All in the Family
A touching story of an unlikely family all together under one roof.
Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project
Four-month-old Jacqueline Mugar coos as she reclines in her birth mother’s arms and guzzles formula. Jacquie’s adoptive mother, Melissa Mugar, sits on the living room floor and glances at Jacquie’s pudgy arms and legs and grins. “Jacenta (Jacquie’s birth mother) gave me motherhood,” she says, adding, “I feel like Jacquie has two sets of parents and I don’t feel possessive as in ‘this is our baby.’ This is a collective effort.”
Melissa and Robert have an “open adoption,” in which birth and adoptive parents exchange emails, pictures and letters once a month and are required to visit with the child annually. Melissa, 29, a psychology major at Argosy University in Orange, CA, wasn’t fazed by the thought of transforming her little family to incorporate Jacquie’s birth relatives. In fact, she and Robert, 30, who works at the family’s successful business, Anaheim Jewelry and Coin, went a step further.
Last month, they welcomed Jacenta, 33, and birth father Richie, into their Yorba Linda, CA, townhome. They will stay indefinitely. It was a lifeline for the African-American couple (and Jacenta’s four children from a previous relationship, aged nine to 17) because they’d been evicted from their home near Detroit, MI, just 24 hours earlier.
“The second I found out things were going wrong, my stomach turned,” Melissa says. “It wasn’t even a question of doing something.” Robert’s father donated his air miles for six one-way tickets, and the family flew to the West Coast.
Open adoptions have steadily increased since the 1980s when agencies began to broker agreements. Child psychologists say open adoptions help a child’s self esteem without confusing their sense of identity. Open adoptions aren’t actually about co-parenting, but about increased contact and helping children work through any problems that may arise. According to a 2012 survey of 100 agencies by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, some 55 percent of infant adoptions are fully open.
Melissa wanted an open adoption because of her father’s personal experiences with a closed one. Ric Housel knows little about his birth parents: They were visiting California from East Germany when he was born in California in 1959; they later settled in Las Vegas, NV, where they ran a furniture business; they had other children. “Even after all these years, it stings,” he says.
“He always felt abandoned,” Melissa says slowly. “I’ve seen firsthand the negative consequences on him. I wanted to make sure I could give Jacquie answers on where she came from.“
Books, studies and articles on open adoptions convinced Robert and Melissa that staying connected to Jacenta was the way to go. “As a mother, my number-one priority is my child and it always will be,” says Melissa. “This is good for Jacquie.”
That explains her reaction after reading an email from Jacenta. She didn’t say the family had hit a rough patch; only that they were relocating. “I didn’t expect her to help,” Jacenta says, adding that she said she'd be in touch when they had a new address. Melissa, who was on-campus between classes, phoned Jacenta and determined the situation was grim: They were jobless, about to become homeless and would most likely relocate to a housing project in Detroit.
“The more details I was hearing I was just crying in my car,” Melissa says. “Here I am sitting in my Mercedes Benz and feeling like a piece of crap. I couldn’t live with myself knowing my daughter’s family is going to be out in the street.” She sent Robert a text message. They had to act quickly.
Initially, the couple considered sending money so Richie and Jacenta could rent a home. But low-income housing was $900 a month. “We realized that if we gave them rent money, in six months, they’d be in the same position. We’re not millionaires,” Melissa says. “We’d only be buying them time.”
A cousin suggested GoFundMe.com, a crowd-sourcing platform. The idea was to raise money to purchase a house in a Detroit neighborhood selected by Jacenta and Richie. Their desires were modest. They looked at foreclosed homes costing up to $10,000 listed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Melissa and Robert reached out to family, friends and colleagues in person, email, on the phone and via social media to raise money and help the couple find work. In 19 days they raised $4490. The Mugars helped Jacenta and Richie update their resumes. But finding a house and jobs takes time.
In the past, Jacenta worked with a temp agency that secured jobs for her as a professional cleaning lady at offices throughout Detroit. While pregnant, Jacenta developed preeclampsia and high blood pressure; doctors prescribed bed-rest. That condition, combined with repeated visits to doctors to manage a daughter’s epilepsy, resulted in a lot of time off. The temp agency let her go. “I like working,” Jacenta says firmly. “I can’t wait to get back.”
No job, no home and no prospects meant one thing to Melissa and Robert: invite them to their Orange County home. Ironically, Melissa and Robert moved into their brand-new, three-bedroom townhome in a pretty, palm-tree-lined subdivision on June 1st. Not all of their furniture has been delivered and they are still unpacking.
Robert grew up in a big Italian-Armenian family; he’s one of six siblings including a foster child. “I thrive in chaos and lots of commotion. I don’t need much quiet space,” he says. “And so this situation [with Jacenta and Richie], it’s almost comforting.” Melissa adds, “When we first brought Jacquie home we made a point of turning on the radio and making sure she’d fall asleep in noise.”
The eldest of three, Melissa is chatty and warm. She has empathy and insight into how others struggle and suffer. She’s patient when strangers in the grocery store ask, “Whose baby is that?” and patient even when they wonder aloud what country in Africa the girl came from. “I say, ‘The country of Detroit’,” Melissa laughs.
By contrast, Jacenta is quiet and guarded, likely because she’s a stranger in a stranger’s house and is overwhelmed by circumstance. “It’s weird. People don’t do this where I come from,” she says. “This [seeing Jacquie] is more than I could ever have dreamed of.” It’s clear that both women have Jacquie’s best interests at heart. They just have different paths of getting there.
Jacenta, who asked that her last name not be published, selected Melissa and Robert after seeing many photos and reading many profiles provided by the Utah-based adoption agency. She was impressed by the description of their courtship. It was funny and genuine and made her laugh. “I wanted someone family-oriented to look after my baby.”
After signing the relinquishment papers at the hospital, Jacenta says she never expected to see Jacquie again, even though Melissa insisted the families Skype and text. At this, Jacenta’s eyes brim with tears and she takes several deep breaths to compose herself. She’s remembering the day last February when she gave up her newborn. The reality is she couldn’t afford to bring up another child. She wanted Jacquie to have a good education and to live in safety. “The street, it’s rough in Michigan,” she says. “People do all kinds of things. They’re hungry. I’m grateful she’s not going to have to worry about that.” She pauses and looks down at the robust baby in her lap. Almost an hour has elapsed and Jacquie has fallen asleep in Jacenta’s arms. “I want her to be healthy and loved,” she says. “Live well. That’s it.”
I ask Jacenta what Jacquie will call her. “Jo?” she says tentatively. “Mama Jo,” asserts Melissa.
Amber Nasrulla writes for Reader's Digest Canada, ELLE Canada, The Globe and Mail, Parents Canada & Orange Coast, among others. Her short fiction has been published in the South Asian anthologies Desilicious and Bolo! Bolo!