Sue Malenius didn't set out to be a single mother.
And yet she became one intentionally, adopting one little girl after another (after another) from China. She believes mothering the girls is in God's plan for her. Everything she has done up until she took them in prepared her for being their parent, their guide.
One Friday, she guides them to a McDonald's near their Champaign home, where the littlest girl, Kendra, 5, bounces up and down, her face giddy at the thought of its indoor playground.
With their sandaled feet, matching double ponytails and bright, curious eyes, they are often presumed to be biological sisters.
A difficult question: Certainly, they're sisters, sharing a room and supporting each other, even in the little things, like when oldest girl Kamryn, 10, takes Kendra to the bathroom. In fact, they could even be related by blood. It's possible.
But they were adopted separately.
Sue, who is 44, had long finished her University of Illinois education degree and was working at KinderCare Learning Center in Champaign, where she's now the director. She's always loved working with children. In church she helps with children's activities. At work, she makes sure about 120 little ones play and learn constructively.
So when a friend of hers was adopting from China, it seemed like a great idea – but also an expensive one, with maybe $20,000 in costs.
Still, the urge to parent a child was a strong one. Sue applied for a loan. "They called me back and said I didn't qualify."
Sue prayed. A few minutes later, someone from the bank called back, telling Sue the bank would give her that loan after all.
God delivered, Sue said. It was meant to be. That delivery came in the form of Kamryn. When Sue picked her up at 10 months, the little girl went right to her. Mom.
Kamryn's artsy, a quality Sue said she gets from her, and loves sports, a quality she doesn't.
Then came Kaylie, now 8.
Her middle name, Eden, is for Sue's dad, Ed. He died, yet Sue sees so many of the things she saw in her father in her middle daughter, including his knobby knees.
About two years ago, Sue adopted Kendra. Unlike the older two, Kendra didn't immediately attach herself to Sue. She was wild, rough. She rarely smiled, which made her cleft lip more pronounced.
But now she's 5, and all smiles. People ask Sue if Kendra has had another operation because her lip looks so much better. Kendra hasn't had an operation on the cleft since leaving China, though she'll get one this year.
In the meantime, the little concavity doesn't keep her from eating a fry or participating in the family's frequent spa nights, when they all paint their nails and fix each other's hair and be generally girly girls.
The girl party may get bigger, too. Sue is working to adopt again.
She's also open to having kids the biological way. "I mean, I'm still looking for my husband. Who knows what will happen?" she said.
Sure, the adoptions are expensive.
"Finances can be a worry," she says, but God has always provided. "I really am taking a leap of faith."
With all her years working with young children, Sue said single motherhood hasn't thrown her. For her, parenting is about setting expectations for the girls, giving them love but not giving in to tantrums. Her girls are fun-loving but polite. They like reading and watching kids' movies. They like bright nail polish and a sip of their mom's iced coffee. They leave the house only when they're clean and dressed neatly.
"We lay out clothes the night before," Sue says. "I'm not overwhelmed."
When their mother tells them to do something – including leaving the playground they've been monkeying around on – they do so, without question.
With motherhood, she's let her house slip from perfection. "You have to really pick your priorities, and one of my priorities is spending time with my kids."
Though she hasn't seen a movie for adults in years ("Armageddon" is the last one she remembers, and that was released in 1998), Sue doesn't seem to mind. Her life is about these kids. She goes with them, they go with her – "pretty much, we travel as a pack."