Our Special Needs Adoption Was Unpredictable But Perfect for Our Family

When Elsie Larson, cofounder of the blog A Beautiful Mess, started her family via adoption, Instagram's greatest mama-love story was born. Here's the incredible, moving saga, in Larson's own words.

mother holding daughter in front of color coordinated book shelf
Photo: Courtesy of Priscilla Gragg

I always wanted to be a mom, but conceiving just wasn’t happening for me and my husband, Jeremy. I’m a big crier, but I didn’t cry once about it. I’d always had a desire to adopt, so we agreed that if I wasn’t pregnant by our fifth anniversary, we’d start the process.

A friend of ours had adopted a girl with special needs from China. Her story opened our hearts, and we knew we wanted to do the same. It’s about a two-year process from the moment you start the paperwork until you find a match, and that wait was difficult. One night, many months in, my phone rang with the agency’s number. I got so excited! But it turned out to be a random fund-raising call. That made me burst into tears.

Things changed when we got a “Spotlight” email from the agency with a child who wasn’t getting matched. We opened it, and there she was. In our application, we’d checked off special needs that we felt we could handle, such as a cleft palate. Albinism wasn’t one of them because it often comes with severe vision issues. So when Jeremy saw this 2-year-old girl, he said, “Oh, she’s really cute!” I asked, “Are you interested?” and he said, “No.”

But I couldn’t get her out of my mind, and, as it turns out, neither could Jeremy. Two days later, I was having a business meeting in our home upstairs when he yelled out from downstairs. I ran, panicked, thinking that something terrible had happened. Instead, he was staring at a 30-second video of her dancing. He’d asked the agency to send her file so he could think on it more. I knew it wasn’t wise to pressure him, so after we watched, I went back upstairs and we didn’t talk about it again.

Ten days later, as we drove to a friend’s eclipse-watching party, Jeremy said, “I’ve made my decision. I’m 100 percent sure I want to adopt her.” I tried so hard not to cry because we didn’t want to turn the party into being about us! Plus, we knew we still had a long way to go, so we stayed as calm as we could.

That was in August 2017, and we weren’t going to meet our daughter until December. So we created a nursery (the bunny wallpaper, Jonathan Adler chandelier, and more are documented on my personal blog, The Larson House), and filled her closet with dresses and sunglasses. We received three more videos of her, and we watched them hundreds of times, looking for meaning in every moment, pretending to know her, saying things like, “Oh, look! She’s so smart!” Watching her also sparked a name that fit: Nova.

When we finally went to China, we first flew to Beijing and then on to her province. I’ve traveled quite a bit, but I’d never been to a place so inaccessible to foreigners. No one spoke a word of English, not even at our hotel. My friend, whose story initially inspired us, texted me, “Don’t have any expectations.” This is the part that relates to so many birth stories: Whatever you visualize is unlikely to be what actually happens.

We were to meet her at 10 a.m. in a government office building, and we assumed we’d go into a waiting room with other adoptive families. Well, that’s not how it happened. We took the elevator up, and as soon as the doors opened, there Nova was, sitting on a bench, upset. She was now 2 1/2 years old; she had ridden in a van for three hours that morning and had cried so hard that she’d broken blood vessels all over her face. We said hi. I tried to give her a doll. Her orphanage reps were saying, “It’s Mama!” in English, but she wasn’t into it. She’d left an elderly nanny at the orphanage, her best friend. We were experiencing the greatest moment of our lives, and she was suffering the greatest loss in hers.

Two hours later, we carried her, crying, to our hotel room, where she fell asleep instantly. I think it was her way of escaping. It was so traumatic and terrifying for everyone. That’s just how the first day is. We knew the only way forward was through, and I just wanted to comfort her.

girl standing on porch to outdoor playhouse with pink door
Amber Ulmer for A Beautiful Mess

The next day, Nova woke up loving only Jeremy. I’d heard stories of kids who embraced the dad because they felt abandoned by their female caretakers, so I knew this was normal, but it was hard. She would barely look at me. If Jeremy left the room, I had to hold her to keep her from banging her head on something. He was the only thing that made her feel safe, and they walked around the hotel together for hours. In my journal, I was writing about how this was the happiest time of my life, but I was blocking out the tough stuff. Our time in China, completing all the necessary steps in the adoption, was the hardest two weeks of my life.

But every day got 3 percent better, which meant it didn’t take long to be 100 percent amazing. On Day 3, Nova handed me a cup. On Day 4, she said her first English word: “Dada.” On Day 6, if we played the “1-2-3-swing” game while walking with Jeremy, she’d hold my hand too. By Day 14, right before we left China, she reached for my hand even without the game

Back in Nashville, Jeremy and I both took two months off from work to be with her. We introduced her to our families, one person at a time. And we fully bonded. It was a gradual process, not a light switch that turned on one day. One thing that helped is that Nova let me read her stories. It felt so good to have something she wanted me to do.

young girl in colored striped dress standing next to mom
Courtesy of Priscilla Gragg

Before I became a mom, I was nervous about balancing work and parenthood. I don’t just have the blogs; I own a photo-editing app called A Color Story. I was afraid I’d want to quit, but having two sides of my life feels healthy. It helps that ABeautifulMess.com, the site I run with my sister, Emma Chapman, focuses on family-friendly craft and recipe projects. I work while Nova, now 3, is in preschool, and then we have our time together, baking, painting. There’s nothing Nova can’t do, though she has impaired vision that is not correctable.

We started teaching her some Mandarin. She knows how to say “Hello, sister,” because we have been matched with a second baby who also has albinism. We can’t adopt her until later this spring or summer, but it’s okay—I’m thrilled!

Now Nova often says, “Mama, guess what? I love you!” Every whisper, every kiss and hug, every time she calls out for me—it’s like a little miracle that I get to experience. I’m still learning how to be a parent, but I know I want to expose Nova to different people and places and teach her to be kind, loving, and unselfish. I honestly feel so lucky every day just to be her mama.

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