THE PARENTS: Nicole Molinari, 34, and Angel Molinari, 26, of Williamstown, N.J.
THE KIDS: Shawn Anthony, 7; Lily Anna, 6; Aziyah Grace, 4; "Baby JJ," 14 months
FORMED A FAMILY: July 28, 2017
STAND-OUT MEMORY OF THEIR WEDDING: Amid the navy-and-white color scheme, the candles and mirrors and framed engagement pictures, were all the people who kept saying, "You look so happy!"
Nicole was the kid who, at boisterous extended-family functions, always wanted to hold the baby. She imagined becoming a foster parent someday, or perhaps adopting.
Angel was the kid shuttled from place to place: her mother's house, a foster home, her older sister's apartment. She fantasized about an "American dream" kind of nuclear family: the white picket fence, the house, the kids.
By the time the two met online in the spring of 2016, Nicole was already fulfilling her vision of parenthood. She made a profile on PlentyofFish at the insistence of friends, and in spite of her own grave doubts.
"I said, 'Who is going to want to date someone with four children?' I'd come to the conclusion and accepted the fact that I was going to raise my kids by myself," she recalls.
It wasn't exactly the plan that she'd become a single parent of children aged 6, 4, 2, and 18 months — the older three were foster children whom she'd later adopted, and the youngest a boy likely to be reunified with his birth family.
But once she'd said yes to Shawn, a tiny, alert, 6-day-old baby who came a few days after Nicole's 27th birthday, it was hard to say no when case workers from New Jersey's Division of Child Protection and Permanency called with that desperate sound in their voices: Could she take a 9-month-old girl whose parents, struggling with mental illness and drug addiction, had been living with the baby in a shed? What about a 3-month-old, daughter of a very young mom, who'd been abandoned at the hospital?
Sometimes, as with Shawn, biological parents voluntarily surrendered their parental rights, and adoptions moved smoothly and swiftly; Nicole became the legal parent when Shawn was just seven months old. But other times — with Lily, the 9-month-old with wispy blond hair and a habit of staring people down, and with Aziyah, a chubby-cheeked infant with a raspy giggle — the cases hitched slowly through the system.
"That was emotionally draining: one minute, you're preparing for them to be reunified; the next minute, the case would be moved to the adoption unit." Other foster children had come and gone from Nicole's home over the years, but that didn't make the limbo any easier.
"I attach to every single one of them. If you're not upset when a baby leaves, then you're not doing it right," she says.
By the time her friends nudged Nicole to try online dating, her days spilled over with Shawn, Lily, Aziyah, and her foster son. "I wake up, get them all ready to go to school and day-care. I go to work [as a teacher's aide]. Then it's homework and dinner and bath and cleanup and 'don't touch that' and 'don't hit her.' Where in there am I going to fit a phone conversation, getting to know somebody?"
But after her second date with Angel — they wandered through the Chinese Lantern Festival in Franklin Square, then walked to the Gayborhood, had dinner at El Vez and talked for hours — Nicole told her best friend, "She's the one."
Angel, a social worker who'd been living in North Jersey, was initially intrigued by Nicole's candid online profile. "Most people have super-short bios, but Nicole had this long bio, all about her life. She talked about being a parent right away, about being a foster parent. That attracted me: Oh, someone who knows the system."
There were lengthy phone calls, then weekend visits; Angel moved in after the two had been together for four months. That summer, just after Nicole's foster son had gone back to his biological mother, the women became engaged while on a trip to Riviera Maya. Angel screamed "YES!" before she'd even seen the ring.
But home life wasn't easy. Angel had left family, friends, and autonomy; Nicole was accustomed to making parenting decisions on her own. They were so different: Angel's toiletries colonized the bathroom counter, while Nicole's personal-care items consisted of a brush and a Chapstick.
They clashed over discipline and limits, comforters, and curtains. But the worst argument came the day Nicole said yes to another baby — a short-term placement, the case worker had promised — without telling Angel. "Baby JJ," as the couple calls him, was a 9-day-old preemie whose head fit in the palm of Nicole's hand. "How do you not fall head over heels for that?"
Angel didn't. "That was a very rough time," she recalls. "I could not be tired at my new job. I was sleeping in the living room. I refused to get up with JJ to get a bottle at night."
But gradually, the infant seized her heart, too. At a friend's baby shower, Angel suddenly found herself guarding the child against all the people who wanted to hold him. "That was the first click: JJ is not this disaster. He's my child, and I want to protect him."
The women married in late July, near a lake in Deptford. Nicole wore a tailored suit, Angel a mermaid-style dress with a froth of tulle. Lily and Aziyah scattered flowers; Shawn and JJ carried the rings.
For Angel, the wedding brought a sense of permanency that was missing from her childhood. Parenting, she has come to realize, is a work in progress. "I had this idea that, as a parent, you're the one who tells everybody what to do and makes sure they have matching socks and do their homework every night.
"But it's much more than that. You learn along the way. Your kids teach you."
That education means fielding tricky questions: "What's my birth mom's name? Whose belly was I in? Will JJ live with us forever?"