Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wrestling with the Daddy Issue

Even as I was making my decision to adopt my daughter from China, I pondered if it was fair to adopt a child when I couldn't offer the complete package, both a mom and a dad.

Friends argued a loving mother, a warm, stable home life, and extended family and friends were better than the alternative, institutional life, or nothing at all. I bought into their arguments and, at the same time, told myself there was always the possibility I might still meet someone wonderful. I had the issue neatly and rationally sorted out in my mind -- until I viewed the question from the other side.

In those first few days and weeks, as I held my daughter in my arms, as I looked into her innocent, cherubic-like face, as I felt the weight of her body, the rhythm of her breath, and smelled her powdery, baby-like scent, the reality of what I'd done sank in -- in a different, decidedly more visceral way. This little bundle of life was mine. All mine. Her life, her health, her most basic needs, her happiness, now lay in my hands. As the days unfolded, a powerful new instinct flooded my veins and, as it did, one of the more troubling thoughts that creeped back into my mind was:

Have I done something really selfish?

In my more vulnerable moments, the question haunted me. Could I really be all she needed me to be? But then reality, the relentless demands of everyday life with a baby, prevailed. The flow of her life merged with mine in a single, unending blur of her sleeping, waking, eating, peeing, pooping and sleeping . We played, we laughed, and my daughter blossomed.

It wasn't till several years later, when I was driving her home from pre-school one day, that she first raised the issue herself. It seemed to come out of nowhere. One moment the car was quiet. The next moment, she said it:

I wish I had a Dad.

The blood drained from my fingers while my grip on the steering wheel tightened. My body went cold and I proceeded to flood my daughter with empathy, reflections, ideas, and suggestions. I babbled on for a good five minutes -- till I glanced in the rear view mirror and noticed my daughter looking out the window, watching the scenery, humming. She was three, maybe four. My words had washed right past her.

I'd overlaid an innocent comment, devoid of deeper meaning, with the backlog of my own emotional baggage. I replayed our exchange and it occurred to me -- with respect to dads everywhere -- that in that particular moment, she could have just as easily said, I wish I had a Barbie doll.

I realized I needed to dump the baggage, listen more carefully, take a deep breath, ask more questions, and try and respond to the place my daughter was coming from.

We've been through several stages of the Daddy Issue since.

At first she wanted a dad because she figured this was something other kids had. Then, she wanted a dad because she didn't want to be different. She grew tired of the same question over and over (You don't have a dad?!) At one point, she tried telling a pre-school friend she actually had a dad. But, as quickly as she created him, she killed him off. (Oh, but he died.)

It's only been in more recent years that my daughter -- through stories, books, observation, time with family and friends -- has truly come to understand what having a dad is, or can be, about.

Having a dad, I think, in whole, or in part, means having an adult male in your family, in your life, who loves you, who's there for you, who makes you feel special, who talks with you, spends time with you, teaches you, flirts with you, even wrestles with you. He takes you on special outings and buys you the treats your mother won't. He watches movies, plays pool, or pinball, or other silly games with you. He hugs you, cheers for you, roots for you, and is, generally speaking, crazy for you.

Miraculously, in the same time period that marked my daughter's growing awareness and need, my brother stepped into the void.

He's a free-wheeling bachelor and lives less than a mile away. He's a software guy, an engineer-type, a fix-anything, project-manage, tech-savvy kind of guy. He's a skier, a scrambler, a camper, a climber and, yes -- a bit of a bar-fly. But, in my book, he's just a hair's notch below God. He's become a surrogate dad to my daughter. He's not here at the house every day, but we see him most every week. He stops by for dinner, for brunch, or simply to "hang." He's known my daughter since she first came home but it's really, in the past few years, they've grown increasingly close. He helped teach her how to ride a two-wheeler and now, takes her out biking, canoeing, swimming and skiing. They cook together, carve Halloween pumpkins together, go to street fairs and movies together. He's there at Christmas and on Father's Day, and for special school performances. If work takes him to Mexico, India, or China, he returns home with posters, trinkets, and toys, with flowing paisley patterned skirts, even embroidered blouses.

