Moving In

(Apologies to anyone who checked in last Monday looking for a new post. Apparently I scheduled this one for 1/26 instead of 1/19. I will try to remember how to use a calendar correctly in the future. – Joe)

January 11, 2003 is, and probably always will be, the most important day of my life.

(Sorry, future husband if you’re out there—our first date/anniversary will have to settle for a tie.)

That was the day the kids would stop coming to see me for visits, and were coming to stay with me. For good.

Because I needed something larger than my Camry, I borrowed Marge and Cindy’s minivan for the move. I also borrowed Max to come with me. Even though this decision was based on practical considerations, it seemed appropriate that I ended up driving the van of my parenting heroes, with the kid who pointed me firmly on the path to fatherhood, to pick up my kids.

Max and I made the four-hour trek without incident. The time at the house was minimal: A quick visit with the foster mother, packing the van with the boys’ very little bit of stuff—suitcases with clothes, some books, stuffed animals—and climbing in. Within an hour, we were heading back to Oakland and the start of our new life.

I would love to hear from other fost-adopt parents what they experienced when they picked up their kids for that final transition. I don’t know what I expected. Tears? Screams? Clutching to the door frame, refusing to leave?

What I got instead were two kids, pleasant as good be, sitting in the back of this strange car with this strange man (and a teenager who really was a stranger), as if we were long-time friends going out on a Sunday drive. It was so … undramatic? normal? … that I can’t even say much about the conversation. The only snippet I remember clearly is this:

Me: You know, I have a new name now.

 Boys: What is it?

Me: It’s Daddy. I’m not Joe anymore.

That took about three days to sink in. During that time, if one or the other kid asked a question or made a comment to “Joe,” I would reply with, “Who is this Joe person? I know you are talking to somebody, but I don’t know who that is.”

Like I say, three days.

I was—and, unbelievably, still am—fortunate. I mean, really, really fortunate. We had our honeymoon as expected, but what no one expected was that on some very real levels, the honeymoon has never ended. The reasons are as different as the kids themselves:

For Daveon, who turned seven the week before I picked him up, there was—and continues to be—such an amazing, intense feeling of gratitude that finally, really, after so many false starts, here was home. And this guy who is (after a handful of others) calling himself “Daddy” is going to be the one that sticks—the one I never have to leave. Over the years, we have actually had to work against this deep gratitude somewhat—to help Daveon feel OK to get mad at me, speak his mind, let me know what isn’t working, etc. Trust me, it’s very weird to encourage your kid to yell at you once in a while. But that fundamental gratitude survives, and it has been a true gift in our relationship.

Mark, on the other hand, let his “cheerful self-centeredness”—accompanied by his charming air-headedness—set the tone. From day one, it never really occurred to him that anything unusual was going on. He used to live in one place, now he lived in another. This guy was Dad, and as long as there was food on the table and not too much yelling, life was good. And again, that basic stance has carried through to the present day.

I think it says a lot that over the first few months, the biggest behavioral “issue” we faced was training my 7-year-old to let me know when he was hungry, rather than just going to the refrigerator or cabinet and grabbing things at will. This training had less to do with food itself than with what I will call, for lack of a catchier term, my “philosophy of structure”—I’ll get into that later. But first, let me introduce the stars of our show.

Next: My Kids: Daveon

The Visits

As you may recall, I found my kids by looking in my local county binder. This was great news, because it meant less of a physical transition for them. What I found out, after my worker (Heather) connected with theirs (Amy), was that they actually lived in a little town about four hours away from Oakland. Even though they were wards of my county, Amy found the best placement with Ms. Reed, a grandmotherly-type who was doing foster care way down in the valley. So much for best-laid plans.

For the first visit, in early December, Heather and I made the 4-hour drive together. The visit itself was scheduled for an hour, which meant we were looking at an 8:1 driving time-to-visit time ratio. Amy, who was also based in Oakland, made the drive separately. So now you had three adults, driving a total of 16 hours, for this one-hour look at the kids. But that’s not the funny part. The funny part is: For your first visit, there’s no commitment on anybody’s part—you’re just meeting. Because of this, the kids were not supposed to know who I was—Heather and I were going to be there as “Amy’s friends.”

What actually happened was, that morning, the foster mom told the boys: “Your new dad is coming today.” So from the minute I got there, they seemed awfully happy to see me. In retrospect, I suppose this is better than them knowing who I was, and being awfully unhappy to see me. I guess I owe Ms. Reed a belated thanks, even if she went outside the lines.

Anyway: We showed up, and there they were. Two bundles of crazy-cute energy. One small, slim-featured, darker, gregarious. The other fairer, larger, broader, holding a little more in reserve. The six of us sat in the dining room and chatted a bit, then the boys and I went outside and played some wall dodge ball and Nerf football in the cul-de-sac. They cheated at both blatantly and often—shades of things to come. I asked them questions about the important stuff: favorite TV shows, favorite sports and games, favorite foods, etc. They answered easily and pleasantly, with Mr. Gregarious mostly running the show. After an hour Heather and I drove home. So far, so good. No red flags.

Outside the foster home

Outside the foster home

The second trip, I went down by myself for the weekend—the drive-to-visit time ratio was getting better here. I stayed in a funky B&B about 20 minutes away from their town, with the idea that we would spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons together, getting them home in time for dinner. I remember two outings: one to an airplane museum, where we saw—you know, airplane stuff—and one to the movies. I think it was an animated Disney film called “Treasure Planet,” but all I really remember is that Mark got a headache and we had to leave about halfway through. Maybe a slightly pale pink flag? Did being around me make him sick?

