One day a few months ago, my wife, my then-thirteen-year-old son, and I were in the waiting room of the one dentist office in town that takes the state insurance provided for foster kids. My son, per usual, was all over me, vacillating between aggressive hugs and affectionate bites, which simultaneously billowed my heart with love and drove me bonkers. We felt just like a normal family, and in my head we looked just like a normal family too.
When the dentist came to take my son back to her evil oral care lair, she made a comment to him that still seems a bit inappropriate to me. “Wow, your parents must have started early,” she said, of course referencing the fact that my wife and I didn’t look old enough to have a thirteen-year-old son (who is now fourteen). To be fair, we aren’t old enough to have a fourteen-year-old son; at least not biologically. We’re twenty-five, he’s fourteen. If you’re doing the math at home, you know it doesn’t add up. But thanks to adoption, he’s still our son, which is truly amazing. The problem is that most people don’t realize that he’s really our son, and a lot of times I don’t feel like I’m really a dad.
For the most part, people don’t recognize that I’m my son’s dad. His older brother? Sure. His college roommate? More than once (yeah, weird). His young adult mentor? Yeah, okay. But rarely his dad.
I didn’t anticipate that this bother me too much, but it does. In fact, sometimes it even hurts. Perhaps it’s my own pride, but when I’m strolling around Walmart with my son, I want people to know that he’s my son. The lamentable reality that they probably won’t know that can make me feel like my family is somehow illegitimate or that I’m not a real dad. Thankfully, the fine patrons of Walmart do not arbitrate the validity of a family or a dad.
The fact of the matter is, whether or not people regard me as my son’s dad, I fulfill the responsibilities a dad has to his children. I pay for my son’s groceries, his clothes, his cell phone plan, and his long-ass showers. I drive him to friends’ houses, appointments, and school when he misses the bus. I help him with his homework (when he does his homework). I play catch with him, even when we’re at a baseball game I want to actually watch. I buy him ice cream when he doesn’t deserve it. I attend all of his football and baseball games and try my best not to critique his play too much. I sit with him until he falls asleep after he watches a scary movie. I scratch his feet every night before bed because it makes him feel loved, safe, and comforted. I finish the overly ambitious meals he orders and inevitably hardly eats.
(Just to be fair: I could make a much, much longer list of all the ways I screw things up as a dad, but that would be neither helpful nor relevant to the topic of this post.)
This is the point: I don’t need the general public to perceive me as a dad to be a dad. I don’t need to feel like a dad all the time to be a dad. I don’t need to be old enough to be a dad. I don’t need my son to call me Dad to be a dad. I don’t need to have a blood relation or a family resemblance to be a dad. I don’t need to be able to fix a car to be a dad. I don’t need to have conceived a child to be a dad.
I’m starting to think that being a dad is less of an identity to claim and more of a duty to fulfill. If I’m claiming my identity as a dad, then being a dad is all about me; if I’m fulfilling my duty as a dad, then being a dad is all about my child. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my eleven months of being a dad, it’s that it isn’t about me at all. To be honest, I feel bitter about that at times, because I want the fact that I am a dad to be seen, known, and celebrated. But ultimately I know that my identity as a dad is far less important than my duty as a dad. So let those who don’t know our family think what they will. Regardless of whether I’m identified as my son’s dad, I fulfill the duty of being his dad, and that, at least, is enough.
If you’re an adoptive dad who, for whatever reason, isn’t recognized as a real dad or doesn’t feel like a real dad, I get it. What we’re doing is complex and tricky for the average individual to comprehend. It’s even difficult for our adoptive children to understand at times. They may not call you Dad, or take your last name, or accept you as a trustworthy person in their life. They may turn eighteen someday and reject you completely. Who knows? But the fact that you fulfilled the duty of being a dad matters, regardless of the result.
If you’re a foster dad who’s raising someone else’s child for a time until that family can be reunited, God freakin’ bless you. What you’re doing must be amazingly difficult, but the reunification of a family is a beautiful thing and you’re playing an active role in that. Frankly, you’re not Dad to that child because Dad is hopefully out there somewhere doing whatever it takes to get his child back. But for the duration that child is in your home, you get the privilege (and the responsibility) to fulfill the duty of being a dad to that child. In that way, you are a real dad, even if you’re not that child’s real dad.