Ask DadPad, Being a Dad, Long Read
Ask DadPad: Is the DadPad suitable for adoptive dads?
Posted on 23rd October 2020
Last week was National Adoption Week, and this year we wanted to have a little focus on it – looking, in particular, as adoptive dads. [We missed looking at it last week on purpose, as we were concentrating on Baby Loss Awareness Week instead].
The idea for this came way back in the summer, when we were contacted via our Facebook page by an adoptive mum, who is also a health visitor. She told us that she thought we were ‘missing a trick’ by not looking to include adoptive dads within our ‘target audience’ for all things DadPad.
This got us thinking about how we could do this, and we came up with the idea of a blog post that focused on some adoptive dads that we know and which looked at how they prepared for and adjusted to parenthood and, in particular, how they bonded with their non-biological child. We were fortunate enough to get a positive response to our request from all three adoptive dads that we contacted – as well as the adoptive mum, who instigated this whole idea. Not only did each respond, but they also each wrote the most amazing, heart-felt, moving and insightful comments on their experiences. Because of this, we’ve chosen to write out their contributions with hardly any editing, so that you can also share the impact of their words, as adoptive fathers.
Who did we speak to?
To protect their privacy, we’ve chosen to give pseudonyms to our contributors in this blog post. Their family situations are as described:
- Andrew is a dad of four children, all of whom were adopted.
- Brian is a dad of two sons, both of whom are now grown up. He and his wife met their first son at six months, and adopted him 12 months later. Then – miraculously! – two years later they had a biological child of their own.
- Charlie is a dad-of-one. He adopted his son via a foster-to-adopt situation, joining the family at five months old, having met for the first time just two weeks previously. His son is now coming up to three.
- And Debbie, Charlie’s wife, is the health visitor mum who contacted us over the summer.
What does it mean to be a dad?
Before we start to look at the questions we asked our adoptive parents, and their responses, we thought it would be useful to firstly look at what a ‘dad’ actually is. Obviously, we’ll all have our own opinion on that one, and there’s undoubtedly more than one answer, but we think this comment from Dr Anna Machin is especially insightful in the context of this blog post:
…Dads are not just about the genes. I’m an anthropologist; my job is to study fatherhood around the world and, whilst we privilege the biological father here in the West, if I look around the world, generally, the dad is the person who steps up and does the job. You see, dads are wonderfully flexible beings. Because they are not bound by the biology of pregnancy and childbirth and breastfeeding, they are able to change their behaviour more quickly, to respond to changes in the environment. And, therefore, dad can be: a stepdad; an adopted dad; yes, the biological dad, whether he lives with his children or not – but he can be: an uncle, a grandfather, a friend… Some children have whole teams of fathers. Dad is there to make sure that child survives.
Andrew also gave us a fantastic overview of his experience and views on what it means to be a dad:
A: I’m not sure I speak for all men, but I love a baby. I don’t need them to be able to hold a spanner to enjoy their company – that’s a rule I use for most people, actually – and have no trouble changing nappies. In fact, I find it hugely frustrating to be judged alongside blokes like Simon Cowell who seem to think their masculinity is under threat if it ever gets out that they’ve become a dab hand with the Pampers. Dadding is hard and dirty work, much like many other manly stereotypes like mining, or playing rugby, or being a mechanic.
