Our House

As I mentioned last time, the home study has way more to do with breaking you down emotionally and psychologically than it does with your home. Nevertheless, putting together a home—especially a “legal” foster home—was an important part of the process of putting our family together.

I actually have the adoption process to thank for buying me a house. This doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the county or the agency provided any money or offered to make a down payment. Instead, the training I received made it very clear that, as much as I loved it, my little cottage under the big tree was not going cut it as a foster home—the nagging thing about separate bedrooms. So I started looking for a bigger—or at least more-roomed—option. What I found was that, in response to the housing boom in the late 90s/early 2000s, rents had gone through the roof as well. The tech boom did have a downside after all.

Being smart, I figured, “Well, if I have to pay this much for rent, I might as well have a mortgage.”

So I did. And do.

Our house is a shoebox—my mother calls it a dollhouse. Those of you who live in the Bay Area and have family elsewhere will appreciate this fun fact: I have four sisters back East, each of whom has a husband and kids. For less than two-thirds of what I paid for my shoebox, they have large houses with two-car garages, big front and back yards, and, in most cases, a hot tub or pool. We have a garage fit for a Vespa (if you drive in very, very carefully to avoid scraping the walls), and a side yard that might qualify as a regulation bocce court on a good day.

As you might expect in a shoebox, the boys and I fit much better in our house when most of us were under five feet. But it’s home, and will be for the duration, barring any emergency. Because dad is not a pet person, our extended family has been limited to anything that can stay in an enclosure: fish, rabbits (which Mark begged for and then promptly decided he didn’t want to feed), and, on and off for many years, hamsters for Daveon.

Our house has gone through three phases of upgrade:

  • The work I had to do when I moved in to fix all the things the prior owner’s contractor had done wrong. That guy was either a crook, or inept, or both. His crowning touch was—after much grumbling—replacing a cracked window in the back of the house with a horizontal sliding window. Which he installed vertically.
  • The work I had to do to get the house up to “foster home” code. This meant installing a lot of locks on drawers, as well as putting up drywall with the help of my cousin John (by which I mean, he did all the work and I helped). And finally, finding out at around noon on December 23 that the kids would be coming to spend Christmas starting that afternoon, which led to Aunt Leigh—who earns a large star in heaven for her effort—and I trying to build an IKEA bunk bed in about three hours. I hear that the Swedes are a peaceful people, but that afternoon we were cursing them loudly as our most vile enemies. We finally resorted to hammers (for the bed, not the Swedes).*
  • The ongoing, endless work we’ve done to adjust our shoebox o the kids’ ever-growing bodies and lives—constantly rearranging walls and closets, adding shelving anywhere we can squeeze some in, moving furniture. If they ever do a reality show on “how many times can you remodel the same 1,000 square feet?,” our place will be in the premiere episode.

If you go the fost-adopt route, prepare yourself for a lot of tweaking to get your home into “legal” shape. Or move to one of my sisters’ towns and buy a big house with a lot more rooms than you think you’ll need. You’ll need them.

*In one of those coincidences that seems to happen all the time, last night I was over at Leigh and Marty’s helping them … build an IKEA bunk bed for their two boys. No lie.

Next: Finding My Kids

Training

As I mentioned last time, adopting older kids (generally) means getting kids who are in the foster care system. This, in turn, means that your first step to adoption is becoming a foster parent. Why? Because even though it takes a while to become a foster pasrent (as described below), the process of sending a kid from one foster home to another is much faster than transitioning from a foster home to an adoptive placement—which can take months, if not years.

There’s a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo involved, but the bottom line is it bought me an extra 10 months with my kids—so I’ll take it.

So what does this have to do with training? Everything. If I had decided to adopt a kid outright—whether a $10,000 infant or my neighbor’s son—the law would require me to have this much training: none. This might ring a bell for anyone who has birthed a child biologically: zero training required. Apparently, when a kid is yours, you can feed them Cheetos 24/7 and have them sleep on the roof, and no one minds much.

Being a foster parent? In California at least, 40 hours of mandatory training, folks. Forty hours, lots and lots of rules and reqs: all meds must be locked up, kids need separate bedroom with door, etc. Apparently foster children are much more prone to trouble—and sleepwalking—than their biological or adopted counterparts.

