Most men find out they're going to be fathers when a little plastic stick turns blue. While the mood swings and crazy demands that often accompany the pregnancies of their partners may give them the vaguest sense of the responsibility and adventure to come, realization often doesn't strike until they first hold their little wriggling, blanket-swathed miracles in their arms and recognize that they've been thrust into an irrevocable new job with absolutely no sense of what to do next.
My journey to paternity has followed a different path; after struggling with fertility and even the question of whether we wanted to be parents at all, my wife and I decided that our family would expand through adoption. That was well over a year and a half ago, and since then, we've been through extensive training and invasive interview and traumatic phone calls. We've logged a few thousand miles in the car, had our hopes both raised and dashed and experienced a thorough exploration of every single point on the emotional spectrum. Was it worth it? Listening to my new son laughing when my wife chases him up the stairs after he's stolen her slippers should be evidence enough.
Fatherhood was never really on my radar. My father died when I was 11, and strong, positive and consistent male role models were largely absent from the years that followed. Like President Obama, I've had to rely on dreams of my father, the images growing cloudier as the years slip away. And it doesn't feel that long since the days of the smoke-filled dance clubs (back when you could still smoke in them), when I'd share crude opinions on the hotness of the assorted females with no greater aspirations for myself than a night of physical fun with a nameless partner. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning incredulous that I even managed to get married -- how in the hell did I suddenly become somebody's father? Yet there he is, playing on his laptop and asking if he can watch Star Wars again. Every time he calls me "Dad," I have to stop myself from turning to see if he's talking to the guy behind me. Even after a mere three weeks together, I'm humming the lyrics to Harry Chapin's melancholy anthem about fathers and sons and wondering if we're losing out on oh-so precious time.
My son was one of the thousands of older children living in foster care waiting for a forever family, because a large swath of parents looking to adopt insist on babies. They want to give their child his or her name, witness the first steps and first words and other milestones they can photograph and post for their Facebook friends. However, if you don't have the financial resources to look privately or overseas, or you're unable to take on a baby with a lot of special needs (and heaps of praise are due to those who do), you'll likely see retirement checks before you find an infant in the public system. And as the years go by and so many of these kids linger on in foster care, it's almost as though they pass their "use-by" date. Couples start to think that if no one has adopted them by now, there must be something seriously wrong with them. But there isn't. Of course, there will be emotional trauma that needs to be addressed with patience and love for some, and perhaps even a few minor medical issues, but for the most part, these are kids like our son -- a good boy who's had a rough start to his life and just wants a mom and dad to love him. And not to diminish the hard work of the many giving foster parents out there, but according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 40% of kids in foster care don't graduate high school, and only 3% of them go on to any kind of post-secondary education. These boys and girls need more than parents; they need relentless, even to the point of being obnoxious at times, bullhorn-wielding advocates who will scrape and claw for every precious inch of progress. They need a family who will never give up on them, no matter how rocky the road gets.
Is that me?
There's an exchange between Peter Facinelli and Kevin Spacey in The Big Kahuna that comes to mind. Facinelli's character, a junior salesman about to experience his first convention, says that it's time to throw him in the water to see if I can swim. Spacey retorts that no, we're actually going to throw you off a cliff to see if you can fly. Adopting an older child, a little person with his own name and with a personality already shaped and molded by total strangers, is kind of like the instant coffee of fatherhood: It's immediate and occasionally might not taste that great. You do have to grieve the loss of a lot of those firsts, including the loss of the not-unsubtle desire to pass on one's genes and traits, the loss of ever seeing what that indelible combination of you and your spouse would have looked like. During initial weekend visits as the new family adjusts to each other before final placement, it feels at times like you're just babysitting someone else's problem, resulting in massive feelings of guilt when you feel relieved after he's picked up on Sunday evening. And you have to try and "deprogram" a bit of the stuff that you likely would not have encouraged had you been raising him from birth, and replace it with hobbies and habits that you know will help him grow (i.e., perhaps we can cut back a little on the 10 hours of video games per Saturday and replace it with at least one hour of reading -- no, doesn't have to be Hemingway or Dostoevsky just yet -- and put away the Nerf gun before we accidentally shoot the cat?) But at the same time, there are still lots of firsts to look forward to. First birthday and Christmas together. First date. First time driving the car. First overnight away from us. Figuring out how to have "The Talk." Graduation day. Heading off to college. Watching him grow from this shy, awkward kid into the amazing, confident man you know he has the potential to be, terrified all the while that you're just making things worse. I suppose there is a term for all of that: Being a parent.
I didn't have my father to guide me through my teenage years, so I have no point of reference on which to base how I'm going to do it with my son. My father was long-gone before I could talk to him about my huge crush on the beautiful blonde in the other Grade 6 class, or the boundless depth of my everlasting 13-year-old love for the 18-year-old brunette who used to drive me to band practice, and my utter cowardice in being able to verbalize those feelings to their subjects. I want my son to be able to seize the moment and not be caught up in his feelings. I want him to be able to avoid some of the mistakes I made, and yet instinctively, I know he has to be free to make them and learn from his failure. Put simply, I want to be the example I never had, and as I sit here typing this, I'm increasingly doubtful of my ability to do it. I've had a lot of friends and colleagues tell me how touched they are about our adoption of our son, and how lucky our son is to have us. Yet, I still feel like a bumbling idiot who's doing everything wrong. Chapin's words haunt me in my sleep. I can't figure out my own life most days. Do I really want him to grow up to be just like me?
Perhaps the best advice is to draw from the Buddha (or Winnie the Pooh) and to just be. To let the good times roll with the bad and to take each day as it comes without ruminating endlessly on the shape of the overall to the point that it distracts from the little moments that truly matter. Without letting the perfect become the enemy of the necessary. For better or worse, I'm this kid's father now. He is part of the legacy that I will leave behind long after everyone's forgotten about little 'ole me -- a legacy that includes my father as well. I may not be passing on my genes, but I can pass on my values, my beliefs, the things I consider important to cherish in our ever-so-brief walk across this world. The same stuff I got from my dad in the times we were able to share.
Maybe one day, my son will sit down and write a blog post (or whatever the new equivalent is by the time he's ready for it) about what he thinks about becoming a father himself, and maybe he'll praise or damn the example set by his old man. Maybe he'll understand some of what I'm feeling right now. Maybe he'll finally understand why I don't want him signing up for that online game that requires a valid credit card number. Maybe the stern looks and the lectures and the occasionally too-obvious frustration on my face will finally make sense. Maybe he'll think it was silly that I worried so much. Sure hope so.
Harry Chapin tells us that the lives of a father and son are cyclical, repeating themselves in familiar patterns as each succeeding generation emulates the precedent it was shown. What better advice is there, then, than to work even harder to be a better me? I told my son last night that if he looks after himself, he has a chance to see the dawn of the 22nd Century. (Wonder if there will be phasers?) The greatest gift I can give him is to do my best to ensure that he will watch sunrise on January 1, 2101 with a big smile on his face, secure in the knowledge that it was, indeed, all worth it in the end. That's what this strange concept of "fatherhood" has come to mean to me, even after just a few weeks. In the meantime, I know when I'll be coming home, son, and we'll get together then. You know we'll have a good time then.
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