“Happy Father’s Day,” the waiter said, as I sat at a table with my girlfriend Brenda and her 4-year-old daughter Marta. “I’m not her dad,” I said, unwilling to take credit for an undeserved title.
Marta was adopted from Russia two and a half years ago. Brenda and I had been dating for several months before the adoption and it was unclear if we would stay together, as I had never been a father.
Throughout my 30s and 40s I feared parenthood’s responsibilities. But when I saw how proud my friends were when their children became trustworthy adolescents and young adults, I began thinking I might have made a mistake.
I first saw Marta the day following her arrival in Brenda’s Park Slope home. Her tiny body was curled up like a cat, as she slept in a pack-and-play. She looked so helpless I immediately wanted to hold and protect her.
I was renting in Manhattan and spent weekends in Brooklyn. My child-care responsibilities were few, partly because Marta wanted it that way.
Whenever I tried to change her diaper she recoiled. “No you! Mommy do it!” If I entered her room, interrupting Brenda singing bedtime lullabies, she would stand in her crib, pointing towards the door. “You, out!” Marta fell often, prompting me to shadow her as she walked around the house. “No you,” she would say, wagging a finger at me.
Given Marta’s mercurial past I understood why she would resist attaching to me–especially since I was an intermittent presence. Still, her rejection stung. Didn’t she sense how much I cared for her? “Let her come to you,” Brenda advised.
Marta’s lone shows of affection toward me arrived when she assumed an alternate identity. “You’re the daddy and I’m the baby,” she would say, crawling onto my lap. “Rock the baby,” she instructed, as I rocked her in my arms.
While in Manhattan I would look at photos on my iPhone and feel a sense of longing: Brenda and Marta beaming as they sat on a horse on the Prospect Park carousel; Marta sitting on the stoop of Brenda’s house saying “cheese!”
I added a few weekdays to my stays in Brooklyn, and would sometimes pick Marta up from daycare. On the way home we would stop off at a restaurant, where Marta would inevitably wander over to another table and smile at the diners, as if to say “here I am.”
“You have a cute daughter,” someone said, as I smiled awkwardly.
I felt like a phony when people mistook me for a parent. It was Brenda, after all, who adopted Marta, took her to doctors, fed her, dressed her in the mornings, put her to bed at night and so much more. Meanwhile, I came and went as I pleased. Nonetheless, I was happy with my part-time role; it satisfied both my desire to be part of a unit, and my need for independence, developed over decades of living alone.
Brenda felt comfortable as well. “I don’t feel any pressure,” she said. “This is working for us.”
Marta continued to engage me through fantasy. “I’m the mommy, you’re the daddy and this is the baby,” she said, handing me a doll. I would rock the doll, wishing it were Marta in my arms.
She called me by my first name and became jealous when I played with other children. One time we were at a birthday party when one of her friends took my hand. “That’s my Ben,” Marta said, pulling our hands apart.
It’s unclear how Marta viewed our relationship, although she seemed to see me as less than a parent and more than a friend. One afternoon I joined Brenda and Marta at a diner, when Marta began talking to a woman next to us. “Do your mom and dad make pancakes at home?” the woman asked.
“I don’t have a daddy,” Marta said.
“What do you have?” Brenda asked.
“I have a Ben.”
The final catalyst for me occurred one Sunday evening, as I was leaving Park Slope. “Why you leave?” Marta asked.
“I have to go home to Manhattan.”
“You live Manhattan? Oh no.”
On the lonely subway ride home Marta’s “oh no,” repeated in my head like a continuous audio loop. At the beginning of the school year I sublet my apartment and moved in with Brenda. Nowadays I get Marta ready for school and rush home from work to help put her to bed. She easily comes into my arms, not as a baby, but as herself.
“This feels like family,” Brenda said recently.
Brenda often calls us a family. But lately her proclamation makes me feel wistful, as I have begun wishing our domestic arrangement was bound by marriage and adoption. When I first moved to Brooklyn, Brenda and I agreed that we would make a final decision about the status of our relationship when my apartment lease expired this fall. “If we decide I’ll live here permanently…” I recently began a conversation.
“I think we’ve decided,” Brenda interrupted.
In the meantime Marta is beginning to piece together what it means to be adopted. “I needed a daughter, you needed a mommy and Ben needed a family,” Brenda recently said, explaining how we became a household.
Last Father’s Day I wanted to wear a button saying “I’m not her dad.” Now I feel like wearing a sign saying “Father in Waiting.”
“You’re the daddy coming home from work,” Marta said one evening after I came home from work. “Ring the doorbell.” I rang the imaginary doorbell while standing in the kitchen. “Daddy! Daddy!” Marta said, jumping into my arms.
“I missed you, daughter.” My words striking me as simultaneously presumptuous and just right.
Ben Krull is a family law attorney and freelance writer based in Brooklyn New York.
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