Single Motherhood and the Daddy Question
I relaxed in a comfortable chair in the bank lobby after making my deposit. I had decided the air conditioning would feel good to my four-month-old, home from China only a few short weeks, while she drank her bottle that scorching summer day in 1995. Sitting across the coffee table from me was a kind woman in her seventies, wheezing and wrinkled from too many years of smoking. She had a daughter too, working at that very institution, who would give her a ride home at the end of her shift. The woman asked the usual questions about the adoption, the fees, the trip. She asked if my husband had traveled with me to adopt Chloe, and I answered honestly; no, I traveled with my mother, who was born there and wanted to visit her birthplace. I then included the fact that I was a single-mother.
Unfortunately, I didn't notice him until he started yelling at me. Waiting in line for a teller stood a man who had been eavesdropping on our conversation until he interjected, "How dare they allow single women to adopt children! It's criminal. What kind of father figure is that kid going to have? That's the worst thing I've ever heard. It's absolutely criminal!" Everyone in the bank stared at him and whether or not they agreed, they were embarrassed for me. In his filthy short-shorts and cropped top, ankle socks and brown leather shoes, he was a sight to see, and I wondered what kind of father figure had helped him become the man he was that day. I picked up our things to leave and mumbled something about not knowing me or my life, to butt out, but his harangue shook me to the core.
I have been called a criminal, and I have been called a saint, but these words hold no sway like the one I hear most often, "Mommy." We are a family, my daughters and I, with a home, a car, two cats, child-care, a job, friends, extended family, and currently everything feels normal and right. I made the choice to become what I am, but the reality is that my daughters did not choose to be fatherless and have had no say in the matter. They will expect some sort of explanation, and I know that eventually my answers will disclose those parts of my past that led me to this particular path in life, but that's not much help to a four-year-old, who does not understand where her daddy is. Our children are the only people who deserve any explanation, but they will not be the only ones to ask. How we answer every inquiry will dramatically influence how our children feel about themselves as they grow up in homes led by single parents.
Occasionally, on the internet adoption list-serves I belong to, there are discussions regarding what we call "The Daddy Question." It is obvious that all the parents, single and married, care about raising children with healthy self-esteem and a solid sense of cultural identity
that will carry them through the painful years of adolescence and into adulthood. Our kids will have a lot to sift through: adolescence in the next millennium, adoption issues, abandonment issues, multiracial families, and, most likely, parents who are still single. I find it comforting that many of my peers agree on how to answer our children's questions about their "missing parent." Therefore, I have combined some of their list-serve responses with my own experience and wish to offer several points to help those who will be answering the question about "Daddy".
A couple of months ago on the Our Chinese
Daughters Foundation list-serve, Debbie Carr eloquently expressed the angst that we all suffered, or are currently suffering, while making the decision to adopt alone,
Maybe I wasn't as thorough in my thinking about adoption as I thought I'd been, but this was the first time I'd made the connection that my being a single mom means that I'll have a dad-less daughter (dad-less in the sense of not having a second parent to love you, independent of gender). I had a glimpse that night of how it would be from the daughter's perspective to only have one parent, and while it hasn't caused me to not want to adopt, it has opened up issues, concerns, and feelings that I wasn't aware of. I guess at the heart of it is that I'm worried my daughter will be short changed in only getting one parent (regardless of whether that parent is a good or bad parent) and will be angry with me for not giving her two parents.
As I read Debbie's post, I felt deeply for her and remembered that my reaction to the bank experience was anger. The "expert on father figures" unveiled my insecurities, still so tender and new, about parenting alone. It was only too obvious that it would be a "perfect" world if my child had a father to love her, to admire her, to teach her to dance, but that just was not the way it was. Single-mothers like Debbie realize early on that the Daddy Question is coming, and that they better be prepared. It is the mother's choice to answer her daughters' Daddy Questions with honesty and a positive outlook.
