We weren’t a couple that “always knew they wanted to adopt.” It’s not something that we discussed before we were married.

What we definitely did discuss was our desire to be parents. I married my husband because he helped me be the better person I’d always wanted to be. In fact, that was the thought that made me giddy on the night we were engaged. This was the man who would father my children! Yes, children, plural. We both hoped to have a large family.

I do remember, however, the first time we discussed adoption. We were living in Mexico City, sitting in the pink living room of our tiny apartment that would shake every time a truck drove by, momentarily causing us each to wonder if it was actually an earthquake. The sunlight was streaming through the windows and I brought it up. “What do you think about adopting?” Like many couples who first have this conversation, we were waiting for children. At that point it had been over a year of trying to grow our family, which for NFP (natural family planning) teachers, we knew signaled something might be wrong.

“What about international adoption? Do you think we could parent a child that didn’t look like us?” Those were some of the first overwhelming questions that we pondered. We didn’t exactly come to any conclusions, but I do remember my husband’s response. If we have love to give, why wouldn’t we adopt?

Fast forward a year. It was the summer of 2011 and we were back to living in the states. I was able to receive medical care to remove endometriosis. Three months after that surgery, during a dark and hopeless time if I’m honest, we conceived. Our son, Samuel, is now five. He was a blessing from God, a healing balm for my soul. It was when I was holding him in our rocker when he was just days old that I had one of the most profound spiritual moments of my life. “Enjoy this child I sent you and this moment, right here. You do not love him because you bore him, but because he was meant to be your son. You will love your other children in the same way.” In that moment the message I heard was blindingly clear. I’ve gone back to savor the peace that moment brought me many times during our adoption journey. God is faithful. He could be trusted, completely. We were called to adopt.

Now, if only God would have told my husband that so clearly!

What was so evidently a call from God needed more time to grow in my husband. And its not as if anyone “just adopts,” as our story is evidence of. He was right to see the many logistical hurdles to reconcile. So we began pursuing adoption as we do most things: researching as much as possible. Over the next few years we attended several in-person sessions and orientations of local agencies, trying to figure out what would be the best avenue for our family. Foster to adopt? Domestic adoption? International? If international, what country? Through a long process of elimination, including a desire to honor birth order, we eventually decided to adopt a toddler from China. I had lived in China during a summer in college and was always drawn to the country. Plus, I already spoke some Chinese.

Then, in August 2015, just a week after we made the decision to adopt from China, my husband was unexpectedly let go from his job. Fortunately, he found another one rather quickly and just three months later, within a week of starting his new job, we began our homestudy. It was November 2015, and we were beyond excited to finally be starting the adoption process.

Then came a massive swerve in our plan. In January 2016 we got the sudden call about a potential domestic adoption situation from a friend. Here was a woman making an adoption plan. Would we be willing to adopt a baby to be born in two months? This was much faster than we’d planned, but God wouldn’t ask it of us if it wasn’t possible.

We said yes.

I met the mom and we hit it off. Meeting her and learning how facing an unintended pregnancy took such courage in every aspect of her life was humbling. This adoption was not about our desire for a child, but about her plan for hers. We just happened to be two people who fit together in this puzzle of loss, creating something so much more than our individual parts. Planning an open adoption, we were in contact over the next few months and I was actually able to be there for the birth of her daughter, our daughter, and spend three amazing days in the hospital with her. With input from her first mom we named her “Evangeline,” or “Good news.” There we were cocooned up in our little world of mutual love for this little baby, protected from the outside world. We loved this baby girl incredibly during those first few days of her life, and our original questions about adoption became suddenly irrelevant as they were undoubtedly answered. With a resounding yes, we learned first hand just how quickly we could love a baby that we didn’t birth, who didn’t look exactly like us.

However, we were not meant to parent Evangeline for long. Her mom changed her mind and we relinquished Evangeline back into her care not a week after leaving the hospital.

This was another incredibly dark time. Just writing that sentence hardly captures our emotions at the time. Had we done something wrong? Had we misinterpreted the call to adopt? What was so wrong with us that we couldn’t conceive and now we couldn’t even adopt to grow our family? My life felt so bleak and my faith was full of doubts. I was crumpling inwards, but God was constantly pulling me outside of myself. This wasn’t about me. Adoption wasn’t just about us. Yes, we had love to give, but our first promise was about treating everyone involved with dignity and respect, and trusting in God’s plan enough to know that we were where we should be. We wanted to adopt because we had love to give to a child, and this situation hadn’t depleted that love. We had more to give. So after taking a few months to get our bearings and heal, we continued on with our Chinese adoption.

We were able to update our homestudy for an international adoption and get our complete dossier submitted by October of 2016. We settled in for a long wait. I was thankful for our domestic adoption situation because with international adoption we wouldn’t have the same opportunity to meet our child’s mom and experience first hand what exactly it took to make a decision to place your child for adoption. We were adopting a “waiting child,” a child whose parents couldn’t be found and who needed parents. The laws in China are different than the U.S. in that parents can’t legally place a baby up for adoption, forcing mothers and fathers who can’t parent to abandon their children in public places so they will be found and hopefully cared for. We would likely never meet our child’s first parents.

We got a call about our son on December 7th, 2016, just a few weeks after being eligible. Here was the face and file of a child who needed parents. He was so obviously our son. But would this really happen? Would we get to parent him forever? Looking at his file I saw his birthdate. Somewhere on the other side of the world, he was making his entrance at almost the exact moment we finally jointly decided to pursue adoption back in 2015. It had been him all along.

There was more paperwork (mostly immigration paperwork at this point) and waiting, and we were finally able to board the plane to China to meet him in March 2017. We met our 18-month old son one year to the day that Evangeline had been born, St. Joseph’s feast day. His Chinese name given to him by his caretakers was “Zi Zhong” or “faithful son” which we found especially compelling and it remains his middle name. We chose Mateo for his first name: “God’s gift.” Our older son was thrilled to have a sibling that would stay with us “forever and ever” and immediately began learning all that being a big brother entailed. The laughter we heard those first few days in the hotel in China was a long-awaited gift.

Adding a toddler to your family is not the typical route, and we definitely had challenges those first few months adjusting to our new family. While we had been waiting for Mateo for years at this point, this adjustment came with grief for him. Although he gained parents and a family, he also suffered an incredible loss of all that was familiar to him those first few months of life. However, his resilience and infectious laugh are reminders that God does make all things new. We’ve been home eight months now as a family of four and it’s still a gift each day to consider how it came to be. With all of our waiting and seemingly wrong turns and dead ends, Mateo would not have been here as our son had anything else happened.

Adoption has shaped a family, created brothers, and allowed us the privilege to parent a beautiful child carefully created by God. But the effects of adoption extend far beyond our family unit. Adoption has given grandparents another grandchild to dote on, aunts and uncles another nephew, and our neighbors another explorer to adventure with. So many people are richer because Mateo is in our family. We are the lucky ones.

Adoption has brought life to our home once again and we’re praying we get the opportunity to adopt again. We couldn’t have adopted again so quickly had it not been for the generous support of friends who helped us crowd-source our adoption funds after experiencing our failed adoption. Please consider how you can help promote adoption in your community, especially over this giving season!

Alison Contreras lives with her family in Hyattsville, Md. She teaches couples in the D.C. area about their natural signs of fertility as a Creighton Practitioner at Caritas FertilityCare.

Photograph by Melissa Green