I signed up for AASK training in January 2002, which started in March. The trainings were either twice a week for 8 weeks, or four weekends in a row, or something like that—I don’t really remember. I do remember I was the only the only prospective parent there who was both single and gay. In retrospect, I have to laugh at myself for being surprised at how many couples were in the room—being nestled in my alterna-bubble, I honestly forget that most people who consider having children are in couples, and most include one woman and one man. There are a lot of straight parents in the world! There were, however, one or two single women, and last but not least the couple who became my next heroes: Jim and Chris (as in Christopher, not Christine).

In training, one of the first things you learn is the definition of a “special needs” child. This includes, believe it or not, a child with a diagnosed “special need” such as a physical, emotional, or developmental disability. However, again at least in California, it also includes the following:

  • Any child over two
  • Any child who is not white
  • Any siblings

So, yeah: You could fost-adopt a future president of the United States, and if he or she is three, or Latino, or has a sister, that child is special needs. I actually hit the trifecta: My kids were both over two, and not white, and part of a sibling set. Yahtzee! The good news is, the county gives you a monthly stipend for these “special” kids, up to age 18. The bad news is … really?

Anyway, other things you learn in training include the following:

  • How to discipline
  • How not to discipline
  • All the attachment disorders you can expect to see
  • How there’s a good chance you won’t see these disorders until your kid hits puberty
  • The honeymoon
  • How not to be fooled by the honeymoon
  • What to do when the honeymoon ends—probably much sooner and more abruptly than seems reasonable
  • The home study
  • What you are required to have in your house
  • What you are not allowed to have in your house
  • How you will be interviewed and analyzed in a way that puts the NSA to shame
  • How you will discover your own attachment issues and probably cry about them

And the most important thing you learn: How you need to build a support group. Folks who will step in and take over when you are absolutely sure you are going to go crazy/postal/on a one-way flight to anywhere. The trainers couldn’t emphasize this enough, yet it turns out they didn’t emphasize it enough. My own thought, years later, is that no one should be allowed to adopt unless you can show the agency/county the names of 20 people who agree to step in at times of need—and then the agency/county needs to meet with all of these people and get their agreement in writing, including alternate contact phone numbers. Six or 10 or 15 is not enough—it’s amazing how your friends can all seem to have weekend plans at the same time, and how, after they spend one night with your kids, their social lives all seemed to spike dramatically.

Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

Next: Our House

Agencies

One thing I have learned is that parenting—at least, 21st century, Bay Area, middle-class parenting—involves a lot of shopping. Not just the obvious food and clothes, etc. If you are or become a parent, you will very well find yourself spending many hours of your life shopping for the right school, the right camp, the right tutor, the right after-school activity, the right ….

As I say, a lot of shopping.

For me, the “shopping for the right …” process began even before I was officially a parent. In 2001, after five years of training with Max—I’m not exactly the world’s fastest mover and shaker—I got to the point where many might say our family’s story really begins. That fall, I decided I was actually going do this thing: I was going to get some kids. Being smart, as well as gay, and single, I realized this translated into: I am going to adopt some kids.

Many parents who want to adopt are looking for newborns or infants. This process can cost upwards of $10,000 and can take months, if not years, of research, planning, travel, and the like. I, on the other hand, knew right away that I wanted older kids. “Older” meaning a) they could sleep through the night and b) they knew how to use the toilet. Hey, I know my limits—if I was going to raise a couple of kids by myself, diaper-changing was definitely not on the menu.

Unless you are doing a family adoption—taking your niece or nephew, etc., or possibly a friend’s kid—adopting “older” means taking kids who are already in the foster system. To do this, you have two options: working directly with your county Social Services agency, or going through a private agency that specializes in ”special needs“ adoptions (more on that lovely term later).

I avoided going directly through the county, because I heard horror stories of how overworked the social workers are and how slowly the process moves—people waiting two, three years just to get the point of looking at potential kids. The joke was on me when another couple I know, who started their process about the same time as I and did go through the county, finalized the adoption with their first son a good six months earlier than I did. So much for conventional wisdom.

So I my county-avoiding way, I began attending information sessions for different private adoption agencies in the area. The good news: Pretty much every agency holds such a session, where you can learn the ins-and-outs of how they operate. The bad: Being me, I felt obligated to attend all of them, which meant hearing pretty much the same thing over and over. Each time, I patiently sat through the spiel: “We love you! We need you! You’re great! We’re great!”

