Extended Family


Almost half my life ago I made a choice that drastically altered my future. Every day since I’ve lived with the consequences of that choice. For a long time I would have used the word “mistake” to describe this choice. But after the events of the past weekend, I’ll never again think that it was a mistake.

After several challenging weeks, my girlfriend and I decided to give our baby up for adoption. We met with an attorney who coordinates adoption cases, and we started learning all about the adoption process. Ohio uses “closed adoption”, which means that the birth parents and the adopting parents never get to know the other. Basically prospective adopting parents fill out a packet of information that describes them without revealing who they are.

We read folder after folder of generic lifestyle data. Some people included testimonials from their family members. Nieces and nephews drew pictures about what great parents these anonymous people would be. It was an eye opening experience in many ways. After the initial revulsion of reading people’s “Give me your baby” essay (and some nearly were that crass), I became aware of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people wrote solely to the birth mother. In almost every aspect, the adoption process operates on the assumption that the birth father is not participating. This realization really depressed me, and I often felt angry at being systematically marginalized just because most other birth fathers were jerks.

Somewhere along the way, maybe a month or two into the adoption process, we were introduced to the notion of “open adoption”. Ohio doesn’t do it, but open adoption agencies from other states are allowed to coordinate with Ohio birth parents. Open adoption is, as the name implies, open. The birth parents get to meet the prospective adopting parents, and use this in their decision making process as to where the baby should go.

Shortly after finding out about open adoption, we were in contact with one such agency in Texas. That weekend Mike and Diana, a couple eager to adopt, were flying into Columbus to meet my girlfriend, me, and our parents. They spent the weekend split nearly evenly between our two families. They were obviously nervous, but still warm, honest people. They explained their situation to us, and shared some of their own concerns and anxieties. It was remarkable how good both my girlfriend and I felt about these folks. Here were two real human beings, not just faceless statistics about yearly income and educational background. We got to know the couple surprisngly well in just a couple days, enjoying their sense of humor; seeing their abundant love for one another; and learning about their life goals.

It was never a question whether they were the right couple to adopt our child.

Our child was born in late July, right between my sister’s and my grandmother’s birthdays. All of my friends came to the hospital to take turns waiting with me through the delivery (I did not enter the delivery room). My dad and I wandered through the delivery ward, spending a long time at the nurses’ station placing bets as to which of the EKG monitors was most likely to spike next. It was a slow, surreal day until my girlfriend was wheeled out holding our son. I was a father.

Babies aren’t allowed to travel by air for at least a week after birth (or so we were told), so a friend of my girlfriend’s family offered to keep the baby at her house, to help protect my girlfriend from getting too attached to him. I visited him every day. I held him, watched him sleep, and just tried to see as much of him as I could before he left. And then he was gone, taken by his birth mother to Texas, and delivered to his adopted parents in a quiet ceremony.

Not too long after our son’s birth, my girlfriend and I broke up.

Because we had gone through open adoption, we knew the adopted parents. We had their phone number. Their address. We knew our son’s name, Kyle. We had Mike and Diana’s promise that they would never hide the truth of our son’s birth from him. Several months after his birth, I received in the mail a video tape containing some short footage of the new family together. Everyone in the tape was beaming with happiness. My family watched it with me, also beaming with happiness. Over the years, the videos and the photos continued to arrive. We exchanged letters, and kept in touch.

I saw my son twice when he was three. His family came to Columbus to visit us for a day. It was a remarkable experience. I saw him again a little later when my mom had a business tirp in Texas. I accompanied her, along with my dad, and we spent a wonderful afternoon at their house.

And then I didn’t seem him again for over a decade. We spoke haltingly on the phone at birthdays and Christmas, never quite sure what to say to one another. I listened as he told me about his favorite Pokemon cards, or how far he’d gotten in a particular video game. He stunned me with his use of “sir” when speaking to me. It always made me feel a little uncomfortable when he’d answer a question with “Yes, sir”. I realize it’s a Southern thing, but it still weirded me out.

I immediately recognized my son, sitting with his mom, waiting for me in the airport. He was tall, slender, with reddish blonde hair. His face looked an awful lot like his birth mother’s. We shook hands in greeting, and almost immediately fell into comfortable casual conversation. We had a lot to talk about.

We stopped at their house for a bit. I met Kyle’s adopted sister. Not quite two years old she was absolutely adorable. I played video games with my son in his room. I read the comics that he draws, and hesitatingly shared with me. I remembered a lot of what it was like to be a teenager entering high school. It was weird – not at all in a bad way – to hear Kyle refer to Mike as “dad”. Clearly, Mike and Diana are mom and dad for him. They’re wonderful, supportive, nurturing people. They welcomed me into their life, and into their home.

Before heading out to the adoption agency’s function, the birth mother of Kyle’s adopted sister came over, with her family. They too had been invited to join us. They live about an hour away, so the two families see each other regularly. We drove to our destination, and I was treated to one of the most significant events in my adult life.

Kyle had prepared a video presentation explaining his story. He described how he came to terms with his own history over the years, and how his life had grown when his sister was adopted. His understanding had come full circle as he watched the effects of the adoption on his sister’s birth mother. After the video, a pair of adopted twins addressed us about their experiences. They were adopted through a closed adoption process, so their adopted parents are the only family they’ve ever known. One of the twins spoke at great length about her extended family, and their role in raising her and her sister. This made me realize that not only Kyle, but Mike and Diana are a part of my extended family, just as I am every bit a part of their extended family. It was a meaningful realization.

Next, Diana got up to share their experiences as adopting parents. It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience for me, sitting next to my son, listening to his mom’s praise of my committment to his life. Diana shared the same sentiment toward their new daughter’s birth mother, across the table from me. Afterwards, many of the attendees came forward to thank me for coming. I had not the words to describe to them how thankful I was for the opportunity to be there.

Sunday I accompanied everyone to church. Several people came up to Diana after the service to explain that they thought I was Kyle while seated, but when I stood up they knew I was too tall. The resemblence between us is striking. Kyle introduced me as his birth father to the priest, and deacon, and several family friends. There was no shame, or embarrassment, or discomfort. It was all very comfortable, and natural. After a lunch with Kyle’s grandparents, I flew back to Columbus, and to my own family.

For a long time I’ve lived under the shadow of a vague sense of embarrassment for disappointing my family, and a sense of shame for having fathered a child when I was so young. This weekend has erased the word “mistake” from my vocabulary when speaking about my son.

I love you Kyle.

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