I remember reading something about a prison ministry years ago: For Mother’s Day, inmates were given the opportunity to select and send a card to their mothers. This was wildly popular. Apparently, the male inmates that were a part of this program lined up to almost full capacity. Almost everyone participated. Because it went over so well, the program decided to also run for Father’s Day. And almost none of the inmates participated. Why?
The social issues that I believe play a role in this program are far-reaching and weave together to form a somewhat complicated response. Although more recent history is showing a change, single parents have almost always been mothers. I know that judges didn’t very often grant custody to fathers, but absentee fathers have been, historically, much more prevalent than absentee mothers. In our work with adoptive families and birth families, we find that birth mothers are most often more engaged in openness than birth fathers. I am fascinated by what degree this might depend on (perceived) community support for birth mothers, as well as cultural views on mothers versus fathers.
The truth of it is, not all parents are “good” parents. Not all parents make good choices, and not all parents are able to parent their children. That goes for birth mothers, and birth fathers.
While I have seen many birth mother support groups, I have yet to see a single one for birth fathers. I own a handful of excellent books on the journey of a birth mother, yet have not seen even one on the experiences of a birth father placing his child for adoption. ‘Daddy and Me’ programs are starting to surface, but they are not as common as, say, ‘Mother Goose’ or ‘Head Start’ where all are perceived as welcome, and yet most attendees are mothers and babies. Would fathers feel welcome in this atmosphere? Are we not interested in the other side of the story? Have we failed to recognize that both parents have an experience? It could be that, for most of history, an unplanned pregnancy was the ‘problem’ of the woman. Men have always been exempt from being singled out for having a child at an unplanned time. Men have not borne the weight of society’s judgment the same way women have when it comes to having a child outside of marriage, and then more recently, a child at a time that wasn’t….quite right. The woman who carries the child is visible to the world, and in the past may have been quite scorned. More and more, society has wrapped around these women, who now have many choices in front of them. Even though times have changed, I am not sure that society ever even noticed birth fathers, let alone tried to wrap around them in love.
Supervised visits. It’s a hard thing, especially for older children. Even though we, as foster and adoptive parents, try to do all the right things, it sometimes still turns out wrong. We can tell the kids only at the last minute about a visit (is this the right thing? Did they need more time to prepare? We parents of children from hard places ask ourselves such questions all the time…and it can feel like we never quite get it right). Then we arrive and wait…only to find out that the parent is not coming. The child may be angry. They may lash out, or cry and cry. Or, they may retreat into numbness, to a place they become hard to reach. This can happen over and over, or sporadically, but either way, it is extremely painful. I have had far fewer dads attend supervised visits than I have moms. We won’t dissect why for now.
Some dads have addiction problems. Some dads might be violent, and some dads might have a hard time meeting the day-to-day needs of their children. Some dads may have cried long tears over the placement of their child for adoption. Some dads might have run off, and not been a part of the process. Some dads may not be aware that they have a child out there, somewhere, in the foster or adoption world (some birth moms keep their secrets–some have incredibly valid reasons). Some dads have spent much time in jail, and some dads abuse from dark, broken places in their hearts. Some dads just didn’t seem to be able to try for better, for a change in their life.
So, how do we honor all fathers? Well, first I think we have to talk about WHY we honor all fathers. It is my belief that we honor all fathers because they are human beings. We honor them for their inherent worth as humans. This does not mean we accept bad behavior. This does not mean we ignore wrongs or damaging actions or allow any sort of abuse. It means that we have chosen not to harden our hearts and that we chose life by allowing ourselves to be people of compassion and empathy. I believe that anger and resentment only bring more pain.
Even if you find almost nothing honorable about a birth father of your own or of your foster or adoptive child, it is really important to remember that birth parents are the ‘first parents’ of your child. Even children who have been terribly abused will often hold strong attachments to their abusive parents. Children have been designed to bond with and attach to their caregivers. This can become a sadly twisted web for a child to navigate, but one thing is for sure: Your child does not also need to deal with feeling like they need to choose between you and a birth parent or that they need to please you by not talking about or having feelings for a birth parent. Let’s look about how we can honor ALL fathers, not just the ‘good’ ones:
Speak in love. And by this I mean, watch your tongue. If you wouldn’t want anyone repeating the things you say about the birth father or if you would be embarrassed to have others know how you talk about a birth father, stop. You don’t have to lie and put on accolades; you don’t have to pretend that he has never done anything wrong. But you do need to be kind and respectful. When that becomes difficult, it is okay to ask to talk about a topic later or be honest about your struggle to speak respectfully at the moment, especially with an older child. Children don’t need us to be perfect; they need to see us handle tough stuff with grace. Speak the truth in age-appropriate love.
