Cole Westhoff finds the center aisle of the tiestall barn a good place to hone his tricycle skills. PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Cole Westhoff finds the center aisle of the tiestall barn a good place to hone his tricycle skills.
GUTTENBERG, Iowa - Christmas for Nick and Jessie Westhoff will be extra-special this year. The Clayton County farm couple has completed its adoptions and will have the whole brood snug at home, gathered around the tree and wearing the Westhoff name.
Last Christmas made its own batch of memories for Nick and Jessie. Their trio of daughters - Rashell, 6, Anna, 4, and Lilly, 3 - was formally and officially part of the family. Since then, Cole, a 20-month-old boy, has entered the Westhoffs' lives.
Jessie and Nick learned several years ago that they could not have children on their own. Nevertheless, Jessie, 31, and Nick, 30, longed to be called Mom and Dad.
So, they looked into adoption, first through a private agency. That did not work out, because of Nick's battle with brain cancer.
"They don't want to place children in homes where they might lose a family member," Jessie said.
Nick's cancer surgery is five years in the rear-view mirror. His checkups continue, but all is going well.
After being initially turned down as adoptive parents, Jessie and Nick, though discouraged, decided to try another avenue: foster parenting. They attended a three-hour class every week for 10 weeks.
The goal of the classes was teaching parenting techniques and how to cope.
"Just basically how to handle children that have been through a lot," Jessie said.
After the Westhoffs earned their foster care license, they waited to be called upon to actually be foster parents. Guttenberg, in northeastern Iowa, is a rather small community, so their telephone did not ring off the hook with foster parent proposals, Jessie said.
But, in time, Nick and Jessie did care for a couple boys for a week, as a respite for their real foster parents. And, a teenage girl became their foster daughter for a while.
Nick and Jessie wanted to adopt her, to start filling the empty spot in their hearts, but it was not to be.
"She just kind of decided that farm life wasn't for her," Jessie said.
Although their dream of building a family that included children's laughter and bedtime stories met its share of roadblocks, 2014 brought renewed hope and four children.
Rashell, Anna and Lilly began living with Nick and Jessie on weekends. Then, two days after Christmas, they officially became the Westhoffs' foster children. Nearly a year later, in August 2015, their adoptions became final.
Meanwhile, Cole came to the Westhoff farm, first as a 5-month-old foster child, in July 2015. A year later, his adoption was finalized.
"We're very grateful that we got all our kids," Jessie said. "All of them are biological siblings, which is nice. We could keep the family together."
Today, it's virtually impossible to tell the quartet of Westhoff kids are adopted. Instead, they fit in with their mom and dad the way countless children on countless farms do.
While Cole and Lilly help their parents much of each day, the older girls attend kindergarten and preschool at St. Mary's Immaculate Conception. Lilly will join Rashell and Anna on the bus ride to school next year.
Besides Nick and Jessie, relatives have pitched in to help make the four youngsters feel like and become part of the family. Nick's parents, Gary and Barb Westhoff, live across the road, while Jessie's parents, Tony and Mona Adams, live 10 minutes away. Jessie's sisters and Nick's brothers round out the crew that's available and happy to baby-sit or lend a hand around the 130-acre, 78-cow farm.
Nick and Jessie have included the children's biological grandparents and great-grandparents in the circle of family.
"We think it's important they keep those relationships," Jessie said.
Now for the obvious question: How have things gone for Nick, Jessie and their new family?
"The kids have adjusted really well," Jessie said. "It seems like so long ago, but I remember working with them on calling us Mom and Dad. When they first came here, we were Nick and Jessie."
The four little Westhoffs have also taken to the rural lifestyle like cows to clover.
"The kids really like the animals," Jessie said. "It's almost like they were supposed to live on a farm."
Most of the children have a few, simple chores.
"[The girls] scrape poop every night. If they make bad choices, they have to push up a little feed," Jessie said.
Cole, although only knee high to a barn scraper, also likes to join in the manure-moving fun.
"He will grab a scraper and scrape poop," Jessie said. "If you take the scraper away, he gets upset. Or if he's just standing around, doing nothing, he'll grab a scraper and go to work."
The children also try their hands at milking.
"We let them help us strip the cows out and help us wipe," Jessie said.
Come milking time, especially in the evening, the barn is the center of activity. Nick and Jessie have cows and chores to tend to. The kids stay busy by helping out as best they can, or by visiting the toy pen that's past the rows of Holsteins.
Nick said he suspects they have at least one future farmer among the youngsters.
"It'd be cool if one of them wants to come back to the farm," Nick said. "But that's completely up to them."
Along the way to that happening, he and Jessica plan to savor all the growing-up events their children will go through: 4-H and FFA activities, showing calves and cows, learning to ride bikes, then driving, dating, and - most likely - marriage. Before they know it, Nick and Jessie will be grandparents.
For now, though, they are content to enjoy their finally finished family at Christmas.
"We both wanted to have children," Nick said. "We're glad to be able to get them and help them out and give them a better life than what they had."
"[Being a mom] feels pretty good, but stressful. When they're upset, they always want their mother, which is nice. It makes you feel special," Jessie said.
Nick and Jessie hope 2017 will be quiet and uneventful, compared to 2015 and 2016. The red tape of trying to adopt four children is finally unraveled.
"It was an emotional day when we adopted the girls," Jessie said. "When we adopted Cole, it was just pure joy. Our family was complete. We could celebrate."