Guiding Values, Week 4

Our final week of looking at the values that direct our parenting. This week’s excerpt from Magic Lessons looks at a tricky one for our family, communication:

It makes sense that the kids would have trouble asking for what they want. Their early experiences taught them two contradictory lessons:

  1. You can’t trust adults. If you want something, you have to figure out how to get it on your own.
  2. Even with all that figuring, you can’t have what you really want—since what you really want is safety and stability, which is what you aren’t getting from those adults (whose job it is to provide these), which is why you can’t trust them.

I spent a lot of time working with the boys on that first one. As I mentioned, in the first year, I spent all kinds of time coaching Daveon to tell me he was hungry instead of raiding the refrigerator—i.e., you can ask for what you want and trust that you will get it. I like to think that with all that effort, we chipped away at at least a few layers. If you end up in a relationship with one of my kids in the future, drop me a line and let me know how they do with the asking/trusting thing.

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!

Guiding Values, Week 3

As we continue to look at the values that drive our “alt” parenting, this week’s excerpt from Magic Lessons looks at possibly the most important value of all, fit:

For adoptive parents, you are introduced to fit the day you start the search process for your kids. All children have both good and challenging qualities—what you want is to find the kids who are the right fit for your personality, values, and lifestyle. This is just my opinion, but I believe detecting fit is a matter of gut-level, versus brain-level, knowledge. A kid can look perfect—or very imperfect—on paper, but when you meet him or her in person, something kicks in that tells you “Of course” or “No way” or “Maybe . . . .” (For the maybes, I’d recommend a second or third visit before you commit.)

And that’s just the beginning. From the point at which you and your kids become a family, you can apply fit to . . . well, to pretty much everything that follows. Over the years, we had to suss out fit for obvious things like babysitters, coaches, therapists, tutors, and music teachers—but also to less-obvious things like behavioral systems, travel destinations, movie picks, restaurants, and so on. As just one random example, the boys and I had more fun on our previously-described first trip to Victoria (where there is Nothing. To. Do.), than we did on our one trip to Hawaii. All because the former, with its quirky charm, was more us at the time.

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!

Guiding Values, Week 2

Week #2 of looking at questions like:

  • What ideas informed your approach to parenting: around structure, discipline, identity, etc.?
  • Where did these values come from?
  • How did they change over time?

This week’s excerpt from Magic Lessons looks at a huge value in our family, independence:

I started fostering (no pun intended) independence pretty much from the day the kids crossed the doorway officially for the first time. I’ve mentioned many of these examples already. From the beginning, they had to clean their own rooms and make their own breakfasts and lunches. Not long after, they began the monthly cooking experiment I’ve also previously described. There was also a period where they cleaned the bathrooms, on the theory that ninety-five percent of the crud came from them. This ended when I realized that it was faster for me to clean the actual crud than to do a second pass on whatever was left after they … did whatever it was they did in there.

Perhaps the most obvious marker of the kids’ independence was how, from a relatively early age, they traveled from place to place by themselves. I did drive them to their elementary school, even though both we and the school are a block or two from BART stations. This was mostly because I wasn’t convinced they would consistently get on the right train. And because I could see lots of arguments when one was sure it was the red line, and the other was sure it was the yellow line, and then I would be getting regular calls from the BART police. On the one hand, being on a first-name basis with a BART officer might not be a bad thing, depending on the gender and level of hotness. On the other … easier just to get in the car.

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!

Guiding Values, Week 1

This month, we look at the values the drive the way we raise our families. February’s posts look at questions like:

  • What ideas informed your approach to parenting: around structure, discipline, identity, etc.?
  • Where did these values come from?
  • How did they change over time?

This week’s excerpt from Magic Lessons looks at the all-important (to me) value of structure:

When I got my kids, I made a conscious decision to make myself central in their lives, to a point that others might consider (and that, in retrospect, maybe was) excessive. Want something to eat? Ask. Watch TV? Same. Going outside? Let me know. Have a lot of homework and need to skip chores? Don’t just blow them off—talk to me about it. And so on, and so on.

My reasoning was twofold: (a) They had never had a parent who was a center, so I felt like we had a lot of catching up to do. And (b) I wanted to try to instill the belief—especially in Daveon—that it’s possible to get what you want by going through the person who can provide it to you. You don’t have to figure out everything on your own (he did), you can trust adults (he didn’t), and they won’t let you down (they had). So rather than him raiding the fridge on a whim, or walking up to someone he had just met and fiddling around with their hair, we spent a lot of time—a lot—on, “Ask. If you want something, or want to touch someone, just ask. You can trust that the answer will be yes, or at least, we’ll work something out.”

This message didn’t always sink in—often, for example, when told to close the fridge door and ask for something to eat, Daveon just decided he wasn’t hungry and left the kitchen. But I felt that it was important to reinforce the message whenever possible. You can get what you want, and the people around you will be happy to provide it. And of all those people, the main provider is me.

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!

Family Building, Week 4

Our final week of looking at how our families came together, before we move on to the next topic. This week’s excerpt from Magic Lessons looks at my initial visits with my soon-to-be kids:

On December 23, Heather called me to see if the boys could come by that afternoon and 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 resulted in my dear friend Aunt Leigh and I having a frantic, curse-filled IKEA bunk-bed-building speed-date. Who knew Swedes were so evil?

On this initial in-our-house visit, we had our first taste of family 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 or lights, not even a stocking. 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.

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!

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).