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A first Father's Day

Couple discover new roles as dads through fostering, then adopting

Nicole Villalpando

"That's a velociraptor," Ajay says as he picks up one plastic dinosaur.

"That's an allosaurus," he says as he picks up a second one.

Dad Jayanth Shreedhara picks up another one for Ajay, who is 2, to identify.

Meanwhile, dad Mark Kuykendall sings "Mr. Golden Sun" with Ajay, complete with full-body motions. It's their morning song to help Ajay get his shoes on and ready for day care.

Ajay jumps up and down from a kid step. "I'm tall," he says as he looks at the people in the room with a big smile.

"See how he looks around for applause," Shreedhara says.

Sunday will be Shreedhara and Kuykendall's first official Father's Day. On April 19, they officially adopted Ajay 15 months and nine days after he first came to live with them in an emergency placement for foster care.

Last year they didn't celebrate Father's Day. They didn't want to jinx a possible adoption.

It will definitely feel different this year, Shreedhara says. Ajay is theirs, and they are his Daddy and Nana (the name for dad in Telugu, the Indian language Shreedhara's family speaks).

Ajay is the name they have given him. They also created a new last name for him: a combination of their two last names. Ajay means invincible or someone who won't be defeated in Sanskrit.

His name reflects the journey they have gone through together to become the family they are today.

"He's such a gift," Shreedhara says.

"What a dream come true," Kuykendall says.

RELATED: A first official Mother's Day

First comes love

Kuykendall and Shreedhara met Dec. 2, 2011, at a bar when Kuykendall was talking to a mutual friend of Shreedhara's. Their first date was two days later.

Around the time they were turning 40, they started talking about children.

"Everyone talks about the biological clock for women," says Shreedhara, 43. They felt it, too.

They looked at a number of choices, from surrogacy to international adoption. Fostering to adopt a child from the foster care system seemed like a faster route, but not one with any guarantees.

Having children was something that Kuykendall, 44, didn't believe was possible.

"If you think it's not an option, you can shut it down," he says. Yet he knew that he would be a good parent after teaching preschool kids in South Korea while in his 20s. "Oh, my God, I have this in me," Kuykendall says of the need to nurture.

When he and Shreedhara started talking about starting a family and the ways to get there, Kuykendall says, he began to realize that it was possible.

Then comes baby

They started the process in fall 2017 by taking classes to get their foster parent certification. "It's a lot," Shreedhara says of the required training, background checks and house inspections.

"It was more than natural parents receive," he jokes.

On Jan. 2, 2018, they earned their certification. They knew that because they were willing to take an emergency placement, they might not have very much notice before a child arrived.

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Eight days later, they got a call about Ajay. Previously they had decided they wanted a child between newborn and 3 years old. They prepared by setting up a room with a crib that could convert to a daybed for an older toddler. They had a few books, but that was about all. They planned for multiple store runs after a child arrived.

When Kuykendall got the call, he was told it was an 11-month-old, but he wasn't told anything else, not even if it was a boy or a girl. "We have an 11-month-old; do you want it?" Shreedhara recalls hearing.

Within 45 minutes they were home, ready for their lives to change forever. Soon Ajay arrived.

After about an hour and a half of getting a few details about Ajay's health history and signing paperwork, everyone left. They were alone with a baby.

"I remember feeling incredibly tense," Kuykendall says. "It's a sudden influx of responsibility."

Kuykendall hadn't changed a diaper since his niece, who is now 23. Shreedhara had never changed a diaper. That was one thing the caseworker made sure they knew how to do before leaving.

Kuykendall barely slept that night. Ajay barely slept either.

"I think I slept," Shreedhara says.

"You slept like a baby," Kuykendall says.

"I remember lying there thinking, 'Oh, my God, we have this kiddo here who is so vulnerable,'" Kuykendall says.

"I remember feeling plugged in," he says, and that the baby must be thinking, "What is going on?"

They knew very little about him, except that he had been with his birth family and that he was premature when he was born.

"They don't give you a lot of information," Kuykendall says. They got some information by going to the doctors that Ajay had been seeing to find out more about the delays he had.

They took time off work to get Ajay settled in, in part because their day care didn't have space at first.

"The first day he went to day care," Kuykendall says, "'Oh, my gosh, we can go to work and get some semblance of work done.'"

They started settling into their routine. Work and day care, dinner and bedtime routine, weekend outings together.

They were visited every month by a caseworker from Child Protective Services, someone from their agency and a Court Appointed Special Advocate.

They spent January to October last year not knowing if Ajay would be returned to his birth parents or a birth relative at any point. By October, they began to believe his case was heading toward termination of parental rights, and then they would be able to adopt Ajay.

Yet they couldn't ever be certain. "Until the judge's gavel comes down, you don't know," Shreedhara says.

