In my life, family is not defined by blood. It is defined by love and choice.
When I picked Josh up from school last week, his teacher came up to me and said, “I didn’t know Josh was adopted!” I was a little thrown off guard because she said it right in front of Josh, and, although it is clearly not something we hide from him, it seemed odd for her to bring it up out of nowhere with him standing at my heel. I assumed that one of the other teachers told her, but before I could respond, she said with a smile, “Josh told me today!”
“Really?” I thought. I almost never hear him use the word adopted. Even when we bring it up, he never really seems to dwell on that word. I was surprised and also curious. His sweet teacher gave me a big smile and choked back tears while she told me the story. During a Thanksgiving activity where all the kids were instructed to say one thing they are thankful for, Josh said, “I am thankful for my adopted family.” My eyes met hers and we were both fighting back tears. I touched her arm and thanked her for sharing that with me. I tried my best to pick up the puddle of emotions that fell on the floor and walk to the car with my son. As we were leaving, Josh stopped to show me the Thanksgiving wreath his class made. Next to his name, it said “I am thankful for my family who adopted me.” He gave me a big hug and told me he loved me. “Thank you God for these moments.” I thought.
A little while after that, we were snuggling on the couch and I decided to ask him about his decision to tell his class he was adopted. He couldn’t really give me an answer, which is not surprising since he is 5 years old and that is a fairly abstract concept I was asking him about. (Sidenote: Why do we parents do this? I have training in play therapy and I teach counseling students how to do play therapy by tracking and reflecting and avoiding direct questions, and I still feel the need to ask my son abstract, complex questions with no clear answer to amuse my adult mind and satiate my curiosity.) Although he couldn’t answer my initial question, he told me that one of his teachers told him she was adopted too! He seemed really excited to know that, and I felt really grateful. I was so glad that someone was there to connect with him as he shared this personal information with his class.
Then Josh looked at me and asked, “Mommy, are you adopted?” My immediate response was “No”, but he challenged me by saying, “Yes, you are!” I couldn’t tell at first if he just said this because he wanted us to have that common ground, but then it hit me and I knew exactly what he was talking about. My step-dad, Richard. I thought back to the way I talked about my dad and step-dad, using language with Josh like, “I have two dads who love me.” and explaining that even though my step-dad didn’t know me when I was little, I was meant to be his daughter. I thought about the meaning of adoption and the significance of loving a child that is not your biological child, and also loving a child that you didn’t know since birth. I have the best step-dad. I really do. He loves me and supports and honors me. He accepted me as his own when he married my mom, and he never made me feel like I didn’t belong.
Beyond loving and accepting me, my step-dad also honored my father and did everything he could to show respect and even gratitude toward him. He never tried to replace him, but he also wasn’t threatened by him. He recognized that there was room for both of them in my heart. And because of this, I made room. A lot of room. He filled voids I never knew I had and met needs I hadn’t identified before they were filled.
I remember the first time my step-dad told me he loved me. My parents hadn’t been married long, and my mom got in a minor car accident with us in the car. I had just turned 15, so naturally I wanted to go to a friend’s house later that night despite the circumstances. In fact, I am sure I was more concerned about the prospect of having to miss my sleepover than I was about the car or anyone’s physical well-being. I was dropped off at my friend Emma’s house before my step-dad got home from work, so I didn’t see him that day. That evening, while my friend and I were watching a movie and talking about boys (undoubtedly), I called to check in with my mom before going bed, and she told me Richard wanted to say hi. He got on the phone and asked me how I was feeling after the accident. I could sense the concern and care in his voice as he spoke, and before hanging up the phone, he told me he loved me and he was glad I was okay. I was a little caught off guard, but it also felt natural to return the words to him. I hung up the phone, and instead of talking about boys, my friend and I talked about my step-dad and how glad I was that my mom married him. I will never forget that night.
Our relationship continued to deepen and strengthen after that. My sister and I renamed Richard “Pop” because it just didn’t seem personal enough to call him by his first name. We made up a game where we would talk about all the things we did together when we were little and all the family vacations we took. He would say, “I remember when Karin was just a little blonde girl with pig tails running around.” For senior prom, we all went to my friend’s house to take pictures, and one of the other parents told my Pop how I looked just like him. Without missing a beat, he said, “I know.” When I was 19, I crashed my car (at 11:30 pm on New Year’s Eve), and my Pop was the only person I thought to call. The person I trusted most to help me. (And the one who I hoped would be the most forgiving, which proved to be true.) When I was away at college, I called him regularly to ask for advice and feel “taken care of”. When my heart got broken, he reminded me that no guy is worthy of me and that, to him, I am the best.
On my wedding day, we danced a choreographed dance to Mama Mia’s “I have a dream”. It was his idea, and he said it was the perfect song for us. We laughed because, in the movie, the daughter has three dads that love her. And they all agree to “share her” in the end because none of them can imagine not being her father and none of them care enough about the biological connection to let that push them away. The love of her fathers gives her strength to set sail on her own, with their love and support as the current behind her. I don’t remember much about my wedding day. But that dance is embedded in my memory.
When I told my Pop that I was adopting my son, he didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t question my motives (or sanity), and he didn’t express concern or hesitation. He embraced me. And then he embraced my son. Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me that my step-dad so readily embraced the concept of adoption. He lived it.
All of these thoughts and memories and feelings flooded my mind as my son looked at me and told me I was adopted, too. I smiled and responded, “You’re right! I am adopted! We both are!” Then we hugged and laughed, and I could feel the connection between us deepen. I also felt an immense gratitude and love for my step-dad; my Pop. He loved me when he didn’t have to. He chose to be a father to me. He received me as his own even though I wasn’t his biological child. And he modeled the significance of adoption years before it would be present in my own family.
During this Thanksgiving season, I just want to take a moment to say thank you, Pop. Thank you for choosing to be my dad. Thank you for standing by me and showing me what it means to commit to loving someone. Thank you for teaching me that blood is overrated. And that love stronger still.