New generation of deeply involved dads is shifting idea of the American family

Christopher Braman with sons Alex, 7, and Isaiah, 3.
Christopher Braman with sons Alex, 7, and Isaiah, 3. (Family photo)
By Petula Dvorak
Friday, June 18, 2010

His friends were stunned. "You're out of your mind," they told him.

Strangers have cornered him. "What you're doing simply isn't right," they warned.

But all his life, Christopher Braman knew he wanted to be a dad.

And as a 45-year-old single guy, adoption was the only righteous path to fatherhood he could see.

"The biological clock was ticking. I wanted kids," said Braman, a hulking 6-foot-3 bald white guy from Wisconsin who always gets double takes when he arrives at the park with his African American sons in their Northeast Washington neighborhood.

"When people see these two boys with me, calling me Papa, it really throws them off," he said. "Some people say: 'Boy, their mother really must've been dark' or 'When are you going to take them back?' "

But he said being a father wasn't about biology or raising children who look like him. He didn't go abroad for an adoption. He didn't search for a surrogate or a donor. He simply wanted a child who needed a dad.

Because for Braman, Dad was a fantastic man who had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting and into his life. "My dad was an engineer. We canned vegetables. We went camping. We had a summer home," he said, "I grew up in a place where cows -- literally -- were over the fence from my primary school. You could ride your bike in the street, wind in the hair."

Alex, 7, and Isaiah, 3, were both victims of abuse and neglect. Braman started out as Alex's foster dad when the boy was 20 months old. Having grown up with two siblings -- both of whom were adopted -- Braman knew Alex needed a brother. So when they got Isaiah, they knew they wanted to keep him, and they got help from the Children's Law Center, which oversees many adoptions, but few like Braman's.

It's not all cows and bike rides and summer cabins.

Because his children come from difficult backgrounds, Braman is also dealing with rage issues and behavioral swings that seem to come out of nowhere. One child, at 20 months old, assumed a perfect boxer's stance when faced with a bounding dog. "I mean, a real boxer stance, spread legs, one hand cocked, ready to punch the dog in the face." Or he gets calls from the teacher, who says the child is throwing chairs in the classroom.

"I have the task of finding that sense of innocence and wonder and joy. How do I create that for them in this rough, incredible world? How can I still be the same kind of dad I had, re-create the amount of love for my kids?"

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