What's it like being a dad to someone else's child? Nick Thorpe shares his personal experience of becoming father through the process of adoption.
Months before we met our son for the first time, I knew in my gut that I wanted to be his dad. The description from the social worker chimed for both of us: “A lively, sociable three-year-old with a sunny personality and a streak of mischief, C loves to talk about his feelings and listen to story books…” My wife and I put in our application, made a DVD to introduce ourselves, and decked out a new bedroom in Bob the Builder bedding.
But driving over to the west coast for our first meeting, our excitement was mingled with anxiety. Would we all get on together? Could we really meet this little boy’s emotional needs? Would we be good enough parents for him? It all suddenly felt like a colossal gamble.
We were five minutes from his foster carer’s house when a call came through on my mobile. “Hello? Are you there, Mummy Ali and Daddy Nick?” breathed a little Scottish voice. “Where are you? I’m waaaaiitiiiing …!” A few minutes later, he opened the door in his Scooby Doo T-shirt and grinned at us from behind his foster mum’s legs – and deep inside me the last ramparts of anxiety collapsed into love.
Be my parent
Six years later, I’m trying to think how to distil everything that has happened since that momentous day, and weave in some useful advice for anyone thinking of becoming adoptive parents to the thousands of children waiting for a home.
In some ways, all the clues we needed were encoded in that first day. Within minutes C had introduced us to his much-loved toy dog called Woof (now very dog-eared but still his most treasured possession); given us a sticky-fingered tour through the photo albums of his various families (still consulted regularly as we help our 9-year-old to make sense of his past); and played together as if our life depended on it – which in the very deepest sense, it still does.
Adoption is not simply another way to become a parent. Once you’ve got through the often lengthy vetting and introductions procedure – and it’s not uncommon for this to take a couple of years – it demands a more intensive “therapeutic parenting” to restore unmet development needs and heal trauma. Traditional parenting techniques are often ineffective or even harmful: imagine how frightening ‘time out’ could be for a child who had experienced neglect.
As Adoption UK puts it: “Adopted children’s early experiences often cause deep-set confusion, fear and anger and so they can struggle with relationships and day-to-day life. This can lead to behaviour which is, initially, difficult to understand. Love alone cannot always heal the hurt.”
What is also required is a deep well of patience and understanding as these children slowly recover from searing experiences of separation, loss and trauma – and ultimately find the strength and self-acceptance to lead confident, happy lives.
Tears and laughter
As you might imagine, this is often very challenging – but it’s also hugely rewarding as healing slowly comes. There are some days when it all feels as blessed and natural as if this lively, funny child has lived with us for ever. There are others when I’m so tired and frustrated I could crawl into bed and sleep for years.
And I wouldn’t change being C’s dad for anything.
I love him so much it aches. We are woven together by commitment, by shared experience, by tears and struggles as well as joy and uproarious laughter. He’s reminded me how to play, how much we all need that magic glue, as natural as breathing – ceaseless, serious, funny, boisterous, tender play. I’ve also learned my about my own limitations, and how to ask for help more quickly.
Like all parenting, it’s an intricate, intuitive dance. There’s no simple way to do it other than to relax and forgive yourself when you fluff your steps, and stay open to the changing rhythm of the music. C has a natural yen for it, this dance of attachment. Sometimes he needs holding close in the certainty that he is loved, whatever happens. And yet there are other times when he needs me to relax and step back, trust the dance.
Being an adoptive dad is both the most challenging and fulfilling thing I’ve ever done – and it has changed my life for good.
Nick is national development officer for Fathers Network Scotland. For more information about adoption in the UK see the BAAF website. Nick includes a more detailed personal account of the adoption process (among other things), in his book URBAN WORRIER: Adventures in the Lost Art of Letting Go.
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