Be open to hearing from your child. What thoughts do they have about their birth father? It is okay to allow them to speak about the hard or negative parts. They need someone who will let them get it all out. Don’t be afraid of big emotions, but be big enough yourself to hear them out, hold space, all without joining in and bashing the parent. Being open also means allowing your child to speak highly of their birth father, and tell you all the things they love or loved about him.
Hold a place of honor. Remember, your child would not exist without this birth father. Place the best photo you have of the birth father in a beautiful frame in a special spot. If you are a person of faith, pray for the birth family with genuine care and concern for his well-being. Answer his calls if he calls, and respond promptly to messages. Even if you have to do it business-like, respond how you would like someone to respond to you. Boundaries are a must, but you can be kind and still have boundaries.
Allow your child safe, age-appropriate access (if the child wants this and particularly when they are younger). As your child ages, and approaches adulthood, don’t try to prevent contact or impede communication. You’ll only damage your relationship with your child. If you have concerns, voice them, but in love, gentleness, and full of respect for the fact that this other person is biologically the father. This can be a tough one for adoptive parents, and sometimes there are real concerns for safety. The reality is, our children will all grow up. We want to keep a good relationship and model boundaries for them so they have the tools to deal with tricky situations we might not be present for once they are on their own. The goal is to operate in a way that our adult children of adoption feel safe and comfortable to come to us with their hurts, for advice, or just to talk. Fostering an open heart and a good relationship now not only honors the birth parents, whose child you are raising, but it honors your shared child. This is an incredible gift.
Use positive adoption language. This honors all parties of the adoption triad (birth parents, adoptee, and adoptive parents) with respectful, thoughtful speech. For example, “placed for adoption” versus “given up for adoption”, “birth parents” versus “real parents”, etc. Even when or if you don’t feel like honoring a birth father, you can use this adoption language to speak positively to your child about their birth father.
Celebrate Father’s Day! While this can often seem quite tricky for many families, there are ways to simplify. It doesn’t mean there won’t be big emotions, and it doesn’t mean that things will always go well. But that’s okay too. We try, we learn, and we try again. For Father’s Day, each family has to decide on their own how they want to celebrate. Whether or not the birth father is invited to celebrate or not is a huge decision. I am going to focus on some small things that can be done to honor birth fathers on Father’s Day that any family can do with little prep time, and that shouldn’t feel too heavy:
If your family prays before eating, acknowledge the birth father in a mealtime prayer. This can be short and sweet. It is the thought that counts!
Mention to your child that you are thankful for them and for their birth parents because, without the birth parents, the child wouldn’t be blessing your family today (even if the birth parents didn’t place for adoption, but rather lost custody).
Depending on your child and their wishes, you can release a balloon in honor of their birth father, take a walk and just talk, make a collage about their life experiences and past good memories with their birth father (if possible), and if the relationship allows, your child could send a message, a letter, place a call, or even visit on Father’s Day. Be ready to jump in at a moment’s notice if your child becomes overwhelmed emotionally or seems uncomfortable.
Fathers come in all shapes and sizes. They also come in all capacities and abilities. I was raised by a wonderful dad who was kind-hearted and could fix anything. Not all people have a good experience with their fathers. Sometimes the healthiest choice is actually to remove the ability to have contact with a birth parent. Even in the most extreme cases, forgiveness is a healing balm and unforgiveness and bitter binding to pain. To honor someone, even when they don’t ‘deserve’ it, or even when they haven’t been their best or might not have even tried at all says much about your character. It shows the depth of thought and appreciation for humanity, and it shows the world something that it is desperately missing: love. What an example to others, and what a gift that only an adoptee and their adoptive family can give.Are you considering placing a child for adoption? Not sure what to do next? First, know that you are not alone. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to speak to one of our Options Counselors to get compassionate, nonjudgmental support. We are here to assist you in any way we can.