“Who is that?” I ask, pointing at my son’s reflection. We — my wife, my son, and I — are all standing in front of our big, full-length mirror, staring at it.“To-to!” is my 2-year-old’s emphatic (and incorrect) reply.
“And who’s that?” I point at myself. I’m dirty blond and thick-haired, like my son. Our eyes are a different color. Mine blue, his green-hazel.
“And who’s that?” I ask pointing at my wife. My son looks like my wife, too, if you compare their baby pictures. Similar cheekbones, big smiles, wide angular eyes.
He’s grinning when he says, “Mama!”
“And who’s that?” I point at my wife’s belly.
“Baby!” he shouts.
The baby that my wife is carrying is my first-born. My daughter. My son’s little sister.
My son is not my wife’s or my biological son. We’re in the process of adopting him, and he’s been permanently in our home since July 26th, 2017. That’s two kids in eleven months if you’re counting. At first, it was strange to have people comment on how “he looks so much like you,” but I don’t even hesitate anymore. He does. He looks like me.
I can guess your next question is: Why isn’t he with his biological parents? Before I answer, I think you should know a few things about him.
My son is perfect. He loves music, baths, and his play school. He speaks four-word sentences on the regular, thinks getting scared is hilarious, likes oatmeal, doesn’t like rice, loves to wave at strangers in the grocery store, and is pretty much your every day absolutely blatantly average 2-year-old.
Also, for nine months, while still in the womb, he was addicted to heroin.
And it’s wrong and unfair that you even have to know that about him. It’s wrong that I have to defend his absolute flawlessness before I can say that because of the assumption that you made when I said, “adopted.”
So yeah, I’m a little defensive. Wouldn’t you be if you were holding an intelligent, beautiful, human being in your arms and your friends and family gave you a sideways eye and asked in tones that only the nearby could hear, “What wrong with him?”
I’m defensive also because, honestly, their fears are my fears. I ask myself, what’s wrong with him? What could possibly be wrong with him?
But my son does have issues, and they were born because of his neonatal abstinence syndrome. He struggles with a variety of dysregulation consistent with that of drug-exposed infants. The latest thing we’ve been dealing with has been night terrors. He wakes up screaming in the middle of the night and can’t seem to hear me when I’m talking to him. It’s scary and makes me feel really helpless as a parent to listen to my kid cry when I can’t do anything about it.
Early in our placement with him, he had a stress scream that he would use, different than a scream of excitement or fear. He would produce it when he was angry, tired, in trouble, or all of the above. It took weeks of living in our home, reminding him to use his signs and words, pretending to be a whale (cue Dada making a low hum), and explaining to him why screaming hurts our ears before he stopped doing that. But even now during high-stress times, I’ll catch him making the same ear-piercing shriek. It’s like a bat using echolocation to find insects, but instead, it’s my son trying to find methods of regulating emotions.
There are other things too. He bites classmates and teachers at school. Too many people nearby is over stimulating and sometimes he can’t come down from it. Getting him to play alone, even for a few minutes at a time, is manageable on a good day, but downright impossible on a bad day. The separation anxiety is too great, and why wouldn’t it be? He lost a mom and then a family before he was a year and a half old.
My wife and I have been put in an interesting place. In so many ways our boy is everything I could hope to see in a son. But every stage of his development brings a pile of challenges and who knows what they’ll be as he gets older. So, it means that we can’t lie to our son. He’s going to have to be told how and why he is where he is today, including the grizzly parts so that when things come up, he’ll be able to point to a reason and hopefully he’ll be better equipped to deal with those struggles.
My wife is having a baby, and she’ll be full term in a week. Something that I’m coming to terms with is that my daughter is going to hit all of the same developmental stages, but without the struggles of addiction. Every stage of her development is also going to bring a pile of challenges. Both of my children will have to be given the tools and the safe spaces to process the difficult stuff. She’s an individual and so is my son.
“You’re going to have a baby sister,” I tell my son. He says, “Tister!”
“Yeah, are you excited meet her?”
“Yeah!” he says.
I don’t think he has any idea what’s coming.
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