The scariest thing about planning to adopt children, especially ones old enough to walk, talk and form opinions, is that they just might not be interested in their new parents, said Becky Brown.
The most gratifying thing about actually adopting Jared, 10, and his biological sister, Hanna. 8, has been that this fear turned out to be groundless.
"Jared wants to make sure we're all sitting together for dinner,'' said Brown, 39, of Ridge Manor. "Hanna wants to show you her art projects, and they both seem to like hanging out with us. ... I'm just really glad they want a family experience.''
Later today, after the Thanksgiving turkey arrives at the table and before the sparks start flying from the silverware, comes the ritual of itemizing our reasons for gratitude. Families are at the top of most people's lists.
But Brown and her husband, Joe Murphy, will be especially grateful because their adoption of Jared and Hanna Murphy just became final Nov. 5.
Brown and Murphy, both 40, are friends of mine, so I'm biased. But of the various ways for couples to complete a family — which is what this feels like, they say — theirs seems to make a lot of sense.
I thought about this recently when the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to the doctor who paved the way for in vitro fertilization. Of course, some people want children with their genes, and that's their right. But doesn't the world have enough kids?
I'm in awe of the generosity of parents willing to raise children from other nations. But in some of these countries, it can be hard to know whether babies are up for adoption or up for sale. And taking in older children, it seems, is tough enough without adding cultural or language barriers.
Also, Murphy said, "We just felt there was a need right here.''
He's right, said Maria Buckley, an adoption recruiter who works for Youth and Family Alternatives, a state contractor. There are 175 children available for adoption in the area she covers — Hernando, Citrus, Sumter, Lake and Marion counties.
Because their parents' rights to raise them have been revoked in court, Buckley said, most of "these children have been abused, neglected or abandoned. They come with a host of problems — anger, lack of trust.'' And, unfortunately, Brown's greatest fear sometimes does come to pass, Buckley said. "We can't guarantee the (adoptive parents) will be able to bond with these kids.''
Which is one reason couples such as Brown and Murphy are fairly rare among adoptive parents. They aren't related to Hanna or Jared, were never their foster parents, and, from the start, were willing to take on older children (a must, really, because babies tend to be claimed by kin).
Of the 219 children adopted in her territory so far this year, only 37 have gone to couples who meet these criteria, Buckley said.
"These families open their hearts and their homes to people they have known only briefly,'' Buckley said. "To me, they are angels."
No, Murphy said, because he and Brown were originally thinking about their own needs. They weren't interested in babies. They hoped to find children who like to do things they like to do, and do it as a family.
Murphy, who is now planning a career as a social studies teacher, formerly worked as the Florida representative of the Gulf Restoration Network. Brown started teaching science at Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel this year after resigning from her job at the Chinsegut Nature Center, north of Brooksville.
They are nature lovers, environmentalists. So, it seemed like a good sign that the first time they visited Jared and Hanna at their foster care facility near Leesburg — the day after Earth Day — Hanna was on fire to pick up litter around a nearby lake.
"We were nervous and terrified; they were nervous and terrified,'' Murphy said. "We were looking for anything to connect us, and it was just great that was one of the first things we found to do with them."
Not that they bonded immediately, he said. When I asked Jared about his impressions of his first visit to his parents' home, in May, he remembers that the television didn't have cable. Hanna said, "Coco, Sirrius and Brahms." Those are the family's three dogs.
Though they all lived together several months before the adoption became final, Murphy said, "they still call us 'Joe' and 'Becky.' They don't call us 'Mom' and 'Dad.' That stuff will come at its own pace."
But they have done lots of hiking and canoeing as a family. In October, they took a family vacation to the mountains of northern Georgia, where they watched the changing leaves, drank cider, took a walk to a waterfall.
"They were really into it," Murphy said. "Sometimes they don't talk about it. I mean, they're little kids. But they show it.''
That's one fear off Brown's list. Here are a few others:
She worried the kids would be addicted to video games. When I was there last week, they complained when they had to stop riding bikes, even though it was getting dark and Jared had taken a scary fall.
Brown was afraid they wouldn't be intellectually curious; both are honor roll students at Eastside Elementary School.
She was afraid she and her husband wouldn't be good parents. But they have both changed their work lives partly to make time for their kids. They want them on bikes rather than on the couch. They plan for outings in the woods and a Thanksgiving celebration with relatives and friends.
And if parents want the family to sit down together for every dinner, won't the children start to want it, too? That's the way it seemed the other night. As Brown started to set the table, Jared put aside the drawing game he was playing with.
"Can I help?'' he asked.