THE PARENTS: Rebecca Howell, 38, and Dave Howell, 45, of Norristown.
THE CHILD: Saoirse Rose, 5 months, adopted Oct. 21, 2020.
HER NAME: Saoirse means “freedom,” and nods to Rebecca’s mother’s Irish heritage. “Rose” is Rebecca’s maiden name.
He said, “What do you think about kids?”
She said, “That’s a loaded question.”
But it was one they needed to discuss before Rebecca uprooted herself from family, friends, and her hometown of Rockford, Ill., and moved nearly 900 miles east to be with Dave.
“I can’t have kids,” she told him, explaining something she’d suspected even as a teenager — ”a gut feeling” — and had confirmed by fertility specialists in her 20s. Those doctors diagnosed endometriosis and advised that a pregnancy, if it were even possible, would be extremely high-risk.
Dave had always wanted to be a father. But his reaction was unequivocal: “If we can’t have kids biologically, then we have to find another way. I didn’t want to have a child enough that I was willing to risk her health for it. And if it ends up that we don’t have children, that’s what it is, as long as I have her.”
They’d been friends for nine years, ever since Dave was hired as a graduate assistant in the athletics department at Rockford University, where Rebecca worked in the admissions office.
When Dave left Rockford for a job at Cabrini University, the two texted constantly: “Hi, it’s halftime and I’m thinking of you.” They spent a few weekends together — both recall an official “first date” at the pop-up beer garden on Penn’s Landing, the one with the giant chess set and the hammocks — before Rebecca relocated in 2015.
They’d already talked about marriage as well as children. “For me to make the move cross-country, leaving everything behind, there had to be a future,” Rebecca says. In December 2016, Dave told Rebecca’s parents that he was mailing a gift directly to their house. He didn’t mention that the package contained an engagement ring.
While with Rebecca’s family on Christmas Eve, Dave ran over the speech in his head: “I wanted to talk about how great it was for them to treat me as a son and brother, and that I wanted to make us one big family.”
He got as far as, “I want to …” before dissolving in tears.
They were married in the Dominican Republic, at a resort in Punta Cana, a year and a half later. While the wedding itself was memorable — a private garden, a reception so lively that hotel guests began dancing on their balconies — the two also treasure a rainy day before their family and friends arrived, when they sat at the bar, in view of the beach, and talked for hours.
Before the wedding, they’d begun exploring the adoption process and had signed with A Baby Step Adoption. “Dave and I are a biracial couple; it was very important that whatever agency we used was supportive of that, and supportive of gay families, different types of families,” Rebecca says.
What followed was the home study and a pile of paperwork — financial documents, criminal background checks, work history, even the veterinarian records for Rebecca’s cat, Gunther — along with anxieties about how they would pay the $30,000-$40,000 needed for a private adoption.
Those worries were soon eclipsed by hope when they were matched with a birth mother who was due in March 2019. They were poised to go to the hospital when a text message from their caseworker indicated that the mother had decided to parent.
Two months later, they were matched again — they anticipated picking up the baby on their wedding anniversary, and had bought a pile of boy clothes — only to learn that the birth mom had changed her mind.
Then, it happened a third time. The birth mother lived in Dallas and was due in November; their caseworker felt confident it would be a good match. Rebecca and Dave were planning to fly down the week before Thanksgiving, but the woman stopped responding to the agency’s missives.
“That was probably the darkest and hardest time,” Rebecca says. “Honestly, when that ended, I was so mad at the world. I said, ‘That’s it. We’re done.’ I didn’t think I could do it again.”
For several months, even talking about adoption was off the table. Instead, Rebecca began planning a long-dreamed-of European trip: Maybe they could visit her relatives in Ireland, then stop in Iceland, Paris, and Zurich. But Dave — typically the voice of calm in their relationship — pointed out that their home study remained valid through November 2020. “Let’s see this through,” he said.
In May, the couple received a $7,500 grant from HelpUsAdopt.org — ”an absolute game-changer,” Rebecca says. In June, they got a call from A Baby Step about a birth mother in Florida whose baby was due via C-section on July 15. A different adoptive family had initially matched but then backed out.
Rebecca and Dave wrote a letter to the birth mother: “We understand that this is a tough decision, but we will do everything we can to be the best parents to your daughter. We are thankful to you and your courage.”
Three weeks later, they were beetling down I-95 — a trip that laced excitement with anxiety about COVID-19 — and making plans to meet the birth mother and her boyfriend for dinner.
“It’s a very weird situation,” Dave recalls. “We were concerned about making her comfortable so she would know she’d made the right decision.” They gave the birth mother an Irish trinity knot necklace, the same symbol Rebecca and her sister wear to honor their mother’s ancestry.
A week later, their long, circuitous journey to parenthood finally ended: 100-degree heat, a South Florida hospital, a social worker emerging with a 5-pound, 13-ounce infant swaddled in a diaper and two receiving blankets.
“As adoptive parents, you go from one minute, it’s the two of you, to the next minute, it’s three people,” Dave says. “Suddenly, someone handed us a newborn and said, ‘Here you go. Go live.’ And that’s what we did.”