When Nia Vardalos, writer and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, left for New York to promote her new book this week, her daughter Ilaria looked up and told her, "Go get some kids adopted."
Vardalos is in town to discuss the release of Instant Mom, a book about her ten-year journey to motherhood. Equal parts memoir and adoption how-to manual, Instant Mom is as light and charming as it is profoundly moving in parts. In it Vardalos chronicles the heartbreak and disappointment of infertility, through which she endured 13 in vitro treatments.
"I had this sense of failure. I'm not one of those people who accepts facts," she says now. "I'm part of this generation of women who were raised by these amazing women who taught us we can expect to have it all."
But biology and Mother Nature had other plans for Vardalos.
With her husband of 20 years, actor Ian Gomez, she did some research into adoption and settled on foster-adoption rather than use a surrogate or hire and attorney to arrange a private adoption. Six months later the couple was given 14 hours' notice that the system had a match for them—a little girl, nearly three.
After years of trying and crying, Vardalos became a mother literally over night.
"I'm grateful to every part of the process that didn't work because it led me to my real daughter," Vardalos tells Parenting.com.
Sitting in the lounge of her hotel, Vardalos is poised and elegant in a floorlength white sweater dress and jaunty striped fedora. Sipping a decaf coffee just before noon, there is no trace of the terror she professes to have. Her book hits shelves on April 2—her own family has yet to read it.
Vardalos is an accomplished comedian and screenwriter. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the highest-grossing film never to have hit number one at the box office, and she is currently developing what she calls an "anti-rom-com rom-com" for Paramount. But nothing prepared her for the intensity of writing earnestly about herself and her family.
"The only reason I wanted to write this book in the first place was for the guidebook section," she says. The book includes a 25-page appendix, a comprehensive guide on how to adopt from all around the world. "My friends and family had to talk me off the ledge when it came to writing about myself. They kept saying 'why not?'"
Because, she says, she was scared. An intensely private person, she took as inspiration her own daughter's courage—imagine showing up at your new parents' house, your young life in upheaval, at the age of three—in order to forge ahead with telling her story. "So I had to lean in to that fear," she says.
Ilaria—a name Vardalos and Gomez gave their daughter with her explicit approval—is almost eight now, a wry and wily second grader who challenges Vardalos' assumptions of nature and nurture. So thoroughly is Ilaria her daughter that it's hard for Vardalos to tell where genetics end and her upbringing begins.
"Is this nurture, or are we a match made in heaven?" she asks rhetorically. Vardalos can't help but see plenty of herself in Ilaria: wilful and gregarious, she is in many ways a mini-Nia. Herself the product of a sprawling family—which she gently mocks for fun and profit—Vardalos is the spokeswoman for National Adoption Day and National Adoption Awareness Month. There are, she points out, 130,000 legally emancipated children in this country alone in need of a loving home.
Plus: An HIV Adoption Story
"Giving birth isn't what makes you a mom," she says—still stung by the occasional careless offhand comment that adopted children are somehow lesser than biological children. "If you've wiped a butt, you're a mom. If you've taken a break from shooting to change a diaper on the sidewalk in Brooklyn, you're a mom. But I also don't want to be the person who says to women dealing with infertility, 'hey just ditch it and adopt'."
Adoption does raise its own inherent parenting challenges. Vardalos characterizes Ilaria as still grieving for the parents she will never know. Vardalos is grateful to Ilaria's biological mother for having the strength and courage to recognize she was too young and not up to the task of parenting. The adoption was closed, meaning the birth mother's identity remains sealed, and today Ilaria has no attachment or behavioral problems as a result.
"There are some lingering issues of curiosity over perhaps did she do something to warrant being given up," says Vardalos. "That's part of the grieving process. My response is to bring it up. Do it now so it won't manifest in beahvioral issues later."
Vardalos and Gomez schedule semi-regular chats with their daughter to talk through any lingering feelings or concers she may have. They set an egg timer for seven minutes and often find themselves still fielding questions half an hour later.
But hardly every moment is a heavy one. In fact, Vardalos says the best piece of parenting advice she ever received was "don't make every moment a teachable moment." And the best parenting tactic she picked up from her own mother is a tasty one: when in doubt, cook.