It’s clear, not long into Nia Vardalos’ book Instant Mom, that the actress and screenwriter was born to do at least one thing very well: be funny. In an incident she describes in the book, during college, she worked at a florist shop and suggested to her co-worker that they attach a tape recorder underneath the floral arrangement that would be placed atop some poor soul’s casket. About 10 minutes into the funeral service, the tape recorder would produce a knocking sound that the audience would assume was coming from inside the casket. Once, during her 10th visit to a fertility doctor, tired of the fake sound of rushing water meant to soothe patients (which she calls “purgatory’s bogus waterfall”), Vardalos takes a stick of incense burning at the office and flings it onto the tape deck emitting the sound in the hope that the incense would burn the tape deck. Instead, the incense falls and burns a hole in her shirt.
Anyone who’s seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which Vardalos wrote and starred in, knows that she’s funny. But if comedy is what she naturally does well, what she really wanted to do was something that seemed entirely out of her reach: become a mom. After 12 attempts at in vitro fertilization, Vardalos hangs it up and looks for other options after her best friend wisely tells her that “giving birth is not what makes you a mom.” What Vardalos calls her “poke in the eyeball” from Mother Nature eventually becomes for her and her husband, Ian, an opportunity, since their infertility leads them to become parents to an almost 3-year-old girl, a product of the foster-care system whose birthparents’ relationship didn’t last beyond the birth of their child. “Mischevious and forceful,” “tough,” “determined,” the girl that Vardalos and her husband name Ilaria is the gift they had been searching for. Instant Mom is the story of Vardalos’ struggle to find Ilaria amid the confusing bureaucracy of the adoption process. Funny, revealing, heartfelt and written with a telling eye for detail, Instant Mom is a joy to read, even though it begins with a funny passage by a neurotic Vardalos explaining her anxiety about writing a book. I asked her why she wanted to disclose such personal aspects of her life by writing the book.
One of the ideas that comes up in this book is that writing a book isn’t actually the most natural thing for you to do, which I think even seasoned writers feel sometimes. How did the idea to write a book about your experiences come about?
As the National Adoption Day spokesperson, I would find myself in a social situation, a backyard spring party at an industry event, for example, and someone would invariably ask me about how to adopt. You know those people who are first diagnosed with lupus and they can’t stop talking about it? I was constantly talking about adoption, and I realized it had overtaken my writing time and my mothering time because I’m so passionate about it. I felt that I had this incredible responsibility…like a shoe sale—you’ve got to tell your girlfriends about it. I text them within eight minutes about that stuff! So that’s how I felt about adoption. When Katie Couric was at CBS News, she interviewed me, and I told her that I was trying to find a way to get information out about adopting, and she said, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’ and I said, ‘Because I don’t know how.’ When you’re on a talk show, it’s very strange to answer a question, because I was worried I’d be in the middle of something and then a Lean Cuisines commercial would be on, and I’d have laid myself bare. So this book is me controlling the control-freak part of myself.
You refer to your “personality glitch” in the book, but that glitch is what eventually got you Ilaria, since your glitch is really your determination. Do you still think of it as a glitch or a positive personality trait?
I still think that sometimes I’m a little too tenacious for my own good. The balance is what I’m always searching for. Right after I finished Instant Mom, I went into writing a script for Paramount, and I should have taken a break, regrown some brain cells. I work really hard. It’s not coal mining; that’s working hard. I‘m really diligent. I keep getting rehired. I like to get things done. Ian and Ilaria are so laid-back, and they can spend a whole day watching cartoons. I lay in bed and my legs start twitching.
You write about the adoption process as being a “seemingly endless path of sadness without good news.” But you had access to people like Rosie O’Donnell to help—what do you think the process is like for people who don’t have that kind of access?
That’s exactly why I wrote the book. When you’re trying to find this information, you don’t know the difference between social worker and foster agency. It’s so confusing. Yes, I had access to Rosie O’Donnell, but what actually worked for me was finding a foster social agency. It’s free in every state. The ordinary path is the one that worked for me. That’s where my tenacity paid off.
You got Ilaria hours after the match was made, and you write that you felt helpless, but any new adopting parent would probably feel a little helpless, right?
Yeah, I was going to try to sugarcoat it and encourage people to adopt kids by telling the sweet stories, but I decided, ‘Nope, I have to do it warts and all.’ It was so hard, and this kid was so angry, and I think it’s OK to tell those stories. Since then, I’ve met so many moms and dads who’ve told me about what they went through. What I went through is what any new mother would go through. When we went to Ilaria’s school, they had this cocktail party for new parents. It’s a club: it’s not an adoptive moms’ club, it’s not a biological moms’ club, it’s just a club you’re in where your heart walks around outside your body now, as they say.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.