Life as a single, gay adoptive father in the South
Keith Lippa — bald, tan and a touch paunchy, shoulders slightly hunched underneath a red polo and pair of khakis — ambles into Hiro Sushi, a nondescript Japanese restaurant in Richmond, Virginia.
He settles into one of the many empty black booths for what will be a welcome break from his myriad familial obligations. After lunch, for instance, he has an initial consultation with a surrogacy specialist, and the thought of fathering a child for the first time daunts him.
And that’s on top of his immediate dad duties. After lunch he has to pick up milk and chicken breasts from the supermarket, drive home, put the groceries away, let the dog out, then drive back across Richmond to pick up his two adopted sons — Eli, 8, and AJ, 3 — from summer camp and preschool, respectively. He’d like to sneak in a workout, but doubts he’ll have the time. Once back home, he has to prepare dinner for the family (hence the chicken breasts), eat, bathe the kids, get them in their pajamas, read to them and put them to bed no later than 9 p.m.
If all goes according to plan, he’ll have about an hour to clean the house and watch Survivor. Then he’ll sleep for seven hours, wake up at 5:50 a.m., rouse the kids, get them dressed, make them breakfast and drop them back at preschool and summer camp, all before 7 a.m., at which point he’ll go back to work making Tyvek at the nearby Dupont plant and the process will more or less replicate itself.
“My head feels like it’s going to explode,” he sighs in his Southern lilt.
But for now, for a brief moment, the only anxiety he’s grappling with is which rolls to order. “I love sushi,” he explains. Yet he’s had precious few opportunities to eat it since he became a father nearly three years ago. Raw fish is a tough sell when you’re responsible for two boys, each with a finicky set of eating habits.
“[Fatherhood] has been more difficult than I anticipated,” Lippa admits. “I always knew it was gonna be hard, but not this hard. It’s the simple things you take for granted.”
“Men are realizing now, kind of like women did 15 years ago, that they want to be single parents.”
Like going out to eat, he says. The eating part isn’t hard; it’s the going-to-the-bathroom part that becomes a colossal undertaking. Any time one of the men in his three-person posse has to use the bathroom, everyone has to go to the bathroom. It’s the only way he can keep an eye on the kids, he explains. Which, when you have two single-digit-aged boys with small, hyperactive bladders, can make for many full-family trips to the restroom.
“My diet’s changed quite a bit. It’s kid food constantly. I eat a lot of pizza now. They love pizza. Looove pizza. Or some form of chicken nugget or chicken tender.”
So while sushi may seem a minor indulgence to most, it’s a rarity for this 35-year-old single father of two-hopefully-soon-to-be-three children.
What makes Lippa’s single fatherhood remarkable is that it was, and is, entirely elective. Lippa is doing it on his own on purpose, willingly, not with the help of a partner and not because he’s a godparent fulfilling a post-tragedy obligation. He became a single adoptive father entirely of his own volition. He knew what he would be getting himself into (kind of) and forged ahead anyway.
Which raises the obvious but nonetheless essential question: Why did he do it? Why did Lippa — by all means an affable, smart, successful man, a rising star within the DuPont organization who spends his free time watching reality TV and playing volleyball; a single, successful, highly eligible early-30s bachelor who could do whatever the hell he wanted without having to explain or excuse his behavior to anyone — trade in that life to become a father, a man who’s 15 pounds heavier and who now spends his Mondays stressing about having enough chicken breasts and for whom Philadelphia rolls are a godsend?
“I’ve just always wanted kids,” he explains matter-of-factly, shrugging, as if the question and its answer were so obvious that the former needn’t even be asked.
If Lippa weren’t so exceedingly earnest and kind in that uniquely Southern way — he uses “gosh,” instead of “god,” for instance — I’d consider his answer a brush-off. But he’s unwavering about it. No matter how many times I ask why he chose this life for himself (or how I ask it), every time, the answer is always the same: “I’ve just always wanted kids.”
From 2000 to 2013, single men were responsible for only 3 percent of public adoptions in the United States, making them the second-smallest demographic among the adopting population — just behind “unmarried couples,” according to the Administration for Children and Families, a division within the Department of Health & Human Services.
The 3 percent figure is all the more striking compared to how many single women adopt. In 2011, nearly one-third of foster care adoptions were conducted by unmarried adults, per HHS. Of those unmarried adults, more than 13,000 were women and just 1,400 were men.
And yet adoption specialists from across the country anecdotally attest to a marked increase in adoption by single men. “Men are realizing now, kind of like women did 15 years ago, that they want to be single parents,” says Robyn Harrod, senior director of programs at the Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency. “They always thought they’d find the right partner to do it with, but when that doesn’t happen, the urge for parenting doesn’t go away.”
