Opting In

June 19, 2016 No Comments »
Opting In

By T. R. Robertson

My first year as a father was everything I had expected, plus a whole lot of what I hadn’t even imagined.

The first child to come to our home was a little over a year old. The social worker brought him to our house one afternoon and told us we would be his fifth foster parents in as many months. The little boy, Jeremy, toddled into the room, looked up at me, raised his arms toward me, and said, “Daddy.” After so many foster homes, he had learned to recognize the male adult in the room as the source of strength. Thus “Daddy.”

Of course, I picked him up, held him close, and smiled. He smiled back. A good start. After less than two months, long enough for him to bond with us, Jeremy was taken back to live with his father.

Opting in to Foster Parenting

My wife and I were unable to have biological children, so we considered the possibilities, including childlessness, adoption, and foster care. We opted in to foster children.

Every person considering fostering needs to be clear in their minds about what they’re opting into. These children generally come with baggage of some kind. The older children may have been through the emotional trauma of losing their parents. They may have been neglected or abused. Even the younger children, the newborns and toddlers, may have inherited or acquired complex physiological and psychological issues.

Odds are that a foster child will stay in your home six months or less. Then you’ll likely have to give up a child to whom you’ve become attached, only to see them returning to a life not much improved from the situation that led to their removal from a troubled home. Odds are also against foster children becoming available for permanent adoption, or, if they are, the foster parents may not be first in line to adopt them.

Nevertheless, knowing all these things to be true, we opted in. The children’s need for us to be there for them was greater than our need for them to remain a part of our family forever.

Within days after Jeremy left, the social worker called again to tell us a baby would be born soon who would need a foster home. Still dealing with the shock of letting Jeremy go, we paused but quickly opted in. This is what we had signed up for, wasn’t it?

This new son was born prematurely, so my wife spent several hours over several days in the NICU, helping to care for the tiny child, forging a mother’s bond. When we finally brought him home, I marveled at how small he was. Born at only 5 and 1/2 pounds, I could rest his tiny head in the palm of my hand while his feet did not reach the crook of my elbow. His first night he slept in a makeshift bassinet because he was smaller than the spaces between the slats of the crib.

Within a few months a problem arose. The pediatrician called it colic, but it seemed more like the invasion of the body snatchers. Every evening he would begin screaming, his entire body tensed tight as a drum. How such tiny lungs could produce such a mighty wail remains a mystery. Our neighbors in the duplex apartment below us were astonished by how loudly his cries reverberated through their ceiling. Being a natural mother, my wife took it upon herself to snuggle and comfort him. Being a typically clueless young dad, I was happy to let her take advantage of that motherly bond.

One evening, about two weeks into his ordeal, she came out of the bedroom, carrying the screaming child. She held him out to me, so I took hold of him. She said tearfully, “I need a break.” She went back into the bedroom and shut the door, turning the TV up loud.

I held him. I held him close, but that just made him scream more. I laid him in my lap, face up, then face down, but he reacted frantically. I finally held him out in front of me, my hands supporting his heaving torso from under his armpits, his legs dangling and kicking. I stared into his face and tried to talk to him, tried singing to him. He screamed. He screamed some more.

And then I had the conversation with myself that forever changed my life as a father.

Opting in to Fatherhood

I know lots of dads, I told myself, who would insist this is the mother’s job. That’s what God created mothers to do, to take care of crying babies, isn’t it? Other dads would find some reason to need to go someplace, to do manly things, to take a break of their own, a long one, somewhere else in town. I have the right to do that, don’t I? I’m the guy. This is her job.

Instead I opted in. I made the conscious choice not to allow myself freedoms I wasn’t willing to allow my wife. Would I be OK with her handing this screaming baby to me and taking the car to go sit in a coffee shop for a couple of hours, reading a good book? No, I wouldn’t. So I chose to not be OK with being the kind of father who opts out of being all in as a parent.

I’ve repeated the story of that night to many young dads in the years since. Not all of them wanted to hear it. Some learned from their own fathers to think of parenting as the mother’s job. Others chose to act the same way they did before they were married, putting a high value on the freedom to hang out with the guys as often as possible. Still others have opted in to the idea that men were designed to be wild and free. They’ve read books that say they need to be allowed the freedom to frequently leave home and hearth behind in favor of expressing that adventurous spirit.

But there are others who have discovered the greatest adventure is found in being a father.

A friend of mine has over a dozen children, a fact which seems to invite all sorts of comments from people. “I get men who say I must really have quite the wife,” he said. “They can’t imagine their own wives being willing to be stuck corralling that many children. Others put it in a more negative way. They want to know how I could be so cruel as to saddle my poor wife with such a burden.”

His answer to both is the same: “They’re my children too. I’ve spent the majority of my life over the past 30 years being a dad to my kids. Yes, my wife is with them twice as much as I am because I’m at work and doing other things to keep the family afloat. But I chose to be their father, and I work hard at it.”

He opted in, over and over and over again.

T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.

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