My daughter is not a natural hugger. She likes her physical space. But when her uncle arrives, she flies toward the door and into his arms. He scoops her up, lifts her high to the ceiling, then hugs her tight. He's her hero and rightly so. I get sappy and sentimental when I try to thank him, to tell him just what that means to me, to her, that he loves her, that he's there for her. He just tells me, Oh, stop. You're wet. And he's right. But, in recognition of Father's Day, I'd like to honor not only the dads out there (mine included,) but all the cool surrogate dads, the brothers, uncles, and incredible friends, who step into the void to help a child feel loved and special and all the more whole.

And, to one very special uncle, with a clear, dry-eye, I offer a huge, humble, heartfelt:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

When I Told My Parents I Planned To Adopt

Broad beams of sunlight streamed in through the front windows of the house washing over the living room, creating a sense of light, airy openness. It was a Sunday afternoon in the summer of ‘99. I was wandering about my living room running my hand over the familiar, well-loved contents and contours of my home while, phone pressed to my ear, I chatted with my parents. They live on the East coast. I’m on the West coast. I don’t remember the range of subjects we covered, but as the conversation wound down, it occurred to me it might be wise to let my parents in on the recent drift in my thinking.

Hey Mom, Dad,… you know I’ve talked about adopting a little girl from China. I stopped, sat down on the couch, leaned forward, and rested my elbows onto my knees. Well... I probably should tell you… I think I’m ready. I’m going to do it.

They knew I’d been thinking about it, but up to this point, it had only been an idea. One of many vague possibilities out in the ether.

The line was quiet for a moment. My father spoke first, slowly and thoughtfully. Well, this is your decision. Whatever you decide, you know we love you. We’re proud of you. And we support you.

I was forty and this was my father’s answer to most things. Love, acceptance, support. He saw my sister, brother, and me as adults. He expected us to make morally sound, responsible choices, but our lives were our own.

My mother was a little different, a little more vested in our decisions, a little more outspoken. This could be a double-edged sword. I waited for her to speak now, and when she did, it was with uncharacteristic restraint. Her voice sounded deeper, as if her throat had gone tight. Her words came in short, measured increments. Which is a little like imagining Niagra Falls slowing. To a drip.

Yes. Well. That sounds… Good. Sweetheart. It’s your life.

The women in my family are a boisterous, opinionated tribe and no one is more so than my mother. We’re all fully capable of shooting first, thinking second, and apologizing – on occasion -- third. I knew she was trying hard to be respectful and careful, and not say something she’d regret. That alone told me how seriously she took this.

I’d opened myself up to my parents, precisely because I wanted to see what their reaction would be. And, more importantly, what my reaction to their reaction would be. I was testing myself. If I was going to run into a cold, granite wall of resistance, I needed to know sooner rather than later. Would they support me? And, if they didn’t or couldn’t, Could I handle it?

My mother’s response wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. But, she also hadn’t slammed the door in my face either. I’d been spared one of her many classic, flip put-downs or comebacks, the kind she’d launched in years past, often after a man had crossed the threshold and stood in her crosshairs.

What d' you think of him, Mom?

It’s your life … to ruin if you want to.

She was my biggest fan -- and toughest critic, a master at the cavalier question or back-handed compliment. (You’re wearing THAT to dinner?) She was fiercely proud of me. She just had a funny way of showing it sometimes, as if she were fatally allergic to showing the slightest shred of sentimentality. If I called and caught her in one of her more exuberant moments, she’d greet me with one of her many, favorite terms of endearment: What’s on your small mind, Peabrain?

To know my mother is to love her – but her particular brand of love is not for the faint of heart. Which is why I needed to test the waters. If she was really against the idea: single motherhood, adoption, etc., I needed to be like a general preparing for battle, sizing up the opposition, assessing how many fronts I’d be fighting.

I took her response in now and could tell she was trying but also that she was withholding. My mother can only withhold for so long. So I decided to wait, not to push. To give her the time to absorb the news. I hung up the phone and thought, We’re not finished. We’ve only begun.

The next morning, the phone rang. Early.


Are you up?


It’s Mom.

I gathered.

I had a thought!


Listen. Don’t say anything. I have a question for you. Just hear me out. Will you?


