Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Sonless Father

***Please forgive any grammatical or spelling errors. This is an insomnia inspired post and has not been proof-read. Editing and re-posting may occur by Wednesday***

Recently Athena and I visited Ms Scarlet, Prof Plum, and Festus along with Athena's immediate family. Festus wasn't too sure about that many tall people staring at him but he eventually warmed to the idea. That was almost entirely due to Ms Scarlet and Athena's dad playing with and generally distracting him. All in all it was a pretty good visit. There will be more written to recount the events of that later. I bring it up now because it was shortly after that visit that I began thinking about the terminology I use to describe my relationship with Festus.

If you've read many of the other posts on this blog you've no doubt seen me refer to him as my son. I've also referred to myself on numerous occasions as his birth/first-father. What I am wondering is how accurate these terms are. In the abstract sense what do these terms mean? Am I his father? Is he my son?

In a very real and observable way the answer is no. I am not his father. Festus doesn't live with me. I am not responsible for his rearing. He won't grow up calling me "dad" and I'll never be the person he reluctantly turns to in adolescence when things feel out of control. When establishing his individuality it won't be me he's differentiating from. That also means it's me he didn't identify with. These are facts I'm coming to terms with, sacrifices I've made. It may seem strange for this to come up given my primary reasons for choosing to place him with an adoptive family. To reiterate: since childhood I've known I did not want to parent. That knowledge, unfortunately, doesn't mean these sacrifices are without pain. Quite the opposite. They hurt a good deal. While these specific thoughts may not hurt me as much as a person who fully desired to raise his/her child I believe these circumstances do compound my sense of guilt.

Feeling guilty and selfish is something every first-parent experiences.

I've been staring at that sentence for several minutes. Attempting to continue, I've tried out a dozen different follow statements to continue the paragraph. Each time I re-read that sentence a part of me becomes paralyzed. If I open this up I don't get to close it again. I may not get to sleep tonight if I'm honest about this sense of guilt and shame. The truth is that's the deadliest part of the adoption experience for me. It's not the sacrifice, the uncertainty, nor even socially endorsed ostracism. Shame. Despite my best efforts there are still parts of me that wish I could take back the last two years. The strange thing is the degree of compartmentalization. I feel no shame or guilt at all when I see my son. I wouldn't change anything in those moments. All the shame I experience is internalized. I'm ashamed for. . . what? I don't know why. Do I wish I had made different choices? No. Do I wish I had handled Athena's pregnancy differently? Only in rare instances and those usually related to doing dishes or feeling overwhelmed. So why this sense of shame? Because secretly I feel I was intensely selfish in my decision.

I feel selfish because I didn't sacrifice myself and my life for my son. I feel shame because I believe I was selfish. My guilt is compounded because of the circumstances that lead me to place my son for adoption. I didn't do it because I could not raise him. I did it because I would not raise him. That statement is my mental flog. It is rare that it does so but when the self-flagellation takes hold it is more than cantankerous. It is sinister and ruthless. There is nothing anyone can say to me that is more dehumanizing, cruel, or torturous than what I tell myself already. This is one arena in which I feel comfortable saying I speak not only for myself but for most, if not all, first-parents.

All this because I am not a father.

But what of my son? Is he, in fact, my son at all? If I am not his father how can he be? Here is where things get strange and language shows how utterly incapable it is of accurately representing reality. Festus is my son. Just as I am not his father he is my son. It is observable, objective, and real. His hair is starting to curl like mine. There are similarities in facial structure and the build of his body. For eight months (remember, we didn't find out Athena was pregnant the moment Festus was conceived) Athena and I cared for him the best we could. I must say the best we could was damn impressive. I'm very proud of how we responded to his presence. We completely rearranged our lives to aid every aspect of Festus' development. I cannot think of a single aspect of our daily lives that did not directly revolve around care for him. At the end of those eight months I was weary beyond my bones. I hadn't anything left to give. I was completely tapped out. I gave Festus all the help I could muster and I am dedicated to continue doing so until my death.

I am not his father but he is still my son. Prof Plum is his real father. Ms Scarlet is his real mother. He is my son. He is Athena's son.


