LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Two-year-old Courtney was squirming in her father’s arms and fussing as he tried to keep hold of her on a warm summer evening near Louisville’s Big Four Pedestrian Bridge.
“Oh, no, she’s not happy,” said Jonathan White about his daughter.
The struggle was only brief after White, Courtney and his nine-year-old son Deonquaye arrived at the playground near the bridge. Soon, Courtney’s grouchy mood passed as she spotted the throng of children climbing on stairs, slipping down slides and running through spraying water. When White put her down, she took off running toward the crowd with Deonquaye and their father trailing her.
Since school ended for Deonquaye, White, 48, has been taking his children to the park about twice a week, usually after a dinner out somewhere - often at places that have discounted or free children’s meals. During the day, Courtney goes to child care for part of the day and Deonquaye is going to a day camp. White’s summer weeks are filled with plenty of driving, planning and grocery shopping among the fun walks, swimming, movies and more family-friendly activities.
This kind of summer routine reflects the sometimes chaotic to-do list for a single parent - but White isn't just any single parent.
White, a Jefferson County Public Schools mental health and substance abuse counselor, is part of a growing group of single men throughout the nation who are adopting children, many of whom call themselves "single fathers by choice.”
“The poopy diaper and all of that was such a wonderful experience for me,” said White, about when he first took Courtney home in the fall of 2013. “I had always wanted children.”
More men adopting
Single men adopting children is a nationally growing trend.
“It’s happening everywhere as there are more men who want to be dads even when they are not married or attached in another way,” said Adam Pertman, president of the Boston-based National Center on Adoption and Permanency and author of “Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families—and America.”
Dean Otto, who came to Louisville to be the Speed Art Museum’s film curator, adopted his daughter Destiny at two-years-old in Minneapolis, where he was then living and working. After making the move to Louisville last fall, Destiny, now 14, is enrolled at the St. Francis School in Goshen. She will attend St. Francis High School for her freshman year.
His decision to adopt came after seeing his two married brothers have children.
“I saw how being parents helped make them better people,” he said. “But I also enjoyed spending time with my nieces and nephews and wanted to have that same experience.”
Otto said he had thought about adopting while he worked in the museum world - working on film programs and writing grants. But his decision to adopt through the foster care system came after he took a year off and applied his fundraising skills to a job at the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse in Chicago.
“I saw what was lacking in children’s lives and (I) was coincidentally living across from a take-in center for child abuse cases,” he said.
While adopting through the foster care system isn’t the only way of becoming a father – it is the most popular, said Pertman.
Brian Tessier echoed Pertman’s viewpoint. An attorney in family law in Boston, Tessier adopted two boys as a single man and now his oldest son is 14. After his experiences, he started a hotline for prospective single fathers nearly five years ago that now has a Facebook page called “The 411 4 DAD.”
“Foreign adoption is expensive and fraught with its own problems and surrogacy is also expensive and difficult,” Tessier said. “Then when you look at foster care, you have 500,000 kids today in the system and Kentucky is a pretty tough state.”
As of this month, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services reported that more than 8,000 children are in out-of-home care throughout the state, the highest number on record. That shows a need for foster parents and adoptive parents when birth parents and extended family lose rights to be permanent caretakers for children in the system, according to both Tessier and Pertman.
Tessier sees more men seeking to be those permanent caretakers. He thinks society should do more to encourage men to adopt – and particularly adopt boys who have had rough starts in life.
“You have a male population who want to become fathers and think they can’t. Then you have so many boys who need male role models. But we don’t make that connection,” he said.
Meanwhile, there are a growing number of single fathers, including those who are widowed, divorced, separated and never married. National Census figures from 2014 show 2.75 million children live with a single father and nearly 30 percent of those are men who have never been married. That compares with 1.8 million in 2000 and 1.2 million in 1990. Census numbers do not specify if any of these parents are “fathers by choice.”
Common path to single fatherhood by choice
As Otto, 49, settles more into his job at the museum, Destiny has spent the beginning of her summer going to Lakeside Swim Club with her friends. She often peruses the internet for dinner recipes they can cook together and to find houses for sale — the family is living in an apartment since their move to town but are looking for something more permanent. She spends some time keeping in touch with friends from Minneapolis via Facetime and is planning to join the choir at St. Stephen Church with one of her new friends.
Because Otto is white and Destiny is African-American, she sometimes gets questions from her peers.
“Younger kids say, ‘Your dad’s white?’ But I just tell them he adopted me and they say, ‘Oh, that’s cool,'” Destiny said.
Each day, Destiny works through a list of activities Otto leaves for her in the morning that urge her to read, clean around the apartment, watch French programs and “think nice thoughts.”
“I don’t think she quite realizes how independent she can be here yet,” Otto said.
Both White and Otto began thinking about more about becoming fathers when they were in their 20s.
White, who came to Louisville from Tennessee as a toddler to live with his grandmother after his father’s death, said he realized that he could become a father through the foster care system after his mother, who had moved to Louisville, was fostering children. He also worked in the child welfare system, giving him a better understanding of the need for foster parents.
Changes in a woman-focused system
While more men are adopting, these want-to-be dads still face a system shaped by a world where women have been considered the main caretakers for children.
“There is still a hierarchy in child placement that tends to prefer a married couple and women as caretakers. That’s just the reality on the ground,” Pertman said.
White said he sees that hierarchy, but was able to overcome it given his career working in social services and understanding of how the foster care system functions. That experience helped him not only adopt Courtney and Deonquaye, but helped make sure each child didn’t fall through the cracks during foster care prior to adoption – particularly when social workers on either child’s case changed between times they spent with members of their birth families.
But most men don’t have White’s background. Tessier said he often hears from those men via his organization.
“I have men call me and they’re emotional messes because they just want to be fathers,” he said.
Pertman said much of the significant effort to adopt via foster care comes through the system’s careful vetting process, which includes classes prospective parents are often required to taken over the course of a year, a thorough background check and an examination of the adult’s home to ensure it is suitable for children.
Pertman and Tessier are seeing a cultural shift where it’s more acceptable for men to be single parents – much of that influenced by the corporate world as more companies establish policies designed to help male employees make time for fatherhood.
“Mark Zuckerburg help put a different connotation on fatherhood in the workplace,” Tessier said of the Facebook mogul who is vocal about his hands-on parenting on social media.
But both White and Otto said raising children as a single parent includes a lot of help from friends and family.
For White, that comes when a close friend offered to take care of Courtney and the support he gets from his faith community at St. Stephen Church.
From the time he adopted Destiny in Minneapolis, Otto found support from several close friends, including a couple who often live with him and Destiny to form what he called "a more alternative family with my best friends."
That has given Destiny her own outlook on not only her own family but others'.
"I think all families are different in their own ways, but sometimes you just can’t see it," Destiny said. "But I think my family is pretty cool."
Follow Elizabeth Kramer on Twitter: @arts_bureau