I remember growing up there was an ad on TV, sometime in the early nineties maybe, promoting men taking an active role in their children’s lives. It showed a guy playing with his kid or something, and the voice-over informed us that anybody can be a father, but it takes a real man to be a dad. I liked that. Being a father can be a strictly biological fact, but being a dad means that you are committed to someone other than yourself and that you put their needs ahead of your own in a long-term way. The same could be said of mothers, of course (with the obvious difference that just giving birth to a child is an intense commitment itself, far more than the minimal contribution made by a father), but we’re going to focus on dads today.
My parents adopted me when I was less than two months old, back in the bygone era of the 1970s. In those days, society must have just been getting started on trying to make adopted children feel normal because the kinds of books they had for adopted kids were a bit confusing. I remember pictures of angry parents looking down at a child, along with one of those old cigarette machines with the pull-out knobs, except stuffed with smiling babies. The idea was to tell the curious youngster that this is not how adoption works. Your biological parents weren’t angry with you (probably), and babies that were adopted didn’t come from cigarette machines. Makes sense to an adult, but try showing a child these images.
‘Oh, so they were angry and put me in that machine, huh? Adoption’s weird.’
In all honesty, I never felt sad about being adopted, even for the brief moment when I thought that my biological parents had been mad. Back then I just sort of nodded and accepted it as fact until my parents explained to me in a panic that it wasn’t that way at all. The cigarette machine thing looked pretty cool, actually, and I was a little disappointed to find out that there was no truth in that. I don’t think it stopped me from telling other kids that that’s exactly what it was like. Knowing me, I probably described how the inside of the thing smelled, just trying to lend my story that extra bit of credibility. But no, there were no cigarette machines, and my parents went to great (and successful) lengths to make me feel like I was no different than any other child.
I remember at one point asking my dad about my ‘real’ parents. I was maybe 8 or so, possibly younger, and he kept replying, ‘We’re your real parents.’ That wasn’t what I meant, and he knew it. I knew that he knew it, and at the time I was frustrated because I just wanted to ask about the people from before. It wasn’t long, however, before I came to appreciate his insistence that he and my mom were my real parents. It’s one thing to know it and believe it, to be told it so many times that you understand its truth without having to think about it, but I hadn’t considered (I was 8, after all) how important it was to him and to my mom that we stick to this terminology.
After that, whenever kids at school asked about my real parents, I always said, ‘My mom and dad are my real parents. Do you mean my biological parents?’ I was probably the first kid in my grade to use that word, but then I was also the first kid in my grade to learn about sex…but that’s another story. What’s important is that I internalized this fact at an early age and recognized how important it was that the word ‘real’ maintained that connection to my mom and dad. The people to whom I’m genetically related were probably swell folks. I made it into the world, didn’t I? And I’ve always appreciated the choice that my birth mother made to go through all of the pain and discomfort and difficulty to have me and let me go when she knew that, for whatever reason, she was not ready or able to give me the kind of life I should have. And Hallelujah! I’ve had an awesome life! She made that happen in the beginning, of course, but it’s thanks to my real parents that everything after that first month and a half has been so wonderful.
That did not prevent me from having more frank discussions with my dad, however. I was always sure that there was something special about me and about us as a family. From being convinced that we were secretly Jewish (my dad’s initials are JEW, and as a kid I was absolutely obsessed with Jews, as Christian as I was), to just knowing in my heart that I was born in Switzerland, my dad fielded questions left and right and never seemed to get tired of it. If anything I think it made him laugh. The one thing that did not was when I came home after learning what the word ‘bastard’ meant.
Now this word could have entered my vocabulary in a very sad way. Someone could have called me that, knowing (how they could have, I have no idea) that my biological parents weren’t married when I was born. Or it could have happened the way it did, when I discovered that this ‘bad word’ had a legitimate meaning (ha, legitimate! I love it when language happens!) that could be used without swearing. I came home and declared to my dad that I was a bastard, and I think he wet himself. That’s not fair. I don’t want my dad to read this and think I told the world that he wet himself. I am exaggerating. I don’t think he wet himself. I think he was shocked. Better?
Now at that time I was extremely anti-swearing. Cuss words were just as naughty as alcohol and premarital sex…ah, childhood. So learning that I could say the word ‘bastard’ without breaking my no-cussing rule was wonderful. I said this word over and over again and told all of my friends, proudly, that I was a bastard. This made my dad sick with worry. He sat me down and asked, several times, who had called me that. He was terrified that someone had hurt his little boy, and he couldn’t seem to grasp at the time that I just thought it was funny. I had looked it up in the dictionary on my own and found it there in all its glory (someone had said that ‘shit’ wasn’t in the dictionary, and I decided to look up other swear words, stumbling upon that one. I had a great time with ‘bitch’ as well). There was a long discussion, and I’m not sure if he ever really understood that I hadn’t been made fun of. I hope that by now he knows how confident I am in myself on this subject, and on many others, and that he doesn’t worry about it too much anymore.
Yes, my dad did a great job of making me feel like part of the family (both of my parents did, of course, but today is his day). Every night he would tell both my brother and me how much he loved us, many times even asking if we knew it. As children we would roll our eyes and say that, yes, of course we knew it, how could we possibly not? But I think we both knew how important it was to him that there be no doubt in our minds, and that’s a pretty special feeling to have. So thanks, Dad, for loving me so much and showing me just how special and important I am to you. There has only ever been one real dad in my life, and I’m so grateful that you always made me feel like your real son.