I’ve been trying to remember the first moment I became a father. My wife and I adopted a sibling group of two when parenthood first landed on us: a 4 year old girl and her 2 year old brother. There was no delivery room for us. Given that ours was a domestic adoption, and it was local, there was no grand travel adventure. It was a process, marked by a clandestine first observational encounter, then multiple pre-placement visits. So when was the exact moment? I don’t really know.
There are snapshots I recall: sitting in an adjacent booth at a fast food joint while their then-caregivers brought them to play and have a snack. We weren’t to talk or interact, because in the late ‘90s the idea was to observe children live and in person before fully committing, and these siblings weren’t to know it was happening. My strongest memory of the day was of a red-haired little girl wandering around, as four-year-olds are prone to do, stopping in front of our booth and staring at us. What was she thinking? Did she know that we would soon forge a family through trials and false starts and mistakes and celebrations? Did she understand the significance of how her world would soon shift?
I remember our first pre-placement visit, where that same little girl was talking through photos of her recent Halloween costume: a clown. Her brother was in his high chair, a bowl of cereal in front of him. His stare was also fixed, curious about these two strangers. We read to them, played with them and tucked them into their beds in their temporary home each night for a full week. On the last day, we piled them into our car and drove away. Parents? Or strangers still?
I remember thinking, “What now?”
It should have felt more momentous. It should have been more ceremonial. Instead, we found our way to another fast food play land and watched them explore. I don’t remember excitement. I remember an anticlimactic feeling, and a curiosity and disbelief that this was how it actually happened. We just put them in our car and drove away. They were ours now, and we were theirs. What on earth did that mean?
When our biological daughter was born two years later, it all made sense. Of course, we were experienced parents by that point, but the birth met any expectations we had after years of societal conditioning: doctors and nurses, visitors, flowers and balloons. Our older daughter noticed how her hands matched those of her newborn sister. Our son asked if he could “pet her.”
We wouldn’t add to our family for another fifteen years. This time, it was a twenty-three year old adult whom we adopted. There was absolutely no conditioned expectations for this experience. This, to no one’s surprise, was completely new. He had grown up in foster care, “aged out,” then we met. He asked us to adopt him after a three-year relationship. What kind of courage did that take? I wonder about that to this day. For him, though, he tells me that it was no big thing.
It was a huge thing.
It is a huge thing. And it will continue to be so, I suspect.
I have been a parent for twenty years. My children are now ages eighteen, twenty-two, twenty-four and twenty-seven. And I still don’t have a clue. I look back and see more mistakes than successes. This means that I see a history marked by forgiveness and new starts. I see relationships best described as stubborn and committed. My children have stuck with me in spite of all my mistakes and stubbornness.
We’re figuring it out together.
Fatherhood, in my experience, has proven that as much as I would like to make everything better, some things can’t, or shouldn’t be fixed. Fatherhood means that I just need to be there. I need to listen. I need to forgive, and I need to be forgiven. Fatherhood means that I will stay when others leave, as many people in our lives have done. People sometimes bail. Fathers don’t.
And as soon as I type that last sentence, I am guilt-ridden. Just as my three oldest children were beginning to figure out adulthood, the other half of their family moved away. From Texas to Washington, we left them. I once asked my oldest if that act felt like an abandonment. It did.
We keep taking another step forward. We figure out grandparenting and long-distance parenting. We struggle with phone calls vs. texts vs. facetime (and there is an etiquette for this so individualized to the person it will make your head spin.) We declare that it is worth it. Our lives are filled with extra layers of birth family and life before we ever met each other. Time and energy spent figuring out how to be there for each other is always a worthwhile investment.
There is a joy to fatherhood that I’m only recently discovering. It is better than anything so far, and that is the opportunity to see your children finding their way and becoming real life, grownup humans: a mom, a friend, a cook, a photographer, a sign-language speaker, a student, a driver, a nurse. Their signal grows stronger with each passing year, and they are becoming. After hurting with them through struggle, I have been engulfed by waves of pride as they begin to walk out the other side into a life that is meaningful and unique and beautiful.
Fathers, enjoy every minute. Sit with your children through struggles. Listen to them. I wish so desperately to go backward and do this more, which is impossible, so I try to do it now. Invest the time, connect with them, and one day you will have an opportunity to behold a kind of rare beauty in their becoming that will put to shame the longest lingering summer sunset.
About WACAP’s CEO, Greg Eubanks: Greg joined WACAP as CEO in December 2014. Serving children and families has been the focus and passion of his 20-year career in nonprofit executive leadership and business administration. With an extensive background in international adoption and foster care, Greg is committed to bringing hope to the children living without a family … and helping them home.