Author Interview

A Conversation with David Marin

 

Q: You’ve characterized your book as being about “a man without a meaningful past who adopts three children without a meaningful future.” What made you decide to tell your story?

 

A: My children had a tough early life, eating pet food, hiding in cabinets, sent around the neighborhood begging for quarters, attacked by the adults from whom they were born. As foster care children, statistics said one would graduate from high school, another would work in the fields at age thirteen, and the last would go to prison. Even though I was a single male with zero parenting experience, I couldn’t let that happen.

My children now fulfill my life every day, in small ways. And with someone to fill their bellies, keep the nightlights on, and provide the unconditional love they deserve, they are full of joy. Their spirit, their zest for life, and their willingness to “adopt” me as their daddy, is a source of great pride and astonishment for me and I think, will be a source of inspiration for all who read our story.

Yet the future is not clear. Instead of our society being colorblind, where you’re from and what you look like matters now more than ever. When I began the book and researched discrimination and anti-immigrant fervor, I dismissed mentioning a crackpot who called for stripping the citizenship of fieldworker children born in the United States, like mine. Now, it’s a to-do item in both chambers of the United States Congress. 

We are at a crossroads. We need to decide if we are going to close ranks and close our hearts. Or, not. The next few years will set our course for a generation. I’d like This Is US to be a compelling argument for us to go the way we came: a melting pot of people, ideas, songs, literature, and histories.

 

Q: You’re half Puerto Rican, but redheaded and to all appearances, completely Caucasian. How are you able to help your Hispanic children cope with racism?

 

A: A pale male, I’ve never experienced racism. And I assume people are not racist so I’m always off-guard. Just last week, a person I introduced to my children asked me if they spoke English. Yeah, they do. I tell my children that there are people who decide how they feel about others based on how they look. I ask them if they do that. No. And I asked them if their favorite teacher would be better, or worse, if she were taller or shorter. No. Or darker, or thinner. No. We talk about being nice to people and we talk about judging people by how they treat others, not by how they look. And we’ve had a rule for years: whenever there’s a new kid in school, the Marin kids make friends with him or her first, so they have one friend until they have many. We try to do good in the space we’re in. If a lot of people try that, we win.

 

Q: You were born in Georgia, grew up in Wisconsin and Missouri, went to prep schools in Maine and Virginia, college in Denver, law school in California, and have traveled extensively. Your children have been in California their whole lives and you’ve lived there for many years, but it is also one of the epicenters of the national immigration debate and you’re very open about the prejudice your family experienced in Santa Maria. Now that you’re in the San Jose/Santa Clara County area, do you think you’ve found a more tolerant environment?

 

A: I’m not sure if Santa Maria is less tolerant or the first place I began to pay attention since I had three Hispanic children under wing. But you’re right, 36% of the population of Santa Clara County are immigrants—the highest percentage in the state—and people are more tolerant. Most want to be and the rest have to be. 

Tolerance is born from confidence; intolerance from uncertainty. As people become more comfortable around people who are different, I trust that things will improve. It’s difficult, though, in this environment with weak politicians playing to boisterous crowds, turning immigration reform into a blunt instrument. The last president to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants wasn’t Lyndon Johnson, or Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton. It was Ronald Reagan—he thought people who were here and working and honest deserved a better future. America has, instead, turned on the weakest and most vulnerable, the opposite of what we were and can be.  

 

Q: Despite the fact that your children’s early years were filled with abuse and neglect, they don’t seem to have experienced too many behavioral problems. Did you take any special steps to help them settle in as well as they have?

 

A: In the book, I talk about how I planned to put all four us in therapy as soon as I got them and how surprised I was when the social worker assigned to me, the social worker who taught my foster care license classes, and the kids’ pediatrician all advised against that, telling me to just leave them alone and let them grow up. It was clever advice. I did immediately surround my children with responsible adults, first in their pre-school program and then by hiring a nanny I employed for five years. She, and her husband and neighbors, as well as my sisters and friends, have all been healthy role models for the kids. More role models have entered into their lives over the years including teachers, coaches, and new neighbors.

Most importantly, I helped them gain confidence, in little ways, like sending my five year old to get extra napkins at a restaurant counter or being silent when a waiter asked me what they wanted to eat so they could order their own food. When they nervously questioned whether we could do one thing or another, I said, “We can do whatever we want. No one tells the Marin kids what to do.” I became one of them, trying to see the world through their eyes.

Being loved is a boost. When they were younger, we used to play a game where we’d try to convince each other who loved each other the most. I’d tell Javier, for example, that I loved him more than spaghetti and ice cream. He’d tell me that he loved me more than dogs and books. I told Adrianna I loved her more than the moon and the sky. She told me she loved me more than cats and worms.

 

Q: You’ve also made a very real effort to keep your children connected to their two older sisters. Why did you think this was important for them?

 

A: I thought it was important to them because my two sisters are important to me. And the kids spoke of their missing sisters with such heartache—like they were ghosts or gone—because they had been split from their siblings, and each other, numerous times, when they were just one, or three, or five years old. Imagine a five-year-old watching a sibling being taken by a stranger in the night. You can’t call, you can’t text, you can’t even spell your name.

I was in a big hurry to reunite them and I knew I had to do something as soon as I was allowed, but I had to wait until the legalities were clear.

 

Q: Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan, and Angelina Jolie are just a few of the celebrities who adopted children as single parents, and overall, single parent adoptions are on the rise. Still, single men are stigmatized when it comes to adoption. Why do you think that is?