Harrod says her organization has seen a steady increase in the number of single men looking to adopt since they first started showing up 10 years ago. The agency will process about 100 adoptions this year, she adds, with 12 to 15 of them conducted by single men.
Multiple adoption professionals say this small but perceptible uptick isn’t reflected in the numbers because of the industry’s shoddy approach to record keeping. There’s no national database where adoption workers can log their cases and study national adoption trends. As Gloria Hochman, director of communications at the National Adoption Center, an organization that promotes foster care adoption, puts it: “Keeping statistics isn’t a priority.”
For Ann Wrixon, executive director at the Independent Adoption Center in San Francisco, the increase is both indicative of, and a contribution to, our culture’s shifting attitudes regarding men and parenting. Namely, men are taking more active roles in the child-rearing process while women are decreasingly expected to bear the full brunt of raising children. This has encouraged more single men, who have historically avoided and/or been left out of the adoption process, to consider going it alone.
“Single men thought they would be excluded from the adoption process simply because they were single,” Hochman said. “Seeing that other single men were raising children successfully, it made these men feel more courageous about approaching an agency and saying, ‘I’m single, and I’d like to adopt because I’d be a good father.’”
Having opted for the gym instead of the supermarket earlier, Lippa is now on the phone with his mom, Beverly, discussing whether there are enough chicken breasts for tonight’s dinner as he drives home with Eli and AJ in his silver Honda Pilot. The boys sit obediently in the SUV’s second row while Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” plays on the radio.
“I have three chicken breasts. Period,” he tells Beverly.
The situation might be more stressful were his boys not so well-behaved. Eli, a suspiciously sharp, loquacious 8-year-old with red hair, freckles and a missing front tooth, is especially effusive and well-mannered, punctuating his every comment to me with “sir.”
“That’s polite of you, but you don’t need to call me ‘sir,’” I inform him.
“He has to call everybody ‘sir,’” Lippa corrects me.
AJ — a black-haired, biracial almost-3-year-old — is reserved to the point of silence. When I ask him about his day at preschool, he gives me a bashful smile and turns away, instead letting Eli answer for him: “He had a good day.”
“He’s shy,” Lippa explains.
Eli most certainly is not. He informs us immediately about his day at camp — they made “no-bake cookies” — and how unexcited he is for tomorrow’s activities. “I have a trip that’s not gonna be fun at all,” he groans. “We’re going swimming on Thursday; that’s gonna be fun! But tomorrow we’re just listening to the rules. I already know swimming rules!”
The most marked difference between Eli and AJ, however, is how Lippa came to adopt them. AJ’s adoption was “private” — his biological mother became pregnant with him at just 14 years old — and Lippa’s had him since his birth in July 2012. Eli was adopted through foster care, and his background is more obscure. Lippa doesn’t know much about Eli’s birth mother, nor is he eager to seek her out. Except in cases of extreme neglect, a biological parent’s rights almost always supersede those of adoptive parents. So if Eli’s mom were to become aware of Eli’s whereabouts and then exercise her right to guardianship, Eli could be taken from Lippa.
What Lippa does know is the mother left Eli to be raised by her friend, Eli’s foster mother, and that she (Eli’s foster mother) refrained from adopting Eli due to the boy’s “behavioral issues.” Lippa happily filled the void, becoming Eli’s foster parent three weeks after AJ was born and officially adopting him one year later.
The neglect explains both Eli’s finest qualities (his eagerness to please and befriend) and his most tiring ones (his need for constant praise and attention). Eli’s current nature belies how much of a handful he was when he first came to permanently live with Lippa. He threw tantrums nonstop his first week in Lippa’s home, and he used scissors to cut off a girl’s pigtails his first week at school.
“Single men are left to choose from whoever is left in the system, typically children with greater physical or emotional needs.”
Adoptions like Eli’s — in which the child was raised in the foster care system; underwent some sort of traumatic experience (such as sexual/physical/emotional abuse); has severe abandonment issues; or suffers a behavioral or mental disability or some combination therein — are common among single adoptive dads, largely due to an institutional bias against men.
Adoption is one of the few cultural arenas where discrimination against men is real and systemic. Birth parents and adoption professionals prefer to place children with couples or single women, enabling them to adopt the most desirable children. Single men are left to choose from whoever is left in the system, typically children with greater physical or emotional needs.
