Melanie Dale describes herself as a geek on a God-ride, a minivan mama, and total weirdo who stinks at small talk. But she is also a successful author and blogger, passionate adoption and orphan care advocate, and “momlationship” expert – all the result of one big “didn’t-see-it-coming.” It takes a lot of humor and laughter to cope with life’s unexpected twists, something which Melanie has had plenty of practice with — and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Peachtree City resident Melanie Dale was born in Hopkinsville, Ky., to parents Daryl and Darby Rickard. The family moved to the Cleveland, Ohio area, where the couple put down roots and raised their family. Melanie describes her parents as amazingly supportive. Her father, a veterinarian, worked outside of the home, while her mother was the stay-at-home parent/superhero who cared for Melanie and her brother. According to Melanie, her mother Darby could, quite literally, “do it all.” She was room mom, always had baked goodies ready for the kids after school, made dinners from scratch every night, and washed and folded all their clothes. And, like many moms, Darby was underappreciated by her kids. Back then, anyway.
Melanie says she grew up wanting to be a writer and majored in Theatre at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. While at Denison, she met Alex Dale, an English Writing and Speech Communication major, who shared her love of swing dancing and the movie “Fletch.”
Alex recalls seeing Melanie in a one-woman/five-character play she wrote, directed, costumed, and starred in during college called “Bridal Shower.” “It’s the first place I ever saw Melanie’s writing on display, and the first time I realized her gift for humor and storytelling,” he says.
As Melanie and Alex’s relationship progressed, they discussed marriage and family. Memories of all her mother’s unappreciated sacrifices, coupled with her unconditional love, came rushing back. Convinced that she couldn’t possibly live up to her mother’s example, she told him that motherhood was not for her, and it almost ended their relationship right then and there. Instead, they decided to table the issue and let the relationship take its course.
Melanie married Alex Dale in 2000 in Cleveland, and soon began having second thoughts about not wanting to be a mother. She decided that maybe those tough first few years of sacrifices might be worth it after all – that even if she wasn’t as good of a mother as her mother was, maybe she could be good enough.
Then she discovered that the thing she now wanted most might be out of reach.
Every month, she waited to hear whether she was pregnant and was met with disappointment. The couple underwent all kinds of testing until Melanie was diagnosed with endometriosis and underwent laparoscopic surgery to treat it. When that didn’t produce results, they did four rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI) with superovulation. When that didn’t work, they moved on to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Four years into their journey to parenthood, they got the news they had been praying for. Melanie was pregnant.
Melanie’s pregnancy was far from routine. At 32 weeks, doctors discovered the baby had intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). Melanie developed preeclampsia and was put on bedrest. They hoped to delay the baby’s delivery for as long as possible, but her blood pressure kept climbing. Four-pound Elliott was born at 34 weeks. He spent 10 days in the NICU. (Melanie says she and Alex called his incubator a “womb with a view.”)
Tired of the gray skies and snow in Ohio, Melanie’s parents had moved to Peachtree City following an opportunity for her father to join the staff at Braelinn Animal Hospital.
“Alex and I had been living in Alexandria, Va., and every time we visited Mom and Dad, we didn’t want to leave! We thought, what a great place to raise a family,” says Melanie.
Because her husband worked from home (Alex is principal and creative director at Cistern Media), they were able to make their dream of moving to Peachtree City a reality in 2007 when baby Elliott was just two months old.
Melanie found that she loved being a mommy — so much that she wanted another child. Enter more needles, and even more disappointment. Finally, Melanie felt her body tell her, “You’re done.” She says she went through months of counseling to feel whole again. What she ultimately discovered was that while her body was “done,” her heart was not. She credits God for gluing her back together again and helping her discover something completely unexpected – a passion, not a fallback, but a passion – for adoption. She remembers the day she told husband Alex about her epiphany.
“We were in the golf cart on the way to Ted’s [Montana Grill],” she says. “I just came out with it and he was totally on board. No hesitation whatsoever.”
As the Dales began their quest to adopt a child from Ethiopia, they learned about the worldwide orphan crisis and got involved with Children’s HopeChest, a charity founded in 1994 in response to the devastating need of orphans in Russia following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Children’s HopeChest uses a holistic approach, helping meet medical, physical, educational, emotional, and spiritual needs of orphaned children and youth. Since its inception, Children’s HopeChest has expanded its work to nine countries in four continents, including Uganda, a country that Melanie holds near and dear to her heart. Through Children’s HopeChest, Melanie served as a sponsorship coordinator for a village in Northern Uganda, where approximately 300 orphaned and vulnerable children were living in a government camp.
Melanie started blogging about the ups and downs of the adoption process, which then grew into something bigger —finding sponsors for the orphans in the village she was helping in Northern Uganda and helping them develop sustainability. She’s excited that after six years, the community is being transformed. Where they used to be dependent on handouts, now they’re thriving, developing income generating projects, pursuing higher education, and becoming leaders. She continues her mission work at her website, www.unexpected.org.
