Rachael’s story is a powerful reminder of our ability to overcome life’s hardest setbacks with bravery, love, and utter fearlessness. When Rachael and her husband couldn’t conceive a much wanted baby, even with all the help science had to offer, they found the courage to let go of what they thought they wanted to embrace what they really needed.
Learning to surrender and be open to the scary unknown is not something most of us have the strength to do. After hundreds of hours of paperwork, international travel, rejection, fostering over 20 kids, failed adoptions, heartbreak and truckloads of criticism, their dream of a giant family is now reality.
In celebration of National Adoption Awareness month, I chatted with Rachael to hear more about pushing through the challenges, opening their hearts to so many kids in need, building a diverse family, and ignoring blatant judgements that came with their decision to pursue adoption.
Hello Rachael! How are you? Thank you so much for chatting with me! I wanted to talk to you today because I’ve always found your story so interesting and inspiring. I want to learn more and think so many people will benefit from hearing it.
Oh thank you, yes, I am thrilled to talk about adoption.
I want people to hear your story and better understand what it feels like to take a path most don’t travel. Can you start by giving me a little bit of background about who you are, your family, and what you expected life would look like when you were younger?
I grew up in our little hometown in Illinois. I honestly always thought I would have a typical, although looking back now I understand nothing is typical, family. Fairytale marriage, kids…I wanted to be a stay at home mom, have 6 kids, an adorable home, and just be happy. Everybody does right? Brian and I got married young, a lot of people thought we were too young, but we wanted to start a family right away. It wasn’t happening…..it’s okay, just relax…..wasn’t happening….wasn’t happening…finally I realized this isn’t the fairytale, this isn’t going to happen is it?
How long did that process take? When did you realize the dream wasn’t coming together the way you thought it would?
We tried for a year before seeing a doctor. Our first step was some oral medication and nothing was happening so we eventually saw a fertility specialist. They determined there is nothing medically wrong with either of us. There is literally no reason we cannot have biological kids and yet nothing was working. It wasn’t happening. We did more invasive fertility treatments, I spent thousands of dollars on drugs, injections, and medications for over 3 years.
I was starting to feel like my body couldn’t take this anymore. I got another box of medication, my next dose, in the mail and I couldn’t open it. I prayed that night, asking God to help me figure out what to do. The next day I got an adoption pamphlet from Catholic Charities in the mail. I took the medication box and threw it straight in the garbage. I never opened it.
Was that the first time you had thought about adoption?
I always thought adoption was maybe something I would do someday, but I always thought I’d have kids biologically first. I know when you go through infertility you are so focused on that, nothing else comes into the picture, and it’s hard to consider anything else except getting pregnant.
Do you think when you let go of the intense focus on getting pregnant, when you slowed down and took a breath, all of a sudden other possibilities to a family were able to emerge?
Exactly. There’s a thousand different ways to start a family. I am still trying to get pregnant, I’ve never given that up, but I accepted it wasn’t going to happen on my timeline and that we could actually start our family now.
Once you accepted the idea, how did you decide to move forward with adoption?
Well Brian and I talked about it, and sometimes it’s hard for spouses to agree but we were in agreement instantly. We went to my parents and they were very open, no issues… tears, excited, what can we do to help. My husband’s family was completely opposite. “You won’t carry on the Sherman name, I sure hope you pick a Caucasian baby, they aren’t going to look like you, I hope the mom doesn’t do drugs”…the hopes were endless. We went from a high to a low.
How did you navigate the negativity?
Once you start the adoption journey, you get 1000 comments. It opened so many cans of worms – are you strong enough? They aren’t going to look like you? Will you love them enough? Why would you want a Chinese daughter, or an African American daughter, or whatever? People talk like you won’t be a normal family. We just stuck to our guns. I’m strong, I don’t back down…with every “I hope it doesn’t have this” I came back with “well, I hope it does!” “How do you know it’s not gonna have mental issues?”…”well, if I was having a natural birth, how would I know it’s not gonna come out with 3 arms or 4 fingers!?.” They didn’t like it, but it is our life. I stayed strong.
Do you feel in standing up for your decision you were even more convinced it was the right path?
Definitely because there was a whole world we were about to explore, which we didn’t even realize yet, and there was no backing down. This was what we were going to do. Having no children was never an option. We would have kids regardless. Maybe the reason we can’t have a biological child is because there are so many children who need to be saved and don’t have a parent. We were ready.