Society has never perceived men as competent nurturers, according to Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, a nonprofit that provides resources to prospective adopters. And the idea of one man being able to sufficiently care for a child just doesn’t compute for many. “Could the man rise to the occasion and raise a child? Or will they be going to work all the time?” Pertman says of the historical bias against men looking to adopt. It’s one way the patriarchy — which expects the utmost from men professionally but little of them parentally — works against men.
“The preference of agencies is to stick to the tried-and-true,” Gloria Hochman of the National Adoption Center explains. “A single man who wants to adopt would probably face additional challenges because that’s not the way society has been structured, and most people would believe a child would do better in a loving two-parent family.”
The stigma is all the greater when you’re single and gay as Lippa is. (Which, by the way, almost all single men who adopt are gay, according to the multiple adoption professionals I interviewed.)
For decades, gay male couples battled accusations that they only wanted to adopt so they could inculcate children into the “gay lifestyle.” These criticisms still exist on the conservative fringe, but have been largely dispelled by studies showing children raised in gay households grow up to be as successful as those raised by heterosexual couples. Now, adoption by gay couples is so socially accepted that it’s a comedic vehicle on Modern Family, a perennially Emmy-winning network sitcom.
But single gay men aren’t seen as having the positive characteristics ascribed to people in committed relationships (i.e., that they’re stable and empathetic enough to keep someone around for the long run) and can therefore come off as…well, creepy. “A gay man is more associated with untoward connotations because of stereotypes and homophobia, but that also applies across the board,” says John Ireland, president of the Pop Luck Club, a nonprofit support group for gay dads in Southern California. “People are just suspicious of men around children, generally.”
This skepticism seems unfounded, given the rigorous vetting process prospective adopters have to subject themselves to — it typically takes between four and six months of work to complete the gauntlet of applications, workshops and background checks, according to Lippa, and another several years to find a match after being approved. “My response to them is ‘Goddammit, gay people aren’t child molesters,’” Lippa later tells me about such critics.
Lippa takes a left into a cul-de-sac in Glen Allen, Virginia, an unincorporated area 13 miles northwest of Richmond. His house is the first on the left. It’s the ideal home for a family with two boys; the backyard is a full acre and includes a trampoline, a swing-and-slide play-set and more than enough fenced-in grass for the boys and their dog Riley, a boxer-lab mix, to tire themselves out playing catch.
“I’ve turned a whiny, screamy young boy into a polite young man, and I’ve never so much as threatened physical discipline.”
Inside, the living room is littered with the hallmarks of a house full of men — a Playskool basketball hoop, a Thomas the Tank Engine set, Fisher-Price golf clubs and several toy cars modeled after the characters from Cars. One large plastic bucket is filled with balls of various size and sport, including AJ’s “special ball,” on which he and his biological mother have outlined their hands in blue marker.
Lippa is adamant about Eli and AJ maintaining relationships with their foster and birth mothers, respectively. Lippa and AJ visited AJ’s birth mother about once every three months when she was living about an hour from Richmond. (She’s since moved to Tennessee and hasn’t seen AJ in nearly a year.) And Eli spends about one weekend per month with his foster mother, whom he considers his “real” mom, Lippa says.
Lippa’s own parents divorced when he was 3, and Lippa’s dad, despite having joint custody, was only around “here and there.” His interest in Lippa was seemingly only as a proxy in the never-ending argument between himself and Beverly, Lippa’s mother. Lippa’s dad would miss his sporting events and say it was because Beverly didn’t give him the schedule, even though Lippa himself would make a point of telling him game times. They more or less parted for good during Lippa’s freshman year of college, when Lippa “called him out” via email: “I was like, ‘You need to stop pointing the finger at everyone else and point it at yourself. You’ve shown me one thing. You’ve shown me what not to be as a father.’”
AJ slips on the linoleum floor running to get his Crocs and collapses into a pile of tears. Lippa instantly puts down the food he’s preparing in the nearby kitchen and tends to AJ. Lippa puts his Crocs on for him, and within seconds, AJ is smiling, out the door and enjoying his backyard.
Beverly — “Meemaw” to the kids — and her boyfriend Ralph watch AJ tentatively bounce on the trampoline while Eli and I volley a shuttlecock over an imaginary net, leaving Lippa free to cook dinner. Tonight’s menu: The wrought-over chicken breasts (broiled and topped with barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese for flavor), steamed baby carrots and mac ’n’ cheese.
Lippa, his brother and Beverly all live within a mile of one another, and Lippa frequently calls upon his mother and brother to babysit the boys. Proximity to family is also the main reason Lippa won’t move from the South to a more gay-friendly city where he can be out at work and to his kids. That, and he “doesn’t like big cities” anyway.
