Not long ago, I found myself on the phone with someone who was looking for information about myself and my family.
(I'm being vague on purpose here, as the person on the other end of the line seemed like good people, and I don't want to hurt their feelings if they should ever read this.)
When it came time to talk about my daughter, I decided to save some time:
"Let me just spell her name for you: M - I - H - R - E - T. Mihret. It means Mercy in Amharic, which is the primary language of Ethiopia."
I've used this line a few times - if you're a writer, like myself, you'll see that it conveys a lot of information in one go. It tells you my daughter's name, how to pronounce it, and where it's from, which is usually a tip-off as to where she's from.
So you avoid making someone feel awkward (and some people do) by avoiding that other A word - adoption.
Now, I have no problem talking about adoption. There will come a time, in the very near future, when it won't be up to me any more. Mihret will start to learn what that word means, and to really understand where she comes from, and if she doesn't want to talk about it, she doesn't have to. And if she doesn't want me to talk about it in front of her, I won't.
That's her right.
But I digress.
The nice person on the other end of the phone wanted to know just how impressed she was with me. "You adopted a little girl from Ethiopia?" she gushed. "You're a hero, you know? A real life hero."
I didn't say anything for a moment. The pause wasn't long enough to be awkward, but it was long enough for me to breathe in and out of couple of times.
I wasn't offended. I had heard the same words before, from other people. I had even been warned by our social worker that people would say something like that.
And I get it. I do. Every child is adopted for a reason, and every one of those reasons has something in common: Someone out there in the world didn't have the means to care for a child.
So to step in, and to say, "This little person, who might never have a chance? I'll give this child a chance," it sounds heroic. When some rich individual offers free dental care to kids who couldn't otherwise get it, or money for school, or food, or clothing, or any one of a hundred things that kids need to grow up and become adults who can add something to the world, they give those people medals.
Or they name a day in their honor, or give them the key to the city, or any one of a hundred things that say, "This person is a hero."
And here come people like me, who provide it all - everything - food and clothing and love and dental appointments and an education - and it makes us sound like heroes.
I think parents want to be heroes to their kids - but they don't want to be THAT kind of hero.
I'm not a hero.
I'm a dad.
It doesn't matter that my child doesn't share some kind of direct genetic link with me. I'm her dad.
It doesn't matter that she came into my life because of a bunch of paperwork and some plane rides. I'm her dad.
Ask any set of parents who had their kids the way we all think of parents having their kids, and they do all the things I do. Buy the clothing, brush the teeth, change the diapers, figure out when kids are supposed to stop drinking milk before bed, try to figure out how to pay for college...
It's all the same stuff I'm doing, and no one calls them heroes.
(Or maybe they do. But no one is doing it when I'm around.)
I've wanted to be a dad for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I changed my tiny cousins' diapers and played with them and thought about having kids of my own.
How I had them didn't matter.
How they came into my life wasn't important.
I just wanted to be a dad.
Today, I'm a dad. I'm a dad to one of the cutest, smartest, most hilarious seventeen-month-olds on the face of the planet. And I mean it when I say she's hilarious. My little genius understands comedic timing.
But more importantly, she's my daughter. And I'm her dad.
I could have said all that to the person on the other end of the line, but I didn't want to hurt their feelings.
Instead, I said, "You know, I've always wanted to be a dad. And now I'm a dad. I'm very blessed."
The voice protested. "But you gave her a life she might not have had otherwise!"
"Yeah," I said. "And she gave me one, too. Like I said, just a dad."
"Weeelll..." I could hear the person on the other end of the line winding up, getting ready to add something, to change my mind, to convince me they were right.
"Really. I wanted to become a dad, and now I'm a dad, and it's wonderful, and also tiring. That's all."
The voice paused for a second. "I still think it's amazing. I'm going to tell all my co-workers I talked to you tonight. What a great guy."
I let another couple of breaths go by. It was clear to me that I could spend another ten minutes on the phone telling this person that really, I was just happy to have a child after so many years of wanting one, and that I was the lucky one, and no more or less impressive than any other father who dotes on his kids.
But I didn't.
Instead, I said, "Really, I'm just a dad. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
As it turned out, there wasn't, and we hung up.
I stood in the kitchen, phone in hand, for a full minute, playing and replaying the conversation, trying to figure out how I could have convinced the person on the other end of the line that I was no more wonderful or special or heroic than any other dad on the planet.
All I could think of was this:
Being a hero makes you separate from other people. You're not really someone relate to, you're someone to be in awe of, someone who is just a little untouchable.
I don't want to be untouchable. I want to be there for my kids, and for them to know that I made mistakes and learned from them. And that when they don't feel good, I'm there for them. And that when they need something, I'll do everything in my power to get it for them.
Heroes are just out there.
I'll always be right here for my kids.
Because I'm not a hero - I'm a dad.