So tell me about how you got your first son, Noah.
We started our home study with Catholic Charities. We were given 1000 options, domestic, foster care, international…there are really a million ways to do it. We knew domestic adoption was a long process, that they they had to pick you, the mother could change her mind and it all could fall apart. We knew we weren’t ready for that so we picked international adoption because it’s pretty cut and dry. You’re getting a baby. So we decided on international adoption.
We didn’t know how long we would want to travel for so we chose a country we didn’t have to go to 2 or 3 times, we were given a book of countries and we fell in love with Guatamala. They also had the youngest babies and we really wanted a baby for our first one. It was super easy. About 2 months after we started the process they called to tell us the representatives, who go out and talk to women in these local villages, found Noah’s mom and thought he was the perfect fit. They sent pictures and we fell in love. I think we said yes in about 2.5 seconds.
What was that like?
It was crazy! It’s nerve wracking enough to become a first time mom, but now I’m becoming a mom for the first time in a country that is not the United States. You’re trying to pack and bring stuff, we got updates every month, and pictures. He looked really big but you never know. We got the call on Thanksgiving that we were gonna fly to get him in a few days, we both took time off of work, we got ready to go, got our suitcases packed, we brought way too much, we didn’t know what he would eat.
So we flew to Guatmala city on December 5th and on Dec 6th, my birthday, we sat in the hotel suite and they and they opened the doors and here comes this little teeny tiny Noah. The foster mother said “happy birthday” in Spanish and handed me my son. I remember laughing because he was 4 months old and they were telling me his routine and what he eats and drinks, we’re thinking formula. No. For breakfast he eats bread soaked in coffee, for lunch boiled chicken and vegetables, mash it up, and I’m looking at Brian with these huge eyes thinking, “we’re in a hotel in Guatamala, where do I get this and how the hell do I make this stuff? What am I doing!? We skipped the bread and chicken and went to a straight normal American baby diet.
How did you then move into fostering kids?
When Noah was 2 we knew we wanted our kids close in age and Guatmala’s program closed so we had to find another route. We decided to try the domestic adoption route. We were picked by a birth mom in Galesburg, we met her, she was African American, single, it seemed like a great match, she wanted us. When you adopt domestically, when the dad isn’t in the picture they have to put out a search for the father to make sure it’s okay, well they did the search and the father came forward and he wanted the baby so that fell apart. We were devastated, but we had Noah at home and hadn’t met the baby yet, so that helped.
Our case worker encouraged us to foster, so we ended up fostering. That was a whole new ball game. The domestic adoption route didn’t feel like us, we like adventure and certainty, so we decided to try fostering. Julie was the first kid we fostered, that was a crazy roller coaster. We fostered about 20 kids all together. Some where respite, just for the weekend, some older, some babies, some sexually abused, some drug abused, some physically abused. We had some with broken legs, a little boy with his head beat off a sidewalk.
Our first call though was Julie. She was 10 months old, she had major heart surgery, birth mom never gave her meds, didn’t follow up with her doctor. The case worker said she thinks she’s on a breathing machine but we need to know immediately if you want her. I couldn’t get ahold of Brian, but I couldn’t imagine how I could say no to this little girl who needed so much, so I said yes.
Within 15 minutes this little dirty girl with old clothes, her eyes and face sunken in, looked up at me as she was plopped on my floor. She had no heart monitors and was breathing fine. She was better than I expected. The first thing I did was give her a bath and give her some new clothes. The next day we took her to her cardiologist in Peoria and got her back on all her medications.
Eventually, she went back to her mother. We had her on and off for 3 years. During some of that time she had weekly visits with her biological parents. I had to drop my “daughter “off, who I’d had for 3 years with this abusive, drug addicted stranger. Julie would yell and cry, screaming for her “mom and dad” when I left her. It was horrible.
When I would bring and drop off Julie, I would see this little baby, Jonah (who was George at the time), in his car seat with a piece of yarn strung from the couch to the dresser, with his bottle and toys. The house was horrible, dirt floor in the kitchen, filled with smoke. The mom would call me and ask me to babysit Jonah all the time and of course I would. I would take him and when I brought him back she would tell me she did drugs. I called DCFS and the case worker didn’t care, nobody cared. They didn’t care that he was never changed.
