After people find out that I’m a foster parent, I know that I’m on some sort of timer before the inevitable question or comment about taking care of kids that aren’t really mine and how the other people in the conversation couldn’t imagine having someone else’s kids in their homes for however long and then seeing them go home because it would break their hearts. People respond with that sort of thing so often I actually get a little confused whenever I don’t hear it. I’ve said all kinds of things in response but in the last couple of weeks something struck me out of the blue: they really are my kids.

That may sound disingenuous for me to say as a foster parent who will never have children of his own. I even label myself “Rent-a-Dad” in a very tongue-in-cheek way. Part of the reason for that is because I’m easily amused, but the other more serious aspect of that for me is the constant reminder that I am at most intended to be a temporary parental presence. Not “forever dad” or “favorite uncle”, definitely never “daddy”, because the children we’ve fostered have had fathers who love them very much. “Rent-a-Dad” is the temporary guy you get when actual dad can’t be there for whatever reason.

Then why would I say something as clearly untrue and arguably click bait-y as claiming that they’re actually my kids? It’s a matter of perspective, really.

Because we’ve supported reunification in all of our cases, I can only imagine labeling a biological parent as “not really the parent” in the worst possible situations of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. The sorts of things that people hear about on the news that make them sick to their stomachs and that we can all agree means that no child will ever return to that home. I can’t conceive of ever claiming a child as “mine” in an exclusionary sense that implies their biological parents are somehow not valid. That’s one narrow way to read “mine” and not at all what’s going on when I use the word inside my head.

It’s fairly common to say “this is my company”, “my job” or “my coworkers”. “My friends”, “my family”, “my parents”, “my wife”. “My graduating class”, “my school”, “my chosen field of study”. “My religion”. All of those things are mine, but not in the sense that I own them. Also, “my cats”.

If anyone reads that and thinks the statement implies I’m somehow claiming ownership of the cats, they clearly have never had any sort of feline presence in their home and don’t understand that the ownership very definitely goes the other way.

All of those things that I listed aren’t things that I own, but things that I’m part of, belong to, am devoted to, have some responsibility to. Just because I have some connection that makes them mine doesn’t mean that I have them locked up and no one else can ever have another connection to them, that they can’t be someone else’s “mine”. When people ask “oh, are they all yours?”, what they’re really asking is “did you contribute half of their genetic material” or “did you adopt them and on paper do they belong to you”. In that sense, they’re not mine and never will be regardless of the fact that I could not possibly love them one iota more if they were really my offspring.

In the sense that I am always going to be one of their biggest supporters, that I will be there every moment I can be as long as they want Papa or Uncle B around, that I will fight bears for them if required? In the sense that if anything gets past their parents and evades me and manages to hurt them somehow, I will devote a nontrivial amount of time to finding a way to fly around the planet backwards to reverse time a la Superman III because I can’t stand the thought of any of those kids being anything but happy? Yes, they are absolutely mine. They will always be my kids, and they are more mine every day because that’s one day longer that I’ve had to love them, one more day that I get to see the amazing people that they’re growing into all the time.

In the spirit of full disclosure I’ve found that I can handle a certain amount of upset when they’re visiting and being horrible little snots about sensible nighttime routines. I mean, seriously? Some of us have jobs and enjoy sleep. Where’s Samuel L. Jackson to read a bedtime story when you need him?

We’ve been lucky enough that I still get to see all of my kids regularly and be involved in their lives. I think my nephews’ mom had it figured out long before we did – it’s been over a year ago that she said something along the lines of “whenever they’re over at your house and I ask how our kids are doing, I mean ‘our’ as in all four of us”. Of course she knows that we aren’t their family by blood and don’t have a “claim” on them, but looking back on that offhand comment I’m starting to think that she had figured out most of these things within the first year of the boys being home and I’m late to the party with my sudden personal revelation.

Fortunately, Stinkerbell’s mom seems to feel much the same way. When our baby girl was hurt and needed to go to the doctor several months ago she was extremely fussy and kept asking for us. The doctors and nurses said that only family could stay with her while she was being examined and they asked if I was dad. I said no, I wasn’t her biological dad but her mom spoke over me and said that for all practical purposes and if they wanted Stinkerbell to calm down at all, I was dad in that moment. All three of us ended up going back with her because the staff decided that she had a better chance of calming down and being comfortable if she had her whole family with her, blood related or not.

