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

Advertisements

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

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.