I guess not, because we scheduled our next round of visits to coincide with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Fortunately, the driving gods clearly decided I had done enough. Ms. Reed had an adult daughter who lived less than 45 minutes from me in San Jose, with whom she (Ms. Reed) and the boys were going to stay for about two weeks over the holidays. Heather called me on December 23 to see if the boys could come by that afternoon to stay through the 26th—basically, instant family Christmas. Which was fine, except at that point, I didn’t have anywhere for them to sleep. This is the part where Aunt Leigh and I had our frantic, curse-filled IKEA bunk bed-building episode.

On this first “in our house” visit, we had our first family taste of magic. Being a single dude cottage-dweller for many years prior, I didn’t really “do” Christmas. I hadn’t bought a tree in … well, maybe ever, I didn’t have any decorations, lights, etc. On December 24 (after a good night’s sleep in their NEW BED), the boys and I made the trek out to get some basics. The store where we bought the ornaments, tinsel, and other goodies had one tree left on the lot. They gave it to us for free.

Not a bad start.

I have a picture from that visit of the boys standing on my bed, waving—their heads not even touching the ceiling. Given how enormous they are now, that picture, which has a permanent home on my fridge, is pretty much guaranteed to bring out a few tears. So much yet to come …

On the bed ... sigh

On the bed … sigh

Anyway, I brought the kids back to the foster mom on December 26, and we repeated the cycle the next week: The boys came up just before New Year’s and stayed with me through the holiday, and I drove them back to San Jose a day or two later. This visit was apparently a bit less magical—my only memory is sending them to bed by 9 on New Year’s Eve, because they were being such butt-heads. As with most “crises” through our time together, a few days later I couldn’t even tell you what the problem was. It couldn’t have been too bad, though, because 10 days later, they were …

Next: Moving In

(Note: I am writing this on January 11, 2014. Today is the 12-year anniversary of the day the boys moved in. More magic.)

Finding My Kids

Now we’re getting to the good stuff.

I decided pretty early in my process that I wanted siblings, preferably boys. Siblings, because I figured that being adopted by a single gay guy might bring up stuff, so at least each kid would have someone to share the experience with. Also, a sibling set gave each kid a built-in playmate who—to the relief of both of us—would not be me. Boys, because I was thinking ahead to puberty.I know my limits, and the idea of dealing with a teenage girl—or, worse, girls—made my hair stand on end. No clue. Having been a boy once myself, I figured boys would be easier.

I think that turned out to be a pretty good choice on my part.

I finished all the requirements of my training, house upgrades, home study/psychoanalysis, etc. by the end of October 2002. And here’s what happened:

In mid-November, I went to the AASK office and sat in a room with a table full of binders. Each binder represented a California county, and inside each binder were (very brief, sketchy) profiles for all the foster kids up for adoption in that county. The binders were divided into three sections: boys, girls, and siblings.

(Note: There are other ways to “look for/at” kids: there are websites, a community TV program, even “picnics” that gather available foster children and invite prospective parents to meet, greet, and evaluate—sort of like adoption speed-dating. I couldn’t even imaging walking through all those kids live and having to note “maybe them, or them, definitely not them,” etc.—especially older kids who know exactly what’s going on. Binders seemed a lot safer.)

The rules of looking through the binders were simple: The more you look through, the better your chance of finding a match that will work out. As you go through, you are to flag any potential matches with a post-it note. The agency worker then contacts the county worker for each of those kids/sibling sets and sends the worker a brief bio of the prospective parent (me).

After this point, the process is out of your hands. Each county worker makes a decision whether they think you (the prospective parent) are a good fit for the kid or kids in question. If so, the county worker replies to the agency worker and sets up a meeting. Again, it’s a numbers game: If you want a match, flag lots of potential kids. There is no commitment at this point.

Back in the room, I took a deep breath and grabbed the binder for my own county. I ideally wanted local kids—again thinking that being adopted by a single gay guy might be enough of a major transition, I was hoping we could at least minimize the impact of the actual physical move.

OK, so I have my county binder, and I open to the siblings section, and there they were: my kids. They were the very first picture I saw, and I knew right away they were the ones. Yes, I’m one of those “gut instinct” people. But this was gut instinct times infinity.

First pic I saw: "Those are my kids!"

First pic I saw: “Those are my kids!”

I flagged their page and probably could have called it a day right there, but stayed for another hour doing my due diligence, flagging other possible candidates—including a few trios of two brothers and a sister. I try to play by the rules.

Here’s what normally happens next: You wait a month, or two, or six. If you’re lucky, calls trickle in from various county workers. For any given kid or kids, you set up an initial meeting with just the workers, which usually leads to two or three more meetings. Then, between the workers and the current foster parent, you work out an initial visit. Assuming the first one is a hit, you make any number of follow-up visits, gradually moving toward sleepovers and more extended stays. At some point, you and the kids are separately asked, “Do you want to make this permanent?” If all parties say yes, you officially become a foster family on the road to adoption. This process generally takes about a year, although it’s not uncommon for it to go to two years and beyond.

Here’s what happened to us: The day after my post-it party at AASK, my kids’ county social worker, Amy, contacted my agency worker, Heather. The next week, we had a meeting. Within two weeks, we started visits.

I found out later that none of the other county workers had ever called back.

Next: The Visits