It’s 5:45 in the morning and her feet patter into the room. She gets into the bed, rests her head next to mine on the pillow, and yells “Ruff” right in my ear. “Ruff, wake up Daddy, Ruff.” Yep, dogs are still one of her favorite animals. I turn and say “Ruff, good morning Kenz. Did you sleep well?” It’s officially time to start the day. As Kenz eats breakfast, she sings the baby shark tune. Taking a moment to pause before beginning my to-do list, I smile as she runs over to give me a big “daddy shark” hug.
I still feel like these moments don’t belong to me sometimes. Due to health challenges, being autistic, and being transman, I had given up the dream of becoming a dad years ago. On May 2, 2020 – the day Kenzy was born – that dream re-entered my life when the family asked if we would be open to raising her since her biological mother was unable to and her father was unknown.
May 2, 2020, will mark the day that fatherhood will become a part of my life story. We were living in Maryland while Kenzy was in the NICU in New Mexico, and there were so many decisions to make. There were so many calls we were making and we had no idea what the next steps were. I learned so many new terms during that initial time including kinship, interstate foster care, interstate compact placement of children agreements, and adoption.
Covid-19 also made things more complicated as systems were shut down. Our state of Maryland was not accepting new public agency Parent, Relative, Foster, or Adoption home study referrals. Two weeks after birth, Kenzy was discharged into the New Mexico foster care system. In Maryland, we began the pathway to foster care parent certification. This led to our ability to be adoption and adoptive parents to Kenzy later that year.
Not Quite a Foster Dad
Before Kenzy was born, I had little to no knowledge of the foster care system – let alone how it worked across two states. Covid-19 halted interstate compact child placement agreements. All foster care and adoption placements across state lines were halted as a result. This meant steps to complete a home study and training hours to receive our foster care parent license were delayed by a few months. This license was a requirement for us to bring Kenzy from New Mexico to Maryland. All we could do was wait.
So, we called and emailed our local constituents. We were in constant contact with the social services department in New Mexico and we were having virtual visits every week with Kenzy. This was an emotional time as it felt like Kenzy was so close and yet so far away. We just wanted to hold her and bond with her. In the midst of the pandemic, we also wanted to know she was okay and keep her healthy and safe. Some days we got excited dreaming and putting the crib together after having a Facetime call and seeing her smile and giggle. Other times I sat in the hallway staring at her room with her name on her door crying as I felt helpless.
First Time Foster Dad
We had just received our foster care home license when we were told it would be a few more months before we could bring Kenzy home. My wife and I had debated on whether or not it was the right thing to move Kenzy from a home and guardians she had already begun bonding with. It was a one moment, one day at a time trying to find some direction.
When the phone rang with a New Mexico area zipcode we thought it was going to be another roadblock. Instead, we jumped for joy with tears in our eyes as Kenzy’s caseworker said “Everything is approved. You can fly out here tomorrow to pick her up if you want”. Five days later we were on a plane. A new part of the adventure began as I held my daughter on the flight home.
Those early days were focused on establishing safety and bonding. Some of the first things I learned about fatherhood on this part of the adventure were:
- “Firsts” are firsts and there is no handbook.
- Get ready for a whirlwind of emotions on hyperspeed.
- Everything does actually change.
- Postpartum depression in fathers is real. It is okay to struggle and get some support.
- The strategies and knowledge I gained in the foster parent training will actually be used and helpful.
- Kenzy has trauma. I have trauma. I need to make sure I have support and I am working through my trauma in a healthy way so that I can support Kenzy with how the trauma she has experienced impacts her.
- There will be lots and lots of questions.
- Filling out paperwork at the pediatrician and other places as a foster parent is a little different.
- Make sure you have your documentation and know what your requirements as a foster parent are.
- Remember the power of love, security, routine, consistency, safety.
- I will feel like I have no idea what I’m doing – that is a normal part of fatherhood.
Adoption & Fatherhood
National Adoption Day, November 20, 2021 we joined the judge and caseworkers by Zoom where we had an adoption ceremony. I went from being a foster dad to an adoptive dad. It was an emotional time marked by our family coming together while also holding space for the meaning that my daughter’s birth parents would not be the ones raising her and how that would impact her as she grows up.
It was also the day I learned we were becoming a part of a team, Team Kenzy, my daughter, and I was taking on the role of an adoptive father. A role that would be defined and expressed through many different perspectives and experiences. Some of these perspectives will be celebratory and some will be based in stigma and assumptions. Our village will shrink and our village will grow as we make new connections. At the same time, Kenzy’s village will grow with individuals that love and support her in many different ways. With that, as a father, I thank everyone who has been, currently is, and will be a part of Team Kenzy.
Leaning into the Fullness of Fatherhood
From diapers to tantrums to her first steps…the fullness of fatherhood is 24-7. Looking back, I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared me, not even a crystal ball. Life and a child just doesn’t work that way. She is constantly growing and as I dad I am growing with her every step of the way.
So, what does leaning into the fullness of fatherhood mean to me?
- Asking for help.
- Being able to see where I messed up, say I’m sorry, and make changes moving forward.
- Learning and listening to my child’s many different forms of communication.
- Growing with co-regulation.
- Going to therapy and engaging in self-care to deal with my own stuff.
- There will be scary moments – you will rise to the occasion as a father and support your child and family through them.
- Taking time to build attachments matters.
- I am one of my child’s biggest advocates.
Individual and Family Tapestries
When I think of the word “tapestry” I think of all the experiences and parts of me that make me who I am. I think of the generations before me and how they are a part of my DNA. I think about the past, present, and future. I think about how there are so many intertwined intersecting stories. In my world, I think of my individual tapestry as a continuous piece of artwork being made – the art work of my life. When I think of the tapestry of family – I see my birth family, I see my chosen family, I see the generations of heritage that I know and don’t know, and I see the family I am a part of that has been built.
Being an adopted dad, I also see my daughter’s individual and family tapestry. It is not the exact same as mine, but yet there are pieces of hers woven into mine and pieces of mine woven into hers.
Even though the journey of fatherhood is not exactly the same for everyone – we are all fathers. We are protectors, advocates, providers, caregivers, champions of our children and so much more. I am thankful for the gift of fatherhood. I am thankful for my daughter’s birth parents for bringing Kenzy into this world. I am thankful for her foster family and Guardian ad litem who advocated and cared for her while she was in the foster care system as an infant. I am thankful for all the service providers who are supporting the unique dynamics of our family with all its identities and intersectionalities. I am thankful for my family and the universe for the gift of being able to watch my daughter grow and explore the world around her.
Parenting is hard, and being a father is one of the most challenging and amazing blessings of my life. On this Father’s Day – however you came into the journey of fatherhood – I celebrate YOU!
Written By: Kris McElroy, Adoptive Father