[And, for more insight into what the manly stereotype of a rugby player, who also happens to be a dad to a little girl, looks like – have a quick peek at our Twitter post from earlier in the week…]
Preparing for fatherhood
We started our conversations with our contributors by asking them what preparations – if any – they had had for parenthood prior to their child(ren) coming to live with them. We felt that this was important given what we’ve learnt over the years, both anecdotally, from meeting dads-to-be in ‘real life’, and from research: dads often feel unprepared, uncertain and overwhelmed, and experience fear of the unknown. We can see this, for example, in some of the findings gathered in Baldwin et al’s (2018) research study on mental health and wellbeing during the transition to fatherhood:
Men talked about feeling nervous and unprepared due to not having any previous experience: “I don’t know how to interact with my child when she’s born… I’ve never been a father so I feel quite terrified”. They often did not know what to expect… This uncertainty often resulted in men feeling frustrated, excluded and uncertain about how they could help…
It was interesting to recognise that an adoptive parent will inevitably have to jump through a lot more hoops before they are allowed to be considered to become a parent than those of us who have our children biologically, as Debbie and Brian explained:
D: The local authority put all prospective adopters through an in-depth assessment process prior to taking them to an approval panel which is a group of people who decide formally if they think you are suitable candidates to adopt a child. Part of this process is undertaking study days which are designed to help prepare you for parenthood, and the additional challenges you may face as a parent of an adopted child.
B: Going through the adoption process was a form of preparation. Whilst the process served a purpose in enabling others to assess whether I could be accepted as a prospective adoptive father, it also made me consider carefully my own position, attitude and motives. The adoption process (back in the 1990s, at least) was very personal and delved into my own history upbringing and childhood experiences. It made me look at my own values in life and consider what I could offer to a child needing a home.
The process was hard. It was quite invasive when it came to questions being asked and a real examination of my own experiences and motives and attitudes. As weeks and months passed during the adoption process, I did wonder about and fear the possibility of not being approved as an adoptive father. This just made me resolute to keep going and do my best. Yes – this also prepared me for the serious challenge of fatherhood. I felt ready to be a dad.
Brian also considered some of the core similarities and differences in preparations that an adoptive father will undertake, when compared with a biological father:
B: Sometimes I feel that I was as prepared for fatherhood as any father would be having a child born naturally to them. My wife and I did not have nine months of pregnancy. Nor did we have antenatal classes. But, for us, the adoption process was our equivalent. Yes, it was different, but it was a lead-in time including the opportunity to reflect and prepare the heart and mind.
What was very different was the fact that we were not decorating a child’s bedroom or buying baby equipment during our lead-in time, because – going through the process – we just did not know when or if a child would ever come our way. I was, of course, delighted when my wife and I were approved as adoptive parents by the panel who looked at our case. Maybe I could compare that feeling to that of a man who has just been told he is going to be a father. But there were still so many uncertainties and unknowns. With the adoption process, being delighted at being told you are allowed to be a father can be dampened by a feeling of uncertainty that you still do not know if and when a child might come along.
These reflections are interesting, when compared with the research findings quoted above. Although – as noted by Brian and as we’ll also see from Charlie later on in this post – no-one probably ever feels truly prepared for parenthood, our adoptive dads did seem to benefit from having the questioning, reflection and study that form part of the adoption process to help get them ready for becoming a dad. Andrew seems to agree:
A: I actually think that pre-adoptive dads may potentially have a greater investment in fatherhood than pre-birth fathers do.
A balanced approach
Andrew also explored this theme, but this time looking at the way that the adoption preparation focuses equally on both prospective parents:
A: Adoption assessment is quite evenly split between mum and dad, and in the months leading up to approval as parents – which are analogous to the nine months waiting for birth in any case – there’s clearly going to be far less emphasis on mum and her physical needs, and a greater discussion of how the relationship will change as the child arrives. It’s a more inclusive preparation, in a way. And when the children arrive, it’s likely that dad will be attending to feeds – no breastfeeding – and getting up at night just as often as mum is. He has to; he asked for this, too.
This is exciting to hear, as it pretty much sums up what the research says that biological parents-to-be ought to be focusing on, in order to prepare themselves – as individuals and a couple – for parenthood. There are clear links, for example, with Andrew’s comments on both equality and the changing relationship and Jeszemma Howl’s comment in her Engaging Fathers in the Perinatal Period to Support Breastfeeding  report:
When we support only one member of the couple, generally the mother, we run the risk of unwittingly undermining the couple relationship, creating unequal levels of knowledge, confirming social stereotypes that ‘mother knows best’ and therefore should be responsible for the lion’s share of the care… Supporting couples to engage in, and practice, positive communication during the antenatal period, as well as after birth, is likely to pay dividends. The best means of supporting positive inter-parental communication is to engage with the couple and support them routinely and systematically in all mainstream services; and make this an explicit part of the universal support offer.
