Jud and Elizabeth Curry are the parents of 12 children—seven biological and five who were adopted. May Tchao, an independent documentary filmmaker, has been filming the family over the course of six years. The film follows the family’s journey of life and adoption and focuses in particular on their daughter whom they adopted when she was 9 from China. Hayden has Linear Nevus Sebaceous Syndrome (LNSS) which distorts one side of her face and additionally compromises her cognitive abilities. Tchao describes the film, saying, “Hayden & Her Family follows the Curry’s adoption journey to explore the meaning of family, alternative parenting, challenges of special needs adoption, and ambitious altruism. While making a case for the Currys’ humanity, it provokes soul-searching questions on our obligations, if any, as members of the larger family of mankind.” This incredible film has even been described by famous actress, Jamie Lee Curtis, who herself is an adoptive parent, as “Beautiful and harrowing. And filled with love.”
Introducing Hayden & Her Family
Elizabeth and Jud Curry are raising a large family in a suburb of Chicago. Jud is an assistant vice president of instruction at a local college. Elizabeth keeps a blog on the challenges and joys of raising a large family. She describes herself as a mom, just like anyone else.
As a child Elizabeth watched the show, Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? She loved the size of their family, that all of the children were different, and that they all had different needs. Elizabeth knew that she wanted a big family filled with lots of love and laughter too. Jud and Elizabeth had five biological children—Archer, Blaine, Alice, Phoebe, and Duncan—before they started on their adoption journey. Elizabeth remembers being so in love with her newborn baby Duncan, and at the same time, being filled with grief for a child that she didn’t know who needed a mother. Her heart broke for that child out there not being held by a mom. They started researching international adoption and began the process of adopting Minh, a 3-year-old boy from Vietnam. Six months later, they also adopted Kiet from Vietnam because they wanted to have a brother for Minh that looked just like him.
After those adoptions, they found out that they were expecting twin girls, Lena and Gigi. As any mother can attest, Elizabeth was exhausted and overwhelmed and had thoughts that her family might be complete. That’s when she saw the picture of Hayden on an advocacy site—a 5-year-old girl that was abandoned on a train in China; Elizabeth thought, “There’s a child who really needs a family.”
As described above, Hayden has Linear Nevus Sebaceous Syndrome. In Hayden’s adoption description, it said, “Hayden wants a mommy and daddy to love her and sing to her and fix her good food to eat.” Elizabeth knew in an instant that Hayden was meant to be a part of their family. She talked to Jud and the other children about adopting Hayden and everyone was on board. In 2012, the Currys traveled to China to adopt Hayden, making her their 10th child. Adoption starts with trauma and can be difficult for both parent and child. Many children are hesitant to show their true feelings for fear of rejection. As Hayden became more comfortable in her environment and trusted her family, she began to express and show real emotions. She started to play with her brothers and sisters, allowed herself to get angry or cry, and wanted assurance from her parents that they still loved her. It’s heartbreaking to hear, but it is a reality that many parents face: a broken child.
The Curry children interact with each other like any other family. They sit around the kitchen table with big cardboard boxes with dioramas in front of them while Elizabeth homeschools them about underwater creatures. She makes homemade pies for birthdays and bread for dinner. The children help set the table for dinner; you can feel the love that this family has for each other.
Raising these children with special needs also changed Elizabeth’s mind, “I look at people with disabilities so differently now than I did when I had five healthy children.”
At Christmas time, the Curry home is filled with Christmas spirit. Friends and family all stand around the piano, singing and dancing while Elizabeth plays “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” On Christmas morning, the children come down the stairs to see presents and stockings filled. The Currys admit that finances are a concern for them, especially with ten children. “I pay the bills every month, and somehow there is always enough,” says Elizabeth. “God provides, and I don’t see Him stopping anytime soon.” It is through that faith that leads them to adoption and to continue to open their hearts to these abandoned children.
Adoption can be overwhelming, and adopting children with special needs can be even more challenging. Elizabeth and Jud recall feeling unsure of whether they could do it, but they knew that it was worth it to try. They feel there is a misconception that a parent’s love is limited in large families because there is only so much to go around. “My love can’t be used up,” says Elizabeth. Archie, the Curry’s oldest daughter, agrees, “I don’t think there’s a limit on how many siblings I need to have; there is always room for one more.”
When Jud and Elizabeth felt another pull towards an international special needs adoption, they wondered how they would afford it. Then, unexpectedly, Elizabeth received an email that a young girl was being given a $25,000 adoption grant which is the equivalent of winning the lottery in the adoption world. It covers almost every cost of the adoption. The parents spoke to their older children that if something were ever to happen to them, their older children would be responsible for taking care of their younger siblings. The older children see that there is a bigger plan for their family and gave their unequivocal support.
