Family Spotlight: A.J. & Daniel
AT A GLANCE
Names and ages: A.J. (38) and Daniel (37)
Professions: Full-time student, stay at home dad, administrative coordinator for Men Having Babies, Inc. (A.J.) Veterinarian (Daniel)
Relationship status: Together since June 2002, married in Iowa July 2009
Children: Jackson (8) and Peyton (3)
Location: Round Lake, IL (greater Chicago area)
Always wanted children: Yes
Process to becoming parents: Foster to adopt program in NC (Jackson), private open adoption (Peyton)
Advice or insight for other parents: “Be patient and accept that you don’t know what’s going to happen.” (Daniel)
“Accept that sometimes the questions you ask aren’t going to have answers.” [with regard to the foster process] (A.J.)
Favorite playtime activity: Playing superheroes!
Child calls them: Dad (Daniel) and Daddy (A.J.)
When A.J. and Daniel set out to expand their family in 2007, they had no idea it would culminate in two very separate adoptions finalizing within two weeks of each other in 2010. With one child arriving at age four through foster to adopt, and one child having been with them since birth, you might think that there are vast differences in raising the two. What the couple will tell you, however, is that despite the manner in which each child came into their lives, what happened after that is more about the similarities in raising two kids as two gay parents than it is about how they became a family.
A.J. and Daniel’s journey starts where you might expect - a gay couple taking that leap of faith into the expanse of possibilities related to parenthood. Since 2007, the landscape has changed drastically, both in information and options, but all good processes start with your basic search. The couple considered international and domestic adoption, as well as surrogacy. Faith-based organizations, international, and domestic pressures in opposition to same-sex couple adoption, as well as overall cost, had them rethinking their approach. One thing remained clear; they wanted to have the experience of parenting an infant.
Around this time the couple heard about a gay couple in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina, who had adopted an infant through the foster-to-adopt program within the state. It wasn’t long before the two took the 80-mile trip from their home in Winston-Salem to meet the couple in Charlotte. It was a fruitful meeting as A.J. and Daniel learned a great deal. Upon arriving home they reached out to their local DSS (division of social services). The nervousness of calling the agency was immediately quelled, when, to their delight, the agency had no problem with a same-sex couple applying to foster.
After eight weeks of mandatory MAPP (Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting) training and a rigorous home study, A.J. and Daniel were on their way to becoming certified foster parents. Six months later, they were licensed, and just before this A.J. legally changed his last name to match Daniel’s. It was a strategic move that the couple felt cleared up any naming-confusing that might be forthcoming. Just two weeks after licensing the couple got their first call.
A three-month-old baby boy who was potentially HIV-positive and syphilis-positive was abandoned by his mother. Their nursery sat finished but unused. “We thought on it for about a minute and said, ‘Sure! We’d love that!’ “A.J. recalls, gushing into the phone. King was placed into their care shortly thereafter.
The three spent a blissful six months together, with A.J. and Daniel adjusting well to the role of parents and King thriving in their care. Of course, the MAPP training and case workers made it clear that reunification was always the preferred goal and that at anytime the threesome might split ways. But while plans for reunification waned, the potential for adoption seemed to be marching steadfast into the realm of possibilities. Their family and friends even threw them a baby shower, congratulating them on their seemingly forever addition.
Suddenly though, King’s father was located through a paternity test. He told DSS before the test results came back that if the child was his, he would like to assume custody. After six months, A.J. and Daniel’s nursery returned to its former vacancy, a reminder of the child who had taken up permanent residence not only in their home, but, even more importantly, in their hearts.
The following weeks were a serious trial for the couple. They immediately removed themselves from the foster-care list. “We were heartbroken… it was a real crossroads for us,” explains A.J. “I remember locking the nursery door – shutting it, and just not wanting to go back into that room,” he concludes. The silver lining of the situation was that King’s father seemed to understand the significance of the bond the couple shared with his child. He sent frequent picture updates via text message. Three months after King’s father took custody, the couple went to visit him. It was a shock to see him walking; but even more shocking would be the phone call they received the next day. King’s father and then-girlfriend had talked about getting King baptized. They wanted A.J. and Daniel to be King’s god-parents.
The two families remain remarkably close to this day. A.J. sang at King’s dad’s wedding, and computers are frequently alight with incoming Skype calls. “If it wasn’t for [them] reaching out to us, we probably wouldn’t have continued on the [fostering] path,” A.J. explains. Truly their situation is unique, as many foster-care families and workers will tell you, once a child is reunified communication with the child and family slowly or immediately ceases.
Such was the case with the couple’s next placement, an abandoned infant who stayed with them for six weeks before being reunified with an aunt. It was during this time period that A.J. and Daniel legally married in Iowa. They were in touch with this infant’s family over Facebook for a short time, but eventually the connection dropped. A reflection of what is most commonly the case.
Their next call was unique. A four-year-old boy named Jackson had come from a neglectful home and his plan was shifting from reunification to adoption. It was November of 2009 when they all met for the first time at the children’s museum where A.J. was working. The three seemed to connect immediately and the following month he was living in the couple’s home.
