Francesca remembers the year in elementary school when all the kids had to tell their birth stories.
Hers was full of blanks.
She always knew that she'd been adopted, from Colombia, when she was 2 months old. She had seen pictures of the orphanage in Bogotá. But she didn't know what time she was born or the names of her birth parents.
"I never went searching. I didn't feel like I was missing anything," she says. "But I always wondered what my birth mother looked like. I wondered if I had any siblings. It's frustrating not to know anything about where you came from. It's an empty part that you can't fill in."
That's why she never thought about forming her own family through adoption. In fact, she didn't consider parenthood seriously until she met Joe - a date at Chickie's & Pete's in South Philadelphia that segued into drinks at a bar in Essington. "I immediately let my guard down, which usually doesn't happen," she says. "There wasn't any awkwardness, no dead silences."
Joe remembers taking note of Francesca's smile, her kindness, and her candor as she told him about her life. "This is it," he thought to himself.
Francesca, who works in real estate and title services, helped engineer their house purchase in 2010. And nearly two years later - after globe-spanning travels that took them to Miami, New Orleans, Italy, and Costa Rica - she was cleaning that house, grubby in sweatpants and an old Eagles shirt, when she turned around and found Joe proffering a ring.
They were married in April 2014. "I never gave [parenthood] much thought," Joe says. "When I'm ready for things, I just know it." By the end of that year, they agreed: It was time. After a series of negative pregnancy tests and consults with a fertility specialist, they decided to up the ante: just one round of IVF.
"I'd see people trying over and over, pumping these drugs and hormones," Francesca says. "I couldn't picture throwing thousands of dollars to fertility when there are so many kids out there like me who need good parents and homes and people who love them."
When the IVF cycle failed, they shifted gears. An international adoption - an infant girl from Colombia, they hoped - would give Francesca and their child a shared origin story, a visceral bond. But the process - consulates, international lawyers, sluggish communication - was so frustrating that, after five months with no progress, they told the agency they were finished.
That's when they learned, through friends, about domestic adoption. They signed up with A Baby Step Adoption last year in early March. Within weeks, Francesca found herself riveted to the profile of a birth mother whose baby was due in April.
Her eyes filled as she read the online report. "She was not a young girl making an impulsive decision; she was a grown woman. She'd waited until the absolute last minute, hoping she would be able to keep her baby. But she couldn't."
Learning the birth mother's story changed Francesca's own narrative. "I'd always assumed that I wasn't wanted, or that I was inconvenient. But reading [the report], I saw that she did the best thing she could imagine, for the baby and for her."
That was mid-March. The following Tuesday, Francesca and Joe learned that the birth mother had chosen them to be her baby's parents. And then, three weeks before her due date, the adoption agency's attorney called. "You're a mother now. Your baby was born this morning. You have a son."
Through tears, Francesca texted Joe at work. "It's a boy!" she wrote. Her husband called back: Oh, did she have an ultrasound? No, Francesca said. She gave birth.
It wasn't easy to schedule a last-minute flight to Phoenix on Easter weekend. They flew out Tuesday morning and checked into an extended-stay hotel. Francesca remembers fumbling to see the baby's face and record the moment on video at the same time. Joe remembers seeing dark hair, blue eyes, and fragile, perfect features. The baby began to cry, and Francesca reached for him. She began to sing "You Are My Sunshine." His wailing stopped.
Joe had worried about spending two weeks in a strange place with a newborn. "But it was great - just the three of us in such close quarters, really bonding." They bought a stroller and took Nicholas on walks in a nearby park. They sat under an umbrella at the pool, and ate in the diner across the street. They cuddled in the hotel bed.
Nicholas slept all the way home. And parenting him was easy, Francesca says. He's a calm, smiley baby who slept through the night at eight weeks - though now that he has mastered rolling over, diaper changing has become a chase of a moving target.
What's harder, she says, is managing the world around him. Already, Nicholas mirrors her emotions - he cried nonstop on a day when Francesca was feeling distraught about her mother's health - and she wants to protect him from conflict or sorrow.
"The most difficult moments for me are when people say things like, 'Even though he's not yours, he looks like you.' I try to be polite and say, 'He is ours.' "
Francesca and Joe have a photograph of their son's birth parents and his older sister. When he asks, they will tell him everything they know.
"I'm going to say that his birth parents learned about all these different families, and out of all of them, they chose us. I can say they were going through a really tough time in their lives, and they didn't think bringing a brand-new baby into it was the most stable thing.