I kept pushing and they started doing drug tests but they kept coming back negative…because she was buying synthetic pee. Finally, they watched her do the test and of course, it came back positive. Eventually, the adoption process began and they asked if we could take Jonah as well, if we would be willing to adopt them both, which of course, we did.
Wow, I can’t imagine how hard those years must have been. How did you decide you were ready to pursue adopting again?
We didn’t think we were done, but we were good for a long time, content. Their adoption was final in 2010. Fast forward to 2015 and we get a call from Julie and Jonah’s birth mom saying she’s pregnant and if we wanted the baby, why would we say no? She sent us sonogram pictures for months, told us stories… long story short we were scammed. We had sent her money for clothes, doctors, rent and she took it. That whole thing fell apart. She said she had a miscarriage but she had lied.
We were so excited and so when it fell apart we knew it was time to get another baby and that we wanted to go back to international. The kids here have it hard, but once you go out of the country you see kids there have it so much worse. It was nice this time because we knew the drill. We picked India and they sent us a referral for a little girl with curly hair. We picked her name and waited for the last bit of paperwork. India called us 2 days before we sent the final paperwork and they said that we had too many cultures in our family to embrace the Indian culture so they were going to deny our adoption.
When we had started the whole international process, the first picture that came up on our agency website when we went to log into our account was Quinn’s picture. She was 7, from China…she looked like an amazing little girl, but how in the hell could we, with 3 kids, adopt a girl who speaks no English, has grown up from birth in an orphanage, has never had a family life, no house? After being denied India, we knew it was going to be that China girl.
Our paperwork only needed a few tweaks to met the Chinese government requirements. When you adopt internationally, you get a whole list of things that are special needs, anything from a kid with a hernia who has been repaired to something like wheelchair bound. You have to mark what you’re open to, what you’re not and we were balling, “how do we pick? How do we decide?” and Brian said “we are looking at everything they aren’t, instead of everything they are, this is ridiculous.” and we said just give us whoever, we don’t care.
Quinn was considered special needs, before we knew what those needs were, we said yes. She was abandoned on the street, she was found and brought to the orphange. We’ll never know her real birthday. They picked her birthday based on the day she was found, with a made up year, they think she was 2 when they found her on the street. Her file said she had no brain, but that couldn’t be because she was walking and talking (in reality, the left side of her brain didn’t form propertly but it doesn’t stop her from doing anything). We went for the child who supposedly had no brain. We got called, we went to China, we were there for 2 weeks, and she’s amazing.
Tell me about flying to China, meeting your new 7 year old, who doesn’t speak English, and taking her home to your family.
I remember flying, we were landing in Beijing and all I kept thinking was “What.the.fuck. are we doing?” What am I doing?” I had a panic attack. We had made flash cards, picture cards, we went crazy, we were those crazy parents to do everything to make sure everything would work. We never even use those flashcards, not once. It was the easiest thing ever. She caught on immediately. We had the iPad and had Mandarin and English things, she could care less. She wanted no part of Chinese once she was with us, none. She refused to talk Chinese. We would try and say words and she would mock us. The day we adopted her, her Chinese totally left.
Backing up though, we waited in this hotel room and they came in and shoved her in a room with us, she was crying, and within 2 seconds they were leaving saying…”oh she fine, she healthy, bye!” We figured it out though. When she had to go to the bathroom, she pointed to the bathroom. She showed us everything we needed to know. When we got home, within 2 weeks she was speaking sentences in English. We could understand her, kind of like a baby where no one else could understand but we could. It was easy.
The hardest thing was school. I kept her home for the first year because she had never had a mom that bonded with her and she needed that. And we just did everyday things. She didn’t know how to live in a house. She didn’t know she could open the refrigerator when she wanted to. She didn’t know that she could sit down at a meal and not cover her food becasue the other kids weren’t gonna take it. She didn’t know that she didn’t have to hold her plate on her head because there’s 2 year olds at the orphange who would grab her plate and she wouldn’t get any food. She didn’t know how to have brothers and sisters.
She knew colors but she didn’t know any academics a 7 year old should know. In an orphanage, they teach you life skills, I remember I was taking a shower and she came in and tried to help me because in the other part of her orphange was a nursing home and they teach them to help take care of other people. She would get up, make her bed religiously, scrub the sink…stuff kids don’t do. She was like a little maid. So that first year I kept her home so she could learn to live in a house. She loved shopping, loved going to Target, loved going to Starbucks….it was so amazing because even though we got her when she was 7, we missed out on nothing. Her first birthday party with us was her first birthday party she had ever had. Her first Halloween, her first Christmas, they were all the first she had. Would I adopt an older kid again? In a heartbeat. It’s amazing. It’s been amazing.