Of course, housing a four-year old was significantly different than their past placements. Jackson was aware of his surroundings and situation in a way that their previous foster children had not been. The pair credit their training with preparing them to deal with a child of his age level and background of neglect. They were unaware of the full story at first, finding more as eight months whizzed by. The couple relate the experience to a leap of faith, one that seems to have come from a special place in their hearts.
As time went on, their bond grew, along with their knowledge of Jackson’s history. It turned out that A.J. and Jackson’s paternal grandfather had worked within the same school system a few years prior. Jackson’s grandfather was familiar with the adoption process, having adopted two children with his wife. His familiarity with A.J and firsthand experience with adoption allowed him to convince his son to act in the best interest of Jackson by agreeing to terminate his rights and allowing A.J. and Daniel to apply for adoption. If it hadn’t been for this connection, the situation might have resolved differently.
Jackson became an official member of the family on August 13, 2010.
Just a few months after Jackson came to live with A.J. and Daniel, the couple revisited their desire to raise a newborn. After all, they still had the nursery furniture they needed and they were reluctant to give up on their dream. But they also wanted to make sure they were acting on what was in the best interest for Jackson.
They approached Jackson’s therapist and case worker about the idea before letting Jackson know the news that they were looking to expand their family. He took to the idea well, and the couple made plans to move back to Iowa where second parent adoption by a same-sex partner was more readily achievable.
In midsummer, just two months before Jackson’s adoption was to be finalized, Daniel received a Facebook message from an old acquaintance; a colleague he worked with at a satellite office. Her daughter was 16 and pregnant. Mutual friends had reminded her that Daniel and A.J. were looking to adopt.
They followed up with a sharp interest. Sure, there was a lot going on, but they did not want to miss out on the opportunity. She was already seven months along in her pregnancy when they all met face to face for the first time. She was a very bright and astute young woman who had done her research on the legal processes regarding private open adoptions. In addition, she had pursued counseling and seemed to have come to a firm decision that this would be best for her child.
Her family also took wonderful care of Jackson, going so far as to purchase him a baby doll to help him simulate what his fathers would be doing once the baby arrived. When the big day arrived, A.J. and Daniel missed Peyton’s birth by 20 minutes. Following his birth each family got some private time with the baby as well as time together. The lawyer came the next day to file the paperwork terminating the birth mother’s rights.
Although they were fairly certain that the adoption would go through, both were cautious about sharing the news about their new addition. Only their parents and workplaces knew that the two were parents for the second time in two weeks. In North Carolina there is a seven day waiting period during which the mother can change her mind and resume her parental rights. When the eighth day arrived both families convened at the birth family’s home for celebratory dinner.
“We’re open to contact from anyone in her family but it’s mostly [Peyton’s maternal grandmother] that communicates most frequently.” Daniel explains. The communication has evolved over the years but not in a bad way. She was just visiting the couple last summer.
“When we first went into the while foster situation we were actually very closed off to the idea of anything ‘open.’ When [we were] on that side of it [we] didn’t know what to expect… Now today, four years later, I can’t imagine not having those resource to tap into.” A.J. states about how his viewpoint has evolved.
The sincerity of this statement is evident in the way A.J. and Daniel have chosen to utilize these resources of support, guidance and knowledge. They made it a point to reach out to all the grandparents to create grandparent books. The books contain information and pictures about both children’s birth families. Peyton’s book even contains pictures of his birth mother at his age, all parties pointing out how similar they appear. The two still have vastly different stories about how they became a family, but that’s okay.
“The awareness of the background information of the two means some situations are handled differently. Parenting is still parenting though, regardless of the kid.” Daniel explains. It’s part of the reason I’m finding myself so fond of the books. “It’s so they never question who they are or where they came from,” concludes Daniel.
Daniel offers his thoughts after going through two heartbreaking situations before finding the permanent family they initially sought. “Things happen for a reason. Big picture-wise things don’t always end the way you think they should. You don’t always get what you want but the reasoning may be because you didn’t know what you wanted.”
Starting out with a four-year old and an infant may not have been the initial plan but for four years they’ve hugged the tight corners of the learning curve together. “Really, I’ve looked at Peyton as a gap of uncharted territory for us. We know what happens at four because we’ve had that experience,” explains A.J. Peyton will turn four this August and then Jackson will blaze the trail of unknowns forward. Though I’m certain the two are different enough to throw a curve ball or two into the mix down the road.
When it comes to parenting, the two triumph. It’s not hard to see why. Their attention to care is outwardly reflected in two well adjusted young children who love their home very much and have no problem letting people know that they have two daddies. It’s not always easy. We chat about having to become knowledgeable about your kid’s interests. “Sometimes you have to make your kid’s passion, your own passion. That’s their world and excitement.” Daniel imparts.
Yep, it’s so great, Jackson says he never wants to move out. He doesn’t want to go to college. He wants to live with them forever.
We’ll have to get back to him on that in another ten years.