For all the "What to expect when you're expecting"-type how-to's on parenting available to any couple looking for some semblance of normalcy in the on-ramp to parenthood, few corners are as unexplored and underappreciated as that of the new father by way of adoption. So to kick off MEL's week of Father's Day related ephemera, we wanted to get the unusual perspective of someone new to the whole dad gig. Who better than a retired Army watercraft operator in New Hampshire in his mid-40s who just crossed the threshold to fatherdom after adopting not one, but three children (aged 6, 8, 10), in a single pass and all that has taught him in the first six months of Dad Studies.
My wife and I had always talked about having kids. We weren't actively trying to conceive, but we weren't doing anything to prevent it either. Adoption was always in our lager discussions about our future, too. Her family had experience with adoption, and in New Hampshire, there's something like 10,000 children who can't feasibly be processed through the system in any given year. Basically, we always floated the idea when something or someone brought it up, much like we'd float adopting rescued fainting goats after sharing cute animal videos on social media.
So when my wife called me last summer after viewing an upcoming recurring segment from her TV station (she works as a news producer) highlighting children in the state system looking for forever homes, she said: "I found them. The kids we're going to take into our lives and make a part of our family." I wasn't sure I heard her right. "Kids?!?!?! Plural?!?!?" That's when she sent me the clip.
The anchor leading the segment opened it with, "Wait until you see how these three siblings will melt your heart." And on came the kids with these big, toothy grins and squealing laughter as they jumped on a trampoline at some kind of funhouse, throwing basketballs, all energy and laughing.
Love at first sight.
We made an agreement to ourselves — if we started the process and we got selected (by the kids, who make the call in the end), we wouldn't turn back. Even after the mandatory 20 hours of classroom instruction. Even after learning every quirk and frustration of the adoption system. Even after the state worker's visits to check us out — as well as our house and living situation (which includes lots of musical instruments, yard space and video games). And most especially, even after social workers presented us with what I called their "packet of shit," when the deep, detailed file of every single thing the state knows about these kids — good, bad and ugly — gets presented to us. (We learned their father had died of an overdose, and their mother turned guardianship over to the state due to opioid addiction, a now sad, common refrain in the Granite State.)
In other words, we decided it was going to be all-in or nothing for us. And we were in. In spite of the fact we hadn't met the kids yet, and they didn't know a thing about us at that point. The state does this to reduce stress and false-hope, since they've already been through plenty of trauma in their early lives. The week before or so, their handler tells them something like, "Hey guys, we think we found your forever home."
Before that first meeting, I could barely eat (which is a feat in-and-of itself). And pulling up, our anxiety was really kicking in. I remember my wife talking to me, but I retained none of it. I was in a crazy brain space and trying to process it all. But once I stepped out of the car and walked up to the house, everything went away. It was weird, a very calm, serene feeling of "what's the worst that could happen?" It was either going to work out, be a challenge or turn into a total disaster. It was anything but a disaster.
Within the first two weeks of living with us, our new daughter, 10, kept asking if basically anyone she had met during those two weeks could sleep over. Dozens of potential bunk mates were floated. Suddenly, though, we realized we didn't know much about being parents. At the very least, we realized we had no idea how sleepover protocols work. Did we vet the other parents? Ask for tax returns and any kind of rap sheet they may have? Inspect their kids for head lice? What if one of them had an allergy we weren't aware of and served a bowl of peanuts as a snack? What else hadn't we possibly thought of, which started to feel like everything?
In particular, birthday parties were something we were suddenly learning the complexities of in medias res. Every birthday party we had been to for kids of our friends, we had stayed with the parents of all the other kids. Because that's what the childless do at such things. So when we threw our first big kiddie birthday party for our daughter, friends that are seasoned birthday party goers just dropped their kids off and took off for the day. I was amazed; we had no idea that was a parent thing. (I've since used it myself — it's great.)
One of the craziest things we learned is how destructive the kids could be. Not just in general, but with their own toys. It's incredible how fast they destroy them all. We got our youngest of the three, 6, a remote-control car for Christmas. He didn't want to wait for the rest of gifts to be opened, so he found and slipped scissors into the package to open it himself. But he cut all the wires while doing so, rendering it useless. Everyday something new is broken, or something else has gotten inexplicably jammed inside of it (defying Earthly rules of physical matter it seems). And, of course, anything that explicitly says "do not get wet," the three of them immediately find a body of water to dunk it in.
