Families Local

Fatherhood: The second time around

From left to right, Rosa, Nahshon, Harley, Nation (“Bubba,” being held by Joyce Brown) and Valentina have all become a part of the Brown family through foster care. What started as a placement for Nahshon ended with all five siblings being reunited under the Browns’ roof.

by Michael Brown
Special to The Leaven

Working through my wife and my children — indeed, in every facet of my life — God continues to model for me what it means to be a good parent.

And I, using strength beyond my means, find a way to not totally screw it up.

I had spent 30 excellent, crazy years as a Catholic journalist — writer, editor, communications director. The day that COVID-forced cutbacks killed the diocesan newspaper in Tucson, Arizona, was sad and a relief.

My wife Joyce had allowed me to switch jobs several times, relocating thousands of miles around the country with our two daughters. The last switch, to Tucson, was the final one as well, as the warm climate became a relief for the growing aches and pains of old age.

Joyce had landed a job teaching middle school students with special needs in local public schools. That’s where she directed me as, with trepidation, I searched for a new career. I was hired to teach English to high school students with special needs. It was in this context that Joyce asked me to consider getting our license to be foster parents.

She had a student passing into high school who was being forced out of his foster home into a group home because of his age. She knew that such a change would likely erase all the gains he had made in her class, and it didn’t take me long to say yes.

Greatest gift

Briefly, the greatest gift I have is faith. 

I’ve done nothing to earn it and have tried repeatedly and mightily to ignore it. I knew that if I had said no to the foster care, my wife would still love me. But would I love myself? How could I look in the mirror each day knowing that we had the space, the parenting experience and the job stability to welcome the Jesus in a child into our home, but I had said no?

After a long process, one that concurrently ended favorably for the young man who was returned to his original foster home, we received our first placement. The paperwork said he was 7, and we got five hours’ notice. Nahshon appeared on our doorstep that night three years ago with a slice of pizza in his hand, a poop in his pants, and his social worker.

It turned out he was 5, but somehow the paperwork was a fortunate mistake as our license only allowed us to have children ages 7 or older. It was one of many amendments that were added to our license. A month later, his younger sister Harley,   age 3, joined us from a failed placement.

There were two other siblings in foster care, and over the course of the next year, we became home to another younger sister, Valentina, and a 14-year-old, Rosa.

If this sounds a little overwhelming, it was. Quickly, I adopted the annoying habit of having to run through the litany of names before hitting the right one in a direct address.

Front to back, Nation “Bubba,” Valentina, Harley and Nahshon enjoy some time at Tucson’s Reid Park Zoo, one of the kids’ favorite activities.

In late 2022, the 15-year-old moved back in with her dad and mom, who in December had child five, Bubba. Sadly, battling addictions, homelessness and frequent failures, the parents were forced to give up both children, and in May of 2023, Joyce and I became foster parents to five siblings.

With reunification a fading dream, the family court finally awarded us guardianship of the five last January. The stability has had an amazing effect on the kids. They will no longer be bounced around from one placement to another. They will attend the same school or day care year after year. Most important, however, is that our domicile is now their home — their permanent home for as long as they live.

A leap of faith

Faith has driven me in this journey. When asked if we would go from three to five, I was scared. It would mean midnight feedings for a 6-month-old.

It would mean going solo if one of us got sick or visited our daughters living in other parts of the country.

It would mean paying for seven airline tickets to attend our daughter’s wedding last fall.

It would upend all the plans for a quiet retirement with my wife, my garden and the book I have been researching for a decade.

How could I say anything but yes?

Being a foster father has been a journey of faith for Michael Brown.

Joyce’s faith journey is far different than mine. She’s a brilliant mind and a generous heart slowed by a body ravaged by an abusive childhood. Her faith journey is like a car zooming down the highway largely bereft of scenery; mine has been a casual stroll taking in every sight and sound along the way.

Yet, together, we have managed to flourish in marriage for almost 35 years. We have seen our worst selves and our best and have survived them.

In March, our older daughter had her marriage explode on her. She and our granddaughter were essentially recovering from a deep emotional loss and forced to start a new life on their own. After about a week, Joyce was able to spend 10 days away, helping them set up a new apartment, day care and a stable home.

‘Always comes back’

The Fab Five have grown to understand that when things like this happen, the person gone “always comes back.” It’s that inner assurance we want to continue to build in the kids, who have suffered immeasurably from the real consequences of being abandoned.

A lot happened in the 10 days Joyce was gone:

• Harley, now 6, came down with an ear infection. A quick doctor’s visit led to an antibiotic and slow recovery. She also fell into former behaviors: acting out inappropriately, perniciously lying, and hiding soiled underwear and clothes under her sister’s mattress. Then, she developed chicken pox.

• Bubba, the baby, developed a yeast infection, leading to another doctor’s visit, topped off with an allergic reaction to the prescription cream.

• Valentina, now 4, was asking almost every hour when “Mom” was coming home.

• Nahshon, now 8, was trying to be super helpful, amid fits of hyperactivity despite meds to help him self-regulate.

Rosa, now 15, has seen such terrible things that she’s pretty much shut down emotionally. I have been able to open her mind to what a good dad does and to demand more of her beyond the expectation that she will fail high school or graduate to a world with no hope and few prospects.

Recently, however, she’s asking if she can have a bunny for a pet. I like uncomplicated things, so I will let Joyce adjudicate that one.

Father’s Day is a great recognition, and I have a drawer full of Greatest Dad and Greatest Grandpa T-shirts. My reality is that being a dad isn’t the ability to procreate. It’s not about working 16-hour days or climbing a ladder to be able to provide more for my family. The privilege of being a dad comes with a much deeper calling.

My faith sees the presence of God in my life. I see God as the garden master in my yard. I see God as the perfect teacher in my classes. I see God as the divine editor who made all my stories better.

I see God as the loving parent — the one who cares about me and cares for me no matter how often I screw up or whatever “impossible” challenge I face.

No instruction manual

There’s no instruction manual to being the perfect dad. It’s a foundation of listening with an open heart. It’s built with love and patience and capped with a prayer at the end of the day to the Parent of us all.

Here’s my conversation offered at the start and close of every day. It keeps me grounded and focused on the next five minutes.

At dawn, I say, “Thank you, God, for a beautiful sunrise and for a good night,” and at dusk, “Thank you, God, for a beautiful sunset and a good day.”

In short, working through my wife and my children — indeed, in every facet of my life — God continues to model for me what it means to be a good parent.

And I, using strength beyond my means, find a way to not totally screw it up. 

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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