What you’ve been through to build your family and all you’ve endured to get here is just incredible. Do you think you’ll ever adopt more?
We’re not done, but I don’t think we’ll adopt any time soon. My heart is in Haiti and Uganda, I know that will happen eventually. Maybe once everybody is older. Noah from Guatamala, 2 kids from here, and Quinn from China and I still feel like we need that little black baby. Will that cause craziness from my in laws, absolutely! But do I care, nope. Because we are not the norm. And we are not preventing getting pregnant so if that happens it happens. We have people that think we’re nuts to have 4 kids, that purposely choosing to to have 4 kids is crazy. Having a big family is not normal and when you choose it, you get comments from everybody.
Oh I understand that, we got comments all the time….”Don’t you guys know how to stop this by now?” and I wanted to scream, “actually all four of mine were planned!” but it’s really like most people cannot fathom who in their right mind would choose that many children.
Exactly. This world is not made for big families. But it’s still worth it.
How do you handle some of the negativity towards your family with your kids?
Those who don’t take the time to get to know the kids are the one’s missing out. Sure, they aren’t blood, but they are Sherman’s nonetheless. We’ve kinda switched the hurt to empowering ourselves. We could be two lonely, miserable people with no kids, looking at everyone else…but we have this amazing family and they are the ones missing out on 4 great kids. We have so many people telling us how amazing we are, “we can’t believe you saved these kids”, but the reality is, they saved us. They saved us from being miserable and alone.
We’ve helped tons of people adopt. All the kids, especially Quinn really helped to open people’s eyes. It helps you realize how good you have it. Here’s this little girl who came from an orphanage, left on the streets, it just opens up your eyes to another world, you gain gratitude and appreciation. It’s so easy to focus on what you don’t have or what someone else has and easy to forget how lucky we are. My kids’ have helped people learn that.
What would you say is the biggest thing you’ve learned when you decided to take an uncertain path?
I learned that being completely vulnerable and open is the best gift I ever gave to myself. Your life is not your plan. You can plan as much as you want, but unless you’re totally open and real, you will never be happy. Your life will be more amazing than you could ever plan in your own mind.
How do you actually do this in real life though? What would you say to someone really afraid of letting go and leaping into the unknown?
Do it anyways.
Get over it. You’ll never know unless you try. You can fear everything and unless you do it, you’ll never know. We had failures through our whole journey, fertility treatments failed, adoptions failed, it was a roller coaster but everything will get better and eventually gets you where you need to be. I learned to not be so fearful all the time. I now understand it may get bad but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Do it anyways.
If you sit in your fear, you’re gonna tear yourself apart. Build upon the anxiety…just do it.
What would you like to say to people who don’t understand diversity, that don’t value divergent though, or maybe look at your family critically?
Open your mind. Thinking differently isn’t bad, if you don’t understand ask a question, nicely. You’re missing out when you’re not open to new things.
How would you recommend people ask questions? How do you like to be approached?
We are so open to talking about adoption – “oh my gosh you have an adopted family, how amazing!” versus coming up to my kids and say “are you all real brothers and sisters?” I love “oh where are your kids from?” or “I love that you adopted all your kids!” Just simple, nice questions instead of “do you have any real kids?” Um, they’re really real people. They’re real brothers and sisters. They’re really mine. Most of the time they say it in front of my kids, which makes me so angry. Be mindful around the kids.
What would you tell people struggling with fertility?
Trust the journey and follow your heart. I can’t tell people to throw away your meds, obviously it does work for a lot of people, but you have to trust your heart. I knew my body couldn’t take it and I listened to my body.
Trust your heart and listen to your body. You have no idea what (or who) is waiting for you.
Thank you so much for sharing your journey and for reminding us what is possible when we’re brave enough to break our own hearts.
Rachael is always open to answering any questions about adoption so if you want to talk to her directly, leave your comment and I’ll make sure you get connected!
Also, if you are struggling with infertility, check out my friend Amber’s site, Waiting on a Miracle. Amber, mom to a miracle baby, shares her passion for connecting with those struggling through infertility.
What do you think? Did you learn anything new from Rachael’s story? What can you take away from her experience or how do you think her story can inspire you to make meaningful change in your own life?