And then I asked my two big questions:

Do you work with single parents?

Do you work with LGBTQ parents? (Full disclosure: I probably said “gay and lesbian.” I haven’t always been Mr. Informed and Evolved.)

The responses I got went something like this:

Uhhhhhhhhhhhh …. Sure we do.

Ummmmmmmm … yes … we do that.

Single … gay … lesbian … ummm … yeah.

Call me crazy, but that’s a lot of “ummm.”

Finally, at orientation #5? 6? I asked the same questions at (shamless plug) Adopt a Special Kid (AASK) in Oakland. This time, I got: “Oh of course! Our director is a lesbian! We love working with LGBT families!”

Sold. And we were on our way.

Next: Training

Dipping Toes

Note: To set some context—and maybe give some food for thought to folks considering parenthood—the first few posts describe my journey from “single gay guy” to “father of two.” We’ll get to the good stuff—life with the kids—very shortly.

There are a few points where you could say our family’s story begins. I’ll run through a few briefly before I get to what you could call the “official” start of the family saga:

  • When I was in college in the late 1980s, I was a Big Brother to a boy who attended the Rhode Island School for the Deaf. This lasted for just about a year. I would love to say I was amazing in my first foray into pseudo-parenthood, but I think I’ll have to settle for “pretty good.” (Little Bro #1, if you’re out there reading this, I’m sure you’re nodding your fist in agreement.)
  • I was fortunate to attend one of the few universities that offered an undergraduate teaching credential program. So, while getting my English degree, I also obtained my credential in secondary school English, thus doubling my career potential in low-to-no-paying jobs. As part of the credential program, I had two opposing experiences: teaching a class on myth and poetry in a summer program for privileged high school students on the college campus, and doing a semester as a student instructor teaching English to freshmen and sophomores at an inner-city high school. I am not sure how many of my lessons—including the awesome one that used Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia” to teach about poetic verses and refrains—my students retained, but I learned and remembered an extremely valuable one: I like kids.
  • Moving to California just after graduation, I decided to put this lesson into practice. I worked in group homes for the first year and change, then taught special ed for the next three or so. The stories of these years deserve a book of their own.Then I left to pursue writing full-time.
  • Being a starving artist didn’t exactly prep me for parenthood—though it did teach me how to eat on a budget. After a few years in my little cottage under the big tree, away from schools and group homes, it became more and more clear how much I missed kids. This led to a new idea: I think I want my own.
  • So I did the next logical thing: I became a Big Brother once again. This one was more of a “take” than my first, brief experience—to the point where my “little” Max, now (gulp) married, and I are still in touch and he and his moms have been family to me and my kids since day 1. (Plug: They are my first heroes, and I will pay them proper tribute later.)
  • Around the time I met Max, I jumped from starving artist writing to freelancing. I had the crazy idea that my future kids might enjoy eating, and wearing clothes. I also had the idea that raising kids by myself, a flexible schedule might come in very handy (plus—as anyone who knows me can verify—9-to-5 and I don’t get along very well). This career switch turned out to be an exercise in very good timing, as this was right at the beginning of the tech boom in the Bay Area. You could contact pretty much any new tech company, tell them you knew how to write, and end up with a contract within an hour or so. And make plenty of money doing so.Tip: Having work and money is a good prerequisite for raising kids.

Welcome

Every family has a story. Very few have one like ours.

My name is Joe. I am single gay man, and for just about 12 years, I’ve had the great good fortune to be dad to Daveon, now 18, and Mark, now 16. Our decade+ together has been … wow … has it been.

Magic Life: Our First Dozen Years is a collection of stories: part memoir, part lessons learned. It includes everything from our first trip back east to meet dad’s family, to our strange but ongoing relationship with the Queen of England, to dad’s through-the-looking-glass experience of being a gay parent in a straight world. Along the way it touches on topics of race, single parenthood, sexuality, and issues particular to adoptive families, peppered with a few observations that apply to parenting in general.

Magic Life presents a balanced portrait of both our successes and challenges—with honest discussions of pains, struggles, and major mistakes. The tone overall is light and conversational, with many splashes of humor. In other words, an accurate reflection of life in our home.

I’m happy to share life with Daveon and Mark with you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I (usually) do!