THE PARENTS: Nykia Diaz, 30, and Erika Cruz, 26, of Northeast Philadelphia
THE KIDS: Katie Marie, 13, and Evan Felix, 10, adopted February 13, 2019; Zeralyn, 5
THEIR THOUGHTS ABOUT MARRIAGE: “We feel like we had to rush for so long, we just want to take some time to relax once the adoption is over,” Nykia says. “We did things in a different order.”
The timing was all wrong.
Nykia’s house was for sale. She was starting a new job as a coordinator for Tricare, a health insurance company for people in the military. She and Erika, together for just under a year, were going through a rocky stretch. And there was already a child in the mix — Erika’s 3-year-old daughter, Zeralyn, the child of a previous relationship.
Nykia had just tidied the house for a showing and was about to dash out to do errands when her mother called: her chiropractor’s sister, who lived in Philadelphia, was at risk of losing custody of her children, and the Department of Human Services was having a hard time finding a foster placement where the siblings could be together. Could Nykia help?
Nykia had become a certified foster parent the previous year in order to care for a teenage cousin who was skipping school and using drugs; the boy later went to live in a group home. She felt hesitant about assuming responsibility, even temporarily, for two children she’d never even met.
“I said, ‘Mom, I don’t know these kids.’ ” The siblings, a 10-year-old girl and her 7-year-old brother, had already cycled through several foster families and the home of a neighbor. On the day in June when they arrived at Nykia’s door, they wore winter coats over their school uniforms and had holes in their shoes.
“I got them with a bag of Tastykakes, toothbrushes, underwear, and a can of beans,” Nykia recalls. Both children were diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, they badly needed dental care, and Katie had a severe case of head lice.
“When she walked in the first time, she said, ‘Can this please be the last house we go into?’ ” Nykia says.
After three months, the relatives who were thinking of taking the children backed out — they already had three kids of their own — and asked Nykia whether she would consider adopting them.
“This wasn’t what we had planned,” she says. “This was permanent; this was life-changing. But we had already built a relationship. I wasn’t going to put them back in the system.”
Erika, who had been wary of getting too attached to children who would ultimately leave, said she was fully on board. “When I saw that their [biological] family wanted no part of them, I knew we had to step up,” she says. They would adopt together. They would be a family of five.
The women met in 2015; both were part of a workout group in which participants shared their stories, about health, about weight loss, about personal struggles, at the end of each session. One day after Erika spoke, Nykia walked up and said, “This is a little weird, but do you mind if I give you a hug?”
The two began running together in Pennypack Park or on the Lincoln High School track. Both had recently ended relationships; Nykia was with a man for nine years, and Erika had ended a seven-year relationship with a woman. Zeralyn, her daughter, was the result of a short-lived dalliance during that breakup.
“When I first found out I was pregnant, I was so scared,” she recalls. “Having an abortion actually crossed my mind … but it’s just not in me.” She describes an easy pregnancy and a delivery in which the waiting was the hardest part. Though she was induced at Einstein Medical Center, labor felt only like “really bad cramps,” and two pushes were sufficient to bring Zeralyn into the world.
Once she and Nykia were a couple, the three would go on outings: hot-air balloon festivals, carnivals in the mountains, get-togethers with Nykia’s family. “I never thought I was going to end up adopting two other kids,” Erika says.
It took months to find a new groove. Evan, so quiet and emotionally closed at the start, slowly began to reach out for affection. Katie, who had doted on her brother, setting out his clothes and putting toothpaste on his toothbrush, gradually allowed the grown-ups to do the parenting. Both kids embraced Zeralyn as a baby sister.
Initially, Nykia says, Katie and Evan were reluctant to talk about their feelings and wary to tell friends they were being adopted. “Trying to tell them, ‘It’s OK to be upset, it’s OK to miss your mom,’ was so hard,” she says. “I can’t heal their wounds. They’ve experienced things I will never know. The hardest part is trying to comfort them.”
It helps that Nykia was raised by two women, her mother and step-mom, who have been together for 23 years. At home, Erika says, “we talk a lot about love. We talk a lot about communication and that they should not judge people for their sexuality or their color.”
The family was featured recently in an ad campaign, #fosteringphilly, to recruit families for the 5,000 Philadelphia children in need of foster care.
There are days that make both women shake their heads in disbelief: Erika, who vowed in middle school that she would never have kids, and Nykia, who vaulted in just over a year from being single and childless to partnered and the mother of three.
“Things happen when you least expect it,” she says. “Things change.” Now, a quiet house feels strange. What’s typical is someone screaming, “Mommy!,” or the two younger kids hunkered under the dining room table, waiting for Nykia to sleuth them out, or a spontaneous just-before-bedtime battle with the Nerf guns Evan got for his birthday.