Looking back on that day, I think that maybe Stinkerbell’s birth mother figured this whole “mine” thing out before I did too. I’m starting to wonder if I might be the slowest kid in this particular class.

As I’ve dropped some of my other hobbies, one of my favorite new ones is watching people try to do mental math when we’re out in public with the boys and their little sister at the same time Stinkerbell is visiting. We get the typical “oh, aren’t they all so cute!” and “you’re very patient parents” reactions so many times that I’ve lost count. Whenever someone asks their ages and we respond with the impossibly close range between the four children, though, I can almost hear the gears grinding as they try to figure out how we could have that many kids with birth dates that close together. No one has ever asked if they’re all ours and we’ve never offered that information because it’s none of their business and it would take too long to explain properly anyway. I will admit that I sometimes want to respond to their looks of confusion by simply saying “different moms” and walking away, but I’m told that would be a horrible thing to do and I would somehow be a bad person if I did that.

The next time the topic comes up or anyone so much as drops a hint in that direction, I’ll be ready. Of course they’re really my kids. Always will be. And we’ll probably be dropping them back off at their parents’ house sometime on Sunday.

I’m sometimes asked why I refer to myself as a “rent-a-dad”. This is usually by people who haven’t known me for a very long time at all because most friends and family either know the origin story by now or were present for some parts of its formative years. Some, I suppose, have simply accepted that they will never understand the way my mind arrives at any given phrasing and have learned to roll with it the majority of the time.

A good friend and former coworker once stared at me, unblinking, for a solid thirty seconds or more in the middle of a conversation before coming out of his apparent trance and saying “oh, sorry, sometimes I just need to take a minute to process and figure out whatever it is you just said”. In this case there’s definitely some method behind the silliness.

For a number of years Nicci worked with a choir where she came into contact with a lot of children. I kept showing up at rehearsals and other events to support her at first, but over time it became as much about being there for the kids and interacting with their parents as it was about volunteering to help her. I’d sometimes help younger siblings with homework while rehearsal was going on or help keep an eye on the kids while we were waiting for their parents to pick them up afterward. I got to know some of them better than others because we sometimes helped supervise the summer tour trips for the 13-18 year old choir members which was a much different experience than just seeing them once a week at rehearsal. Now that it’s been several years since I first met some of the children, I’m happy to say that some of them are still friends now that they’re young adults. Thanks to this occasional dad-like behavior and the rapport I established with some of the kids, I became a part time father figure. Rent-a-Dad, affectionately I hope, for short.

Before we became foster parents, there was no time in my life that I felt more solidly rent-a-dad than the time I went to a father/daughter dance. We had become friends with the family of one of the younger girls whose mother asked me in early February one year if I would take her to the dance that was being hosted by another organization in the community. Her father had taken her before he passed away, and when the subject came up she said that she wanted me to take her in his place. I don’t know how anyone could refuse a request like that. She had a great time with her friends and seemed very happy to be there, and when I ran into friends and coworkers who were actual biological fathers and knew that I wasn’t I simply explained that I was a rental. She’s since outgrown that sort of thing and now goes to dances with boys, something I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around because I keep thinking of her as nine years old instead of nearing her graduation from high school. As actual fathers sometimes do, or so I’m told.

I’ve written a little bit here and there about how much it hurt me that we don’t have children that are biologically ours. It’s taken more time to come to terms with than I would have liked, and I’d be lying to say that I never think about it any more. There was even, I suppose, an occasional hint of bitterness when I started referring to myself as rent-a-dad because it always reminded that I will never have a child that’s biologically mine. Sometime after we got our first placement though, a switch was flipped and since then it’s always come from a positive place that’s filled with silliness and hope. I’m not likely to ever see a baby’s eyes light up and see 50% of my DNA staring back at me, but I’ve snuggled a handful of babies in the past few years who still call me papa even after they’ve gone home and are (usually) thrilled to see me when they come back to visit. I’ve been there for a lot of their big milestones, several of the high points of their lives so far, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’ve got little buddies who aren’t blood relations at all but who have somehow “inherited” some of my little mannerisms like the way I tilt my head quizzically when I’m confused or a particular stance I adopt when I’m grumpy. I’ve got a Stinkerbell who is almost as excited to see me as I am to see her whenever we’ve been apart for any length of time. I get the chance to be a positive presence in all of their lives and I might be able to do the same thing for more kids in the future which is something I couldn’t begin to understand the significance of before we got our first placement. I think that maybe Rent-a-Dad is exactly what I’m supposed to be.