What about a sperm bank? Have you considered a sperm bank?! (She asked the question with the kind of enthusiasm a friend might exude on discovering you’d been to their favorite restaurant: Have you tried the chocolate cake?!)

Uh…. That’s an interesting question… I said, surprised, hesitating. It was, to be frank, not a proposal I’d expected from my mother. But again, this wasn’t anyone’s mother. She was different.

Did you.. would you.. consider it? I could hear the eagerness in her voice.

Well… I have a friend who did it.

You wouldn’t consider it? I could swear, she was ready to bargain.

Well… I guess I always figured if I carried and bore a child, the child would be a product of me and a man I knew and loved. Not some stranger. That feels weird to me.

I didn’t mind exploring the question. Yes, I was surprised she’d raised it. But I was glad she had. Better to explore all the possibilities now and be sure, rather than look back and wonder.

The idea of going through a pregnancy and labor alone felt lonely to me. And I couldn’t imagine trying to recover from giving birth while also managing a newborn. Then too, I thought about all those girls in China, girls who needed families, love, and a home. And me? I’d always wanted a girl. It all made sense. I also knew if I went to a sperm bank, I could just as easily end up with a boy. And while, to me, two, happy, healthy, parents was, or is, the ideal, I felt, at a minimum, if I had the choice, providing a child with a same sex role model was important. I couldn't be a dad to a boy.

The more I pondered my mother’s question, the more it confirmed my thinking. She was quiet again while I explained how I felt. Finally, I realized I should explore the root of her question. What made you think of a sperm bank?

She hesitated. I heard her suck in her breath. Then she blurted it out: It’s just you have such good genes!

I burst out laughing. Even now, as I think back on this moment, it makes me smile.

We are, at the root of it, despite our rough edges, a loving, loyal family whose worst sin perhaps is we’re rather fond of ourselves. We have our strengths. If you go back far enough or search broadly enough, we have our share of achievements… leaders, lawyers, politicians, academics, engineers, writers, business executives, even philanthropists. But we have, in equal measure, our imperfections, physical failings, as well as some blind spots. If you study the family tree with a cold, clear eye, we have our challenges: high blood pressure, heart disease, ALS, Aspergers, asthma, addiction, Parkinsons, divorce, diabetes, dyslexia, depression, and suicide.

My mother has lived a charmed life and she knows it. She was, and is, deep down to her boots, a risk averse soul. In that moment, in that call, as she shared her thoughts and I processed mine, I realized she was afraid. In her gut, on this first pass, she clung to the familiar.

There were no guarantees with adoption but I had some sense of my limits. I wasn’t planning to apply for a special needs child. My hope was to work with an agency to find a healthy child who might be a good match for me, who had the potential to thrive in my care. It was a leap of faith but I knew, I’d seen, that bearing a biological child was no less of a leap of faith. I’d run into a high school friend only two years earlier. Neither he, nor his wife, had any history of cancer in their families. Yet, his seven year old daughter battled a deadly brain tumor.

My mother wasn't quite there with me. But, God bless her, she wasn’t running flat out in the other direction either. And, turning back to that same family tree, we both knew adoption was happily threaded through it.

I saw if I wanted to do this badly enough, if I was really ready, I’d have to step out in front, take the lead, and show her the way. I had my fears and there were many unknowns. But our call only confirmed my decision.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


She's still playing basketball. Every recess. Every day. Not only that, but last week she announced she'd "bumped" Ben P. -- none other than the third grade king of Bump. Yesterday, she whooped two other boys, winning two games out of three. I asked how they took it and she said the only comment one boy made was, Gee... your game has really improved.

I wanted to shimmy and shout, You've come a long way baby!

Instead, I played it cool. (It's what she wants from me these days.) I smiled. We high fived. And I left it at that.
I've been horribly neglectful of this blog due to end of school year pressures combined with the time involved wrapping up a certificate program I started in January. But I'm eager to return here -- hopefully next week -- to share more about our everyday lives as well as stories from the early days, how I started out, bumping along on my own humbling, up and down journey as a single adoptive parent.

In the meantime, many thanks and blessings to all those loyal followers who continue to check back in to see where we are and what we are up to. I hope to see you all soon.