When we sit down for dinner, I find myself transfixed by the dry-erase board hanging in the corner of the dining room. The far left panel lists the seven house rules, including “No playing on the Stairs,” “Listen to your trusted adults” and “No Lying.” To the immediate right of the rules list is an intricate grid for recording everything the boys eat. Tiles for each day of the week run across the top. Tiles for “Breakfast,” “Mid-Morning Snack,” “Lunch,” “Afternoon Snack” and “Dinner” run down the far-left column of the grid. Small, thumbnail-sized images of liquids (glasses of milk, Capri Suns) and foodstuffs (Pop Tarts, Wheat Thins, bananas) are affixed to the board by way of double-sided Velcro tape and signify what was consumed during each meal. Gold stars are administered for “good days” — whenever one of the boys goes an entire day with “no bad moods.” Fifteen of them can be redeemed for a Slurpee or frozen yogurt. Twenty-five scores a dinner at Golden Corral.
Lippa’s preferred method of discipline is the Naughty Spot, a concept he cribbed from Supernanny star Jo Frost. Essentially a time-out, the Naughty Spot is the place, in this case the corner where the food chart is hung, where a misbehaving child must ponder his actions.
It took only a week on the Naughty Spot to correct Eli’s incessant screaming when he first moved in, and the outbursts at school have subsided, too. “I’ve turned a whiny, screamy young boy into a polite young man, and I’ve never so much as threatened physical discipline,” Lippa later boasts.
Grace is led by Eli, who proceeds to dominate the dinner conversation. He recounts his no-bake cookies experience for Ralph and Meemaw, and informs them that AJ’s preschool class made smoothies earlier in the day. (AJ’s reaction when prodded about his day is to flash his enormous smile and hide behind his own hands.) Eli then gives me a brief summary of Despicable Me’s plot before recalling the time he scraped his knee at school and “they put the sting-y stuff on it to clean it up.”
After dessert (animal crackers), Lippa announces, “It’s bath time.”
“Nooooooo!” Eli whines.
Lippa bathes AJ first, allowing Eli to conduct an exhaustive tour of his bedroom. It’s overflowing with toys, even more so than the living room, only these toys are almost all action figures — an unholy alliance of Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, Optimus Prime and X-Men.
Downstairs, Meemaw and Ralph handle the dishes.
By 5:36 p.m., Lippa has bathed AJ, outfitted him in pajamas and commenced their nightly ritual of flashcards and reading. “Kite. … Boat. … What’s the little girl doing?” Lippa asks, making his way through the deck of flashcards. “Eating.”
Lippa reveals a new card, and AJ finally breaks his silence: “Cat!”
Eli, who’s showering in the bathroom one door over, shouts “Double-check!” down the hall, reporting to Lippa that he’s sufficiently washed himself.
“Do it again,” Lippa replies.
AJ selects Big Dog … Little Dog, an illustrated book meant to introduce children to the concept of opposites, from his bookshelf. “This is my favorite part of the day,” Lippa says before he starts reading. Not more than three minutes later, the book is finished and Lippa starts rubbing AJ’s back, calming him for a few minutes before laying him to bed. They kiss goodnight, and Lippa turns on AJ’s multicolored electronic mobile and shuts off the overhead light.
Now on to Eli, who rejects the prospect of reading Goodnight, Moon again.
“Would you rather go straight to bed?” Lippa asks.
“Yes, sir,” Eli affirms.
“I don’t want the stereotypical idiots to say, ‘You made him gay.’”
Another kiss goodnight. Then the lights are off. It’s 8:41 p.m., 11 minutes after the house’s usual 8:30 shutdown time. Normally, Lippa would spend this time cleaning the kitchen, picking up toys, doing laundry or clearing out his DVR. “I love Survivor,” he says. “So I’ll watch that and fall asleep here or on the bed.”
Instead he’s remembering his former life as a fatherless single man. “I had a blast in my mid-20s. I was in the best shape of my life. I went out every single weekend. We’d go to Philly, go to the beach, go wherever, whenever, however. You’re young. You still have money. Everything was great. Now I’m older. I’m fatter. I’m balder. I don’t go out anymore. I don’t do the things that I used to consider fun. But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
“This is gonna sound horrible,” Lippa says over lunch the next day. We’re eating in a nautically themed T.G.I. Friday’s knockoff called Conch that overlooks the James River. “But I don’t want my kids to be gay. That said, if they are, I’m not gonna love them any differently and I’m not gonna care.”
