Family Matters: The Accidental Gay Dads
How three unexpected adoptions changed the bonds of blood
Becoming a parent is one of life’s greatest joys. But let’s be honest: it’s one of life’s greatest stresses, too. Especially when you have nearly no time to prepare, and you’re adopting a child from a relative. Those are high-pressure circumstances, fraught with unique practical and emotional complexities that can strain already-fragile families further – or, in happier cases, bring them closer together.
“At one point, I just locked myself in the bathroom,” says Terry, a 27-year old gay dad from Arkansas. He’s recalling a moment where he was felt overwhelmed by the stress of early fatherhood – a role that he entered with little notice. Terry took his 4-year-old nephew Koby into his care during a difficult time for the boy: his mother was in and out of jail for DUI arrests, and his father, Terry’s older brother, was dealing with substance abuse. Another uncle briefly took the child in; he wound up with boils from dirty, unchanged diapers. The situation was serious.
So Terry and his 22-year-old live-in boyfriend, James, opened their arms to give Koby a safe and secure home. It was, they felt, the right thing to do. But Terry admits he felt ill prepared.
“It was a shock. At times, I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’” says Terry. Ironically, while he’d always been close to his other nieces and nephews, Koby was the kid with whom he’d had the least contact. And Koby had behavioral problems – this toddler could swear like a sailor – that weren’t surprising given his early experiences. But they were a lot for two new, young dads to handle so suddenly.
But with James’ support, Terry remained committed to caring for his nephew. What began as a temporary arrangement turned into an 18-month process of legally adopting Koby when it became apparent that his birth parents were not far enough along on the road to recovery. It hasn’t been easy; despite suddenly stepping in to provide for Koby, the couple has little familial support. In fact, the adoption has put new strain on relationships, with some family members feeling that the child would be better off with his unfit biological parents than exposed to the “lifestyle” of gay dads.
Oklahoma couple Jason and Zac had a very different experience with that aspect of their surprise adoption. The 28-year-old dads became emergency guardians of Zac’s nephew, Daniel, when child protective services intervened with the boy’s mother. (They’d rather not get into details.)
Stepping in so suddenly has been a daunting experience. The couple had discussed their mutual desire to become dads early on in their relationship, and had been in the early exploration of adoption methods. But becoming parents was at least five years off. “We still wanted to advance our jobs, build up a nice little nest egg,” says Jason. They were considering moving to another state for the process, too. They never imagined that the timeline for parenthood would be so accelerated.
Suddenly, “We had about 48 hours’ notice,” says Jason. “And it was almost like being in full blown hospital mode. There’s all this panic and anxiety – the child is coming!”
Now that they’ve had time to recalibrate their relationship and finances in the wake of the arrival, the couple says that, despite the obvious stress, they’re actually not ungrateful that fatherhood happened in such an unusually expedited way.
“My mother said, ‘You can plan ahead, but that’s never how it’s going to happen,’” says Zac. “If you wait until you’re one hundred percent certain you’re ready to have a child, you’ll never have a child.”
“Obviously, other arrangements give you time to get things in order,” he continues, and laughs. “But we were forced to try and do it in a weekend. At least we didn’t have nine months of anxiety.”
And in fact, the experience brought the couple closer to the rest of Zac’s religious family, who have become more accepting since watching the couple become a strong family unit.
“The longevity of our relationship, and the very evident fact that we’re taking care of our family has really helped,” explains Zac. “We lost common ground when, from their perspective, I left my religion. Now we have a new common ground as parents, and they’re starting to initiate conversation with advice.”
It’s never too late to see that kind of growth. Just ask Ken, 51, and Jim, 53, gay dads from Georgia. They adopted Jim’s biological nephew, Aaron, when he was only a few months old. At the time, Aaron was living with a foster mom because Jim’s sister had a history of drug issues. She had already allowed three earlier children to be adopted by grandparents. Now, number four needed a forever home, and a truly reliable one. Aaron was born with cocaine in his system; later, he would be identified as autistic.
When Ken told his father that they would be adopting, the older man “walked out of the room,” recalls Ken. “I thought, ‘Well, that didn’t go so well.’” But once Aaron arrived, he became a doting granddad. It was a side of Ken’s father that he rarely got to see.
“When I was a kid, he worked from 9 to 9, Mondays through Saturdays. On Sunday, he sat around and drank beer,” says Ken. “He didn’t play with us. But Aaron really helped our relationship, because I got to see that side of him. He may never have given it to me, but he gave it to my child.”
Stepping in to suddenly adopt a relative is a daunting prospect. In dire situations like these, there is little time to prepare – and the emotional complications with family members can be unpredictable. But even if it came upon them in expected ways, none of these dads would change a thing about their choice to become fathers. In fact, Ken and Jim have since adopted Aaron’s younger sister; they’re in the process of adopting a younger half-brother.
And after adopting Koby, Terry has gone on to foster two more boys. He has plans to permanently adopt again soon. He’ll never forget that moment in the bathroom, when he wondered whether he made the right decision. But he’ll always remember also the moment when he knew that he had.
“Koby used to call me Uncle Bo,” says Terry. “Then one day he called me dad."
"Well, it was Bo-dad,” he laughs. “But just hearing that word was the greatest feeling in the world.”