Our Story: The Walker-Smiths

Today, guest contributor Shawn Walker-Smith describes his lifelong vision of having kids, how he and his husband Robert finally made the leap, and how that decision changed their lives (overwhelmingly for the better!).

We Chose to Have Kids
What the journey to building a family can look like

Sitting on a black 50’s style banquette, our little group waited for a table to become available. The sound of forks hitting plates and general conversation punctuated the kitschy atmosphere of the restaurant. We were with friends—a cis-gendered straight couple—and my husband and I were lamenting over the hoops and hurdles we would have to go through in order to have a child. One of the pair, well-meaning I am sure, waved it off blithely. “Having a child is not something you can plan,” she said. “It just happens.” After taking a beat to recover myself, I reminded her that as a gay couple, we couldn’t just fall down drunk and wake up pregnant. It took planning. Bless her heart.

Is It Just Me, Or…

The decision to have a child—or many children—is as varied as the grains of sand on a beach. For some people it is the desire to provide a home and care for a child in need. For others, it is an obligation to pass along the family name. And yet for some it is a way to fulfill an unnameable instinct to mother/father a little human in the world.

I had always wanted to have a family. My plan was to leave my home town, go off to college, get married, and then return to my little seaside town and raise a family. Used to having young children around, it just felt natural to me that I would have a kid of my own some day. Needless to say, I followed the plan for the most part. I did leave Southern California to attend university in the Northern half of the state. I started the first of a few careers and even met the man I would eventually marry.

My husband, a native Northern Californian, had grown up being the penultimate child of seven. While he acknowledged the existence of younger human beings in the world, the concept of him—a gay man—having a family seemed totally foreign . Truth be told, I think the idea of him being a father at all had simply never occurred to him. That’s just how he is about some things.

Before we married, I mentioned to my now-husband that I had always wanted a family. That’s about as far as the conversation ever went. He was always decidedly mum on the subject.

So You Wanna Have a Kid?

The hard-shell seats of the Alameda County Social Services Agency, were filled with an array of folks. Middle-aged and older folks were dotted among the younger population of attendees. The ethnically diverse gathering seemed to lean heavily toward the “straight identified” (my assumption). I did, note at least a few other gay folks, smiling broadly at each other as if to say, “You too?”

I was there in support of my sister and I had no expectations. I was there for support, not to participate. Besides, this was an informational meeting—no obligation, no commitment—so I could lean back and relax. By the end of the meeting I was picking up all the handouts.

Later that night, as my husband and I sat on the couch, eating dessert, I “What would you think about us having a kid?” Now you have to understand that my husband rarely makes quick decisions. For him to come out with a response quickly is a big deal.

“Okay,” he said right away. Calmly. Almost in a casual kind of way, as opposed to the OMG-I’m-freaking-out kind of way I was expecting. And like that, we were on our way to growing a family.

Now the Real Fun Begins

We only ever worked with the county for our process. We attended classes (which every new parent should be required to attend) and read loads of books. There were background checks and questionnaires, home inspections and home visits/evaluations. I often say to prospective adoptive parents, “If you are used to being a very private person, this process will make you very uncomfortable.” You do get used to it, though.

We had heard both good and bad things about the county adoption process. It could be slow and laborious as you waited to be matched with a child. But the good experiences seemed to outweigh the negative. I can easily say that a lot of our positive experience depended on our case workers. My youngest son’s case worker is still a good family friend and great coffee companion.

For our first son, the process was perhaps nine months, and it sped by quickly. The first sleepover went from an overnight into a long weekend. Before we knew it, we were painting and outfitting his room. A few months in, we found a good school, and by Solstice our adoption was finalized. Four years later, we would be doing it all over again.

Family Unit

Having our two boys has changed the dynamic of our lives. I often say that the single most difficult thing I have ever done in my life, and the single most rewarding, is becoming a parent. Birthday parties, school bake sales, illness, emotional challenges, and don’t get me started on childcare. Helping them navigate first friendships, first crushes, and having to have “The Talk.” As a parent—gay, straight, or otherwise—you are confronted with challenges and joys that you simply are not able to expect.

Recently someone asked me if, knowing what I know now, would I still have kids. Our journey as a transracial, gay-parented family has had its twists and turns. But my answer always comes back to, “Yes, I would.” I cannot imagine not having these two amazing, resilient, and fantastic young men in my life. Plus I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for them.

Shawn Walker-Smith is a dad, spouse, and former pastry and baking guy. He supports local food spots, great desserts, and the Oxford comma. You can catch him on Twitter (@theswalkersmith), Facebook (@SWSEats), and Instagram (@SWSEats).

Family Building, Week 3

As we continue to look at how LGBTQ+/adoptive/”alt” families chose to build their families, this week’s excerpt from Magic Lessons describes my “love at first sight” experience of finding my kids:

The rules for looking through the binders were simple. 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 or 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, similar to dating, it’s basically a numbers game: If you want a match, flag lots of potential kids. There’s no commitment at this point.

