I have finally, Finally, FINALLY adopted my step-son. We had the court date Tuesday, and it was just awesome. Probably the hardest, most meaningful hug of my life. I absolutely love the kid.
If any of you ever happen to need help with an adoption I’ll tell you everything I can. But if you knew how awful the process can be, there’s a decent chance you’d just say “screw it,” and I really couldn’t blame you. Consider this a warning I never got.
Some background, in which I’ll call my son “H.W.” for no other reason than I just watched “There Will Be Blood” and really liked it. (Please don’t look into it more than that; I just don’t want to use his real name and needed to pick something.)
H.W. was six years old when I started dating his mom, with whom I just celebrated two years of marriage. He’s thirteen now. I bought a house for all of us when he was ten.
The main reason it’s worked out between the three of us is that my wife never pressured me into being a father figure, probably because she’d (somehow) managed it alone up to that point. I was never looking to date a single mom, but I happened to fall in love with one. It helped that H.W. was cool from the start. With, and Only with my wife’s blessing, did I choose to become, by degrees, more involved in his life.
Other than the lack of pressure, things have worked because my wife and I kept the primary focus on our relationship – which may sound obvious to some (equivalent to figuring out if you want to “have” a kid with someone). It may sound cruel to others, who think the kid needs to be most important. To that crowd, I’d remind that nothing’s more beneficial to a kid than a solid set of parents.
I’ve now been part of H.W.’s life for the majority of it. I’ve taught, listened to, played with, protected, transported, disciplined, encouraged, fed, housed, studied with, and loved him. I’ve been there for him in all the ways a parent can be. When one first starts dating a single parent, their best approach is to endear themselves to the kid – be their buddy. Transitioning from friend to father figure was not easy or fun, but we’re both better for it.
After my wife and I got married, with her and H.W.’s blessings, I planned to start on the adoption process, to “make it official.” Besides, I’d never hoped or tried to get a girl pregnant before, and for all I knew I wasn’t biologically able to (something I pondered after a bad kick to the balls in sixth grade). Fortunately that was not the case, and when we learned my wife was pregnant, for the sake of H.W. feeling like the full family member that he always was (which he never doubted, but still), I thought it’d be great if the adoption would go through before the baby was born in spring of 2016.
It was fall of 2015, and per a friend’s recommendation I met with a family lawyer for a consultation. I learned I’d need to work with an adoption agency, but since we hadn’t been married long (didn’t matter how long we’d dated) it might be tough to find one that was willing.
After a couple calls I did find one, and their initial estimate was that the process would just take a couple of months. Cool! After all, I figured, there couldn’t be a much more cut-and-dry case than this one.
H.W.’s biological father was supposedly unable to have kids, due to – seriously – a bad kick to the balls. (Fear not, I guess, crotch-kicked hopeful fathers.) Talking about regrets at this stage is officially, if only as of Tuesday, beside the point. But my wife never regretted breaking up with H.W.’s biological father. They coexisted for mere weeks with newborn H.W. before she broke it off, opting instead for the terrifying prospect of single motherhood. I’d say I can’t imagine how terribly a nineteen-year-old, new mom must have to be treated to choose to go it alone, but based on what I’ve learned, let’s just say it was the only decision.
Dude also had a history of criminal charges, and fled Wisconsin after a warrant was issued for his arrest. To our knowledge he’s been on the run ever since, both from the police and from child support payments; to avoid the latter he’s never had his name on a lease and worked for cash off the books — for thirteen years. Only a couple years ago, during a stint incarcerated in Texas which finally linked him to an address, was he forced to cough up some meager child support, though even this pitiful payment came long, long after it would have been vital.
In thirteen years he never once attempted to contact H.W. To our knowledge not even his own family, still in Green Bay, has ever heard from him.
I’m not explaining what I know about this guy to harp on my wife’s teenage judgment, because she’s owned every bit of that, but to highlight the correct call that she made in splitting from him, as well as to give a sense of the magnitude of his abandonment of H.W. (there’s your movie reference) and how clearly unfit he would have been as a parent.
One would think this adoption case would have been open-and-shut, taking all that into account. I’ll proudly add that H.W., of his own volition, decided to start calling me “Dad” once my wife was pregnant, because he thought it’d be less confusing for our baby. I’m still in awe of that. He is a seriously sweet kid.
So how hard would it be to adopt my step-son, who calls me Dad, has never had another father figure, whom I’ve raised for half his life? Just what would it take to prove I’m fit to be his parent, what with a full-time job, a house, and no criminal record?
