Janene was a nanny for a married couple who didn’t seem to have any interest in raising their child. The mom wanted a career, and the father didn’t want anything to do with rearing his son. Janene worked 21 hours a day, seven days a week, caring for and teaching their son from the time he was four weeks old until he was one year old. When the boy was about ten months old, the mom came home from work one day and said to him “Smile for mommy!” When he didn’t respond very well, Janene encouraged him saying, “Oh, you can give your mom a better smile than that!” The baby boy gave Janene a huge smile, because he was so familiar with her and loved her so much. However, the mom took the fact that her son didn’t know who his own mother was as a wake-up call, and quickly stepped up to be more present in his life.
“I’m actually grateful for them being horrible parents. Well, I shouldn’t say horrible, because they did love him. They were just misguided,” Janene shares.
That experience sparked something inside of Janene that led to a desire to adopt as well as bear children. Janene’s husband, Ellis, has been supportive and completely on-board with that plan from the first time she told him of it. But being able to have children was far more challenging than simply deciding to get pregnant or adopt. Janene miscarried her first pregnancy. When she was pregnant a second time, she made it far enough to get an ultrasound, which showed a healthy boy developing in her womb. But at 23 weeks, her cervix dilated and her dreams of mothering that baby boy were gone. She named him Harrison.
That heartbreaking event led to discovering that Janene has an incompetent cervix, which means that while she could conceive, her body couldn’t maintain the pregnancy. Her next pregnancy almost ended at 13 weeks, but after a procedure to keep her cervix closed and then bed-rest for the remainder of the time, she was able to give birth to a lively girl at 33 weeks. She was named Lara. Janene got pregnant four more times after Lara was born, but none of those lasted more than 12 weeks. It was then that Janene realized it was no coincidence that she had such strong desires to adopt.
When Lara was three years old, she got two new siblings. Lara was overjoyed and promptly played dress-up with her new brothers, AJ and Michael. It was one of the best days in that family’s life. Janene and Ellis then found Naska, and during her adoption the couple also discovered that AJ had a biological brother, Kaleb, and adopted him as well. Janene and Ellis now had five children, all within 3 years of the same age.
“I didn’t adopt to save the world,” Janene explains. “The Lord just gave me my kids that way.”
When it comes to different or special treatment for any of the kids, there is absolutely none. Each of them are equally loved, taught, and disciplined. Lara gets really upset when people make derogatory comments about her siblings being adopted or different from her in any way, and Janene firmly believes that people who distinguish between adopted and biological children cause unnecessary issues. “Either way, they’re yours,” she says.
Each of the kids have varying difficulties or disabilities. Naska has mental retardation and autism. AJ has Tourette syndrome. Michael and Kaleb each have hearing loss as well as cognitive processing issues. When I asked her how she has gotten through so many struggles with her kids, Janene said, “How many kids challenge their parents, regardless of being adopted or biological? You don’t think about it. You just get through it.” Both Janene and Ellis have gone to great lengths to ensure that each of their children has the best possible chances at being able to contribute positively to society, and enjoy a happy and full life.
Naska’s progress and accomplishments stand out greatly to me. When Janene and Ellis found her, she was was malnourished nearly to the point of death, weighing only 19 pounds at five years old. The worker who introduced them to Naska even said that, given her condition, it would be understandable if the family chose not to adopt her. But after one look at the tiny girl, Janene just knew Naska was hers.
I first met Naska six years ago. She couldn’t speak and had a hard time listening to anyone who spoke to her, on top of other day to day struggles. But with careful attention, Janene and Ellis have been able to discover the sweet, loving, fun girl within her. At one point Janene determined that Naska’s long hair caused sensory overload, and so started cutting the child’s hair short. Now, when I ask Naska about something she likes, she’ll repeat the word with a thumbs up and a big smile. And if she doesn’t like something, she’ll repeat the word and very seriously shake her head while saying, “No.” She can be a little possessive of the family’s dust mop, because sweeping is her chore at home–and she’s really good at it! She enjoys helping Janene make brownies, and always licks the mixing bowl and spoon clean once the brownies are baking. She loves music with a good beat, and she’s not afraid to dance to it no matter who may be watching. She also won’t hesitate to express her love for her mom. Hugs are readily available for Janene any time she asks (and sometimes when she doesn’t). Naska also has a crush on a boy at church and tries to impress him by dressing nicely when she sees him. She’s like any girl, with likes and dislikes, good days and bad days, as well as feelings and needs. Much of that beautiful girl’s personality would be unknown if not for patient and discerning parents who have given her every opportunity to blossom into a truly lovely young woman.
“If you have a child with special needs, you are their greatest advocate. If you can’t do that, you go get someone who can do that for you,” Janene vehemently says. She and Ellis have dealt with unhelpful school systems and teachers who try to ignore the special needs of some kids. They are adamant about parents knowing the laws and school system regulations. “No one wants to label their kids as ‘special needs,'” she continues, “But are you more worried about a label or your child’s needs? Use the label to achieve what your child needs.”
To parents who are planning to or have already adopted, she says, “Just be a parent. Don’t be an adopted parent,” and adds, “Some kids come from horrible circumstances and you’ll feel sorry for them. But don’t focus on that. Don’t worry about giving them time to adjust and adapt. Just be consistent immediately.”
Janene still has dreams of having a little girl with black hair in dreadlocks. But when she looked at how incredibly full her plate was after adopting her fourth child, she realized she was done… for a while, anyway. Once her kids are grown and moved out, she’d like to work in foster care, finding kids in the system who need a home–especially groups of siblings. She hates to see brothers and sisters split up, because she understands how valuable those relationships can be.
“The problem is, I’d probably collect them all!” she jokes. She simply loves children, especially the troubled ones who are in need of proper love, attention, and discipline. And if any of them turn out to be her children as well, she’s not opposed to adopting again. After all, that’s how she was given most of her children in the first place, and though they have filled her household with chaos at times, they have also filled her heart with more love than she thought it could hold.