How one man’s experience led him to help others fulfill their dream of becoming a parent.
There are only two things I ever wanted to be in this life: a husband and a father. Being a gay man, I decided becoming a father would be the easier thing to do. But as I dove into the process of adopting, I began feeling as though I had a better chance of becoming pregnant myself.
Sure, as a lawyer, I had some clue adoption would be difficult. But as a single man, there were more internal and external forces to contend with than I was totally prepared for. First I had to deal with my own hang-ups.
I was pretty convinced I could raise a boy to be a good man. If I was a boy and I turned out all right, surely I could raise a son—but I was less sure I could raise a girl to be a good woman. If I did adopt a boy, would people think I, a single man raising a boy, was a pedophile?
All these issues took months for me to realize the truth: they weren’t really issues.
But the politics of adoption made life even harder. There are currently initiatives underway in a few states that would prohibit single-parent adoptions, based on the assumption that single parents—especially men—can’t raise a child to be a psychologically healthy adult. A number of studies have dispelled this notion.
Couples have it the easiest, of course, because, by traditional standards, a family is made up of a mother and father. And single women have had the ability to adopt, quite easily, for many years (see: Jolie, Angelina; Bullock, Sandra; and Madonna, just to name a few). While my experiences are related to domestic adoption from the foster-care system, many foreign countries expressly prohibit single men from adopting but welcome single women. Why? The answer is simple: women are perceived as better caregivers.
What the foster-care, adoption, and legal systems fail to pick up on is this: The only men who are going to adopt are men who have a true passion for being a father—men who would give anything to care for a child of their own. A 1986 study published in the National Council of Family Relations found that, in cases like this, “‘mothering’ is not an exclusively female skill.”
I was determined to not let the government prevent my dream from becoming reality.
In August of 2004, when I was 38 years old, I finished the state-mandated parenting class—an hour-and-a-half-long course that took place a few times a week and lasted just over two months—in which the instructor covered everything from how to deal with children from different cultures and backgrounds, to how to discipline, to such finer details as a child’s hair care. I also underwent home visits from adoption officials, during which time my house was checked to make sure a child would be safe inside it. I was asked invasive questions about things like past relationships, my childhood, what my parents were like, drug and alcohol use, and my fears. I then entered the waiting period.
During this time, adoption officials search to find a child who is the best fit for you. It was one of the more difficult times in my life. I learned to stay away from people who were negative and only had horror stories about adoption. I used this period of time to read, prepare the house, and do things I was pretty sure I would not have the chance to do once I became a father. But what I could have used most of all was another single adoptive dad to talk to.
I decided to take some time for myself, too. I had never been to Paris, a city I had always wanted to visit, so I decided I would go. I never made it. On the day before Thanksgiving 2004, I was standing in line with a fistful of Euros, getting ready to leave for France when my cell phone rang. “Brian, we found him,” said Kristen, my adoption worker. I went numb and asked to call her back from my office. I was two blocks away—it was the longest walk of my life.
I met my son five days later. During the initial visit, at his foster home in Massachusetts, I witnessed a child who was bright, smiled, yelled, stomped his feet, and screamed. It was not that he couldn’t talk; he wouldn’t talk. He had his own language; created in his mind to get his needs satisfied as a result of their never being met. I was told that he could only say seven words. I went to a corner on this initial visit and sat there with a book and a stuffed bear, and waited. Ever so slowly, he approached me, touched me, then ran away and giggled. Eventually, he sat in my lap and looked at me for a while. Then, with his social worker, the foster mother, and my adoption worker looking on, he put his hand on my face and said, “Daddy.”
The adoption was finalized in July 2005. I took paternity leave and taught Ben to speak and potty-trained him (I would gladly take any bar exam to never have to potty-train again). He would sit on the toilet and sing and practice his words when he thought I was out of earshot. I sat around the corner from the bathroom and cried as I listened to his imagination and person come alive.
When you have a child who came from such an incredibly tough start to life, and you watch him unfold, you witness what love, discipline, and structure can do for a child.
When we were deep in the threes, he talked constantly, questioned everything, woke each morning with “Love you, Daddy” and left me each night with what we call a “forever” hug (as he knows I will be his father forever). Each night he would pick a book for us to read together.
One night, he asked for a book with a mommy in it. Once we started reading, he asked me if he would have a mommy. With a lump in my throat and holding back tears, I told him that there are families out there who have mommies, daddies, and all various combinations, but a family is about all the people who love you. My son started to recite all of the people who touch both his life and mine. I held my son against my chest and he gave me a forever hug. “Love you, Daddy,” he said again, and I couldn’t help but cry.
On a hot June day, about a year after Ben came home with me, the two of us headed to the beach for an early day before lunch and his nap. As he and I were jumping waves and playing in the water, I noticed a man moving closer and closer to us. The parent in me was cautious. As the ball we were playing with floated and bobbed with the current, it moved toward the man, who reached out to retrieve it. Ben toddled up to him and reached for the ball. Gently, the man handed it back to Ben, who then came running back to me, calling, “Daddy, Daddy, again, again.” This went on for a bit with the stranger, who appeared to be more curious than anything else. Finally, he and I were close enough to speak over the surf and I noticed tears in his eyes.
“Is that your son?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. Through a gruff voice, he said, “I gave up that dream.” Regaining his emotional footing, he turned and went back to his blanket, grabbed a beer and began laughing and joking with his friends. It was that conversation which launched a thousand questions.
Why would a man give up that dream? Even in my darkest hours, I still always knew I’d do everything I could to adopt my son. But when I started to think of all the men I encountered, both in my legal practice and in my adoption classes, I could see how overwhelmingly hard it may be for some guys to adopt and become a single father.
There are very few positive images of single dads—most of the ones we hear about are divorced and only see their kids on the weekends. Moreover, you rarely hear guys talk about the emotional side of being a father—as though it’s not masculine to do so. Then there’s the feeling some guys have of waiting too long and being too old to start a family. But these are all total misconceptions—and I’m proof of that.
In 2009 I decided I’d start helping to break down these barriers and help find homes, with single men, for the 500,000 foster children here in the U.S. To that end I started We Hear the Children, a nonprofit dedicated to advocacy and support for children’s causes related to adoption, diversity, and education. I also launched a toll-free number (855-411-4323) and website (4114DAD.com)—staffed by other single adoptive fathers—for single men who want to adopt but don’t know where to start.
When I began walking the path to parenthood, there weren’t many single men who were adopting. In the years since, I’ve encountered more men like the one on the beach, but now I’m not afraid to ask the question “Why?” And I’m happy to share my story and help other men achieve the dream of becoming a father. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better feeling. I should know—I did it twice. In 2007, I adopted my second son, Bryce.
Images by Erika Powell-Burson