Their training had told them not to get too involved. "You could be heartbroken," Shreedhara says. "As much as we loved him, that advice was not what we were going to take."

There were definite dark clouds thinking about that, but then Kuykendall says he thought about what it would be like for Ajay to be moved to another place and what he would be going through.

"I'm an adult," he says. "I will be fine."

"That thought made me more anxious," Shreedhara says. "What would happen to him?"

They decided that as long as he was with them, they would love him like he was theirs.

RELATED: Learning to love and lose as a foster parent

Then comes marriage

They decided to get married Feb. 6. Ajay was what brought them to that decision.

"We met as adults," says Shreedhara. "We lived as adults who met later in life. There's a certain level of independence. ... We'd been together for seven years. We're not going to run away." 

Instead, they wanted Ajay to have a sense of legal stability, Shreedhara says. The adoption is slightly easier legally if they are married, Kuykendall says.

Really, they thought about Ajay's future emotions and what would happen as he made friends at school or even later. "When he grows up and starts to understand relationships and love, he would know there was no whiff of a doubt for us."

They didn't make a big deal about getting married like they did about the day they adopted Ajay.

"Last year has been a whirlwind," Kuykendall says. It's been all about Ajay and what he needs, he says. "Marriage seemed secondary."

They will one day celebrate it, but now they are settling into life as parents.

Then comes adoption

By March of this year, all indications were that they would be able to adopt Ajay. On April 19, it came to be.

Shreedhara remembers feeling so fortunate.

"It was just a wonderful day," Kuykendall says. They both took the day off work (Kuykendall is a consultant and Shreedhara is an engineering manager) and they all spent time together. They got dressed up and were surrounded by family and friends. They were five doors down from the justice of the peace who married them two months before.

RELATED: Today I adopted my son

The same judge who had been with them throughout Ajay's case was there to make the adoption official.

"It's a rare thing in life to want something for a very long time," Kuykendall says. And then they got it. "It feels like a dream."

"It was just beautiful," Shreedhara says. "It was such a beautiful day. It was so emotional. It seemed like the perfect culmination."

It had been 15 months and nine days since Ajay first came to them, and now he was part of their family officially.

One of the biggest things they noticed was that before whenever they were at court with Ajay, they didn't really have a role other than to observe the proceedings. Now they had a voice in Ajay's future.

"Everything was changed," Shreedhara says. "We had a seat at the table."

A switch had been flipped. The home visits and paperwork went away. Now they can think about the future and what they want for Ajay's future.

"We can think about and make long-term plans," Kuykendall says.

"We get to decide where we are going and when we are leaving," Shreedhara says. "Let me rephrase: He tells us where we are going and when we are leaving."

Their life is definitely different than it was at the start of 2018. "We're going to bed at 9:30 and waking up at 5:30," Kuykendall says. It's very kid-centered, he says.

They hang out with friends who also have kids. They would like to connect with more gay couples who have adopted kids as well. They want more people to know that parenting through fostering to adopt is possible.

There are challenges that come with being two dads, such as needing to talk to the day care about Mother's Day and what to do with the artwork the kids were making for their mothers. It became Nana's Day, and Ajay made artwork for Nana.

They know that there will be other differences that come up and need to be considered as Ajay enters elementary school, then middle school and high school, and is asked questions about his family or notices that other families look different from his.

Ajay has helped them with their own families. Kuykendall's family has had more time to understand his sexuality and has been part of Ajay's life since the beginning. For Shreedhara, his family has had less time, but they have fallen in love Ajay, and now that the adoption is final Shreedhara hopes to take him to India to meet the extended family.

Mostly Kuykendall and Shreedhara concentrate on today and loving Ajay for who he is and what he has brought to their lives.

"What I love about him is it's just implicit optimism," Shreedhara says. "He's always smiling. He's always so gleeful."

"Adults, we seem so set in our ways," Kuykendall says. "We are so similar week to week. Change happens so slowly with us. With him, he'll wake up and say things he's never said before. He has such an amazing personality. He's changing at such a pace."

They have changed, though. "I've had to learn to let go," Shreedhara says. That means knowing that sometimes more toys than he likes will be on the carpet.

They each have found their roles. With no preset gender stereotypes, they base their versions of fatherhood on their strengths. Who is more the nurturer and who is more the enforcer? Who is the teacher and who is the playmate? It all depends on the situation.

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"It's been very fluid for us," Shreedhara says.

Both Shreedhara and Kuykendall come from multi-sibling families. They do want to consider more kids, but as they told their agency, "Give us a few months," Shreedhara says. "We need to take some time off."

Time to enjoy Ajay and fatherhood.

"This has been such a positive experience to us," Shreedhara says.

"This has changed our life completely," Kuykendall says.

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To find out more about becoming a foster parent, go to