This idea is also supported by Prof Amy Brown, who has commented:
We often focus on mother and baby during the perinatal period but fathers play such a vital role in the family. When fathers are well, they are able to support their partner and engage positively with their baby. When fathers are struggling and unsupported, the whole family dynamic changes, putting that family cohesion at risk. It is, of course, important that we support fathers for their own sake, but also for the wellbeing of the whole family. We must invest in making sure everyone in the family unit is nurtured to protect our future and the next generation of parents.
Role models and personal experiences
As with any parent-to-be, whatever their situation, our adoptive dads also acknowledged that not all of the preparation that they undertook had been forced upon them. The impact of role models and learning by observation and experience – especially with the change in cultural expectations and attitudes towards fatherhood – is something that was considered in Mark Williams’ Fathers Reaching Out report (2020), and this quote from Dr Sheehan Fisher demonstrates some of the key difficulties experienced by many new dads:
Fathers are trying to grow into their role as co-parents, but lack a blueprint from previous generations on how to manage this role successfully and take an egalitarian approach to their interparental relationships.
It’s therefore enlightening to learn where some of our adoptive dads found their personal inspiration, information and experience:
C: Prior to adopting, I’d completed mandated study days and spent time reading around adoptive parenting and parenting more generally. I found lots of interesting resources online, ranging from the very formal (e.g. NCT and NHS) to the less formal and more fun (e.g. Facebook groups, such as Life of Dad). Also, Debbie pointed me towards several parenting books and books on attachment. I must admit that I did not read these cover-to-cover, but instead picked and chose what I found interesting. Less formally, I come from a large family of breeders and adopters (both my parents are one of eight) so childrearing and positive parenting models were a part of my everyday reality, growing up. I feel that counts for a lot.
B: I also felt another avenue of preparation came from what I proactively did myself. In my own time, and for a number of years leading up to adoption, I volunteered at the church I attended to help with children’s work and children’s groups. I helped lead weekly at a Sunday morning children’s group and a Friday evening youth group. Working for and with children was a different form of preparation. But this was one I looked for and chose to do. I guess not all forms of preparation get handed to you on a plate. You have to search and commit for yourself.
The realities of parenthood
We then discussed how the dads felt when their child arrived with them. Charlie’ss and Brian’s comments will undoubtedly resound with any new parent!
B: What can I say? The moment I saw this baby for the first time, I felt I could love him as my own. I knew I could be a dad. I had little to no physical preparation but my heart was ready. It is difficult to put down in words, but when this little six-month-old baby came home with us, I was ready to be a dad. I guess I feel that my sense of readiness came from: (1) my longing to be a dad (hence my commitment to undergoing the adoption process itself, which is not easy); (2) the ‘instantaneous’ love I felt for this little child, the moment I saw him; and (3) the commitment I felt I had made before God, as a Christian, to give a child a safe and loving home.
C: I felt exactly as prepared as every prepared parent when faced with the fact that, when a baby arrives, your preparations have not really prepared you at all! More seriously, when N arrived, I felt wonderfully overwhelmed. It felt incredibly surreal that a human without years of on-the-job training and a raft of diplomas could ever be trusted with something so precious. And yet, when we started to settle into it, things started to fall into place surprisingly quickly.
Charlie’s observations – that he soon settled into parenting – are helpful, and it’s what we’ve always believed and shared, here at DadPad. What (all) dads need, in order to feel less overwhelmed, less unprepared and less ‘like a fish out of water’, is the opportunity to prepare themselves. The actual moment of becoming a parent will always be mind-blowing – and the moment you first get to take that tiny baby home to look after by yourselves will always be beyond scary – but, if you’ve done the prep, a little bit of ‘hands on’ practice will be all you’ll need to feel like a ‘natural’ at being a dad.