Beverly cried when she discovered Lippa was gay. He was a 21-year-old senior at Virginia Tech at the time. His “friend” stopped by Lippa’s home on his way to the airport, and he and Lippa started “to mess around or whatever” in what they believed was an otherwise empty house. Beverly, however, thought it would be nice to bring the boys lunch from Arby’s, and when she did, she happened upon them making out on the floor of the living room.
“I’m never going to have grandkids!” Beverly whimpered later that night. Through tears, she pledged to get Lippa the “help” he needed. Lippa declined and went back to school early. He and Beverly didn’t speak for the next six months, but slowly, she came around. And now she has two of the “grandbabies” she once thought she’d never have.
Still, he’s not out to his coworkers (understandable since he works in Virginia, a state with no law protecting LGBT workers from being discriminated against in the workplace). “I work at a manufacturing plant so I work with a lot of, for lack of a better term, country folk and a lot of them…,” Lippa pauses, “…have different views, so I like to keep that part of my life separate.
“I’m sure 95 percent of the people at work would be like, ‘No big deal. Who cares?’ But it’s that small percentage who are the ones who are like, I just don’t know. Especially the hardcore religious ones. They’ll say stuff around me about gay people, because they don’t know that I’m gay. It’s hard to sit there and bite my tongue. But I also can’t say anything without outing myself.”
Keeping his secret at work has proven difficult in the face of meddlesome colleagues, particularly one female secretary who can’t fathom why a man would take on two children without so much as a girlfriend, let alone a wife. “She constantly asks me if I’m married. I don’t know if she’s trying to catch me saying something different, but I tell her the same damn thing every time: ‘No, it’s just me.’ The next week, though, it’s the same thing: ‘You don’t have a wife?’ No girlfriend?’ ‘No, just me.’ Generally, it’s women who are nosy. Guys are like, ‘Whatever. I don’t care.’”
Even when speaking to me, Lippa is reluctant to say he’s gay; instead, he consistently refers to his orientation as “my situation.” Or he’ll describe it in oblique terms: “I’m not into women,” he told me when we first met.
This being the South, many adoptions are facilitated by Christian organizations that aren’t thrilled with the idea of gay people adopting. And these organizations have license to discriminate; in 2012, Virginia’s General Assembly passed the “conscience clause,” an ironically named legislative addendum that permits religious institutions to reject adoption candidates based on their sexual orientation.
Lippa almost lost out on adopting AJ due to Christianity-based bigotry. Just two weeks before AJ was born, AJ’s birth grandmother tried to convince her daughter that AJ would be better off in a heterosexual household. It was actually Ralph — Beverly’s staunchly religious, formerly homophobic boyfriend — who remedied the situation. He accompanied Lippa to meet with AJ’s birth mother and grandmother and explained how Lippa had changed his perception of gay people and would make a wonderful father.
Still, Lippa is even cautious about being out to Henrico County Department of Social Services — a public entity that’s not allowed to discriminate — just to avoid any unforeseen difficulties.
“The reason I don’t want [my kids] to be gay is I don’t want them to have to grow up in the world I grew up in,” Lippa says, getting animated for the first time. “And I don’t want the stereotypical idiots to say, ‘You made him gay.’”
Lippa still has no idea when he’ll come out to his sons, a thought that weighs heavily on his mind later that night while we’re sitting in his living room as the boys sleep upstairs. “Do I have a plan? No. Do I know I have to do it? Yes.”
I mention that Eli is smart and might soon figure it out for himself. Lippa says Eli is too young to have developed a concept of sexuality, hetero, homo or otherwise. He must be right because Eli hasn’t yet deduced that Charlie, the man who sleeps over on weekends, is Lippa’s boyfriend.
Ultimately, Lippa would like to have two or three more kids, at least one of them through surrogacy. “I want a girl, but girls are so much harder,” Lippa says of his ideal family. “I’m not good with playing tea time and playing with dolls and stuff like that. But I would like at least one. I’ll be that protective dad over the daughter when she’s 16 and starting to date.”
Surrogacy will cost him at least $60,000, he estimates. I ask why he wants to go that route considering the expanse and all the success he’s had adopting. “Because it would be part my own biological child,” he admits. “But I’m also cognizant that the danger of surrogacy is that you look at your biological child as the golden child. You expect him to live to a higher standard, and I don’t wanna do that to my kids.”
It’s after 10 p.m. and Lippa looks exhausted. I ask him why he’d want to double the size of his brood and make his life even more hectic and tiresome than it already is.
He offers a variation of his stock response: “I’ve always wanted a big family, I dunno.”
And as before, he stops there. His urge to be father is so innate it defies explanation — a compulsion emanating from deep inside his lizard brain. Caveman shit.
And for him, that’s reason enough.