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Recently I had the honor of participating in Listen To Your Mother – a curated show of readings about moms and motherhood. I was the only male in our cast, and I shared a bit of my journey regarding the birthmother of my son Jon.
I’ve not written much about this topic, for the sake of my son’s privacy as well as that of his birthmom. However, the events encapsulated in my 6-minute reading took several years in real time, and included a slew of emotions ranging from fear and resentment, to disappointment and anger.
Many adoptive parents struggle silently with guilt and confusion over how they think they should feel about their child’s biological parents, versus how they actually feel. I’m sharing this for those parents — so they won’t feel alone like I did so much of the time. So they’ll know there are no right or wrong ways to think and feel about these complicated relationships.
The M Word
I am not a mother. What I am is a gay man, partnered for 17 years, legally married for one.
What I am is a father. A 45-year-old father of a 5-year-old boy. I’m being held together by Starbucks, Aleve and Just for Men.
And in our house, “mother” is referred to as… “The M Word.”
As in “Can I speak to his mother?”
“Is his mother dead?”
“Which one of you is ‘the mother’?”
“Daddy, when can I get a mother?”
“He’ll grow up knowing what a brave and generous woman his mother is.” Yeah, that’s bullshit. That’s what I’m supposed to say.
Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of a gay dad than “The M Word” issuing forth from the mouth of their child. When our infant son would make the “mama” sound, we’d correct him and say, “Not ‘mama,’…’O-BAMA’.”
But I’ll bet you’re wondering, “Who IS his mother?”
His mother is a woman named Stef (not her real name) who selflessly made an adoption plan for her child, knowing she wasn’t equipped to offer him the best life, and wise enough to know someone else might be. She’s our Fairy Birthmother, granting a wish we could never fulfill ourselves. She’s a constant source of inspiration to me, and a loving presence in our son’s life. We treasure being able to share her with our son, so that he’ll grow up knowing what a brave and generous woman his mother is.
Yeah, that’s bullshit. That’s what I’m supposed to say.
As we started our journey to become dads, we read and heard a lot about open adoptions. Nearly every article spoke of a courageous birthmother, and the importance of raising your children to know and appreciate them. Stories of adoptive parents having Birth mom over for Thanksgiving dinner; parents sending their child on long walks with their bio-moms, creating opportunities for them to bond and ask questions and find comfort in knowing from whence they came. Some even treated as full-fledged members of the family.
But reading all this heartwarming wonderfulness left a knot in my stomach. This was NOT in my plan.
I didn’t want to spend years and years, and thousands upon thousands of dollars — not to mention a lifetime of dreaming of being a dad — to then have to share my child with someone else. And someone with questionable parenting skills, at that.
In actuality, my son’s mother is a woman named Stef (still not her real name). When we met her, she lived in a dilapidated trailer that reeked of cigarettes, as well as several cats and ferrets. Frayed electrical wires jutted from the walls; the stove looked like a bomb had detonated on it; clothes and toys and dirty dishes were piled like anthills throughout. And it was depressingly, darkly lit.
At 25 years old, Stef brought a son into the world. Four months later she found herself pregnant again. Another four months, and her son was taken by the state and placed in foster care, classified as “failure to thrive.”
Failure to thrive – in this instance – is defined as an infant who is born healthy, but due to neglect is below the 5th percentile in height and weight. The boy was so malnourished that his cheek muscles were too weak to hold a pacifier.
Stef was then told there were 2 options regarding her unborn baby: she could make an adoption plan, or her second child would also be taken by the state.
She of course chose adoption, and ultimately, thankfully, chose us to be his parents.
But was that really “making a brave choice,” or was it just complying with a legally mandated ultimatum? Why and how was I supposed to appreciate that? Why and how was I supposed to raise my child to appreciate her?
I get open adoption, in concept. Full disclosure, honesty is the best policy, and all that. Family secrets can be devastating — because they always get discovered anyway.
Yet in any other circumstance, this is someone I would protect my child from, not sign a contract to bring him to meet her every year until he turns 18. And yet — we longed to be fathers, and we loved this child from the moment we met him. And all our research and experts and attorneys and social workers said open adoption was best. So we made that promise — to annually travel cross-country so our little boy could spend time with the woman who gave birth to him.
How do I reconcile these conflicting feelings? How do I find a way to show gratitude to a person I struggle not to resent?
I do it because I have to, if I want to be a good father. And because it’s my son’s story, not mine.
I will keep my judgment and my fear, my resentment and my insecurity from my son; instead hashing and laying it all out with my husband, my therapist, you fine folks.
My son’s story is that he has 2 parents — a Daddy and a Papa. And he also has a birthmother. An imperfect, struggling, human birthmother. There’s no getting around it, denying it, hoping it will go away. Not without creating a lifetime of secrecy, potentially damaging the very relationship I’m so desperate to protect.
It’s my job as his dad to share his story with him, while allowing it to be truly his, unfiltered by my own bias.
So if you don’t mind, I need to talk to my son for a minute:
Hey buddy, Daddy wants to tell you something. I am so grateful for Stef, and that she is your birthmother. She wasn’t able to care for you, so she chose me and Papa to be your parents. Without her, we wouldn’t be a family. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I’ll be grateful to her for the rest of my days.
And you should be, too.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PL5oPQWgVdsDm1JVTRrwctAK8whFwL5PFv&v=5sfpmcc3P6U expand=1]
You can find more of Brent’s thoughts on fatherhood, the LGBT community, and a variety of other topics at his website www.designerdaddy.com.