Andrew’s experience of becoming a first-time dad was slightly different to that of Brian and Charlie, as he and his wife adopted three children together, and none of them were newborns:
A: What I will say is that taking on the mantle of parent for children who are already being looked after by foster carers is strange. At first it feels very much like everyone knows. I’m sure it’s the same for birth parents but at least their children are the appropriate size for new arrivals. Mine were 1, 2 and 4. Only stepdads know the feeling of suddenly becoming a parent to a child old enough to play football.
Brian also, though, went on to raise an issue which all of our adoptive parents faced – the uncertainty in the early days…
B: But there was one drawback with which I had to live for the first 12 months of this baby coming home to us: until the legal adoption went through, this child might not remain with us. I might not be allowed to be his dad. What if the Family Court did not approve the legal adoption in the end? What if the birth-mother had a complete change of mind and wanted the child back? My heart said “this child is my son”, but the law of the land still had a full year before saying the same thing. As each day went by, the thought of not keeping this child became harder and harder to bear. My love for this child grew and grew with each moment. I felt a stronger bond with this baby boy.
Debbie also touched on this:
D: Ours was a foster-to-adopt situation, so when N moved in he came as a foster child which bought its own emotional issues as he wasn’t ‘ours’ at that point.
However, as Brian also noted, this isn’t a unique experience for those becoming parents via the adoption route:
B: [With our adopted child], we knew the possibility was always there that the child might not truly become ours and might be taken away, even if this was unlikely. Nine months of pregnancy [with our naturally-born child] gave me a similar experience because – probably like every other prospective parent – you live with that little fear of ‘losing the baby’. Will the pregnancy be successful?
One of the key points that we especially wanted to focus on with our adoptive dads was bonding. We’ve already considered aspects of bonding in our July blog, and in particular we addressed some of the myths about bonding being something that only mum can do – either at all, or at least from the very beginning of pregnancy/birth – because she has that full biological and bodily connection with the baby. Talking with adoptive parents, who have absolutely no biological, genetic or bodily connection to their child(ren), about whether and how they bonded is therefore going to be hugely informative in relation to those ‘myths’. We’ll start with Charlie:
C: We were matched with our son VERY quickly after being accepted as adopters and, as a part of that matching, we received a profile and a video of him. While direct parallels can’t quite be drawn between those and antenatal scans, etc, I truly feel that my bonding with my boy started right from the moment I read about and saw him for the first time. And it’s funny, but when we finally got to take him home, it felt that, on that day, he was ‘born’ into our life. I know how odd and sappy that sounds, but it really is true: he felt ‘ours’ incredibly quickly.
Just like Charlie, Andrew also acknowledged how learning about their children beforehand had an impact on bonding and attachment:
A: There’s also the fact that adopted children come with their own stories, which means that by the time they arrive, mum and dad will both have had to engage with the child in a way that birth parents don’t. There’s a back-story to absorb and take on. Plus the idea that families become blended together. Parents become custodians and guardians of an alternate family history to their own, which again gives the lie to the idea that dads can only bond with children they have a personal stake in. Whether that means adoptive dads are less likely to become estranged than birth dads is a matter for research, but I would argue that anyone who properly engages with an adoptive child’s history and then agrees to take them on stands a greater chance of developing that lifelong bond.
We were really excited to see Charlie and Andrew talking about how they had (if you like) ‘pre-bonded’ with their children, even before they’d become a part of their lives, as this links nicely with advice that’s given by fatherhood experts on bonding. Dr Anna Machin (see above), for example, has talked often about how dads can help to build a bond with their child. In particular, she rejects the idea that dad will need to wait until the baby is a bit older, and capable of interacting, before he can bond. Instead, she’s suggested that dads-to-be take steps to build their bond and attachment with the baby at the earliest moment possible; as an example, she advocates that dads build prenatal attachment by talking with their ‘bump’, and by imagining, anticipating and dreaming about the life they will have with their baby. Once again, it looks as if the adoption process is giving dads the opportunity to make the best preparations for becoming a dad.