In 2016, Jud and Elizabeth traveled to China to adopt two more girls. Ting Ting has the same diagnosis as Hayden does, and Yu Ting has cerebral palsy. Acting on faith, the Currys moved forward with their plans, and each step along the way, a door opened with this ambitious adoption.
When Ting Ting and Yu Ting arrived in their new home, they were met by their siblings. As the girls walked into their new rooms, they were greeted with signs of “Welcome Home Ting Ting” and “Welcome Home Yu Ting” above their beds. The girls are excited to see gift baskets filled with treats, games, and toys waiting for them on their beds. Hayden is apprehensive about the newcomers and feels territorial about her room.
As the months go by, Ting Ting and Yu Ting begin to acclimate to life with their new siblings. They play together and get on each other’s nerves. Ting Ting has a harder time adjusting to her new life and finds solace from a couple of photo albums that were given to her in China. There are pictures of her friends and people who love her back at home. These people helped raise the money for her adoption and prayed for a family to love her. Elizabeth starts to feel the burden of guilt and inadequacy in living up to these expectations.
Hayden steps into her role as a big sister and is a huge help for Yu Ting and Ting Ting. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s father passed away unexpectedly just before the Currys left for China. After their return, the biggest difficulty for the Currys was to help their own children deal with the grief of losing a grandpa in addition to helping the two new girls adjust. That doesn’t leave a lot of bandwidth for Elizabeth to deal with her own pain and grief. She also misses a bigger support system that she experienced when she was younger; she has felt lonely and isolated as their social circle became smaller. Elizabeth acknowledges that other moms she’s met online feel the same loneliness and lack of social support.
Parenting a child with special needs is hard, and Ting Ting is no exception. Jud observed that Ting Ting could sit and color the same coloring book for hours and needed to be challenged more for her development. He felt Ting Ting had regressed since she joined the family. She became a shell of a child and had a hard time reciprocating love. Elizabeth feels Ting Ting fights her at every turn but also knows that all her hard work is for Ting Ting’s own good.
At bedtime, the children fight to sit closer to Jud when he reads the bedtime stories, and Elizabeth watches on, tired and deflated. Jud and Elizabeth know that without God and the motivation of faith none of this is possible. They feel strongly that God called them to do this work; it’s not a whim or addiction. “At any given moment you can feel that you’ve made a mistake,” Elizabeth says, “You can take this big step of faith, and most of the time, life gets harder, but you hold on to that confirmation that you had that this is what we were meant to do.” Despite the hardship and frustration, one can also witness something amazing—like when a child can finally count to 100! One gets to watch it and be a part of a bigger plan.
On Ting Ting and Yu Ting’s first Halloween in America, the children prepared and got dressed into their Halloween costumes. Hayden dressed as a baseball player, and Yu Ting and Ting Ting dressed as princesses. They had friends over at the house, and everyone gathered to take pictures before they went trick-or-treating.
As everyone prepared for Halloween, Jud had some reflections on the bond between the parent and the adopted child. “The reality of adoption is that you’re committed to that child. You fight for your child and know that you can learn to love a child who may not love you back. Love is not an emotion; it’s an act that forms bonds.” Such a notion is best demonstrated in Jud’s construction of a crown for Ting Ting who rejected it at first and then later accepted it with pride.
Elizabeth said it well that ”The hardest part is we can’t go back and change our children’s past. We can only move forward and accept their pain and love them through it all.”
Jud and Elizabeth are truly remarkable people and so are each of their family members. It was incredible to watch glimpses of their family dynamic captured in such a beautiful way that Tchao has done. The film is an incredible tribute to adoption and family and how beauty and pain can coexist. Adoption is beautiful and wonderful, but it is also filled with trauma and pain. It is not without heartache, setbacks, and struggles. The film shows this and paints a very real, raw picture of adoption—especially international adoption. Nevertheless, even amidst difficulty, Elizabeth and Jud demonstrate that the act of love for a child is deeper and much more multifaceted than just a biological connection.
This is adoption.
This is Hayden and her family’s story.
Hayden & Her Family is being released in fall 2020. Visit Tchao’s website and Facebook page for more information regarding the film’s release dates and showings. This film has a launch event on Thanksgiving weekend of November 27-29, 2020, at this link. A Q&A discussion panel will follow with Tchao and the Currys Sunday, November 29, 2020, at 4 p.m. CST. You must register to participate.
Be sure to register and keep up-to-date on film showings. You don’t want to miss this beautiful adoption story!