To say that Kathryn Reiss always wanted a large family is an understatement.
When she was a little girl, Kathryn loved to read books about large families, especially stories of families grown through adoption. She told her mom that when she grew up, she wanted 20 children—10 by birth, and 10 through adoption.
Like most people, Kathryn tempered her aspirations over the years. But today she and her husband, Tom Strychacz, both of whom are English professors, are the proud parents of seven children by birth and adoption. And Kathryn is writing her own books for children—including some about adoption.
We talked with Kathryn about her 33 years as a parent and how adoption from foster care has enriched her family’s life.
What made you act on your childhood desire to adopt?
Tom and I talked about adding to our family by adoption even before we’d had our three birth children. When our youngest was five, we wanted to expand the family and thought that this would be the time to adopt. We briefly considered international adoption but quickly decided to focus on children who are waiting for families here in America.
As it turned out, there was an adoption agency right in our town. We worked with them to get licensed and start our search. This was before the days of online listings, so Tom and I would sit in the agency’s office, looking through the huge binders containing all the listings of available children. At the same time, our homestudy was being shared with caseworkers throughout our state.
At that point, your birth children were roughly 7, 12, and 17 years old. How involved were they in the process?
People always say, “Did you ask the kids?” And of course, we talked with them about our decision. But we didn’t ask “Should we?” because that would be putting a grown-up decision to expand our family in the hands of children. We told them that we planned to adopt and they were all supportive, even eager. Our middle child emphasized that he would be fine with new siblings as long as they didn’t “wreck” our family, which he loved just as it was. We agreed we did not want that either! However, each new addition to the family invariably brought a new dynamic and a period of adjustment.
You had thought about adoption for a long time. Did you have a strong sense of the child you were hoping to adopt?
I’ve heard many people say that the children they adopt are nothing like the children they envisioned. And that was true for us. We set out to adopt one girl, a child younger than our youngest. But one day I saw a new listing for two sisters. They were 12 and 10—older than we’d been looking for. And there were two children instead of the one we’d thought we were looking for. But something about their profile spoke to me. When Tom looked through the new listings that same day, he also was drawn to these girls.
We called our caseworker to ask about them. I remember her response to this day. She said, “Get out of town! I can’t believe you are asking about these girls. Just 20 minutes ago, their caseworker called saying that you would be a good match for them!”
We had a very similar experience—of simultaneously inquiring about children whose worker was inquiring about us—when we were matched with a sister and brother pair, ages 9 and 14, ten years later.
There is a feeling you get when you know it’s your kid, a little sizzle of recognition. A feeling of “Oh, there you are.” Before we adopted, I didn’t realize that would happen. But both times we adopted, we felt it. And our kids felt it too.
When you adopted your first sibling pair, you had three children at home. When you adopted your last two, most of your children were out of the house. How were the experiences different?
Having other kids already at home made it easy to show the new children what our family dynamic was like. When our first two children came to us, our birth children were here to fold them into family life, into our routines and ways of being together. They were able to show them that this is how we do it simply by living together. Having a busy, engaged family gave our new daughters a structure and something to be a part of.
A decade later, when our two youngest came to us, it was a much quieter household. My husband and I had to work a little harder to show them what we’re about. But our older kids were very supportive and made time to get to know and spend time with their new younger brother and sister.
You are a big advocate of adopting older children. Why?
When children come into a family at older ages, they are making a brave choice to move into the next chapter of their lives. They know that their birth parents tried to parent them but were not able to. They have been through trauma and chaos, and may have lived with several foster families. They come to us at the point when they are no longer expecting their birth families to raise them. Our children understood that we wanted to be part of the solution for them and to enhance all our lives by becoming a family. We all agree it has worked very well indeed!
Read more about how adopting siblings benefits children and the whole family.