Photo by Diane Suth Kolacz; design by Matt Fletcher
For Annie (Manuszak) Johnson ’01, adoption runs in the family.
She and her three siblings were adopted, and her husband, Rick Johnson ’99, has two siblings who were adopted. So when the couple talked about growing their own family, adoption seemed like a natural choice.
They adopted their first son, Brady, in 2007 through an agency in the state of Washington, where they were living at the time. Brady was adopted as a newborn, and by the time he turned one, the Johnsons knew that they wanted him to have a sibling close in age.
“We waited about nine months when we adopted Brady, so it was actually about the same time as a pregnancy,” Johnson says. “With Brady, it was a relatively straightforward process, but the way my other two children joined the family is a lot more complicated.”
Patience Pays Off
The Johnsons put their names back in the waiting pool with the adoption agency, but were still waiting for a birth family to choose them three years later, when Brady turned four. By this point, the family had returned to South Bend for Rick to take a job at the Hesburgh Library on Notre Dame’s campus. Twice, they met birth families who initially chose them to adopt a child, only to change their mind. The emotional turmoil of these situations led the Johnsons to consider fostering children instead.
“Even if we were never able to adopt through the foster care program, the children could take the love and energy and time that we put into the relationship with them, wherever they might go after they stayed at our house,” Johnson says.
Their first foster child, a three-month-old baby, stayed with them for about a month and a half before going to live with family, and the Johnsons still have a friendship with the child and family today. Next, they brought home a four-day-old baby.
“By the time she turned one, we knew Tacy was going to stay forever,” Johnson says of her now seven-year-old daughter.
Tacy came home with the Johnsons in early December of 2011, and a month later, the couple got the call they had been waiting for from the adoption agency: There was a six-month-old baby that needed a home. After years of waiting for another child, their family grew by two in the span of a month.
“Having a newborn and an almost-seven-month-old was sort of like having twins,” Johnson says. “It was just a wild ride—sometimes I look back on the pictures and it’s hard to even remember, because I was so tired and because no one was sleeping."
Grateful for Adoption
As she reflects on her experience of adoption—from her own adoption as a child to the choice she and her husband made to adopt—Johnson says she feels a deep gratitude.
“We feel like we’re the lucky ones to have been chosen by birth families, or to get the lucky call of getting placed with Tacy as our foster daughter,” she says.
The Johnsons have an open adoption setup for both of their sons, which means they can have contact with their birth families. Because their daughter was adopted through the foster care system, she does not have contact with her birth family, and Johnson herself doesn’t have contact with her birth family, because open adoptions weren’t an option when she was adopted in 1979. People often ask Johnson if she feels like she is sharing her children, but she says her own personal experience as an adoptee made open adoption an easy choice.
“I’m thankful for my birth mom for giving me life, but I know that my mom who adopted me was my mom,” she says. “My mom was the person who helped me when I fell down and got hurt, who was there for me every day. I never feel that my role as mom is threatened by the presence of these other women who love them.”
Johnson likens the relationship to having another set of in-laws, and says it can be complicated, like any human relationship. “It’s about learning how to communicate with each other and learning about each other’s values,” she says. “Not only do my sons have medical records and pictures from their birth families, but they can call them if they have questions, or need to know something for a school project. We’re really thankful to have them in our lives.”
Johnson’s role as a mom has also led her down a path of advocacy for children with special needs. After seeing firsthand with her own children how difficult it can be to access the services that help children with special needs thrive, she partnered with the Lotus Preschool & Studio and the Children's Dispensary to start a program in South Bend called Family TREE.
“We brought together different types of therapists and tools for families to use, from basic parenting skills to helping parents troubleshoot behavioral and sensory issues their kids were facing,” she says.
Though the program is no longer funded, Johnson hopes to bring it back someday, and in the meantime, is teaching her children to be proud of what makes them different.
“I would like them to feel comfortable in their own skin,” Johnson says, “and to see that their challenges also have the key to their biggest strengths.”