This is the story of a birth father who later made a decision to become an adoptive father. These are his reflections on how he experiences Father’s Day as a son, a birth father, and now an adoptive father. Names of the individuals have been changed to protect the identities of all involved.
What makes these two experiences, "birth father" and "father," different?
Mother. Father. Two simple words with a huge amount of responsibility, history, and impact behind them. They are perhaps the two most important words in the world to a child. We choose two days of the year to honor mothers and fathers. I experience Father’s day in two different roles. First as a son who admires his father. Second as a father to my child. That second role, being a father, is more complicated. I am both a birth-father to a son, Sammy, an unexpected role I first experienced 28 years ago and a father (an adoptive father) now to a daughter, Cindy, a role I chose 10 years ago. What makes these two experiences, birth father and father, different?
Almost twenty-nine years ago, in the mid-summer of 1990, I received a phone call from a young woman I had dated 9 months earlier but had not seen in a while. She was calling to tell me that she had just given birth to our son and that I shouldn’t worry about it, she had an adoption plan in place and I just needed to sign documents as the birth-father…
Just needed to sign documents…
Suddenly my world had changed.
I rushed to the hospital where I saw the mother and our newly born son. About two hours later I met the family she had chosen as parents in the adoption and I knew immediately that they were the ones to raise my son in the manner that I did not feel I could at the time.
It wasn’t just the sudden-ness. I knew I was not ready to be a parent. A father.
My parents raised me with all the love, care, patience that I could ask. They provided me with any reasonable opportunity. They educated me. They taught me right from wrong. They supported me. They put up with my faults - and I had many. They were, in my eyes, the perfect parents and I did not see how I could possibly be half the parent they were. And if I couldn’t be that to a child perhaps I shouldn’t be a parent. And here was a couple who wanted to be parents. Who could provide everything that I felt I couldn’t. They would do what I couldn’t. So I signed… feeling it was the right decision, but feeling that I was avoiding a responsibility that was one of the things that defined how one handles adulthood. His mother and I remained friends but went about our separate lives with this ghost of a connection. It was a confusing and messy time.
Father’s Day 1991
I don’t remember much. My datebook has a single entry, a rehearsal for the Tom Stoppard play, The Real Inspector Hound. I was playing Moon, a second-string theater critic whose second-ness made him question his own purpose. I believe the mother contacted me to wish me a happy father’s day. I didn’t really feel like celebrating such a day. I may have made the right decision for my son, but I didn’t feel like I’d been a responsible adult. Perhaps I should have tried to be the parent. Was I shirking my obligations and responsibilities? The person who should be celebrating the day was Pete, the man who was being the parent I couldn’t. I was grateful to him. I wanted him to experience all the greatness of the day without having to think of me. I knew my son was too young that first year to make any conclusions or show any appreciation to his father.
...I felt that I had no real place in the day.
What does Father’s Day mean to me as a birth father? It’s been an evolving, fluid event. For the many years after placing Sammy with Kate and Pete I didn’t think about it. I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted Pete to experience all that was Father’s Day and I felt that I had no real place in the day. The decision had been made and I was not parenting Sammy. The events of the past, intimacy with Sammy’s mother, a sudden realization of consequence, agreeing to place Sammy with Kate and Pete, did not allow me to feel parental and therefore not very fatherly. Years of communication with Kate (and therefore indirect communication to Sammy) made me feel a little more fatherly as they would send updates and I would respond with some story from my youth about how I could relate to their experiences. Kate and Pete encouraged me in these communications and I felt I could talk openly to them. As Sammy's birth father, I didn’t give them advice (I had none, and it wasn’t my place), but I’d say something that I hoped would make them feel they were doing the right thing or to see how Sammy’s actions were very much like any other kid (since I had done something similar). Over time, I felt as if I was contributing something small and felt more a part of their family. Not an immediate member. I always wanted to respect the boundary that they were Sammy’s parents and I never wanted to intrude on that. But Father’s Day became less about my short-comings and more about wondering how they were doing on that particular day.
It wasn’t until my wife, Melissa, and I started seriously discussing becoming parents ourselves that it felt different. When we decided to adopt, I wrote Sammy’s family to see how they felt. It seemed strange to me having given up one child and then adopt another. I was afraid Sammy might not understand. Instead, they were encouraging, with Sammy mentioning it was kind of ironic. The full meaning of Father’s Day didn’t come until I was parenting my daughter, Cindy. I was now living out all the things that make one a parent. Doing all the things my parents had done for me. Watching my daughter grow and feeling like a father - I get Father’s Day every day. I think about things I do with Cindy that bring me joy like building a Lego set or running a 5K, and I then think I got to give Pete the same with Sammy, and that brings more joy. Father’s Day means being a father period. Birth-father, adoptive-father, biological father. It’s hard to say, “whether you’re there or not,” but part of me feels that way. If the action is in the best interest of the child, you are acting as a father. With the hope that the child will one day understand. I’m still trying to figure out if Sammy has questions or issues with my decision. I like to think that he doesn’t. He seems to be a well-adjusted adult now who is happy with his family and who he is. I just wanted the best for him. Just as Pete does. Just as I want the best for my daughter and how I wish to somehow convey to my father how grateful I am for all he has given me.
You do wonderful things with your children as a father. I remember my father taking me and my brothers on long bike rides through Gettysburg and other national parks, helping me with Boy Scout projects, taking me to Edmund Scientific to buy my first telescope and standing out in the cold night with me to show me how to align it to see the Moon, Jupiter, and its moons, or some nebula. He bought me my first guitar and every now and then still comes to see me play with my band. His work provided him with a computer (before PC’s were even around, with big 8-inch floppy drives that held 250K storage). He sat down with me and a book on how to program Lunar Lander in BASIC. Where you typed in how much fuel you wanted to use, and the computer printed an asterisk to plot the lander’s decent. My mind would often think of things like this and wonder if my son and his father were experiencing similar events. Events that both would remember with great fondness for the rest of their lives. Then you try to pass them to your children whether in actual action with my daughter or writing about them to Sammy and his parents.
You do things as a father that you don’t think you’d put up with if you were not. My father watched me stumble through several attempts at college, encouraging me, at some expense, to find my way. I finally did, and it was because of his ability to somehow put up with my mistakes, my laziness, my heartbreaks, my depression, my inability to understand how things were done, until suddenly it worked, and I was not making as many mistakes, nor was I lazy, heartbroken, or depressed and things were comprehensible. He worked so hard on me and it eventually paid off. As a birth father, I didn’t get the opportunity to do all the actual work, but it was in my mind and I often wondered if Pete was having to deal with the same things my father dealt with.
There are things that I wonder if Pete ever thought as I’m certain my father thought of me. Did he look down at the pool of oil under the car wondering how his son managed to get the car home with a cracked oil pan and how in hell did he crack it open like that? Did he have to put up with wondering who the girl in his son’s room was and what they were doing? Did he get his son up early, take him to church heavily hung-over from his first underage drinking spree, as a learning experience and character building exercise? And many, many more frustrating things that a father may endure, but does so because his love for his son is greater than the frustration of the events? The love is greater than the event…
Does any of this make sense?
A father is a father. It’s the love that defines the title. Mother is love. Father is love.