There's a sign about 10 spaces away from the door of the grocery store: "This spot reserved for new mothers." I joke with my young sons that I'm going to park there and quickly run in. I'm a gay dad, raising adopted biological siblings. I am single and work full-time. And sometimes I wonder, "Where's my parking spot?"
I don't really want a spot at the grocery store, and I am confident that it would be mine alone, because I live in a small Maine town and would be surprised if there were any other dads like me living here. And, I should add, I am happy that new moms have a parking space, even if it is far from the door. For me the sign is more an indicator that my story couldn't fit on one, thankfully. It's also a reminder that I need to be more public about my route to building a modern family. This blog post is a step in that direction.
Technically, I have been a foster parent for the last six years, but I don't refer to myself using that term. For older Mainers, foster children were once known as "state kids," in the care of the state because they and their biological families were too poor, too broken, and/or too criminal to remain together. Children were rarely adopted out of foster care and often moved from one placement to another at the first sign of trouble. Small-town whispering suggested that foster parents cared for children only for the stipend. So rather than imply a long-term, nurturing relationship, the terms "foster care," "foster child," and "foster parent" suggested a broken biological family, an irreparably damaged child, and a contractually obligated guardian.
The residual effects of this are now presented to me: "Do the boys know their real parents?" "What's their deal? Drugs?" "Are they real brothers?" "How much do you get paid?" "How old were they when you got them?" "Will you adopt them?" And always it ends with, "Those boys are so lucky!" At first I offered that the story was the boys' to tell. Over time, and as I've become involved with organizations like the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, I have come to understand our narrative could change the way that others think about adoption. It's an opportunity to rethink the sign. Maybe: "This spot reserved for interesting families."
"We're looking for good homes for great kids in tough situations," the caseworker announced at the foster and adoption licensing course, often called "The Parenting Class." But beyond that, she couldn't tell us one other thing about the children we would come to parent. On the day that my foster-care/adoptive license arrived, I received a call: Three biological siblings, ages 2, 3 and 6, had just come into care. They only spoke Vietnamese. Would I consider raising them? These calls would become known among friends as "baby fire drills," because I would have an hour to decide whether I had the capacity to raise the child or children being offered. One Sunday, the call came about a 9-month-old girl. My friend Suzanne and I were like contestants on a game show, filling two Target carts with baby supplies. By the time we unloaded at home, the caseworker called to tell me that the girl's grandparents would raise her. I reminded myself that this was not about me. This was about finding good homes for great kids in tough situations.
Roughly five calls later, the caseworker told me, "There's a 6-year-old boy we'd like you to meet." On that day I became a father, a mama-bear-protecting-her-cub father. Now, as a "Parenting Class" panelist, I begin by saying, "Everyone will ask what you're doing for yourself after you become a parent. Here is your answer: 'Not one thing.'" To counter earlier instability, my sons' lives are repetitive and predictable: Wake up. Breakfast. School. Home. Dinner. Bath. Bedtime. Repeat. Family and friends offered to watch the boys, but most if not all pre-adoptive children have had structure evaporate without notice. So I built a good home for two great kids. And a mama bear does not leave her cubs.
There are purposely very few surprises in our lives. Surprises in most forms can trigger fight-or-flight mode. A caseworker once called and said he needed to see James.* Flustered, I told him that he could quickly stop by after-school care, the worst possible decision. Both James and Andrew panicked when he showed up. For pre-adoptive children, caseworkers are very much the enemy. When they arrive, families are separated. That afternoon taught me that no one could know my boys or advocate for them like I could.
I have therefore assembled an A-team of parenting advisors: a no-bullshit therapist who described my sons as strong and resilient; a third grade teacher who pulled Andrew out of school support services because he needed structured time with peers; an after-school babysitter who kept the boys outside; and my parents, who raised five kids on a potato farm. This is my "Parenting Class." I need them because of a cultural tendency to categorize adopted children's behaviors as rooted in trauma. All children act out, and frankly, my boys have more right to do so than most. But sometimes it's not acting out. One night Andrew peed in his closet. I heard him get out of bed, take three steps, heard the telltale sound. His caseworker speculated about sexual abuse. His therapist calmed me down: "Many kids, when overtired, wet the bed, pee in a plant. Let's not sound the alarm just yet." She was right. In six years, that has been the only incident.
Friends with biological children report their kids' antics without concern: A first grader delivered her boxed underwear to a classmate; another unknowingly hummed all through school. "They'll grow out of it," the parents say. For adopted children, these would be warning signs rather than bumps on the developmental road. A child therapist gave me a book on post-traumatic stress disorder. I fired her. The next therapist taught me to see my boys as strong and creative, as survivors. She told me to teach them to swim, to ski, to ride a horse. The former told me to prepare for the worst, and the latter told me to prepare for the best. And not once did I consider calling the caseworker to find a new placement for my sons, because I am not a placement. I am their father.
On his first overnight stay at our house, Andrew, then 6, climbed into bed without a fuss. As I turned out the light, I thought, "He is the bravest person I will ever meet." I then loaded the dishwasher, recognizing that the bravest person needed me to be boring and predictable. This is the central tenet of our family story: My boys are brave and resilient, contradictions to the popular narrative about adopted children, especially those adopted when older. When people say, "Those boys are so lucky!" I'm quick to counter that I am the lucky one, to be entrusted with their care as they become strong swimmers and great skiers, average students, polite and a bit mischievous. Maybe that's my sign at the grocery store, a succinct description of a single gay man who adopted older biological siblings: "Lucky-dad parking." This National Adoption Month, I hope many more people are inspired to become lucky dads and lucky moms.
The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA) is proud to be a part of National Adoption Month, an effort to raise awareness of the more than 100,000 children in foster care waiting for permanent, loving families. To learn more about DTFA, follow them on Twitter @DTFA and visit davethomasfoundation.org.
*The boy's names have been changed for this blog post.