 

A: I think men are more ignorant than stigmatized, simply unaware that they can adopt on their own. I was ignorant, asked advice, didn’t believe it, and called Social Services to see if it was true—yes, single men can adopt.  

To stigmatize is to condemn. Single male adoptions are so rare, only 2% of the total, that there aren’t enough of us to condemn. Moreover, people are stigmatized if they care what other people think of them. If you’re going to do what I do, you need to be in a different place. I didn’t care what negative people thought about me adopting. I didn’t need their permission and I didn’t seek their approval. For more sensitive men adopting children, I encourage them to focus on the kids—don’t look up—they’ll keep you busy.

 

Q: You endured years of red tape before the adoption became official. Based on some of the statistics you cite, the system is obviously broken, in need of more staffing, more funding, and it would seem, in dire need of employees who actually have the best interest of the children they represent in mind. What can be done to fix this?

 

A: The story does touch on my journey through the maze of Social Services, the inspiration I found in social workers who care about what they’re doing, and the frustrations I felt parrying with indifferent bureaucrats. It is vital that flaws in the system are addressed because there are hundreds of thousands of children in foster care. A 2005 study found that 240,000 people a year contact Social Services about adopting children (but only three percent do so) and over 10 million families (one in ten) have considered adoption. Regardless, adoptions from foster care have more than doubled since 1990. To encourage this trend, the system itself shouldn’t be discouraging. My hope is that through stories like mine, social workers will see the difference between good work and bad, and feel the impact their decisions have on children in the system.

While there are staffing and resource issues, I’m talking about changes at the micro level. For example, social workers should spend time understanding what children go through and modifying their actions accordingly. In their defense, it would be easier for them to make the hard decisions about removing children from a home if they knew there were loving homes kids could go to. In that vein, we can help social workers and foster children by adopting more of them. Or, all of them. There are around 100,000 available for adoption today. With 120 million households in the United States, if 1 in 1,200 households adopted a child, foster homes would be empty. A city of 50,000 people might have 15,000 homes. That city would adopt its share if they found homes for 12 kids. 15,000 homes - 12 kids.

 

Q: Many people would consider rescuing three children to be a heroic act, but you ran into very real resistance from your employer. Do you think that adoptive parents experience more discrimination in the workplace?

 

A: No, I don’t. I faced workplace challenges because I was (going to become) a single parent, not an adoptive parent. My boss was concerned about my ability to do my job and be a dad. He guessed wrong, got sued, and his job ended two weeks later. I’ve been a business executive for more than 20 years. The personal lives of my employees are none of my business. However, I do acknowledge that if they have a healthy, pleasant life, they’re more fun to be around. So whatever takes them there, being a parent, or not, or whatever, is a good thing.  

 

Q: You also make it pretty clear throughout the book that you’re not necessarily the “hero” of this story and it’s your children who deserve that honor. Can you tell me a little about the ways in which they’ve changed your life for the better?

 

A: I appreciate the hero sentiment. But, in my view the book has seven heroes: my three children; their older sisters who at eight and ten years old protected them, fed them and hid them; my mother who raised five children by herself when her husband died young; and my social worker who plowed ahead and supported me against resistance and opposition among his own co-workers.

As for my life being better, it goes far beyond that. It’s a dramatic and powerful change, more than I imagined, and I feel it every day, going on eight years later. My experiences are deeper, my emotions more developed, and my sense of joy, of pride, at watching my children grow and learn and become good people isn’t just better, it’s a revolution, a personal paradigm shift. I’m in a whole different world now. For my birthday this year, I got two cans of Vienna Sausage and a flyswatter.

 

Q: You freely—and colorfully—admit that, “there are small mammals who knew more about parenting than I did.” What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?

 

A: I knew at the outset I’d make mistakes and really, I couldn’t have made any more than I did, but I convinced myself that it was okay because if at the end of the day the children were safe, fed, and sleeping soundly, I was doing okay. I guess I had very low standards, but it was the best I could do to survive at the outset, with so many things happening. I’m not complaining, it was amazing, but a blur for years.

The most important lessons are patience (I still work on that), being open-minded to their feelings and desires—especially as they grow older and can voice them, and to not give up if you want something badly enough. I made up my mind when I met them that we would be a family. Now, when I look back, I can’t believe I did it, and I’m not sure I could do it again. I was on a once-in-a-lifetime mission.

 

Q: You tell an amusing story about your first Thanksgiving with the children—mistakenly buying a capon instead of a turkey. Now that you have a few holidays behind you, what traditions have emerged?

 

A: We still go to the beach every Thanksgiving, now in Monterey, or we walk the coast line in Pacific Grove, looking for crabs and sea stars or driftwood to make a raft we tie with wet kelp. We visit their sisters before Christmas and we open a gift on Christmas Eve, just like I dreamed we’d do.

And on the 4th of July, I take my children - the offspring of field workers - to the Pajaro Valley, where we walk the fields picking strawberries. There’s some poetry in there somewhere.

 

Q: What’s next for the Marin family? Will it be getting bigger anytime soon?

 

A: Next year, I’ll have one child in elementary school, one in junior high, and one in high school. Unbelievable. I’m prepared though, having endured a Little League season with three children on three different teams playing at three different parks at the same time. We have no master plan, other than to live and grow and do well in school and be good people.

My biggest regret, which I think about too often, is that I said no when I was asked to take all five children, my three and their two older sisters. They went to live with their fathers, which was okay back then, but it’s problematic now. I often think of getting all five together so they can be in one family, in one house, at peace, even for a little while, a summer or a year, in a place all five can call home. 

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