t want to think of it every time I think of my daughter.’ So we kept it in the family.”
As Willa adjusts to life in Nashville, her parents are learning to cope with the exhaustion that comes with parenting. During her first night at home, Willa fell asleep on Dad before the couple put her in her own room — but they were too nervous to sleep in their own bed.
“Lauren slept in a beanbag last night and I slept on the couch so we could be close to her room, just in case, ’cause she’s never slept in a room by herself before,” Thomas Rhett says.
But it’s all good practice for when their family expands with baby number two this summer. “I’m 27 weeks pregnant and I’m not going to lie — I’m tired!” says Lauren, who will give birth to Willa’s little sister in August.
Luckily, Thomas Rhett is on hiatus from his Home Team tour for nearly two weeks. “We’ve been tag-teaming — the dogs, cooking, cleaning,” he says — and, of course, showing Willa more of her new world. “It’s the craziest thing we’ve ever experienced!” he adds.
For more from Thomas Rhett’s new family of three — soon to be four! — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.