It would take over a year and a half, dozens of hours of procedure and paperwork, and roughly $4,000.
For something symbolic. I was, and was already called, his dad. H.W. wasn’t moving. Nor was he even taking my last name (you can imagine he’d gotten used to his after so long). Nothing was changing! Not to mention that if something had happened to my wife – which was the “reason” this was all required – she would have simply willed custody to me anyway.
But no. Endless tasks and hoops.
I wanted it. I battled. At one point I’d finally surmounted the massive pile of paperwork, the three separate background checks, two sets of fingerprints, and everything else proving what we already knew. After all those hours and errands, I’d made it!
…To another pile. It felt like finishing a marathon, only to learn there was another 10K to go. It took so long that I had to get another round of (three) background checks, because the initial ones expired.
Now, did I work as fast as I could have on this? Sure, I could have taken off work and ignored my pregnant wife/wife who’d just given birth/brand new daughter/step-son who I was trying to adopt and focused solely on this process and banged it all out sooner. But even beyond those impossible sacrifices, again, this was merely symbolic — there was no rush on this.
Other than my own goals, at least. My hopes to have this done by the baby’s birth, by last Father’s Day, by H.W.’s 13th birthday, by last Christmas…each passing holiday or event carried, for me, disappointment that this adoption that NO ONE OPPOSED was still not finished. I wondered if H.W. would turn 18 and be his own man before I could get us through this.
Talking with a friend who had adopted his wife’s daughter five years earlier, even in that short span the process had become far more arduous and expensive. I just had to ask the adoption agency why, and learned that these were Wisconsin’s laws, not federal ones, nor the agency’s own quirky guidelines, if that helped. I haven’t looked into it, but other than cost, I have a hard time imagining how much more difficult this would have been if I were adopting a total stranger.
Well, it all ended Tuesday. And it turned out to be more than symbolic, as the biological father’s parental rights, somehow, still, had not been terminated, until now. Part of the process required my lawyer trying to get in touch with H.W.’s biological father to see if he would sign off, but he couldn’t be located. (Because of this, he’ll receive no notification that he can stop running or hiding.) After multiple failed attempts at contact, and the judge’s ruling, the rights have been terminated.
Why am I writing this mix of joy and justice, and bitterness and frustration? While it’s nice to share one of the most important relationships I’ll ever have, I needed to do so to highlight the bureaucracy and madness of the adoption process.
I’m trying to figure out what to do with this experience. I plan to reach out to a local alderman, but I think letting others know about this ridiculous process is important, too.
A lot of people who are against abortion, for example, take considerable solace in advocating adoption as a solution. I would imagine they’d be very disappointed to learn just how difficult, if not prohibitive, the process is. A lot of potential adoptive parents would not illogically size up the required time, effort, and red tape and just say “nah.” Or they straight-up couldn’t afford it. I honestly couldn’t judge a person for that. I’m writing this and taking action for the people who would want to adopt, but don’t have the time or resources I did.
The adoption itself, I did for H.W. and no one else. He may thank me someday, but he doesn’t need to. He didn’t deserve to be abandoned, but he does deserve a dad. This was perhaps the noblest thing I’ll ever do for someone, yet essentially it earned me state punishment.
Any dude and chick can hook up and have a baby, without anyone’s permission. They can even be drunk when they do. Woohoo!
I encountered something that’s wrong and in my opinion, anti-family. I needed to write about, and need to act on it, before that sense fades.
Hope you learned something. Feel free to teach me something in the comments,
P.S. I can’t praise my wife enough. Being a single parent would be unimaginably tough. For both the parent’s and kid’s sake, I would not recommend it, nor would my wife or son. He turned out great in spite of her being a single parent, certainly not because of it. Adoption is an incredible option, and I’m endlessly grateful for it and honored by it — my son chose me! What’s awful, though, as I’ve hopefully explained, is the process itself, especially in an uncontested case.
P.P.S. To any dude who ever passed on my smokin’-hot wife because she had a kid: your losses!
P.P.P.S. A kid is an individual, not just a junior version of Mom or Dad. I think a lot of parents get frustrated when they don’t understand their biological children — wondering where he or she got “that” from — and it’s not altogether fair. Raising a kid that’s not biologically mine has helped me appreciate that.
P.P.P.P.S. “I’m finished!” – Daniel Plainview