When I was a little girl and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always to be a mom. I ended up being one of the lucky ones who saw my dream fulfilled — but as it turns out, it really looked nothing like I imagined.

I imagined white picket fences and six healthy children, all born to me. I never imagined that we would adopt a single child, let alone end up with a family of 25 children from eight different countries, of different races, ethnicities and abilities.

Greg and I began our family with three biological children born to us in pretty quick succession, and our second child, our daughter Elizabeth, was born with severe disabilities. That was an unexpected twist in our journey.

We were also foster parents for a time, but when we watched a television special about orphans in Romania, and some parents who had been successful in adopting, we had an overwhelming and undeniable spiritual experience letting us know that adoption was in our future. Another unexpected twist. A few weeks later, I was in Romania, while Greg stayed home to work. Both my mother and mother-in-law helped take care of our three children while I completed the adoptions of two toddler girls.

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I came home from that trip and told my husband that orphanages were terrible places to raise children and that if we could adopt more children, I wanted to be able to do that. In the end, we were able to adopt children from Romania, Russia, Kazakhstan, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Zambia, the United States and from birth parents who came from Australia. They ranged in age from newborns to 12 years old and all were considered “hard to place” for one reason or another. The easy part was loving them all, but the unexpected part was that the process of growing into that love was not identical. It was a deliberate choice and it took deliberate effort.

Now our children range in age from 8 to 36. Six of our children have passed away, absolutely gut-wrenching experiences each time. Having children with disabilities taught us to be flexible in our expectations for all our children. Elizabeth never progressed much past a typical 3-month old level, and we were happy with the progress she did make.

Some of our children got straight As and we cheered. Some got straight Cs and we cheered. Some are artistic, some athletic and some are bookworms like me. Of our 19 living children, 18 are adults and all 18 are productive adults. Some are entrepreneurs, some work retail, two are in the restaurant business, one is in Big Tech, four are in health care and some are stay-at-home parents. Some are still finding their way and that’s OK, because so am I.

How do you reinvent yourself as a mom when your kids are (almost) all adults, but then again, you have kids with disabilities who will live with you probably their whole lives?

Some people have suggested that it would have been better if we had left our children in their countries of origin. I know some people are strongly opposed to international and interracial adoption, or even to adoption at all. Adoption means loss, period. There’s no way around it. International adoption has even more layers of loss.

But asking whether a child should be adopted out of their culture is not a complete question. The rest of the question is “what happens if they’re not adopted?” Our children from other countries lived in orphanages, and the outcomes for children who “age out” of orphanages is pretty dismal.

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Some of our children have physical disabilities that led one child to be assigned to a home for “irrecuperables” and another to be called a “bad baby.” One, we were told, would die soon, because they had seen it happen. Our son had literally turned his face to the wall and cried and rocked himself all day. He was 19 months old. He’s now almost 27, something that honestly was unexpected — at least by orphanage staff.

One of our sons was 312 when he joined our family from an Eastern European orphanage. He was completely non-verbal, had significant physical disabilities, couldn’t stand, let alone walk and was written off by the orphanage staff, who kept him in isolation. A year later, officials from that country visited our home and were stunned to see him walking, and babbling in English. One of the men left our home to go cry on the sidewalk, he was so moved by the unexpected progress. Today, that son has graduated from high school, drives a car and has a full-time job with computers.

I think many families find their journey to and through parenting to be filled with the unexpected. My journey to and through motherhood certainly was not what we expected. It has stretched me in ways I could not have fathomed and given me gifts of determination, resilience, advocacy and outspokenness.

I’m most grateful for my unexpected life.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.