A Birthfather’s Story

Every adoption involves a birthfather, but not every birthfather is involved in an adoption. In placement stories, birthfathers are rarely referred to. And rarely heard. How rare a voice are they?

Well, the birthfather and blogger known as I Am has done the math. As the only known active English-language birthfather blogger in North America, he estimates he represents one in about 512 million people — 0.00000000319% of the population.

And yet despite this, I Am, the voice behind the fascinating blog, Statistically Impossible, seemed genuinely surprised by my interest in interviewing him. Nevertheless, he was a great sport during our 90-minute conversation over the weekend, his first ever face-to-face interview. (You can read an earlier interview he did with Lindsey from the R House for the Adoption Bloggers Interview Project here).

A bit of background: I Am lives and works as a set design carpenter at a university in Michigan. Nearly three years ago, he and his partner, Athena, placed their son for adoption. Still together, he and Athena enjoy an open relationship with their son’s adoptive parents.

As I Am states on his exhaustively researched and elegantly researched blog, he doesn’t do recipes. (For more on that, read this).  What he does do, however, is a great job of putting open adoption under the microscope and meticulously exploring its far-reaching effects on birthmothers, adoptive parents, adoptees, and birthfathers. Especially this birthfather.

1. Your blog is a treasure trove of research and opinions about all aspects of open adoption. Do you remember your first impressions of it?

I think I approached open adoption as ignorant as anyone could be. From the time we first met, Athena and I both agreed that neither of us could identity with being a parent. Athena has a story about how, when she was nine years old, she nervously told her mother she didn’t want to be a mom. And her mother said, well, that’s okay. And this sense of relief just washed over her, that she didn’t have to do this.

So just by process of elimination we wanted to look at everything we could. So the other two options were adoption or termination. I decided that this was Athena’s decision to make. While I might have input or feelings one way or another, it was her decision. My job was to express my feelings and experience and support her in her decision, regardless of what her decision might have been.

Her decision-making process was colored by the fact that her father is an adoptee. He was placed in a closed adoption, and never met either of his birthparents. So I know that was a factor for her–that without adoption she wouldn’t be here. So from a pretty early point, there seemed to be a leaning toward adoption.

I was on the opposite side of the fence and was resistant to adoption for some time. I think a strong factor for that was my preconceived notions about what adoption meant in terms of the character of people who participate in adoption. I still had all of the tropes or preconceptions about who a birthfather is and who a birthmother is and the “type of people” who placed children for adoption.

2. Tell me about those preconceptions…

At the time, my bias was that people who place children for adoption must have screwed something up along the way to get to the position they were at. There was a personal flaw that led to the need for adoption. And it wasn’t until we went there myself that I recognized that for a large portion of the population not getting pregnant is very, very difficult when sexuality is involved.

The idea that sexuality is something natural and that childbirth is the result of sexuality, that these are things linked on a single continuum and have no relationship to a person’s ethical quality or their ability to plan or make decisions, was something new to me at the time.

I didn’t make the connection about it until it was literally happening to me. And even then it was still several months of grappling with that idea before I could finally integrate the notion that being a birthfather simply means that I’m a man who found himself in an unexpected situation.

3. So how did you make the leap from thinking about what a birthfather is to actually becoming one?

The leap from child birth to child placement for adoption comes as a result of any number of messy things that happen in the middle. And very often those things are linked to poverty in one form or another: poverty of financial means, of resources, or of support.

For myself, the messy thing in the middle was not being able to identity in myself the ability to parent without resentment being attached to it. And the unwillingness to raise a child in an environment where resentment was present.

4. You mention that on some levels you don’t have anything in common with your son’s adoptive parents. However, you do have similar temperaments. Is that what originally drew you to them?

That’s actually often a common thread for a lot of first parents when looking for a family to place with. You’re ostensibly looking for people like yourself, but better resourced. What we were looking for more than anything was the sense that there was the possibility of relational commonality between us, that we could actually be in same room and be comfortable with one another.

With many of the families we looked at, there was a sense that they seemed like there were okay people, but they didn’t seem like our kind of people. They didn’t seem like people who I could call up on a Saturday night and say, “I got just got a great bottle of wine, come over for dinner.” And that was what I was looking for in the family I wanted to place with–cues that they valued the same things.

In making our decision, we took three parent profile books home with us: two that we were strongly considering and one that I brought as kind of a spoiler to serve as a metric to gauge how we were making our decision.

We read those books at least once a day, every day, for seven days straight to the point that we knew them backwards and forwards and talked about them every day for at least an hour. So when we went back we mentioned that there was one family that we particularly interested in meeting and there was another couple we were interested in meeting if that first meeting didn’t go so well.

For that first meeting with the couple that we ended up choosing, the social worker told them there’s a couple that wants to meet you. But don’t worry about it. It’s probably not serious, they just want to  say hello. And I feel badly about that. Because unfortunately, that was pretty far from the case. Athena and I arrived with two pages of single-space typewritten questions that we wanted to ask. So it was less an informal meeting and introduction and more like an interrogation.

5. What was that first meeting like?

I now recognize that a strong factor in how I approached that whole process was in looking to achieve and maintain some personal power in the process of adoption. I was looking for indications that I still had power to make decisions, I still had power to be a valued member in this process. And I don’t know if that was something that Athena was experiencing as well.

For me there was a strong sense during the whole process and working with our social worker and the books I read that my presence was either a wonderful coincidence or something to be afraid of. There was very little in between and there was very little that put a positive spin on being a birthfather. And I think that had a strong influence on my head space, going into that first meeting–that I was trying to assert some kind of personal power and importance.

