Joy Jerome Turtola is a single gay dad to two adopted sons. Joy is himself part of an adoptive family. Of his five siblings, three (including Joy) were adopted. It was his own family background that inspired him to become an adoptive dad.
"My parents modeled the same kind of unconditional love toward us three as toward our younger bio siblings," said Joy. "When I decided to become a parent, there was no question in my mind that I would adopt."
Joy began the paperwork to become a single dad in the state of Oregon in 2001. In 2003, when Joy was 42, Cody was placed in his care. Just shy of 9 years later, Joy adopted his second son, Andrew. Both children were adopted through the state's Special Needs Adoption program. An adoption is usually considered "special needs" if the child has a documented history of abuse or neglect, is part of a sibling group, has some physical, mental or emotional disabilities, and whose birth parents have had their rights terminated.
We spoke to Joy about single parenting, his adoption journey, and what he has learned from being a dad. Here's his story.
Tell us about any obstacles you faced on your path to fatherhood. When I was seeking to adopt through the state of Oregon's Special Needs Adoption program, there were very few gay men looking to become parents. The obstacles were invisible to me but I knew they existed: after my home study was approved, I waited 1 and a 1/2 years to be placed with a child. It was a long wait.
Adoption day, 2105
How has your life changed since you became a father? My life has changed immeasurable since becoming a parent. I went from being a single gay urban male to a single dad overnight. Everything was no longer about me. As if the universe wanted to underscore this, my son was diagnosed with leukemia six months after I adopted him. Then, after two years of leukemia treatment, he was diagnosed with a secondary cancer which required him to have a bone marrow transplant. So, for the first four to five years of being a new parent, my parenting experience all took place within the context of providing intense medical care to a child with a life threatening illness.
What helped you get through that very difficult time? I have a small group of friends, my "family by choice," that provided a lot of emotional (and some financial) support when Cody was going through his treatments. They showed up in ways that I am eternally grateful for. My spiritual community was a source of great strength and support as well. There was a web of people who have sent prayers our way over the years.
What have you learned from your child/children since you became a dad? It's not about me. The future is in the next generation. It's about giving back. I won't get it (parenting) perfectly, but I'll try my best. Kids see everything so don't try to hide anything. Humor is the glue that holds our family together.
How do you think being a single dad affects your parenting? Over the years I've realized that a single parent only has so much bandwidth, and there's no one who can pick up the slack when I need a break. So on some days I'm the best parent in the world, others maybe not so much. I try my best, and that's the most important thing. Being male affects my parenting style in that I'm very direct; there's not a lot of nuance in my communication. I am Italian American, so that influences my parenting style a LOT.
Was there ever a moment that you experienced any serious doubts about your path to fatherhood or fatherhood itself. And if so, what were they? How did you overcome them? In for an ounce, in for a pound. I have never had serious doubts. Years ago, months after I adopted Cody, a friend of mine (a woman who raised three kids on her own), said to me in the kindest voice possible, "Single parenting is the loneliest job there is." At the time I was taken aback by her words, but as the years flew by, I understood more and more what she was talking about.
How so? At the end of the day, it's all on me as the parent to ensure my kids are clothed, fed, educated, socialized, and hopefully, having a good life. Balancing their needs with maintaining a household, a career, my health - it's a lot of responsibility. When the kids are sound asleep, and I have cleaned up the kitchen and picked up the random sock thrown into a corner, it would be nice to snuggle with someone and talk about how my day has been.
Are you looking for a husband or partner, and if so, how do you juggle dating and parenthood? You know, I'm always looking, even when I say I'm not. Balancing dating and parenthood is not easy. I'm at the age in my life where I know exactly what my priorities are. I don't have time for shenanigans in dating, and there are a lot of shenanigans that take place in the dating world. My life is very full, but there's always room for the right person.
What would be some of the most important characteristics of a future partner or husband? A sense of humor, maturity, integrity and a willingness to help bring balance to a pretty busy family man's life.
Is your family treated differently than others on account of your sexual orientation? Sometimes. When I had only Cody and he was young, folks in stores would glare at me, as if I had either recently abducted him, or as if it was "wrong" to hold the hand of a four year old boy.
What words of advice do you have for other gay men considering pursuing your same path or parenthood? Only have kids if your heart really wants kids. It's a ton of work and a shit load of sacrifice. As a gay man who came of age in the era of AIDS, becoming a parent has always been a privilege, not a right. Quite often, straight people evaluate my parenting style, and provide feedback (often unsolicited) on "how well" I'm doing as a male parent. I perceive this as implicit hetero bias.
Where do you see your family 5-10 years in the future? My goal is to enroll Andrew (my youngest) into a middle school that will challenge him academically, and to find a school for Cody (my oldest) that will support his special learning needs. Ultimately I would like both my children to be living independently, realizing their full potential and contributing to the world in the ways they best can.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about your experiences creating or raising your family? Parenting is about a journey of the heart. I have learned that just when I think things are in a good place (in the family), another family challenge arises. Resilience and persistence keep me going. And the belief that the love we share is stronger than any type of wind that hits the sails of our family's boat.