  1. Wow. . . this is very powerful and very personal. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. I think in our society we are so obsessed by having ONE REAl mother/father. Do we really need to make the distinction? My son has another mother and another father. It isn't a big deal, it is just the way it is.

    As for the guilt: we are told we *should* sacrifice for our children, although there is no differentiation make over whether our 'sacrifice' is actually what is best for the child. I think sometimes the 'sacrificing' element seems to take priority over the 'making the choice that is best for our child' element.

  3. I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to do what you and other biological parents have done and continue to do. You have my utmost respect.

    May I just add that the term biological is the most meaningful for me and is in no way meant to diminish. My son is the only biologically related person I know so to me the word is extremely relevant

  4. Wow. As an adoptee, this was very hard to read. I recently watched a friend place and had a hard time for the same reason. He felt the same way you did. He didn't want to parent.

    It is soul shattering. I think my first mother had some of the same feelings.

    I had never realized that could be why a first parent could place. When you're adopted you grow up hearing that your first mom wanted you.

    She wanted you, but she couldn't do it. She couldn't offer as much. You needed more.

    I think part of what she struggles with are those feelings.

    But I do have a question, do you think feeling empty and not having the kind of love that you know you want your child to have is something that you could have helped? Or rather, do you think there were emotional issues, that were not your fault, that stood in the way of you being able to give selfless love to another human who needed all you had and more?

    I was pushed into placing my daughter, by my adoptive parents. I tried to fight it, but I failed. I wish I had not failed. I would change everything. If I could go back in time and bring the resources I know exist now, bring the emotional support I have now, bring the knowledge I have now.

    I would change everything.

    It's not to late to change in your heart that you don't want to parent.

    Some day, you child may want to hear those words.

    The words, "I wish I had kept you." My father has told me this. And yes, he is my father. I have two.

    I think in many ways I know of the kind of pain it took to write this post and it took great courage.

  5. Sustainable Families - In answer to your question "do you think feeling empty and not having the kind of love that you know you want your child to have is something that you could have helped?"

    No. That question was at the very heart of my decision to adopt. Can I change how I feel about parenting or is it something fundamental in the fabric of who I am? I cannot change it. I feel the same way now as I did before placement. I should not parent. I liken it to gender expression. No amount of therapy will convince me to alter my gender. I know deeply that this is part of who I am.

    To answer the second part of your question "do you think there were emotional issues, that were not your fault, that stood in the way of you being able to give selfless love to another human who needed all you had and more?"

    The decision to adopt was, in part, an affirmation of self love that had been rare until my adult life. As mentioned briefly in other posts my perceived and assumed role in my family growing up was to have as little impact as possible. My elder brothers' emotional and parenting needs were significant and I felt that there wasn't much left for me. In order to make life better for everyone I tried to keep my needs to myself. If another person needed something of me I did everything in my power (often unsuccessfully) to shelve my needs and wants in favor of the other person. It's only been the last six years that I've taken my needs and desires seriously. Only since I met Athena have I been serious about asserting my need for happiness. It would be fair to say I saw parenting as directly threatening this growth.

    More important is the fact that I've never, since fully differentiating my life from my parents, self identified as a future parent. Were changing this attitude as simple as quitting smoking (which I did during Athena's pregnancy, after eleven years of habitual smoking, and continue to be nicotine free) I'd have done it. I think it's also important to remember that the reasons Athena and I chose to adopt did not include a deficiency of love. Nor do I think we lack the caliber of love needed by a child. In fact love really isn't the point at all. Relationship is the sticking point. It's the relationship of parenting father that doesn't fit. With an open adoption things get really sticky, but at least it's honest. I'll take honest over pleasant any day. It's also worth mentioning that Athena's perspective on her childhood and mine are near polar opposites. Her parents loved raising her and her brother. It's obvious in their relationships. That was pretty disjointed. Sorry.

    I'm terribly sorry about your experience. I can never know what that was like, but I can recognize the magnitude of hurt, difficulty, and sadness incurred.

    More than anything, thanks for asking instead of assuming, and sharing instead of hiding. No doubt I have a fair amount to learn from you. Thanks in advance.


What do you think? I'm curious.