First of all, just because the child of a single-mother has asked where her daddy is, it does not mean that she wants or needs a full-blown explanation of birth and adoption, marriage and the birds and the bees. Do not assume there is more to your child's question then there really is. As Elsa Raab learned to do,
Marisa (age 3 1/2) also has friends who ask, "Where's her daddy?" When I first heard this question, I was quite taken aback and started off with a long explanation of adopting
her from China, and, etc. Since then I've realized that the kids her age only want a simple answer, so now I just say, "Well, I'm not married and we don't have a daddy in our house. We just have a mom and kids." That answer so far has been enough.
Many single-mom's have responded to this ongoing discussion by accentuating the positive, stressing what we do have rather than what's missing.
Now, when the subject comes up between the two of us, I remind her of all the different kinds of families there are. I tell her, "No, we don't have a daddy, but we have a lot of men in our lives..." Sometimes I actually start listing them and remind her of all the fun things we do with them and how much they love her...
These good-hearted men do not replace the "Daddy," but rather fill a special role-making their relationships with our daughters unique. What kids also need to know is that there is great diversity in family combinations and that their situation is really not that uncommon. Teresa Friend explained how she does just that,
I always tell Lindsay that there are all different kinds of families-some kids have a mom and a dad, some kids have only one parent, some kids have two moms, some kids live with one parent and have another parent who lives somewhere else. Just like some kids come out of their mother's tummies, and some come into the family by adoption. I think that the most important thing to convey is that her family is just right the way it is-if you feel like it is a terrible thing that she has no daddy, then she is very likely to pick up on that, and that cannot be good! And what if a small child assumes that there is no daddy because of something she did or did not do?
I also really liked Debra Baker's suggestion "to shift the focus to the mother." She would say that the reason her daughter does not have a daddy is because she simply does not have a husband, "If I had married, my husband would be her daddy." She would then go on to say a few words about why she does not have a husband, "i.e., never found the right person to marry, but still wanted a little girl to love." They would then "talk about what we do have-for example, a special uncle or male friend who is involved. The emphasis should be on what we do have, rather than on what is missing...with the 'responsibility' for the lack of a daddy being tied to the mother." As in all single-parent families, a "missing parent" is the result of the parents' actions, not the child's, and should be emphasized as such.
An extremely important point is to avoid confusion between the "Daddy" and the birthfather. One story, offered via the Post-Adopt-China list-serve, described a well-intentioned grandmother who told the little girl that her "Daddy" had died, as was true in regards to her birthfather
in China. The child literally spent years grieving over the death of a man who never was going to be her "Daddy." Barb Solyst says, "I wouldn't refer to a father in China unless I included the birthfather with the birthmother." The birthfather has relevance only to the child's adoption and should remain in that context, not in her day-to-day childhood
experiences growing up with a single mother.
In the end, I believe it is not the words we choose that are the most important part of answering the "Daddy Question." The most important part of answering the "Daddy Question" is our unspoken attitude conveyed to children who look to us for guidance on what to think and how to behave. Since the encounter at the bank, I have learned to discern and deflect parental guilt trips that "experts" try to force on single-mothers, who already worry enough about their life choices. I will not apologize for choosing to raise my children alone. My daughters will not be witnesses to their mother fretting that we are not a "traditional" family. I choose to look forward to our life as a family, and would welcome most warmly that "Mr. Right," if he should appear in our lives.
These days, I stand up for us as a family. Recently, another woman in her seventies sitting across the aisle from us on an airplane, said in front of my listening daughters how sorry she was that my children didn't have a father. What could I do but once again answer honestly? We ARE doing fine; we are happy and healthy, and we love each other; this is the only family life my daughters know. How can we be any more "normal" than that? I will answer Chloe and Robin's Daddy Questions not with apology and guilt, as though we are broken beyond repair because there is a missing piece, but with optimism and pride in who we already are.
Caroline F. Daniel, MA is a writer, a teacher and a single-mom to Chloe, 3.5, adopted 7/95, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, PRC, and to Robin, 17 mos, adopted 12/97, Ha Noi, Viet Nam.
© Adoption Today
Credits: Caroline F. Daniel, MA