Both Brian and Debbie considered for us in detail how they had bonded with their adoptive child:
B: I feel my wife and I had the same starting point when it comes to bonding. My wife was not pregnant with this child, nor did she give birth to him, nor did she breastfeed him. If bonding is influenced at all by simply the amount of time a parent spends with the child, then my wife had an advantage. She handed in her notice at work to care for this child full-time, whereas I had another full-time job.
In spite of the lack of natural birth, both my wife and I feel we bonded with this baby. I loved him with all my heart, I committed to care for him and provide for him, I gave him a loving and safe home. I cuddled him and talked to him. There were moments, as time passed, when I could easily convince myself he was born to us. Equally, I felt this baby respond to me and connect. My Christian faith also strengthened my resolve that I would raise this child and never give up. I say this because, after the passage of time, I have heard of adoptive parents giving their children back because they could not cope. I could never have done that.
Having said all this, there was one factor which I feel must influence bonding in one way or another – our adoptive son had learning difficulties and behavioural difficulties. He does not interact socially with others in a ‘normal’ way. He sees the world very differently. At a very young age I could see he was not developing as quickly as he should. His additional needs required a different way of handling. For example, dad having ‘rough and tumble’ with his son did not really work out because, even as a small child, my lad could not cope with it.
But – as I look back – I bonded with this little boy. Today, at the age of 26, he still calls me dad, as he did from the start.
D: [In relation to bonding, professionally] I deal with this issue a lot, and through COVID I think this has been especially difficult for biological dads. I try to spin it differently and get dads to touch and talk and sing to ‘their’ bump when they can, feel the baby move and, when baby arrives, do lots of skin-to-skin, spend time with the baby, do caring activities as much as possible (such as nappy changes and baths), and I am also a firm advocate of baby wearing… so I discuss this with my families until I see their eyes glaze over... 🙂 I also point out that they can care for mum whilst she is breastfeeding, which all helps that circle of family life…
From our point of view, we did the same. I wore N ALL the time, and literally had him with me as much as I physically could. We did skin-to-skin as much as we could and I was insistent that only myself and Charlie were to look after him until I felt that bonding had happened… and I had the luxury of adoption leave (14 months in total!) but Charlie obviously only had the two weeks’ paternity. However, due to Charlie being a teacher, he had a long summer break and we spent as much time together as we could, and ALWAYS wore N. In fact, we didn’t buy a pram as I was adamant that it wasn’t needed.
I still wear him now and he loves being in the sling.
I really advocate touch and eye contact as a bonding and attachment (and brain development) exercise, so even now we touch N constantly, and stroke him, and have lots of face-to-face, one-on-one interactions with him. I try to let Charlie have as much time alone with him at weekends to give them that space to be with each other – so they go to the park and they also both love to go to the supermarket. It seems to be something that they both get a lot out of – N sees it as a fun adventure and Charlie enjoys the fact he enjoys it. Win win!
The other thing I practised with N was ‘responsive feeding’. I was obviously not breastfeeding so instead we fed his formula on demand and tried to mimic breastfeeding wherever possible. I never ‘clock watched’ and instead always followed his feeding cues – he had what he wanted, when he wanted and feeding was kept calm and quiet with lots of touch, eye contact and soft words – to try to copy the breastfeeding experience. This meant that we were up A LOT at night times but this was all part of that bonding experience, too, and – because he was formula fed – it meant both myself and Charlie could experience this.
These comments on bonding – and especially the detail provided by Brian and Debbie – are just amazing. They show us all the ways that new parents are advised to help to form a bond. They also demonstrate that not having a physical link with the baby, or even a biological link, is no barrier to bonding. You don’t need to have carried and birthed a baby in order to love and bond with it, and you don’t even need to breastfeed it. Instead, you need to work on building a relationship – even if it’s only in your imagination – with that baby from the very first day it comes onto your radar, and then – when you get to physically meet it – you need to take the time to be with that baby as much as you can, to touch that baby as much as you can, and to communicate with that baby as much as you can.
