A classmate named Sarah recently told my four year-old son…
I felt a nagging sense of shame after my infant son was born and after a stack of adoption papers created our new family. It would be nearly two years before my thoughts of doubt and shame subsided completely. I admitted this to no one.
My sin? I didn’t feel a true bond with my son for many months and I felt awful about it. It wasn’t until he could speak and started to call me “Papa” that I felt like he was mine, and I was his, and we were “us”. My partner is known as “Daddy” and I am “Papa”. Until my son uttered the word aloud, until he could tell me himself, I didn’t feel I deserved the title.
I used to blame myself for this failure to launch. A sense of hesitance exists in all of my close relationships. Sometimes I hold back. But now, I chalk it up to the perils of the open adoption process. Adoption is not a hero’s tale. It’s not tidy. It exposes one’s ugliest thoughts of doubt, giving them a credence they don’t deserve.
If adoption is difficult, open adoption is even more of a challenge. It challenges your faith in others and your sense of identity. More than anything it challenges your ego.
An open adoption is exactly what the name implies; it’s open. Since adopting him at birth we’ve had an ongoing relationship with our child’s birthparents. Everything is out in the open. There are no sealed files hidden away in a file cabinet somewhere. There are no secrets about our son’s life story.
As part of the open adoption agreement, we visit with his birth parents and their extended families several times a year. They live in our state, about five-hours away. It’s not uncommon to find all of us sitting around the table sharing some pasta and talking about my son, Eddie. Open adoption means there are many people who love this boy. If it “takes a village”, well, he has one.
When my partner and I decided to adopt, we knew that open adoption, with all of its intricacies, was the route we favored most. Surrogacy, international adoption, and foster-to-adopt were all ideas that we considered and discarded for various reasons. An open adoption, facilitated by an agency, made the most sense to us.
After a lengthy three-year process, we were suddenly and officially the parents of a bouncing baby boy. We drove him (ever so slowly) to his new home. Months later, we appeared before a friendly judge who approved our adoption and posed for a photo with the three of us. That was the moment it became official.
Absent in adoption is the inherent attachment I suspect fathers feel when they become parents. I imagine most dads feel some sort of “sprung from my loins” primal bond with their newborn sons – an animal instinct. I knew I couldn’t expect to feel my new son was an extension of my physical self. The bond between me and Eddie (and my partner, Tod) was created by a lot of paperwork and a series of signatures and stamps. At any point in the process, it could have all fallen apart, sending us back to the adoption starting line. If it felt tenuous, there may have been good reason.
I had never thought of adoption as a particularly brave act. If anything it felt self-serving. I wanted a family. I wanted a family like my five siblings had, like my friends had, like everyone else had.
Logically, I knew my son was mine. I loved him more than anything. However, while everyone congratulated us and helped to welcome our bundle of joy into the world, I had those feelings of shame and doubt. I wanted to feel closer to my son. I wanted to feel an unshakable bond.
At no point did I feel unprepared or unable to be a father. We fed, bathed, and cuddled our newborn son with great love. My parenting instincts took hold immediately. But, I had such a difficult time bonding with Baby Eddie that even referring to him as “my son” felt strange to me.
I had questions. Am I qualified to be someone’s father? Is this real? It would be a long time before these feeling sorted themselves out and I felt at ease in the role of dad, or “Papa”. Eventually, they dissipated altogether making room for a confidence that only love could build.
I think it took hearing my son repeatedly call me “Papa” – as he does hundreds of times each day – to etch the new name onto my soul, and for me to believe that the three of us are together forever.