The word sounded so sweet, so genuine, so heartfelt the first time she used it.
I melted immediately, and I can’t help but ruminate on it this Father’s Day.
I’ve been a father for 13 years now, but hearing that word last month really meant something special when our 5-year-old foster daughter shouted it.
We’ve been helping in the foster care system for three years. She’s been with us for a little over two years, an unusually long placement.
My wife and I are pretty open-minded with what the kids placed with in our home call us. Knowing that most children return to their birth parents, there’s no reason to confuse them by forcing them to call us Mom and Dad, as our older “old-fashioned” children do.
For most of our 5-year-old’s time here, I was David. Given the layers in her heart and brain about the word “Daddy,” I was OK with that.
She knows her birth father and visits him weekly. I don’t know think “Daddy” had a positive connotation for her. There are difficult details about why she’s in foster care, and many center around her birth father.
When you’re a father, your children are the most important thing in your earthly life. They’re more important than your job, your habits or your friends. Unfortunately, her birth father hasn’t overcome his demons yet, nor has her birth mother. As a result, we’re halfway down the road toward adoption, to make her a permanent part of our life.
She’s been calling my wife “Mommy” for quite some time now. In her head, it’s a positive word. She doesn’t mind having two of them. Somehow whenever she talked, you could tell when she meant my wife and when she meant her birth mother. In either case, it was a term of respect, love and admiration.
She didn’t have that positive association with “Daddy.” When she talks about him, there’s a sadness and distrust. It’s a noticeable edge. Frankly, I didn’t want her to associate any of that with me.
What she knows about me is I’ll always keep her safe. She knows I’ll always try to make her smile. She knows I’ll always love her. She knows I’ll always have time for her, especially when I don’t really have extra time.
She likes to hold my hand when we’re walking into her daycare. We’re an odd couple, the little Hispanic girl walking with the prematurely gray middle-aged white guy. I’m often mistaken for her grandfather when we’re out in public.
If I needed to be David to her forever, that was fine with me, as I could tell my name was more than a five-letter moniker to her. It was a term of love to her.
I don’t know why she decided last month to start calling me Daddy. I suspect it was a difficult decision for her, given her mixed feelings with her birth father and their heartbreaking history.
Or perhaps it was an easy decision for her. When you have a real father — someone sharing the love, respect and authority every child deserves, not just the DNA — you honor him the best way you know how.
Here’s to all the people who go by Dad, Daddy or even David (and every other name out there) who show their children a father’s love every day.