Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

My big heartfelt motherhood adventure

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Winnipeg's Nia Vardalos captured our hearts with her 2002 hit movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She will do it again with her equally enjoyable new memoir of how she finally became a mother.

In an informative, honest, funny and emotional book, the Academy-Award nominated actress, writer and comedian details her struggle with infertility. It's a struggle in which she was wholeheartedly supported by her husband of 20 years, U.S. actor Ian Gomez.

After a decade battling infertility, and 13 failed IVF treatments, she writes, Vardalos opted for adoption. Since she adopted her then three-year-old daughter, Ilaria, via the American foster-care system in 2008, the Los Angeles-based Vardalos has become the spokeswoman for U.S. National Adoption Day.

Vardalos, now 50, is quick to point out that she's not advocating that people need to become parents in order to be fulfilled. But for her, she writes, "being my daughter's mother has changed me. My daughter filled a raggedy hole in my heart. She is the love of my life."

Urged by U.S. talk-show hosts Katie Couric and Joy Behar to write a book about adoption, Vardalos was initially reluctant to relinquish her privacy in order to do so. After coaching others through successful adoptions, Vardalos decided that it was time to write a how-to book on the subject.

The resulting memoir will move readers to laughter and tears. However, she still maintains a policy of keeping her daughter and any photographs of her out of the public eye. As such, there are no pictures of Ilaria in this book.

Vardalos touchingly and sometimes heartbreakingly discusses her arduous three-year journey of trying to adopt a child.

She did extensive research on adoption, which she generously shares with readers. Eventually, comedian and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell "discreetly led" Vardalos and Gomez to an adoption facilitator.

The facilitator explained to the couple that in the U.S., there are more than 500,000 children living in foster homes, and of this number, 129,000 are "legally emancipated. This means the parental rights have been terminated. And these children can be adopted."

The idea of adopting an older child from the U.S. foster care system "felt like the right fit," Vardalos writes.

According to the most recent Canadian census data, Canada had 29,590 children aged 14 and under living in private foster homes in 2011.

About a year after first consulting with California's Foster Family Agency, Vardalos and Gomez became parents.

Vardalos, who attended Winnipeg's Shaftesbury High School, is renowned for her sense of humour -- after all, she is an alum of the Second City comedy troupe. It's fun to read such local references as: "I'm from Winnipeg -- I took my driving test the day after a snowstorm -- I'm tough."

She also describes Winnipeg as "an excellent Canadian city of pleasant and cultured people." Her parents, she says, are "funny and fantastic," while she also has two "wonderful sisters and a delightful brother."

Despite her well-deserved fame, Vardalos remains self-deprecating. "Funny people are funny because we don't feel like we fit in," she writes. "The less you soared in high school, the more likely you are to have success in Hollywood."

Needless to say, Vardalos includes autobiographical anecdotes from her show business career. She describes the evolution of My Big Fat Greek Wedding from a one-woman stage show to an international hit movie, thanks to its discovery by Tom Hanks's wife, Rita Wilson. (Hanks and Wilson are now godparents of Ilaria.)

Vardalos believes that she found success in Hollywood "because I was tenacious, obstinate and assertive."

She offers lots of practical advice, much of it typical of the comic scriptwriter she has become. "Don't ask a woman if she is pregnant," she writes, "unless her water breaks on your flip-flops, a baby arm dangles out of her vagina, and she asks you to cut the cord."

Vardalos also listens to her own mother who advised: "Always conduct yourself as if a video camera is on you at all times."

Vardalos writes frankly of the difficult first weeks with her new daughter. "She is bold and fierce. I admire this little creature's courage just walking into her new home. I marvel at her volcano of anger when she realized she doesn't actually know us."

Understandably, Ilaria's adjustment to her new family includes severe sleep deprivation for herself and her parents. Vardalos recounts it all with refreshing candour, making this a valuable parenting book for families of all types.

The book's comprehensive appendix provides practical information on how to adopt a child. The information will prove as helpful for Canadians as for Americans.

Vardalos notes that her movies are "unabashedly affectionate so the people who like them are particularly kind and I genuinely appreciate their good-heartedness."

Vardalos herself is clearly good-hearted, and that trait has enabled her to write this charming and heartwarming gem. Instant Mom deserves to be an instant bestseller.

Brenlee Carrington, a lawyer and mediator, is the Law Society of Manitoba's equity ombudswoman.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 J10

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