I am honored. Or blessed. Definitely, both honored and blessed. Four years ago, as I drove down the alley to our home, I had a singular and very clear thought: I wanted to be a dad. I wanted it more than I could comprehend even though I couldn’t comprehend what it meant to be a dad. And two years, hundreds of hours of paperwork filing, training, reading and general worrying, three flights and one 15-hour layover later, I was a dad. Rather, I was a baba (the Mandarin Chinese word for dad). And despite all the preparation in the world, I could not fathom the swirling eddies of joy, fear, awkwardness, wonder, fear, love and fear that was the next two months of my life. All eclipsed by the mass of fear and wonder and awkwardness and loss that my little girl had carried for the first three years of her life. Those first few days were filled with wailing and keening and my wife and I could do nothing to assuage her grief. In those early days, I learned my first real lesson as an adoptive father: I can never fully understand my children’s loss and I can never take it away, but I can always walk beside them on their journeys and carry them when it becomes unbearable.
When our family of three arrived home, I was armed with this dangerous sense of knowing everything (well, mostly everything) about how to be a father, especially an adoptive father. I survived co-parenting a toddler that my wife and I knew little about, while living in a hotel in a foreign country. Add in the books and the training and the years of watching other parents and the years of being parented. I was samurai. And then one sleep-deprived morning, I got upset when our daughter dragged a spoon across the new fridge. Her tears came. Then mine. And then my second lesson: I didn’t know a damn thing. Not just about parenting, but about loss, about grief, about feeling alone, about feeling different. Once I admitted that, I at least knew one thing (two with the first lesson) and that was empowering as father, as a parent, as a human being. And also humbling.
Just shy of two years after we set off to become a family of three, my wife and I (and elder daughter this time) embarked again to China to become a family of four. I became a baba twice over. And if I hadn’t firmly learned the lesson about not knowing anything already, I had unknowingly enrolled in a week-long seminar on the topic. Diapers, bottles and tiny spoons aside—most everything about becoming parents to our younger daughter seemed incomparable to our first experiences as parents two years earlier. The fear and the joy were there, but the flavors were different. Unlike our first journey, we had to face the realities of institutional care and its impact on our daughter: the motor delays, the language delays, the emotional delays. Would she be able to walk or even crawl? Was she capable of moving her arms and legs with any kind of speed? Would she be able to utter more than just a few short syllables? Our first few nights together, I struggled with these questions and I struggled with my confidence as a parent. I had to accept that for the first two years of her life, I failed her as a father. I couldn’t protect her. I couldn’t nurture her. I couldn’t even feed her a medallion of banana when she hungered. Even though I didn’t even know her sweet dimpled face, I still bore that responsibility to her well-being.
Within a few days, the fog of our daughter’s sadness thinned and we began to see the silhouette of what our little peanut was capable of. When we weren’t looking she would start to move into a crawling position or swing a toy chain around wildly. She began to babble a few syllables, one string of which I convinced myself was “wo baba” (roughly, my daddy in Mandarin Chinese); a conceit I realize now, but what a buoy it was in those early days of uncertainty. And as the days progressed, the improvements continued, tiny changes that we celebrated and treasured. A half smile. A faint look of satisfaction after a bowl of porridge. The third lesson: The smallest of victories is the largest of victories.
It’s not entirely fair that I, the father in this relationship, get all the benefits of learning life lessons. Sure I can teach my daughters how to shoot a basketball (another conceit), fix a leaky pipe or drive stick shift, but these are by no means the exclusive realm of the father. Every day, I remind myself that my main responsibility to these girls is to provide them with a healthy view of men and do so by example.
I want my girls to know that men cry. No, men should cry; beware of men who don’t. So when I’m sad or moved by something I’m reading or music I’m listening to and the girls are around? The tears floweth.
Men can cook. Yeah, maybe sometimes it’s some dry cereal in their bowls, but other times it’s sesame noodles and broccoli (their favorite). We knead bread. We bake cupcakes. We diagram the life cycle of yeast on the whiteboard.
But more important than food and crying, I try to show them every day that it is OK to make mistakes. Heck, it’s the only way to really learn anything. But just as important as not being afraid to make mistakes is to own up to them. When I overreact to some innocent misbehaving because I’m tired or stressed coming home from work, I apologize and ask to do it over. To make it right by replaying the event with better reactions and better outcomes. And we expect the same of our daughters (at least the one who’s talking). Apologize when you’ve done something wrong. Mean it. Then, make it right.
Beyond those teachable things there is something I want my daughters to know in their very cells and never doubt. To me, the very essence of being a father.
My elder daughter comes up to me in the kitchen while I’m preparing dinner: “Baba, you’re my abacus.”
There. She nailed it with an unintentional pun.
I am your abacus, little ones. You can always count on me.
About the Author: Chris Newton is an adoptive father.