6. Today, you have a close relationship with your son’s adoptive parents, seeing them and your son about once a month. Did it take a lot of work to get to this point?   

When we first talked about structuring our visits, we suggested getting together once a month and doing that for a year and then reassessing. The hope was that after seeing each other once a month for a year we could establish a more or less normal relationship so that there would be less pressure and we could simply call each other up as friends and say, “let’s get together. It’s been a while since we last seen you.”

It took a bit more time than that I thought to bring that sense of normalcy about than I anticipated. We’re still getting together once a month, but if our schedules get busy and we miss each other, we know that it’s not the end of the world. It isn’t sending an unintended message of disconnection. Everyone knows that we’re all in this together and that if we miss a month, it’s just a busy month and life just happens that way some times.

7. In a recent blog post, you describe your relationship as “weird” yet “normal.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

I would describe our relationship as a genuinely unique but very healthy. It’s healthy in that we’re mutually supportive. We all value each other as individuals and yet it’s unique in that there is truly no other relationship like this in my life. When I talk about our relationship as weird like normal, what I’m trying to get at is that when we’re entering new relationships very often there’s a tendency to hold up examples of other relationships, to figure out what this feeling is like. Is this a maternal quality relationship? A familial quality relationship? Is this a relationship I have with the cashier at the gas station?

So in trying to understand that comparison, it’s the normal kind of sorting and processing process that the mind goes through to interpolate new information. We try to find something to compare this new relationship to that harkens back to something we’ve already experienced.

The trouble in adoption is there is no other relationship like this that occurs in the life of a first parent. So we can actually get ourselves into really sticky territory if we try to compare this relationship to another. At one point, I felt badly that I couldn’t describe my relationship with my son’s adoptive parents as “like brothers” or “like siblings” or “like aunts and uncles.” It  took me a while to figure it out. And it was because it was completely unique and completely new.

8. James Gritter, one of the authors you reference in your writing, wrote that society doesn’t know what to make of birthmothers. What do you think it makes of birthfathers?

At best, stung surprise. I actually discussed this issue on my blog and I think the descriptor that came out of it was the generalization that birth fathers were uneducated, drug dealing, physically abusive, bigamists who believed that their virility was only proved by impregnating multiple anonymous partners.

9. I take it you wouldn’t fit that description…

Not so much!

10. And yet even though you often take a dim view of open adoption, at one point you question why more people don’t try it. Where does that come from?

That’s not something negative. Quite the opposite. I find that the more I question and test an idea, the more thoroughly I agree with it. My thinking that more people could benefit from thinking about open adoption and participating in it is that in thinking about open adoption, it encourages people to question assumptions about the family unit and way we form bonds and relationships. And in questioning those things, it’s possible to open up doors to allow for much more robust and unexpected relationships to occur in a person’s life, whether or not they’re actually directly involved in an adoption.

As for people who are actually trying an open adoption, I think it has significant value for anyone participating in a plan, it represents the opportunity–not the guarantee — for all members to express respect and care for one another and become defenders of each other’s dignity, that all people involved in an open adoption have the opportunity to be the cheerleader for everyone else and have the chance to enhance and strengthen the quality of life, the quality of relationships, and the appreciation of humanity for and with each other.

11. Birthfathers are rarely addressed in adoption literature. Our website is as guilty of that as any other. Does that bother you? Because the reality is, most adoption plans are made by prospective birthmothers and are the direct result of the fact that most prospective birthfathers don’t stick around.

It’s true they don’t stick around, but what’s unfortunate is the subtle language and cues that tell men in adoption you shouldn’t be here, you’re not welcome here, everyone would be happy if you would just break up with the girl and disappear. Most of the time I just swallow it and accept it as being part of the adoption community as it stands now.

12, The other day I spoke to a birthmother who wants to create more awareness about birthfathers by establishing a day of recognition for them. It would be similar to what birthmothers have now the Saturday before Mother’s Day.  Is that something you’d be interested in?

Yeah, I think it could be a powerful tool to demystify what birthfathers are and what it feels like to be a birthfather and for birthfathers to finally have a chance to process their experience. That’s why I’m doing my blog and taking part in the adoption community. There’s a important healing aspect to being with others who know where you’ve been and can share a similar experience.

13. What do you hope will come out of conversations like this one?

This may sound naive but the only plan I have is to change the world one conversation at a time. I don’t want to hit the lecture circuit and do conferences or be a keynote speaker or anything like that. The reason I first started the blog was because I thought it was could be useful for me to reflect on my experience and that it could help people with a familiarity of the adoption experience. Because in my immediate area, I have no connection to adoption even though it’s a big part of my life. It’s a closed topic with most people I know. So this is my way of taking ownership of being a birthfather and bringing a chair to the table.

Early on, it was important for me to think that I was the one breaking the stereotype. But more than anything right now, my goal is to simply present a story and let it be what it is. What really seems important to me right now is not that people know my story, but that they know a story. But for sheer lack of voices, mine will have to be the one to do for now. So I’m telling my story simply so that there’s one heard. And when I have the opportunity to share other people’s stories, I hope I can do those stories justice as well.

What do you think of I Am’s story? What do you think of the way birthfathers are portrayed in the adoption circle and considered by society at large? If you’re a member of the open adoption community and interested in sharing your story or want a copy of I Am’s Sweet Potato Muffin Recipe (yes, he emailed me a copy of it by request), feel free to contact me anytime.