The youngest is a character. One day while making breakfast a few weeks after they moved in, I hear a little "heh heh" Beavis and Butthead-style chuckling. I turn and see him with the biggest smile on his face, followed by the kind of loud, wet fart that would seemingly come from the backend of a water buffalo, not a kid who can barely reach my upper thigh. He immediately starts falling apart laughing. But I'm a parent, right? I need to maintain decorum. While he was finishing breakfast, he does it again, louder. I had to tell him that what he did was gross, but obviously, being a former little boy and a current giant little boy, I was howling with laughter. (He even did that side-lean while grunting it out.)
Also, did you know when kids sleep at these ages, they leave their bodies and float to another dimensional reality? That's what I'm gathering anyway, because when I have to wake them up for the bathroom, they seem to be in a lucid, waking dream, muttering mumbo-jumbo nonsense like Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers. They look up at me and have no idea what year it is. I have to run the sink water just to trigger them going to the bathroom. I don't know if I invented that move and should be father of the year, or like everything else, it's common knowledge to parents who have been at this a while (probably the latter).
Sometimes the boys will do their thing with their eyes still closed, just spraying the wall indiscriminately, so I have to splash some water on their face so they don't turn our upstairs bathroom into a barroom piss trough. One of them likes to walk over to the wall and try to flush the wall after using the toilet. They recall nothing about all this. Zero. I could've dunked them in tomato sauce, and they wouldn't even know as long as I cleaned them off.
Overall, the parenting experience so far has been an exercise in telescoping time. I've had to tell our little girl a couple times she has to start putting a bra on. I mean, she's at that age where... things are showing. But it felt like white noise coming out of my mouth when I mentioned it and then failed at explaining why. "Because you're... showing stuff," I stammered. She asked, "What do you mean?" It's about then that I sheepishly called for my wife and scurried off to do more fitting dad stuff, whatever that may be. Build something in the garage?
I did, however, recently attend my first daddy-daughter dance. We got all dressed up, and I thought I was embarking upon this monumental formative experience with my new daughter. But three minutes — and one quick, embarrassed slow dance — later, she ran out with her friends to hang out, the corsage I bought for her eventually serving as a hair tie while running around. Then it was just me and 90 other wallflower dads, all harrumphing and nodding like a line of cartoon characters. Some of the seasoned dads wore regular clothes and sneakers — well aware of how these things go. Meanwhile, I was in a suit and tie, revealing how new I was to it all. Afterward, I took her to dinner and she put my jacket around her, draped like a shoulder cloak over some Royal Duchess, making it all end on a sweet note.
My wife and I regularly debrief each other on the most recent realization of parenting, or just a "I can't believe this happened today" story of disbelief at both what kids are capable of and a sense of cognitive dissonance between what we remember from our childhood and the way we probably were.
The real shock for us is that we're learning three different stages of childcare at once, on the fly, and everything that brings with it in the usual sense, as well as the particular nuances to our situation and our kids. Because our daughter is the oldest, she's just dipping her toes in the pool of childhood that she'd lost over the past few years. She was a de facto, instinctual mother figure to her brothers for most of the life she can recall, and it seems her brain is gripping onto the fact she has a forever home now. That means she has a chance to just be a kid again, embracing things a six- or eight-year-old would, while also teetering in the tween borderlands of boys and crushes along with Barbies and Legos.
I understand what she's going through in a sense — I was the oldest and had the longer memory of childhood than my younger brother had when our parents got divorced. Our other two were far was less affected given the age when their biological family disintegrated. All three call us mom and dad right now (something we haven't pushed, but they've chosen), and the youngest actually sees it like that. He doesn't really remember the earlier stuff.
But at end of day, when one of them hops up on the couch and lays down in my arms with their head on my lap, breathing that sense of safety and contentment all children should grow up with, as cliché as it sounds, it's all worth it — more than making up for all the yelling and sibling bickering and weird moments that make us question if we're even the kind of adults who should be models for adulting. Especially when I reflect on the fact this these aren't my biological children and know that has nothing to do with it. When you say goodnight and these beautiful, crazy, individualistic and resilient children pull you in wanting to hug and squeeze you so tight it's like they're trying to crush you with overflowing love and adoration, I'm pretty sure that's what being a dad is all about.
Scratch that, it's definitely what it's all about.
— As told to Dan McCarthy