Welcome Home, Ayla

Jasmine Buen


Blended and whipped together—this is how Len Santos Ding, a chef by profession, describes her big happy family with director and businessman Dexter Ding.

Building A Family

Len was a single mom of three teenagers—Nikki, Miguel, and Red—before she married Dex in 2010. Two years after tying the knot, they were blessed with another son, Rohan, whom they say grew up like an only child now that the older siblings are grown and away. They also welcomed new family members over the years—son-in-law James and grandson Rokku—making Sundays a little bit crazier and Christmases a whole lot merrier.

Yet somehow, Len knew she still had a child out there whom she just haven’t met yet. She shares, “I wanted to adopt even before we got married. It was really God who planted that seed in my heart.” Over the years of raising up her kids, marrying Dex, and having another son, that seed remained a seed. She often prayed, wondered, and even journaled, “Lord, is she alive by now?”

Dex likewise looked forward to the expansion of their family, although biologically. After five years of waiting for the next baby, the couple considered IVF, although with much hesitation. Because the risks of IVF far outweighed the peace in their hearts, they decided not to push through. More than that, Len knew in her heart that adoption was still the option for her, and so she shared this with Dex.

Adopting Ayla

Finally, in 2017, they pursued the adoption route and began the application. However, their anticipation in this first stage was met with the disappointment of three unsuccessful matching conferences. Len recounts, “There’s still heartache involved when it comes to matching.” Yet they did not let this stop them from going for it. One matching conference and one persistent social worker later, a file that was up for inter-country adoption was found, and they were matched with a two-year-old baby girl.

Sharing the news to the family and the months of preparation that followed were surprisingly easy. The older kids were supportive of the decision, the couple recalls with an apparent appreciation. “We even asked them stupid questions like, “Are you sure? You know that if you get inheritance, she’ll get her own. Assuming that we’ll have money by then!” Dex laughs, “There’s nothing to inherit anyway so that’s okay!”

Even for Rohan, they made sure to introduce this big change intentionally. “I guess part of it was really talking to him. Len was already talking to him, briefing him already, ‘You’re going to be a kuya (big brother).” Talking about it. We had stories prepared.” To their surprise, even relatives and friends were also happy and excited to welcome this new addition to the Dings.

Just before the year ended, the family brought home a new daughter whom they named Amalia Eirene. Prior to this, the only other impressions they had of her were based on a couple of photocopied pictures and one visit to the children’s home. But no other preparation was needed because to them, that was more than enough. Len remembers fondly, “I think the drive from the children’s home to our house, yun na yung adjustment period ko (that was my adjustment period). Then after that, she was my child.”

The whole family agrees. Ayla, as they call her, seems to have always been theirs. “I don’t feel that she’s adopted. I feel that she’s mine the whole time,” Dex shares. Len echoes, “We feel we’ve had her forever but for some reason, we can’t remember how she was born. It feels like that… What was it like before? It’s like amnesia. We couldn’t remember.”

For Len, life without Ayla feels like a distant past. For Dex, it is an unthinkable future.

He repeatedly shared, “I could not imagine a day without her. I could not imagine life without her. I can’t imagine us having no Ayla.”

A Welcome Change

Just like any other family welcoming a new member, certain adjustments had to be made.

Len recounts the first few weeks with Ayla, “I don’t want to sugarcoat: adopting a toddler is quite different from what you would expect if you would adopt a baby. It’s like you’re getting to know each other. We were adjusting to each other’s personalities. A lot of things we didn’t know.” To a mom of four, and now five, this was an entirely new experience for Len. “There are things also that I had to adjust to. Grabe yung sense of abandonment niya (She had a great sense of abandonment). I can’t leave the room. And sometimes I still see it. I realize I can’t be that strict. It’s a different way of disciplining her. I have to know where she’s coming from, where her fears are coming from.” The challenge of getting to know a new child was rewarded by the strong mother-daughter bond that eventually formed.

However, for Dex, it took some effort to win the heart of the new little lady in the family. “Niligawan ko talaga (I really wooed her). Promise. I was intentional… Kasi ayaw talaga (She really didn’t want). Super clingy with mom. Yung friend niya lang si Kuya Rohan (Her only friend was Rohan).”

Indeed, it was Kuya Rohan who became Ayla’s best friend. “It was Rohan actually who first bonded with her. He shared his books, tapos nag-bond na sila (then they bonded).” As parents, it was amazing to see how Rohan transitioned from being somewhat the only child in the home to being a doting, clingy, and even protective brother to his baby sister. Dex says, “Super kuya siya (He’s a super big brother). So that’s a good thing about it.”

Similarly shocking to them was how Ayla was able to form a bond with the older siblings whom she rarely sees. Len says, “For some crazy reason, she even bonded with them. She even understands that they’re siblings. I mean, she sees them every Sunday only. Kuya Miguel, just on video. I don’t know, for some reason they bonded.” Dex also notes how the addition of Ayla changed the dynamics of the siblings, “They’re more nurturing. They’re more ate, more kuya. They’re very critical with us.”

Lessons On Family

When asked what they have come to realize about family now that Ayla is in the picture, the couple smiled as they recollected a few. Len’s instant answer was, “I realize I know nothing! Absolutely nothing!” Having been a single mom, a mom of adults, as well as a mom of a child on the spectrum, parenting this time around is turning to be such an amazement for her. “You think there’s that advantage to having grown kids, but at the same time, you get humbled that this is a completely different experience.” “For each child,” she emphasized. Different as each journey may be, what remains to be the same for all is the love of a mother. “The adoptive child and your biological child—it doesn’t matter. Even I am amazed that I feel the same way for all of them.”

Dex also recounts with gratitude some realizations of his own about adoption. “If you think that you’re the one giving life to this person… you become the recipient of the joy, and you’re the one blessed.” He previously shared that though each experience of his journey as a dad is uniquely its own—stepdad, biological dad, and adoptive dad—they all allow him to discover different aspects of God’s heart as a father. He even shared that God must love him so much to let him experience being a dad in different ways.

True enough, this family is but a true testament to the ability of God to build families in different ways. Dex says, “Me, being the guy coming into their lives, I really appreciate how Len brought them up. [The older kids] made [the younger kids] part [of their lives]. They’re not separated.” Len adds, “There’s no half brother. There’s no adopted sister. It’s really brothers and sisters.”

Once blended and whipped together, it’s impossible to picture this family to be anything but together.




Interviewed by Jasmine Buen

Transcribed by Joshua Cadano

Shot by Tristan Ortega and Seve Carlos

Edited by Jasmine Buen and Miggy Arnonobal

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