Whether you know her or not, Heather Avis is someone you should pay attention to and we'll tell you why. We were delighted to have an hour of her time to learn more about her family, their adoption story, and the advice she offers to families considering adoption.
In celebration of World Down Syndrome Day (today!), we want to introduce you to Heather.
Heather and her husband Josh are the adoptive parents of three beautiful children - Macyn, Truly, and August. Heather struggled with infertility, and she and Josh decided to go down the path of adoption. Macyn and August both have Down syndrome, which Heather and Josh have embraced as a precious gift. Heather did not set out to adopt children with special needs, but now they couldn't imagine not having the family they have today.
It struck her that "There's a baby that needs a family and we are a family that needs a baby" and that was all it took to change their minds.
Heather described the time that their daughter's birth family asked if they could throw their daughter Macyn a birthday party. Heather and Josh were apprehensive but agreed. They arrived to the park overwhelmed by all 19 family members who showed up and celebrated all day long.
"We just sat there and watched this family love on this child who they feel very much connected to because it is their child. It is their granddaughter. It is their cousin. It is their niece. It is their daughter. We recognized that something really special is happening that we got to be a part of."
One might wonder if she feels threatened by this as a mom. But she explains how at the end of the day, it's more love for Macyn. This doesn't threaten her motherhood.
"We left there like, oh my gosh, birth families are incredible! What a gift that we get to have one and to have access to one. And we were just so crazy thinking that this was going to be a scary, awful thing."
Heather discussed the significant loss involved for all of her children's birth parents. In the book, she detailed her son's birth mother leaving the hospital empty-handed — a devastating experience to witness. When it comes to adoption, it can be easy to let the goodness overshadow the difficulty and messiness. So when she talks with prospective adoptive families, Heather is adamant about recognizing how adoption always starts with loss for everyone involved.
When Heather and Josh were considering adoption for their family, they got to sit across the dinner table with others who have adopted and were able to ask those hard questions. The tables have turned, and now they get to be that family for others. So we asked her what advice they give to prospective adoptive couples. Here's what she had to say:
1. "You've got to know you. You've got to know who you are. You've got to know what your capacity is. Understanding like who and what kind of a child you could or couldn't bring into your home. But then I tell everyone to hold that with open hands and take one step closer to discomfort than you wanted to - just one little step."
2. "In regards to birth families, I talk to first-time adoptive parents about this all the time because a lot of people shared my same sentiment of it's just way too terrifying the thought of having a relationship with the birth parent.
I think the greatest, most powerful thing we can do in changing the narrative [of adoption] is being in relationships with people who are living that reality. If you don't know anyone who is a birth mother, then I would encourage you to get in those circles somehow. Because once we sit in a circle with people, there's no longer an us versus them... all the sudden your heart starts to break with theirs and your eyes open to their reality and it just totally shifts the narrative. There's no longer an us versus them, it's just us and we're trying to figure it out as best we can."
All three children are adopted, which means they have three different sets of birth families - each unique and different and complicated. Heather admits that navigating all of that is really tricky these days, especially when one child's adoption is very open and the other is very closed.
In addition to writing and speaking about adoption, Heather is especially passionate about Down syndrome and changing that narrative, also fraught with old stigmas and stereotypes. She described her dream to us:
One day there's a woman who receives an in utero diagnosis that her child has Down syndrome. She's at her OB/GYN's office and she walks out into the waiting room where all the moms are sitting.
The woman comes out and says, "Oh my gosh, guess what? I get to have a kid with Down syndrome!" And they respond with "You're so lucky. It's the only one in 800. What a gift!"
We loved Heather's candor and honesty. We asked why she wrote the book and here's what she had to say:
"I've been handed the story that I get to live out, and it's nothing that I ever would have chosen for myself initially, and it a million times better than I ever could have imagined it would be."