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:


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how I came across your blog but I'm glad I did. My 6 1/2 yr old is experiencing the same issues regarding her birth parents. She has a lot of anger, mostly directed towards me.
We knew the day was coming but we didn't think it would happen this soon.
We are seeking professional advice but I would also love to hear from someone who has experienced it first hand.

Dawn R. in WI

Lisa said...

Hi Dawn R.

Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and for taking time to write. I'm so sorry your daughter is struggling. I consulted a counselor too and was glad I did. One thing this woman helped me appreciate was how common this issue is. It's not an easy thing to share -- for the child, or for parents -- but you're definitely not alone. Finding community and support as you go through it, I think, can help. Please feel free to write me here though, I should tell you frankly, I'm no expert.
"Adoptionparenting" is also a fabulous resource. It's a group within Yahoo with some really wise and generous parents.

Wishing you the best of luck.

Twice Blessed China Mom said...
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patti said...

Hey Lisa,

My first daughter first noticed Dads when she was about 2. We were driving home from daycare and she said,"Bye,bye Patrick's daddy. Patrick daddy. Patrick have a daddy. We no have a daddy." My heart just sunk, but I tried to keep it light. "That's right, we don't have a daddy at our house. But we have Grandpa and Uncle Mark who love you lots." She was just making an observation and I was glad I didn't freak out. When I repeated the conversation to my mom, she did freak out. "Oh the poor baby. Oh no. What are you going to do?" I was like, "Mom, I just agreed that we don't have a daddy and she was fine with it." And it does come up every now and then. Yesterday my little one climbed in my bed and said, "Happy Father's Day, Mom. We don't have a dad, so can we go swimming?" She sees the advantages and so does her older sister. Lilly has said she is ok with having no dad, because he might be mean. I told her I'd like to think I wouldn't give them a mean guy for a dad, but everyone has their grumpy moments and she only has to deal with one parent's grumpiness.

It definitely has its ups and downs for ALL of us.

betsy said...

This is a beautiful post, Lisa. One of my daughters grieves deeply for her birthparents and her many losses. I spend a lot of time listening hard, acknowledging those losses and also providing a context, culturally but also generally. I believe almost everyone has something they wish was different about his/her family. I have found myself saying, "Everyone I know has sadness in her heart, and also incredible joy. I think it is important to allow yourself to feel the sadness but embrace and focus on the joy."

Family is what you make of it.

All the best to you and your daughter (and your wonderful brother :D).

Lisa said...
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Lisa said...

Lisa said...
Thank you Betsy. You sound like a very wise and loving mom. I think we share a similar philosophy.

My daughter also struggled and grieved the loss of her birthparents. I don't know if you visited earlier posts, but I wrote about this as we struggled with this very issue back in March and early April: ( ( (

Thanks again for writing. With best wishes to you and your family...

Martha Nichols said...

Lisa -- I'm so glad to know about your blog, and I certainly appreciate your review of my Brain,Child article in your August 19 post. This post of yours about your daughter missing a dad is very touching, and I think it speaks to the importance of having many different adults share in a child's life.

As you know from my recent Open Salon post, I've just come off a week at the Cape in which my husband was working during the day and I felt tethered to my very active, chattery seven-year-old son. He missed his dad, he missed his friends, and yet he and I grew closer also. He thrives on all these relationships, because we all view the world a little differently.

Much as I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle as kid--and appreciate my son's delight in these old cartoons now--I am very sick of hearing him imitate Boris and Natasha! This post, "Family Vacation? Help! Cries Mom, Send Moose and Squirrel!", also appears on my blog: