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Kevin Naulls walks with his partner’s adopted son, Junior. For a time, he had to be a silent partner in the relationship, but now helps parenting. (Jenna Marie Wakani/the globe and mail)
Kevin Naulls walks with his partner’s adopted son, Junior. For a time, he had to be a silent partner in the relationship, but now helps parenting. (Jenna Marie Wakani/the globe and mail)

My partner has adopted a son. What does that make me? Add to ...

The early stages of courtship are full of surprises. You can learn anything about a person after a bit of alcohol or, if you’re nosy like me, from browsing their bookshelf and the contents of their side table. That’s how, on a second date with a man I’ll call James, I came across a book labelled “Daddies and Papas.” I took it down to leaf through, thinking that it was about sex. It wasn’t.

James hadn’t intended to reveal what he’d tell me next, but I asked. And learned that he had taken a course for expectant gay fathers called Daddies and Papas 2 Be (hence the book). He’d also applied to enter into the adoption cycle with the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) of Toronto in 2010, which meant he had already begun seriously mapping out the next chapter of his life. One day in the future, he couldn’t say when, he’d hopefully be a single dad.

I offered my congratulations, and our date went on unchanged (we watched The Birdcage, ordered pizza and got seriously down). It was the following day that the questions started inside my own mind, and from friends that I had immediately rushed to tell. Was I ready for “it,” they asked? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I liked him.

This was all back in 2014, after he had already been through the earliest stages of the cycle, which includes a series of interviews conducted by a CAS social worker to determine fit. The road to adopt is long and complex: 2010 to 2013 was a period of determining readiness, during which James needed to find a new home, rented or owned, that was large enough for two. A parent should be vetted through almost-comic scrutiny, and he was.

As we continued to see each other, James, who is 14 years older than me, never asked me to consider fatherhood at 28. That was good, because I wasn’t ready then. My family relationships are troubled, to say the least. My parents kicked me out when I was 20 (yes, because I’m gay). My brother saddled me with outlandish debt that I spent years paying off, because he’s never been able (nor has he offered) to pay it back, and I don’t have the heart to take him to court. My 20s were focused on learning to love myself.

I’ve only ever known gay parents from afar, and most of them weren’t even real. In movies and television shows such as Patrik, Age 1.5; Breakfast with Scot or The New Normal, adoption is a fine balance of drama and comedy, painted largely as glossy and white.

My real-world discussions with other gay men, however, were much more diverse. We’d discuss how child-rearing is often heteronormative – living with two parents in one home is not the only healthy way for a child to grow up – but also an earned right that we deserve as an option. This is also the enforced binary that exists when a group of gay people discuss the institution of marriage: just another situation in which our personal and political dreams are entangled, and sometimes contradictory.

These random conversations had led to an unformed plan tucked away in the recesses of my mind: Around age 35 or so, I figured I’d be ready to parent, and I wanted a daughter. Prior to meeting James, I had no concept of how this would happen, much in the same way that I still don’t know a thing about mortgages and probably won’t until I finally decide I should get one.

As our relationship deepened, I began to consider what life would be like if James’s long-awaited child showed up the next day. Would we stay together? Would I have to co-parent? Would we get married? These are the kinds of questions that seem very normal if you’ve been dating for three years, not three seconds. I could have run, but I didn’t. Like I said, I liked him.

I had many questions about what came next, but it was basically impossible to answer most of them. Statistics about public adoption in Canada are basically non-existent, thanks largely to the confusing web of children’s aid services, which operate provincially. Taking just our largest, English-majority provinces, Ontario has 47 public agencies, British Columbia has 25 and Alberta has 20, and each operates independently in a specific region. Add private provincial agencies into the mix, and I’ll admit that it seems to me a very daunting task to collect and analyze data.

The Adoption Council of Canada tells me that it has advised the federal government of the need to collect national data, but that hasn’t happened yet. No organization tracks Canadian adoptions by any criteria. We simply don’t know how many single or two-parent adoptions happen in Canada or how many hetero or same-sex couples are creating families this way.

Part of this information vacuum includes how long intended parents might expect to wait before they’re matched with a child. As my relationship with James entered its second year, he became frustrated. He had grown used to being asked about his future child by family and friends, but he didn’t have satisfactory answers for the question: “When’s Junior coming?” This lack of agency also led me to rationalize lengthy wait times with my friends, to voice the possibly unfair hypothesis that adoption agencies favour heterosexual, two-parent couples above everyone else.

As he waited, James browsed listings on a website, where each child has a mini-bio (“Billy” is fun-loving, likes cars etc.). He attended an adoption convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where prospective parents carry around a sort of marketing one-sheet about themselves for regional adoption agencies to assess, and also sit in auditoriums watching reels featuring difficult-to-adopt children. I wasn’t involved, nor was I expected to be. In fact, CAS suggested we not live together, nor get married, and for good reason: What if we weren’t together forever? When there’s an incoming child involved whose life has been inconsistent, your needs are secondary.

Eight months ago, 3-1/2 years after being officially approved for the adoption cycle, James finally became a dad. When he got the news that Junior, a three-year-old boy, was coming, I told James that we could be apart as long as we needed to be. It was emotionally difficult to think this was something I’d ever have to offer in a healthy relationship, but neither of us knew what to expect (and, frankly, it was suggested by the organization that says yea or nay).

I also really didn’t want to confuse a child who had already been through the foster system and was on his way to his “forever home.” So, James and I texted and I kept my distance. For a while I didn’t visit at all. Then, I began to accompany father and son to play groups and playgrounds, but I didn’t sleep over. James and I were together, but separate in a much different way than before. When physicality is gone, even a hug, you quickly become aware of its absence.

After a required police check (and a sex drought that I believe makes me an honorary new parent), I was finally green-lit to stay over. By this point, Junior and I were already forming a bond, as friends. At 3, he’s articulate and sometimes exhaustingly energetic.

Now, James and I see each other more often. We can be affectionate again, and this prompts Junior to want hugs and kisses, too. We share the day as though we were a family, but I am not an official parent. James says I’m a “special person” in his son’s life. I hear that as a stand-in for “I don’t know what you are,” and that’s fine with me. Maybe that’s all I’ll be for a few years.

I tuck Junior in at night, read him stories with funny voices and carry him on my shoulders. I make him dinner and I send him to his room when he’s misbehaving and I change his diaper, too. And sometimes, he tells me he loves me. Of all the answers I could ask for, that’s the one that feels the most important. Because I love him, too.

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