Becoming a biological dad
One final thing, that we were able to consider with Brian, was whether his experience of preparing to become a biological dad – second time around – was significantly different to his experience of preparing to adopt. This is what he had to say:
B: It is hard to find specifics regarding differences in these ‘preparation’ experiences when it comes to my own experience of adopting a boy in the first case and then having a boy by natural birth. On the physical/practical side, and with the natural birth, I did have nine months to ‘get ready’ – decorating the nursery, buying clothes and equipment. This was a definitive time-scale with a really specific deadline. With the adoption, we had just a few weeks (maybe three?) from the moment of being told “there might be a baby for you” to the moment we took this baby home. Just a few weeks to prepare and buy things, and – in my wife’s case – to immediately tender her resignation from work and work her notice period.
So this was a big difference: nine months for a naturally-born child and three weeks for the adoptive child. Whilst I have referred to this kind of preparation as physical/practical, for me it was more than this. I found that, by doing tangible things to prepare the home and obtain the necessary clothing, toys and equipment, I was also preparing the heart and mind. With each purchase and each little job done, I was becoming more and more ready to be a dad.
DadPad for adoptive dads
Obviously, we couldn’t miss the chance to ask our contributors whether they felt that the DadPad could have a role with adoptive dads and dads-to-be, in the same way that it is used with those men who become fathers to children born into their families. We were delighted that all of them wholeheartedly agreed. We like to think that, what the DadPad will offer dads – and which the adoption process might not currently offer them – is dad-focused advice on practical things (like first aid, changing nappies, coping with crying and lack of sleep, and bathing and washing baby) alongside an increased awareness of how to look after both himself and his partner as they cope with huge life changes which could, no matter how much they may have yearned for a child, impact on their mental health. We’re therefore going to work at getting this highlighted in the areas of the country where DadPad is already available, and will continue to work on getting the DadPad available as a resource for more and more dads-to-be, whatever their situation.
We’ll end with these words from Andrew:
A: I don’t think anyone is adequately prepared to be a parent, in much the same way that I don’t think anyone is adequately prepared for jumping into a freezing cold swimming pool. That’s almost certainly because the things that are the hardest – essentially the weight of responsibility and the lack of sleep – don’t sound that tough unless you experience them directly. And you’re also full of well-meaning advice about sleep routines and playing Bach to boost brain activity. The same well-meaning advice that counts for nothing when your child chooses to only sleep in the car, or turns out to be a secret Slipknot fan. That’s when the shock sets in. I don’t believe that’s any harder for adoptive parents or birth parents. We’re all idiots who don’t know what we’re doing and by the time we find out, it’s far too late. That’s why it’s so lucky kids are adorable.
What you need during that early pre-bonding time is some help from people who have been there already. The people who know that sterilising baby bottles starts to become less important once Jack the Nipper is old enough to put handfuls of sand into his mouth at the beach. The people who know that love blossoms slowly but surely. And the people who can relate when you feel like all you are is a big cushion/punchbag who can fetch snacks and pay for soft play. That’s why DadPad is so important. We’ve all been there, so you don’t have to find your way around when you arrive.
Baldwin, S., Malone, M., Sandall, J. and Bick, D., (2018). Mental health and wellbeing during the transition to fatherhood: a systematic review of first-time fathers’ experiences. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports [online]. 6(11), 2118-2191. Available from: doi: 10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003773
Machin, A. (2018). We need to change the conversation about fathers. [online] YouTube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cul4L441x9o
Williams, M. (2020). Fathers Reaching Out – Why Dads Matter: 10 years of findings on the importance of fathers’ mental health in the perinatal period. St Austell: St Austell Printing Company. [Please contact us at DadPad if you’d like us to post or email to you a free copy of this report].