I am not an ideal father. Mine was always a world of quiet and solitude. Shy and nervous in social situations, I’m not built for parent-teacher conferences, play dates, or doctors’ appointments. I dislike neon colors, simple answers, and repetition. Yet, I am a father.
It is difficult to explain how I arrived at this state. It might have been vanity or a puffed-up sense of social justice. It might have been the memory of what it was like to be cared for, treasured and sheltered from the troubles of the world. Maybe it was pragmatism. It could even have been a desire for family and the love of a child. These are ideas long past.
* * *
My wife Sharon and I have been waiting to meet our daughters for so long. We have read about them and seen their photographs. We have talked at length with their teachers and therapists. We have had awkward dinners with their foster parents. In March of 2007, before ever meeting our daughters, we signed papers committing to their adoption.
Katie is the fastest runner in her first grade class. She is generous and likes to help out around the house. Her sister Laura, a junior in high school, has a sparkling personality and very much wants to be adopted. Today, a warm, sun-filled day in May, we head north of Minneapolis for the first of many visits before the girls move in.
We are on a dirt road. There is a haze of pollen, insects, and dust. Around us the forest is great and still. Trees, tall and verdant at the end of May. Pheasants in rich plumage. A fox watches us with mild curiosity. Sharon stops the car. This world is beautiful, and for a moment I long to stay in it. Just the two of us. The woods. And the slanting rays of sunlight.
She stops again when we reach Hickory Road. One last turn and we are in the Walker’s driveway. This is foster care. A small white farmhouse on acres of land. A fallen barn. Plastic toys litter the lawn. Two dogs are penned in a crate of chicken wire. We sit and stare. Sharon turns to me and asks, “Ready?” I nod and give a half smile. I am lying.
* * *
We’ve been to pre-adoption training classes at Children’s Home Society for three weeks now and it has come down to scare tactics.
“If there is anything that these kids could do that would make you disrupt your adoption, or terminate it and return the child to the state, then walk away right now.”
I can’t believe our teacher would really want anyone to walk away. The state of Minnesota is desperate for parents to adopt from foster care.
“Think about that,” she continues, “these kids have a whole range of disturbing, even dangerous behaviors. Many of which won’t appear until they are in your homes. So think about what one thing might push you to the point of disruption.
I can’t help it. I’ve already begun. What if they burn the house down? What if they kill the cats? What if they kill Sharon? Sharon smiles at me benignly. Around the room I see the untroubled faces of my classmates. I see no fear or doubt. Yet it will come. I’ll see these faces again at support groups for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Anxiety Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. They will no longer be untroubled, and many families from our class will eventually disrupt.
* * *
It started years ago with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Every few months I would find myself reading the “Minnesota’s Waiting Child” column.
Here is the bright, smiling face of Jasmine. She is 16, likes swimming, listening to music, and watching TV. She is working hard at controlling her temper and expressing her emotions. Jasmine is very social, has a great sense of humor, and very much wants to be adopted.
Seventeen-year-old Henry is a charismatic young man. He enjoys physical activity, hands-on work, and likes to take things apart and put them back together again. He seeks a family that will make an unconditional commitment to him. Although Henry is open to a variety of families, he hopes his new family will have clear structure, consequences, and a strong leader.
I tried to imagine being Henry. What would it be like to be advertised in the paper? What are his plans for the future? If he doesn’t get adopted, where will he live after he ages out of foster care? Does he return to his birth family? Does he live on the street? Are there shelters that will take him in? I clipped Henry out and left him on the counter for Sharon to discover. I imagined for years.
* * *
In the small farmhouse, we are surrounded by the noise of a dream. I have seen Katie and Laura. They are real and beautiful and they swarm around Sharon. She is the center of their attention, the focus of their energy and anxiety. I try to insinuate myself into the conversation, but they are not yet interested in the novelty of a father. They ask questions without waiting for answers. Each trying to talk faster and louder than the other. They need to know what we eat, what our cats are like, how many bedrooms we have, what kind of television we watch, and most importantly, where do we go for Christmas. This is not the time to tell them that we are Buddhist, vegetarian Jews.
* * *
In December of 2006, after months of psychological tests, physician reports, background checks, and financial disclosures, our social worker writes our adoption home-study report. In it she summarizes who we are as individuals:
Sharon presents as a kind, sociable, outgoing, and intelligent person. She seems to be very empathetic and compassionate toward others. Sharon describes herself as calm, warm, and loving. She also notes that she sometimes overeats in response to stress.
Nico presents as an intelligent, friendly, thoughtful, and insightful person. He has a great sense of humor. He describes himself as a person who is “very in touch with my emotions and thought processes.” And he overeats at times.
And as a couple:
Nico and Sharon completed the ENRICH Marital Inventory as part of their adoption study process and were identified by the inventory as a Vitalized Couple Type. According to the inventory, they have a high degree of satisfaction in their relationship. It indicated that their areas of strength include communication, conflict resolution, sexual relationship, and role relationship.
I am embarrassed to admit that I enjoyed the process. I knew we had a good relationship. I knew we were both smart, capable people, and I took pleasure in hearing others tell me about it. It was a form of flattery.
* * *
When we submitted our home study for Katie and Laura, we went to the top of the list and the county did not bother interviewing other candidates. Our social workers assured us we would be excellent parents. “You rock!” we were told by one. “You two are awesome,” relayed another.
I am not vain by nature and do not seek out praise. I often reject compliments outright. But these came so fast and from so many different directions I couldn’t keep them in perspective. I probably would make a great father. I am intelligent. I do have a great sense of humor.
I am also lacking in humility.
My life was well ordered and cleanly defined. I wasn’t ready for even a little chaos. Yet chaos came. We didn't just adopt two children in April of 2008. With them came the history of their abusive, mentally deficient, neglectful, drug-and-alcohol-addicted mother. Their spiteful grandmother who used them for financial profit. Their violent brother who grew up in group homes. Their absent fathers. The men, often abusive, who floated in and out of their mother’s life. Their foster parents. Their social workers. Their therapists. Their endless rages, desperate fears, and horrifying nightmares.
I had never known poverty, abuse, or neglect until I became a parent. Now I am surrounded by them. At these things I do not rock and I am not awesome. I am barely holding on.
* * *
The sun is setting beyond the fields and forests and our first visit with our daughters is coming to a close. Sharon is saying goodbye to Laura. She is cradling her homemade Mother’s Day present in her hands. Katie is in her foster mother’s lap across the table from me. We are clapping together. My large, thick fingers creating an unsteady rhythm with her tiny palms. The rhythm stops and she holds her hand on mine. We look at each other briefly and she asks, “So you’re going to be my forever daddy?”
Nicodemus Taranovsky is a graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Hamline University. He is working on a fantasy novel, a cozy mystery, and a memoir about adoption. When not writing he is busy milling around The Loft Literary Center, reading, studying, cooking, gardening, playing Frisbee, or walking the dog. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with his wife, Sharon, his daughter, an abundance of cats, and a lone Italian Greyhound. His website is www.nicotaranovsky.com.