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 typically one of those gut-instinct people. But this was gut instinct times infinity.

Now it’s your turn! Share your family-building story by leaving a comment, or contact me at joe@jmswordsmith.com to have your story featured as a post in a future week!

My Story: Patrick Foley

Today, guest contributor Patrick M. Foley shares the story of how he built his family, and what being a dad means to him. Amazing story, and amazing photo!

I was recruited by DC’s Child and Family Services Agency to house gay teens about 10 years ago. At the time I really didn’t have any thoughts of actually starting a family, I just figured I’d be a foster parent and see what developed.

My oldest son is now 26 years old, and has been with me from the start. After about 2 years I asked him if he’d like to become an older brother. I figured, I had the space, the resources, and the patience to work with teenagers, so why not add another? My son agreed, so we brought Eric in to join the family. Eric is now 24, and still living with me (my oldest son got his own apartment about a year ago, but is still very much part of the family.).

About a year later I asked Eric if he’d like to become an older brother, and then we added Emmanuel. Isaiah and West were added a few years later. I became the legal Guardian of all of the boys because their families didn’t want to terminate their legal rights. I let the boys know I didn’t care whether I was a Guardian or Adoptive Parent to them. To me, they were my family, and they’ll never age-out of my family.

Last Friday I welcomed another 13 year old boy (my 6th) to the family, and will bring in a second 13 year old in a few weeks.

It’s certainly a full house, and there’s never a dull moment. I love them all, and would take 10 more if I had a bigger house. My only regret is that I didn’t start this earlier.

I’m a single parent, and was working full time when I started this journey. Teenagers made sense to me because they’re old enough to let themselves into the house after school, and fix a snack and start their homework while I’m still at work. This is without a doubt, the hardest job I’ve ever loved.

Family Building, Week 2

We continue our January theme of family building, with posts that focus on questions like:

  • What made you decide to have kids?
  • Did you have any criteria for what kind of kid you wanted, and why?
  • How did you decide on your process (adoption, surrogacy, etc.)?
  • What memorable moments occurred during your process, good or bad?

This week’s excerpt from Magic Lessons looks at my experience in that necessary evil of the fost-adopt process, training:

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 who’s also in foster care, 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 (meager, but every penny counts) monthly stipend for these “special” kids, up to age eighteen. 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

Now it’s your turn! Share your family-building story by leaving a comment, or contact me at joe@jmswordsmith.com to have your story featured as a post in a future week!

Share your story!

As a companion to Magic Lessons, Magic Life is an interactive online community for (alt-)parents to share stories, ask questions, and support one another.
Parents of all types—LGBTQ+, adoptive, or “alt” in any other way—are invited to share their experiences on a variety of topics. You can share either informally, by commenting on a post, or formally, by having your own featured post. For details, see How It Works.

Family Building, Week 1

For the new year, we start at the beginning. This month’s posts focus on questions like:

  • What made you decide to have kids?
  • Did you have any criteria for what kind of kid you wanted, and why?
  • How did you decide on your process (adoption, surrogacy, etc.)?
  • What memorable moments occurred during your process, good or bad?

To get things started, here’s an excerpt from Magic Lessons describing my experience in choosing my fost-adopt agency:

Unless you’re doing what’s called a family adoption—taking your niece, nephew, or other relative, 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 to 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 mine. So much for conventional wisdom.

In 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 to the usually large crowd. (Shout out to the good-hearted folks of the East Bay!) 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:

Me: Do you work with single parents?

Me Again: 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:

Agency: Uhhhhhhhhhhhh . . . sure we do.

Other Agency: Ummmmmmmm . . . yes . . . we do that. Still Other Agency: Single . . . gay . . . lesbian . . . ummm . . . yeah.

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

Finally, at orientation number five? six? I asked the same questions. 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.

Now it’s your turn! Share your family-building story by leaving a comment, or contact me at joe@jmswordsmith.com to have your story featured as a post in a future week!

New Year’s News

What’s new in the world of magic?

  1. The book is out! Magic Lessons: Celebratory and Cautionary Tales about Life as a (Single, Gay, Transracially Adoptive) Dad is now available in paperback and e-book formats at all major online outlets. Based on material that originally appeared in this blog, Magic Lessons shares stories and reflections about family life for me, Joe—a single, gay, white man—and my adopted black sons, Daveon and Mark. For more details and ordering information …
  2. Check out my website! My author site, jmswordsmith.com, has been updated and expanded, with more info to come regarding current and new writing projects, readings, and more. And as a companion to the book and site …
  3. The blog is back! Starting next week, Magic Life is relaunching as an interactive online community where prospective and current (alt-)parents can share stories, ask questions, and support one another in the never-dull, sometimes-harrowing world of raising our kids. For details, see How It Works.