March 1, 2012
What is a Papa?
Father. Daddy. Dad. Papa. What’s in a name? The term alone may flash a movie in a person’s mind, but the images vary depending on a person’s background and experiences. Some people may have fond memories of their dad wrapping them in big ol’ bear hugs, offering words of wisdom, teaching them how to ride a bike. To them, a father is someone to be respected and trusted. Hopefully, those who have grown up with such fathers know how blessed they are! Unfortunately, for many foster children, the role of the men in their lives has either been non-existent, minimal or negative, and the experience has left them scarred, skeptical, and confused.
Maybe Dad is the guy whom I’ve never met and whom Mommy never talks about. It could be that guy who went to prison when I was just a baby or the man who disappeared before I was even born. I know enough of the facts of life to know that I must have had a father at some point, but I don’t know anything about him.
Perhaps Father is the one who sits on the couch watching tv, and only pays attention to me by yelling furiously at me if I’m too noisy. Or who does awful things to me at night that I can’t talk about.
I know that none of my brothers and sisters share the same father, so “Daddy” must mean whichever man comes around, stays for a little while, and then makes Mommy cry when he leaves.
When my husband and I first became foster parents, we weren’t quite sure what we should have the children call us, since they already had a “mommy” and “daddy” in their lives. Our very first foster child matter-of-factly referred to me as her “white mama”, so “Mama” I became. It was only natural, then, that my husband would become “Papa.” Little did we know how significant that special moniker would become.
After we had been “Mama” and “Papa” for several years, a beautiful 3-year old girl came to live with us. She had dark curly hair, and her skin was like porcelain, with just a hint of pink on her chubby cheeks. There had been suspicious reports of her father doing unmentionable things to her, but the facts had never been verified. Over the next few months I spent hours taking her to the children’s hospital to be examined by the doctors there who specialize in sexual abuse. The results? Insufficient evidence. We made appointments at the police department, where she was questioned by specially-trained investigators. What words could a 3-year old possibly use to describe what happened to her? I accompanied her to the child psychologist who had been assigned to help us, watching with sickening horror as her little hand grabbed the black crayon and scribbled violently across the genitals of the man in the picture. The psychologist’s opinion? Inconclusive.
When the date for the trial finally arrived, I was called to appear as a witness. When I had signed up to be a foster parent, I knew that my job description would include loving, nursing, counseling, and training. But never in a million years did I image that testifying in court would be one of my roles! As I sat only a few feet away from the judge, the mother’s lawyer, the father’s lawyer, the child’s lawyer, the court officials, and that horrible man who called himself a father, I felt like a little lamb surrounded by ravenous wolves! I tried to keep my voice steady as I described my observations: “She plays with her toys in inappropriate ways, and does things to herself that no three-year old should know how to do. And then she tells me, ‘My daddy does this to me, and it hurts.’” Without missing a beat, the father’s attorney asked, “How do you know she isn’t referring to your husband?” I was momentarily shocked by his audacity! The shock quickly became inner indignation, which showed itself as outward confidence in my reply, “Because to her, my husband is ‘Papa.’” I was so thankful to the Lord that in that simple and innocent decision all those years ago, He was protecting us from this moment! He knew that there would need to be a distinction, not only in this child’s mind but also in the court of law, between “Daddy” and “Papa.”
So what is a Papa? What does it mean to a child whose exposure to men has resulted in feelings of fear, anger, or rejection? Does my husband even understand that he may be the one and only positive male role model that these children have ever had?
Now I’ve been uprooted from everything familiar, and am living with a family I’ve never met before. The man that lives here is called “Papa.” He’s really big and has a deep voice just like the other men I’ve known before. He’s so scary! The Mama in this house smiles a lot and keeps hugging and kissing me, so I’m just going to stick close to her and watch the Papa from a distance.
A few days have gone by. The Papa leaves the house every day, which is to be expected. But the amazing thing is, he keeps coming back! Mama says that he is going to work so that we can buy food and clothes, but I’ve never seen anyone go to work before, so I’m not quite sure what that means. When he comes home, Mama doesn’t seem to be afraid of him at all. He gives her a big smooch while she’s fixing dinner, and she starts to giggle. Then they chat for a few minutes and they actually seem to be happy together. Hmm. This is all so new, I’m not sure what to make of it.
The Papa kneels down to my level, ruffles my hair with his large hand, and says, “Hey, Buddy. How was your day?” I try not to look him in the eye, but when he tickles me and pretends to growl like a bear, it’s almost impossible not to laugh. Maybe this guy’s not so bad after all.
I’ve lived with this new family for a few weeks now, and I’m starting to get used to the Papa. I run to greet him when he arrives home from work, because I know he’s going to give me a big squeeze. He oohs and ahhs over my latest LEGO creation or artwork, tells me that I’m getting so big, and sometimes wrestles with me on the floor. It’s really amazing that even though he’s so much stronger than me, he never hurts me. When I laugh so hard that I wet my pants, I start to cry, because I’m afraid he is going to get angry. But surprisingly, he doesn’t. . . he just helps me change my clothes and gently whispers, “It’s okay, Buddy.”
I asked Mama the other day why she and Papa never fight. She looked surprised and asked, “What do you mean? Of course we fight.” I don’t think that she would lie to me, but I’ve been living here for a while now, and I sure have never seen it. They might yell sometimes, which really scared me at first, but I’ve never seen Mama throw anything, and Papa has never hit her. She laughed when I pointed this fact out to her, so I guess not everyone shows anger in the same way. Hmmm, that’s something else I will need to consider.
Now that I’ve been living with this family for a few months now, my Papa is one of my favorite people in the world! He lets me ride on his shoulders when we go shopping at Home Depot, and he sneaks me a cookie at the mall when Mama isn’t looking. Sometimes I play games and listen to kids songs with him on his iPhone, when I know he’d much rather be downloading apps for himself.
I don’t always like when he tells me that I have to obey Mama or when he gives me chores to do. And sometimes it’s hard when he makes me sit quietly during church or family devotions. But Papa says that all of those things “build character.” I don’t really know what that means, but I believe him.
Every night he tucks me into bed “like a burrito” and tickles my face with his whiskery kisses. I used to not sleep very well, because I felt like a boat rocking in a storm, never knowing what was going to happen next. Now that I have a Papa of my own, I’ve landed on solid ground. I sleep better than I have in my whole life, because my Papa makes me feel safe. If the Heavenly Father they keep telling me about is anything like my Papa, I definitely want to know Him.
A Papa means so many things to so many children. For the baby, he’s the strong chest to fall asleep against, where she is protected and free from every care in the world. For the toddler, he’s the powerful arms that throw him up in the air despite Mama’s protests, causing him to laugh with abandon. For the older kids with the far-off dreams, he’s the checkbook that pays for Little League, dance classes, and piano lessons, helping them realize that maybe those dreams can actually come true. (Papa still has the autographed baseball of a 12-year old who hoped to be a professional baseball player some day.) To the teenage boy he’s the model of how to make responsible choices and how to maintain healthy relationships. For the teenage girl he is the example of what to look for in a man who will truly love and honor her. (And to one 17-year old girl in particular who has been in countless foster homes, he is the arm she wants to be holding as she walks down the aisle some day.)
Is he perfect? Of course not. But to the many children who have temporarily been a part of our family, he is a hero, a man they look up to and try to emulate. He has filled a crucial role in their young lives, and they are so blessed to have known him as their Papa.