After two years of working and waiting to bring their daughter home from Ethiopia, Melanie and Alex welcomed two-year-old Evie into their family in 2011. Elliott was excited to have a sister. According to Melanie, Elliott even held Evie’s hand on the way home from the airport. During the two-year adoption process, Melanie and Alex had spent time teaching and preparing Elliott to be a brother.
“I bought this awesome puzzle of Africa,” Melanie recalls. “How many American four-year-olds know all the countries in Africa?”
There still was an adjustment period, as one might expect. The kids had to learn how to be siblings. “It’s hard for kids to get along with siblings, even when they grow up together from birth,” says Melanie. “For my kids, they’ve skipped some stages together, and so we’re all learning how to be a family.”
Another unexpected twist happened during the summer of 2013, when the Dales hosted nine-year-old Latvian Ana through Project 143, an orphan hosting program; host families invite a child to live in their home and experience their family for four to eight weeks over the summer or winter holidays. Project 143 has a special emphasis on hosting older children, children with special needs, and sibling sets, as these kids are often the most forgotten or overlooked. While adoption is often a natural by-product of Project 143, it is not required, as the focus of the program is cultural exchange and exposing the children to life outside an orphanage, something they may never experience before they cycle out of the system as they enter adulthood.
As it turned out, Ana was the perfect fit for the Dales. They found out that she needed a family and began working on her adoption. Melanie describes Ana as the family’s “official Cruise Director.” As soon as Ana arrived on the scene, she got to work making up fun things to do, whether it was organizing a bake sale to raise money for the kids in Uganda, coming up with fun crafts to do with the other kids, or emceeing a family dance party.
After Ana returned to Latvia, the court there told her that the family she’d stayed with wanted to adopt her and asked her how she felt about it. She said, “I want to live with them forever!” “It just felt right,” says Melanie. Ana came back, this time for good, in December of 2013. “We are basically a family of five firstborns all shoved together,” says Melanie. “We are loud and bossy and we all want to do things our way. We have big feelings about everything. But we just keep gathering around the dinner table and learning how to take turns talking and learning how to love each other well.”
Meanwhile, as Melanie’s blog continued to grow, she registered to attend the 2013 Allume Conference, a gathering place for women of faith where they learn blogging techniques and social media skills and basically connect, encourage, and grow with each other. While at Allume, Melanie participated in an open-mic night, which led to an unexpected opportunity to get her work published. A few months later, she signed a two-book deal with Zondervan.
Her first book, Women Are Scary: The Totally Awkward Adventure of Finding Mom Friends, was released by Zondervan on March 24, 2015, making Melanie the foremost expert on what she has coined “momlationships.” Women Are Scary was the result of a popular blog post on her website called “Dating for Moms.” The book is a must-have for all new mommies or for anyone who has ever felt they like didn’t quite fit the mold of their neighborhood playgroup. Melanie uses honesty and humor to guide moms around the bases of momlationships. (Yes, just like the other kind of dating, there are bases.)
Melanie believes that mothers are better together, that mothering is just too darn hard alone, and that by banding together we can make each other better people. Women Are Scary is a guide to finding each other and learning how to uplift each other instead of tear each other down. Uplifting women is what Melanie is all about.
Fabiola Lopez met Melanie at her church small group. “We both had preschoolers at the time and were desperate for adult conversation. I am proud to call her my friend, not only because we laugh hard and, at times, cry hard together through the ups and downs of life, but we can cheer each other on as we champion God’s purpose for our lives.”
Friend and fellow blogger Chantel Adams says of Melanie, “We built our families and took vacations and wrote books and started businesses and fought with our husbands and cried over our kids, and if there’s anyone in this world who has made my life better and made me better at life, it’s her.”
Melanie continues to spend her days blogging about adoption, orphan care, and momlationships from her basement when she isn’t driving her kids around in the family minivan. She also travels nationwide, speaking at churches and conferences. Her next book, It’s Not Fair: Learning to Love the Life You Didn’t Choose, will be released by Zondervan on August 16, 2016.
Husband Alex is not surprised by Melanie’s success as a blogger and published author. “Melanie loves stories,” he says. “She has a pile of books under our bed and devours them with a pen in her hand. So I always expected that she would turn writing into a career. She has a powerful and unique voice that can have you laughing and crying in the same sentence.”
While Melanie’s parents say they aren’t surprised by what their daughter has accomplished, she now has them embracing the unexpected along with her.
When life brings the unexpected, what if instead of freaking out, turning away, or running away, we steer into the surprise? That is Melanie’s challenge to us all. This family she so lovingly stitched together like a beautiful patchwork quilt was the result of embracing the unexpected. Her life is now richer and fuller than she ever could have imagined. She didn’t see any of it coming, but she loves it all so much.