When Ann Marie met her now-husband James, she had a young son from a previous marriage. “He became an instant dad and never treated my son differently. He said, ‘This is my son, period.’”
They had two more children together, Deanna and Dean. After that, they would joke that all they had to do next was adopt. After all, James was now a step and biological father.
“I think God had been preparing our hearts,” Ann Marie said. “We had joked about him being a ‘trifecta dad’ [a step, biological, and adoptive dad]. That thought became a seed in our hearts.”
A family friend entered foster care
In 2015, their eldest daughter, Deanna, met a teen girl named AylaJean in her church’s youth group. The two became close friends. Later, Deanna witnessed AylaJean’s life suddenly change.
“In late Spring, AylaJean’s dad passed away,” Ann Marie said. “We later learned that she went into foster care.”
AylaJean was in the system for a year and a half. During this time, Ann Marie was recovering from brain surgery, so she couldn’t immediately help. “Every time AylaJean needed a new home, Deanna would ask ‘Can we bring her home?’” Ann Marie explained.
Once Ann Marie’s health was stable, she became close to AylaJean. She would sometimes pick her up and bring her to youth group. It was in the fall of 2017 when AylaJean confided in Ann Marie about her worries. “She was about to turn eighteen. She was still in high school but was scared about how she would pay bills and rent. Her dream was to go to college and become an art teacher.”
Ann Marie went home and talked with her husband about AylaJean. “I remember it being a Monday,” Ann Marie said. Both Ann Marie and James were familiar with foster care and adoption. They knew two families who had fostered and adopted children from the child welfare system. And this felt like the right step for AylaJean and their family.
“I want to be your mom.”
Two days after discussing adoption with her husband, Ann Marie saw AylaJean at youth group. “When I walked up to her, I had my speech planned. Instead, I blurted out, ‘AylaJean, I want to be your mom.’” Embarrassed, she corrected herself, saying, “I mean, I want to be your foster mom.”
After that, Ann Marie and James took the steps to become licensed as foster parents as quickly as they could, and AylaJean moved in December of 2017.
Growing together as a family
Although adopting AylaJean was an obvious next step, the adoption represented a substantial adjustment for the entire family. Here are some actions that helped knit the family together:
Once AylaJean moved in, Ann Marie said family counseling helped everyone get used to the new family dynamics.
“Our daughters had a conflict,” Ann Marie said. “Our oldest daughter felt like her entire world was different. For the first time, AylaJean lived with a sister and was trying to prove her worth.”
The two sisters went to sibling counseling to work through this transition period. Counseling helped them learn how to communicate with each other. While it took some time to build a close sibling bond, the two are now deeply involved in each other’s lives. They were maids of honor at each other’s weddings.
Blending family traditions
One of the biggest lessons Ann Marie learned was to incorporate AylaJean’s family traditions into her own family.
“We had routines established,” Ann Marie said. “We learned to include hers. For Christmas dinner, we now make cheesy potatoes and ham.”
Bonding over mutual interests
Along with family dinners, Ann Marie also bonded with her daughters through pageantry. They competed together when Ann Marie won the title of Mrs. Royalty International. This success led to a career opportunity with the Reel Hope Project, an organization that creates videos of youth in foster care who are awaiting adoption.
Parenting with an understanding of trauma
Along with finding things to bond over, the family learned the importance of trauma-informed care. “I tell other adoptive parents, ‘Take your time to do trauma-informed training,’” Ann Marie said. “Understand that you can’t parent children affected by trauma the same way as children who haven’t experienced it. You can have the same principles, but you have to do things differently.” (See an AdoptUSKids article on trauma-responsive parenting to learn more.)
Encouraging birth family connections
As a parent, Ann Marie says it’s important to connect with biological family members. “AylaJean and her mom are establishing a relationship, which is wonderful,” Ann Marie said. “She’s learned healthy boundaries.”
“Now we can’t imagine life without AylaJean.”
After the adoption, AylaJean graduated college and became an art teacher, as had been her long-time dream. She also served as a speaker for Reel Hope, often sharing how her parents loved and trusted her unconditionally.
Ann Marie noted that adopting AylaJean changed all of their lives. “We never felt like something was missing,” she said. “But now we can’t imagine life without AylaJean.”