What makes a dad?

When Paul May was going through the adoption process, he found little to read on being an adoptive father so he set out to fill the gap. His book, Approaching fatherhood, is published by BAAF.

“You’re on a life path you never envisaged. It’s OK to be fearful, whatever... Just remember that all parents feel like that sometimes.”

The adoptive dad across the table from me raised his glass, and I realised how much I’d wanted someone to say that to me when we were going through our adoption preparation, and when the placement of our children began.

When I was preparing to be an adoptive dad, I went hunting for material to read about adoptive dads: who they are, what they think, what advice they might have. I couldn’t find anything in the bookshops. We adopted two little girls in late 2001, and as I got used to my new role in our new family, I began to think I’d better write the book I’d wanted to read.

For something that’s been around forever, there’s been surprisingly little written about fatherhood of any kind, not just the adoptive variety.

I think there’s a clue in our language as to why fathers have traditionally been less interesting than mothers. 'Mothering' is an activity that persists, whereby a woman looks after a child as he or she grows up. 'Mothering' can even mean being over-protective of older children. 'Fathering', on the other hand, only seems to mean the one-time provision of er... genetic material. 'Mothering' goes on forever, while 'fathering' is over in the blink of an eye.

“I wasn’t prepared for how painful the process was going to be. You can’t communicate how painful it is. You can’t tell anyone... [My son] couldn’t be more wonderful” Adoptive father

We’re now beginning to be more aware that fathers play an important role in families, although media focus tends to be on the shortcomings of fathers. Commentators agonise about absent fathers and the consequent lack of strong role models for boys as they grow up.

As I talked to adoptive fathers from all walks of life, I began to realise that adoptive fathers, or 'ad. dads', are a shining example of the very opposite phenomenon. Adoptive dads are 'present fathers'. They turn up suddenly in their children's lives, and refuse to go away. They’re stubbornly there for their children. They provide constancy and continuity. They do everything they can to overturn the stereotype of the unconcerned, unengaged father, who they may imagine as their child’s birth father – or as their own father.

Being present is a requirement – perhaps, in the final analysis, the only requirement – of the adoptive father’s role. Adoptive parents choose to make a lifelong commitment to another person, without the benefit of a genetic investment in that person or, in fact, an existing relationship with them. They decide to be present. But apart from hanging around, what do dads do? I found that one of the common characteristics of adoptive dads is their passionate advocacy for their children’s rights and needs.

Most have tales to tell of minor and major battles waged with schools, doctors or social services departments. Adoptive dads seem to relish the opportunity to fight for their children, and I sometimes wonder if we’d be altogether happy if everything was plain sailing. Our children need us to stand up for them, and we love doing it.

“Several adoptive dads told me their chief reward as parents was simply in seeing 'how things turn out'” Paul May

Adoptive dads' efforts on behalf of their children form the closest parallel with the stereotype of active fatherhood we’re now becoming used to from the news. After hiding behind their newspapers for generations, fathers are now to be seen donning underpants over their tights, climbing landmark buildings and holding up the traffic.

The social trend of family break-up and the technology of genetic testing both seem to play towards some men’s view of the world as being solely defined by rights, particularly adults' rights of access to children.

All too often, adults' pursuit of their own rights leaves the rights of children ignored. It seems to me that adoptive dads are able to channel their own interests in rights in healthier ways. And an adoptive father who could only 'rant' at his child’s teachers did at least have his heart in the right place. And the right place for an adoptive dad’s heart seems to be his sleeve. I was pretty sure that the ‘new man’ was an invention of the media until I began to meet adoptive fathers and listen to their stories.

If you want to find a set of thoughtful male parents who can articulate their feelings about being parents, the mistakes they've made and the lessons they’ve learned, then adoptive dads make the perfect group. They've been made to be self-questioning about their parenting, right from the moment they began their adoption journey – from, in many cases, behind the skirts of their bolder female partners.

I found them to be in touch with their feelings and robust in the way they described them. For example, one told me: “Parenting is parenting. Being an adoptive parent is special in some ways, but in other ways it’s the same as everyone else. You have to remember it’s about giving, not taking.” All the fathers I met when I was researching the book were kind enough to share their experiences and give their advice.

The book is organised around the typical adoption journey, from the time people first start thinking adoption might be for them, through preparation and assessment, matching and placement, and on into that period that used to be called ‘post-adoption’ but which most adoptive families call ‘life’. I hope I’ve presented the material in a way that male readers will find useful, and that I’ve been faithful to what adopters told me.

“Parenting is parenting. Being an adoptive parent is special in some ways but in other ways it’s the same as everyone else. You have to remember it’s about giving not taking.” Adoptive father

If there are a few things in there that help a prospective adopter work out his feelings, or that chime with the experience of another dad, then I’ll be delighted. Approaching fatherhood is not the last word on adoptive dads: in fact, it’s probably the first. I’m hoping that people will read it and find it useful, but will also want to add their own voices to the emerging debate.

Paul May is a freelance writer, business consultant and adoptive father of two girls. All quotes are taken from Approaching fatherhood: A guide for adoptive dads and others, by Paul May. BAAF 2005. £9.95 (£2.50 p&p). Available from bookshops and BAAF Publications on 020 7593 2072, or click here to buy online.

Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in May 2005.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 04 August 09

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