I had been avoiding it for at least a week, but time was running out. I waited for the screaming of the sawblade to stop before knocking on the door. "Do you have a minute?" I asked my boss as I stepped into his office. I shut the door behind me.
My coworker "M" was working with one of the workstudy kids and the painters were knocking around their shop. I had told M of Athena's pregnancy just a couple weeks after I got the news myself. No one else at work knew. It had been a secret held firmly under wraps for four months. It was imperative that the paint crew not find out! The lead painter's boundaries were so bad I could easily see her throwing me a department-wide party and subsequently begging me daily for custody of my unborn child. Fortunately my boss wasn't that kind of guy. He started out low on the totem pole in the union long before getting to an administrative position. He knew life in the trenches, respected our privacy, and cut us slack when it was needed. All in all, a really good guy to work for.
I only had a couple weeks of work left before my contract ended and I was on seasonal leave. I had to get the red tape out of the way so Athena and I could solidify the birthing plans. "Do you know the university's policy on paternity leave?" I asked. My boss' immediate response surprised me: high-five and "Congratulations." He waxed on for the next few minutes about how "it doesn't really change anything" and "it's a great ride." When there was finally a break in his train of thought long enough I reasserted my question. "Well, really though, do you know what the university's stance is?" He told me he'd look into it and get back to me as soon as he knew.
Fast forward five months. I've been back at work for two weeks and my boss still hasn't gotten any information to me. I've asked him two or three times. Finally he tells me to go see his boss about it. She is very conscientious in her word choices, only referencing my "family situation," not a pregnancy, and certainly not an adoption. She tells me that the university will allow me to use my sick leave to take care of Athena, but since the baby will be taken care of by someone else I don't qualify for paternity leave. She said she was keeping this under wraps and the higher ups didn't need to know everything about it. Apparently letting me use my sick leave was stretching the rules enough as it stood. Later that week Athena gives me the call.
I told my boss and supervisor that I'd take about a week off to make sure Athena was okay. The birthing plan we'd made had her delivering at a midwife run birthing center near her parents' house. That was a little better than an hour away from our apartment. Needless to say I was nervous. Fortunately when the call came Athena was already at her parents' house for a visit. The recovery period was difficult, but I'll get to that later.
When I returned to work "M" pulled me aside first thing in the morning. "I need to tell you about something that happened while you were away," he said. Alarms of all shapes and sizes were going off in my head. "M" tells me the story of how my boss took the news that Athena was in labor. You see, shortly before Athena gave birth my boss asked me what he should tell people when I suddenly have to leave for a week. "Tell them the truth," I said "if someone asks tell them what happened. I'm not trying to lie to anyone, but I don't want to put it on a billboard either." It seems my boss and I understood that conversation differently. As soon as he got my message (Athena went into labor around 8:30pm so I left a message on the answering machine at the shop) he immediately drove up to the other side of campus where all the other department heads were and announced "'I-am' won't be in for a while. Athena is having a baby, and they're putting it up for adoption." The responses varied from the lead painter's "oh my God what do we do?! Should we throw baby shower? Should we have cake? I don't know what to do with something like this! Why didn't anyone tell me?!" to the props guy's "It's none of our damn business and it was extremely inappropriate of you to say that! If you ask me, we don't talk about. It's his business and if he wanted us to know he'd have told us."
Awkward silences were by and large the rule upon my return. No one talked to me about the pregnancy or birth. What little small talk did happen lasted less than a minute. Glances became furtive. It felt like I was a walking bomb. After a week my boss' superior came to talk to me. She said that she didn't know if it was appropriate for her to say anything or not, but she wanted me to know that a woman in the department was an adoptive parent. She suggested that if I wanted the perspective of "the other side of the equation" I could talk to her about it. "I know it can be haunting" she added before leaving.
Since then I've been able to crack the wall of silence little by little. Talking about Festus has become like a secret handshake. When I can talk about Festus and the pregnancy the other person knows I count them as a friend. If I don't talk about him they aren't. It's taken work. Piece by piece I've been taking down the wall and letting people relax about it. The adoption isn't taboo if you're invited to talk about it. It's part of my normal daily life now. Anyone who gets to be part of that normal life is invited into the whole of it. My colleagues don't need to know how my visit last week went, but my friends are dying to know! That wasn't true seven months ago, when Festus was just two months old.
It's a lot of work to demystify an adoption but it's worth it.