For Brian Berry-Berlinski and his husband, Michael, life changed almost instantly. The couple, one deaf and one hearing, welcomed three deaf foster children into their home in early 2011.
They had already prepared the kids’ room, complete with a fish tank. After leaving for a moment, they returned to find the kids – ages 3, 5 and 6 – playing catch with the fish.
“The children had no experience with this,” Michael says today. “We had three new children and three dead beta fish.”
These days, those three biological siblings have been adopted by the Berry-Berlinskis. They’re reading at grade level, playing sports, and are integrated into their Northern California neighborhood. The family has grown closely together.
“We focus on the love they came from, and the love that they have now,” Michael says.
Brian (far left, in photo above) and Michael had already experienced rapid change in their lives. Their marriage itself came from an unexpected confluence of events.
Brian, who was working for a nonprofit group called DeafHope, was attending a conference and met Michael’s mother. The two got along famously and kept in touch over the next year.
“We had a big connection through that workshop, and I saw her as a friend,” Brian says.
At one point she told Brian about her son, who lived on the East Coast and had just ended a lengthy relationship.
Thanks to her coaxing, the two made a connection, first over email and then through Skype.
“His being deaf was never an issue,” Michael says.
Within a few months, Michael made the big decision to move across the country to California. The couple moved in together at the end of 2008. They married in 2010.
“It just felt like it was meant to be,” Brian says.
Michael had a big condition in his relationship with Brian, though. In those early weeks and months of Skype calls, he had told Brian, “I will not enter a relationship with someone who is not interested in having children.”
Brian said he loved kids, and the issue was settled.
The question was how the couple would actually start a family. Their original plan was to have one deaf and one hearing child, and to have an open adoption. Even today, Michael can still outline those plans with precision.
“We went through a long process of deciding,” Michael says.
But those plans changed. The costs were high, for one thing. There was also no guarantee they would be matched with a deaf infant.
Finally, the two decided to try adopting from the foster care system. And within a few days of making that decision, thanks in part to the tight-knit deaf community, they were connected with the three children who live with them today.
“It was just all so immediate,” Brian says. “It happened so fast.”
Making it work
The three children, Mario, Juan and Zenaida, took some time to adjust to their new home and parents. And the two dads worked hard to make sure the kids had all the space they needed.
The beginning was very challenging, even though they had already gotten to know and were comfortable with the couple. “It was definitely daddy bootcamp for me,” Brian says.
The kids didn’t have to change schools, which was a plus. And to make the transition smooth, they kept clothes, blankets and even some furniture from their former home.
But over time, all five members of the family found their rhythm. Brian stayed home as the primary caregiver. Everyday activities, like cooking dinner, involved the whole family. And the kids’ familiarity with American Sign Language – they hadn't been exposed to it in the past – flourished.
Despite the fact that the siblings came from (in Michael’s words) “unspeakable backgrounds,” the state made attempts at family reunification. After that didn’t work out, parental rights were terminated, and the Berry-Berlinskis were identified as the ideal candidates to become their adoptive parents.
The three were formally adopted on June 15, 2012, just a couple of days before Father’s Day.
What about the basic mechanics of running a household? How do deaf kids get the attention of a deaf parent?
“It’s more a visual thing,” Brian says. “If they want attention, they will come up and touch us.” Sometimes, they might even turn out the lights in the room.
They can also stomp their feet, sending a vibration throughout the house. There are more and less polite ways to do that, Brian points out. “I know someone’s calling me.”
And at the playground, “they’ll see me calling them with my hands,” Brian says. “They’ll always see me making eye contact.”
For Michael, simple family communication becomes a chance to learn. He’s been working on his ASL skills. “It becomes an opportunity for them to teach me, which is awesome,” he says.
Today, the journey continues for the Berry-Berlinski family. The kids keep in touch with their biological parents and older brother. They attend the California School for the Deaf and keep growing and changing.
“It’s a really, really busy schedule,” Michael says. “The transition isn’t over; it’s always in motion.”