THE PARENTS: Carly Hester, 32, and Bethany Hester, 33, of Marlton
THE CHILD: Shay Alyssa, 2, adopted April 17, 2020
CARLY’S COUNTERPROPOSAL: A month after Bethany proffered the ring, Carly commissioned a comic book artist to design a giant page featuring characters who looked like the couple; the final panel showed Carly on one knee with a speech bubble: “Will you marry me?”
A caseworker brought the brothers to their doorstep — ages 5 and 9, with empty backpacks and forlorn faces — and suddenly, Carly and Bethany were parents.
“We were so excited, so nervous. We’d never been parents before. [The kids] were broken and sad and scared,” Carly says. The brothers remained in their home for six months; eventually, they reunited with their birth mother.
The fostering experience changed the women’s views of each other; both figured Bethany would be the strict mom and Carly the fun one, but in reality, the roles were reversed.
It also shifted their perspective on foster care, adoption, and the complicated village of adults required to raise a child. “Going into foster care, you hear so many scary stories and sad stories about birth families,” Bethany says. “But the boys’ mom took hold of our hearts. She turned her life around and made some really good choices. We’re still involved in her life and in the boys’ life.”
Both women always leaned toward fostering and adoption as ways to build a family: Carly, orphaned by the age of 12, was raised by her aunt and uncle, and Bethany, along with her sister, talked about wanting to be “a safe place for kids.”
That commitment was just one of their shared values — a discovery made soon after they met, in 2014, outside Carly’s South Philadelphia apartment. Carly was dating someone at the time, and Bethany was a guest at that girlfriend’s birthday party.
“I met Carly and the next day, I told her girlfriend, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be with this girl, and I don’t think you guys are going to work out.’ ” Carly felt the same way: One glance at Bethany, and she thought, “Oh, no. She is … everything. I’m in trouble.”
Both had been raised in conservative religious communities and struggled to make peace with being both Christian and queer. Initially, Bethany’s parents weren’t thrilled about the relationship, so Bethany frequently spent time at Carly’s place. “First it was for the night. Then, the weekend. Then it became … forever,” Carly says.
In the weeks leading up to Carly’s birthday in December 2016, Bethany dropped clues; the last was new luggage with plane tickets to Costa Rica zipped into the pocket. In the garden of their bungalow, at the base of a volcano, Bethany pulled out a ring — the Neil Lane design she knew Carly coveted — and proposed.
They left Costa Rica with matching tattoos — “pura vida”, a common local expression meaning, “be present; enjoy your life” — and a plan to marry the following March. Bethany’s brother, ordained for the occasion, led a small ceremony in a Marlton park; Bethany wore leggings and Vans under her dress while Carly had a veil and Michael Kors heels.
“Just seeing each other for the first time, that’s what sticks out in my mind,” Bethany says.
They signed up for foster care classes, knowing the process of certification could take a year; at the same time, they chose a sperm bank and a donor. Bethany became pregnant, but lost the baby at eight weeks. They spent Thanksgiving Day in tears.
“I am naturally the emotional one; Bethany is the rock,” Carly says. “So having to do a role reversal taught us a lot about our marriage. It showed us we could both be there for each other.”
Once the boys came, they let go of the idea of pregnancy. By summer 2018, just a month after the brothers showed up, they got another call: a 5-day-old baby who arrived on what would have been Bethany’s due date. Caseworkers assured them the placement would be temporary because numerous relatives were interested in adopting the infant.
But as months ticked by, those possibilities fell through. Another family was fostering the baby’s half-brother. Should the siblings be raised together? Should they stay with the couples who had bonded with them? Finally, at a hearing on Halloween of last year, Shay’s birth mother relinquished her rights specifically to Bethany and Carly.
By then, they had two more children — a boy they plan to adopt, born in December 2018 with drugs in his system, and a teenager, now 17, who arrived in April 2019. On her first night, at the dinner table, the teen looked at the couple and asked, “What are your rules?”
They had only parented young children. “Um, we’re going to have to get back to you on that,” Bethany said. The next months were spent setting those boundaries — social media limits, dating guidelines — and having them tested. They are not planning to adopt the teen, but told her from the beginning, “You are part of this family whether you have our last name or not.”
Now, the younger two idolize her, calling “Sissy!” a dozen times a day. The five love to watch movies together — Frozen is a current favorite — with both toddlers on laps and their teen sister sprawled on the other couch.
Their date to finalize Shay’s adoption was supposed to be March 20. On March 19, Burlington County courts closed due to COVID-19. So, a month later, they held the procedure via Zoom, with 60 friends and relatives viewing from their own screens, all dressed in T-shirts made for the occasion: “Love Makes a Family,” they read, along with #Hesterfortherester.
“The judge was on the screen, and the lawyers, and the caseworkers,” Carly says. “All in their living rooms. My sister jokes that we had a home birth. It felt genuine and raw. Our dog was barking. Shay had a couple of meltdowns. We got to say her adopted name and agree to be her moms forever.”