THE PARENTS: Julie Overly, 42, and Nate Overly, 41, of Havertown

THE CHILDREN: Jaxon Nathanael, 3 1/2; Dominic Cole, 10 months, adopted July 9, 2020

HOW THEY TOLD JAXON HE WAS GETTING A SIBLING: They summoned the grandparents, pulled the baby car seat from the closet, and said, “Mommy and Daddy are leaving with this car seat, and tomorrow when we come back, it will have your little brother in it!”

On their first date, they saw stars.

After a round of gallery-hopping with friends in Charlottesville, where they’d met on a city league softball team, Julie and Nate wandered to the observatory at the University of Virginia. Overhead was the bright cluster of stars in Orion’s belt.

That was 2005. Julie says she knew right away. Nate was “funny, but in a kind of quirky way. Also quiet and gentle and observant. After the first softball practice, I called my best friend and said, ‘I just met the man I’m going to marry.’ ”

Nate was slower to catch the flame. But during a weekend trip to Virginia Beach, when they began talking about the future, “It clicked that this was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”

Both had lived abroad after college — Julie taught in an international school in Tel Aviv, while Nate did a year of service in Zambia — and wanted more of that kind of adventure, together.

First, Nate proposed, dropping to one knee outside a Smoothie King, with an embarrassed Julie urging “Just get up!” Half an hour later came the “real” proposal, on the University of Virginia campus where they’d spent their first date.

They planned an outdoor ceremony in a vineyard near Monticello — an archway entwined with roses, chairs set up in perfect rows. But as Julie and her bridesmaids were getting dressed, she watched massive clouds roll in over the mountains.

Guests ran to shove everything under the reception tent. They processed down the middle of the portable dance floor and shivered as they said their vows. “I remember looking at the scene and knowing that the perfect setup was not going to happen,” Julie says. “And knowing none of that even mattered; I just wanted to get out there and marry this guy.”

Two months later, the couple left for Dar es Salaam, a coastal city in Tanzania: Julie would teach and Nate, after a brief stint in the school’s business office, worked on malaria prevention for an economic development agency.

They felt whiplashed by culture shock, then tugged by grief; Julie’s mother became ill and died while the couple was overseas. But during their three years in Tanzania, they also built lasting friendships, including some with couples who were forming transracial and transnational families through adoption.

Julie knew she wanted to be a mom — “There was no question. I’m a teacher. I’d built my life around children” — but Nate wasn’t as sure; he wanted more clarity about his career first. By the time they started trying, Julie was 36.

“I had underestimated … how quickly fertility can decline,” she says. They tried a few intrauterine inseminations and one round of IVF, which produced a single healthy embryo that failed to implant.

“I had to deal with the fact that I would never give birth,” Julie says. “It took another six months of processing and mourning before we decided to pursue adoption.”

A Baby Step Adoption appealed to them because it emphasizes relationship-building between birth parents and adoptive ones, even before the baby is born. But when the phone call came, on a Sunday in January 2017, the message was urgent: “There’s a baby boy here. He needs a home today. Are you ready?”

The Overly family: Nate and Julie with children Jaxon (left) and Dominic.
Cassie Wangsness
The Overly family: Nate and Julie with children Jaxon (left) and Dominic.

In Jaxon’s case, the birth mom, 15 at the time, had chosen a different family, but those parents changed their minds. “We drove downtown and picked him up at the home of that family,” Julie says. “The man handed him to me in a car seat and said, ‘I think this is for the best.’ I said, ‘I think you’re right.’ ”

A week later, Julie and Nate sat in the parking lot of a South Philly diner, waiting to see if Jaxon’s birth mother and grandmother would want to meet with them. Finally the caseworker invited them inside.

Julie sat down. “I don’t know what you believe in — God, the universe, the stars to align,” she remembers telling the baby’s birth relatives. "But I know this little boy was meant to fall into our arms. I just want you to know how much we already love him and would love to build a relationship with you.

“They looked at us. The birth mom said, ‘I think he’ll be very happy with you guys.’ ” Then there were tears, and a pile of paperwork, and an infant in their care.

Jaxon was an easy baby, and though Nate was initially unsure if he wanted a second child, both he and Julie felt strongly that their son needed a sibling who was also Black. They returned to A Baby Step; last December, an email arrived, so much like the initial message about Jaxon that it gave Julie chills: “Biracial baby boy born in PA.”

By 6:30 a.m., Julie had submitted their profile. By midday, they were preparing to drive to Williamsport and meet their son. They brought Dominic home on Jaxon’s third birthday.

Now their family constellation sprawls: they see Jaxon’s birth mother and grandmother every few months and text frequently; they attended his birth mom’s high school graduation and have recently connected with their son’s birth father’s family.

They’ve also grappled with their responsibility as parents at a time of national reckoning on racial justice. “We recognize that there are some things they’re going to experience, growing up, that we can’t protect them from, and some we can’t even relate to,” Julie says. “We know we need to find the resources, and a big part of that will be tapping into their Black family to make sure these guys get what they need.”

Once, they were out with Jaxon’s birth mom and his birth grandmother when a stranger asked, “Who’s the parent of this beautiful boy?” Nate recalls the adults exchanging glances: “Well, we all kind of are.”

“It’s been fun,” Julie says, “to challenge people’s ideas of what a family looks like.”