I’m a dad. I have been since the first time my son recognised me as such; that, for me, was an awesome privilege. He called me “Dad” and I played it cool on the outside; inside, I was overcome with joy.
But, of course, I had a different status in law; my son had been placed with me for adoption, yes, but he was not yet adopted. It was a strange no-man’s-land of responsibility; a judge’s “Placement Order” was in effect, meaning that he could be placed with a suitable person. Originally, that was with his – superb – foster carers, and then that became me.
I am not his foster carer. He was privileged to have foster carers of the utmost quality, but the placement order can be used for them and for me – but only I get the honour of the adoption order.
During the “interim period” – seven months is quite the interim – I was technically classed as my son’s carer. As far as I was concerned, I was his father and he was my son; I certainly loved him as my son, and saw no difference between him and a blood child. His social worker did insist on referring to me as a carer, although thankfully not in front of my son. He claimed our surname very early on, and I had to emphasise that point on a few occasions; that wasn’t me insisting on it, but rather him wanting the name. I was thrilled, of course, but I could see the confusion in his eyes when his social worker referred to him – in his hearing – by a surname he no longer wanted. I continued to reinforce the point, although it was sometimes a struggle.
But then I was eligible to apply for the adoption order; I wasn’t allowed to before my son had been home for a minimum of ten weeks, and then I had to wait for a particular meeting with social services. The waiting is one of the hardest things, especially when it’s something so important.
However, my patience was rewarded; I was able to submit the paperwork to the court. Which promptly returned it because a particular box needed to be ticked (they had my phone number – a quick call could have resolved it; if the insistence was that the person who completed the form had to tick the box, how would they know that my second cousin’s best friend’s half-sister hadn’t ticked it instead?). I then returned the form … and it was returned again a couple of days later because they wanted to clarify something (again, does telephonic communication exist in that part of the country? Are all the phone lines down?). Having sent it off for a third time, I waited expectantly for something else to need my attention.
But, fortuitously, nothing required further bureaucratic hair-splitting. I was losing the will to live at this point, so I cheered when I received a letter confirming that there was now a hearing date. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was only a few weeks hence, rather than the three or four months I’d half-expected.
Deciding what to tell my son was a difficult decision; this was his journey as much as mine (more so, technically), so I didn’t want him to be completely ignorant of what was happening. But I also didn’t want him to have to carry the entire weight of knowledge as to what was going to happen; I was thinking about it a lot and, whilst I couldn’t assume what he was going to do, if I could shield him from some of the anxieties and worries coming with that, then I would. In the end, I took advice from my own social worker, who had seen these situations before; she had found it worked best when parents told their children that their social worker was going to be having a chat with the judge to see how things were getting on.
My son had been pushing to know what was happening; when were all the reports going to be finished? When was the judge going to sign the paperwork? When were all the social workers going to be done? I happily took my own social worker’s advice, and my son seemed to take that well; I deliberately played it down, but I was incredibly nervous on the day. I was careful not to show it in the morning whilst we got ready for school, and I think I succeeded.
I was more anxious than I expected during the day, ensuring I had my phone close to me despite knowing that the court wasn’t even convened yet. I also didn’t know when my son’s social worker would call me; would it be straight away? She knew how keen I was to know – how could she not? – so I had hoped she would call me pretty quick after the hearing.
And she did; I was getting ready to go up to my son’s school to collect him when my phone rang. I practically dived for it – probably the only time I’ve shown even the slightest athletic ability at all – and I don’t think I heard anything after the immortal words, “… and I’m pleased to tell you …”. It evokes a huge emotion to me even now as I recall those words.
I then needed to tell my son, of course – and, as of that moment, he was legally my son as much as I was his dad. We had already claimed each other as parent and child, but this was the absolute icing on the cake. He deserved to be the next to know, but I’m glad in a way that I had the news so close to the end of his school day – to try and hold that news for much longer would have been a struggle, and it’s possible I would have had to go into school and have a conversation with him there.
The situation didn’t arise, however, as I was able to pick him up from school and bring him home at the normal time. A small part of me wanted to tell him there at the school gates, but I didn’t contemplate it seriously; it was too private a moment for that. So I was able to put on the best (only) acting job of my life; I was entirely normal at the school gates (in that I was my usual eccentric self) and we cycled home entirely as per our usual routine.
It was only when we got home did I deviate from usual routines; my son looked a bit concerned when I asked him to come and sit down, even when I reassured him that it was nothing to worry about. I wonder, in years and decades to come, how he will remember that moment, when I told him the news. I will remember it for the rest of my life. We both cried happy tears, and we rejoiced at his new name as well as our legal status – and then we decided to tell his grandparents to their faces; it was the least we could do, and he had every right to tell the news for himself to someone else. I wanted him to claim the news, and claim it he did – he told his nan and granddad gleefully.
I wish the judge and his social worker could have both seen that moment, you know; it would have personalised our story so much more than a report ever could. The process is as it has to be – but it still is strangely impersonal, even from people you have got to know over a period of months. Our children are often oblivious to those moments, and it’s our job as parents to perhaps shield them from it to a degree, but it still weighs heavy on my shoulders.
Being able to legally use his new name, rather than parallel running two identities (one legal, one personal), is a pleasure. I took my son to the dentist just the other day, and to see him smiling when I used our joint surname was worth every bit of pain I had been through before to get to this point.
He is my son; fully, legally, and officially – but emotionally, we’ve been a family a lot longer than that.