by John Hoffman
In all the varied public discussion of fatherhood I’ve heard and read about over the years there is one topic I’ve heard very little about. Adoption.
Adoption is a normal human experience. It’s been happening throughout history. We do hear about adoption. But the stories we hear are mostly about international adoptions, or adoptees being reunited with (or looking for) birth parents. We don’t hear much about everyday reality of connecting with and raising an adopted child. And especially, we don’t hear about fathers.
I’ve always wondered what it would like, as a father, to connect with a child who had existed and was cared for by someone outside of your family before you knew him. I can imagine that in some ways it might be similar to bonding with a birth child, but different in other ways. For one thing, adoption might reduce some of the biological head start that mothers usually get in parenting. But the thing I’m most curious about is, what is it like to meet that child for the first time, this child you really want to love, but who wasn’t yours to begin with?
There must be many different answers to that question because the experiences of adoptive families are so diverse. So all I can really do here is give you a little window into that world through the experience of one dad.
Meet Mike, a 48-year-old father of two from Mississauga, Ontario. While I’m sure every adoption story is compelling, I find Mike’s particularly interesting. For one thing, almost overnight, he and his wife Lisa went from having given up on the idea of adoption to welcoming a 10 month-old baby into their home. It’s also interesting that Mike is the one who took the parental leave after the adoption.
“We had always wanted to have two children,” he says. “But after the birth of our son, it wasn’t possible to have another biological child. We registered with the Children’s Aid. They did an extensive home study. We did the classes for adoptive parents and went on a waiting list. But after three years of waiting, and knowing that we were getting older and that very few babies become available, we gave up our dream of adopting. We started selling the baby clothes and gear that we had been saving and began to plan our lives around being a one-child family.”
Then, out of the blue one day last December, Mike gets a call at work from their Children’s Aid worker. A ten-month-old girl unexpectedly needed a home and Mike and Lisa were the top – well, the only – candidates to become her parents. Little Katie* was being fostered by an older woman who had suffered an injury and was no longer in a position to care for a baby. A few days later Mike and Lisa met with Children’s Aid staff to get the baby’s medical report and other background information. A couple of days after that Mike and Lisa found themselves walking into the foster mom’s home to meet Katie for the first time.
Mike describes the scene.
“On one hand I went in there thinking this was pretty much a done deal – that we would adopt her. But on the other hand I was thinking, What are we getting ourselves into? Four days ago we had been planning our life without another child. This was a little bit like going from the shallow end to the deep end really fast. We walked in and Katie was sitting on the living room floor. I saw this little chunky, sort of slobbery baby (She had a cold at the time.). But she was cute and looked happy and healthy. Her foster mom was a textbook kindly grandmother.”
What was it like to hold her for the first time?
“It was different from meeting Jacob. He was born by c-section. I was the first one to hold him because Lisa was out of commission for a few minutes after the birth. It was an overwhelming feeling to finally hold him after preparing for his arrival for so long. Holding Katie for the first time was different. I was a little anxious. I had experience as a father. I knew what to do. But I was also thinking, ‘Wow! Three days ago I wasn’t expecting to be doing this.’ But this is for real.”
Adoptions take place in stages. There were some scheduled visits with the foster mom and meetings with Children’s Aid staff. Then a week after first meeting Katie – on Boxing Day as it happened – Mike and Lisa took her home for an overnight visit.
“She seemed really happy to be at our house. When she saw our dog she squealed with delight and before long she was on the floor with Jacob. He was showing her a robot he got for Christmas. They took to each other immediately. It felt very comfortable. She slept well that night and it all really went well.”
Then on New Year’s Eve, just 16 days after that unexpected phone call, Katie came to her new home for good. Mike had to scramble to arrange to go on parental leave. But overall the adjustment was not as jarring as you might think.
“The parenting instincts kick in. We’d looked after a baby before. We know how to do it. Really, after a few days, it felt like she’d always been with us and it still feels like that.”
Mike and Lisa, who was an adopted child herself, have very definite views about adoption. For one thing they don’t think it’s anything to hide. “There’s no shame in adoption,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a secret. But you also have to be aware that while adoption is a happy story, it’s also always a story about loss. That’s something we have to be aware of.”
One thing Mike and Lisa are doing, perhaps to ease part of Katie’s experience of loss, is to maintain a relationship with the foster mother. “We’ve had her over for dinner a few times. Our son even calls her Nanna Barb*. Katie is always happy to see her. But we’re the ones she comes to for comfort now. We don’t know exactly where the relationship will go, but we’re happy to keep her in the picture for now. Kids need as much love as they can get.”
Too right! I think it’s awesome that people like Mike and Lisa, and so many others, are able to welcome non-biological children into their lives. What lucky kids to find these parents who are ready to care for them and love them. I am also very glad that our society has progressed to the point where families now have the flexibility for either parent to take parental leave or work outside the home according to what the family needs. That’s a good thing for fathers, mothers and kids.
Thank you Mike, for sharing your story and giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to a new adoptive dad.
*Children’s and foster mother’s names changed at the family’s request