Dear Carolyn: My wife's sister, a single mother to a 9-year-old, died suddenly. My wife and I, who never wanted kids, have decided to adopt our niece. I have absolutely no clue what I'm doing, other than knowing that all the plans I had for my life over the next 10 years are out the window. How do I learn to be a good parent when this was never what I expected out of my life?
-- Suddenly a parent
A: How do people who expected "happily ever after" regroup after being widowed or divorced? How do shopkeepers cope after technology wipes out their trade? How do pro athletes make a living after injuries end their careers?
Your actions are in the right place, which suggests your heart is, too -- but to keep it there, I think you need to accept that what you expected in life isn't, and never was, some kind of cosmic promise. Plans get obliterated. The fact of your new daughter speaks poignantly to that.
Anyone who sees a future change dramatically will feel shocked and a little lost. Predictability feels safe, and starting over feels anything but.
Yet people are built to process enormous change. You came by your pre-niece contentment by swallowing huge doses of newness -- your wife was a stranger to you once, right? You had first days of work and school? You faced the newness, and broke it down into familiarity.
You'll do the same with fatherhood. My practical advice is to take a parenting class, secure the ear of a trusted friend, and/or talk to adoption agencies about transition resources. They're all places to take your questions. But the big-picture advice is to stop, breathe and recognize this is not wholly alien; you've been at the bottom of steep learning curves before.
And anytime you don't feel up to it, remind yourself of the adjustment your niece is making -- and your wife, too, who is likely also grieving in ways you can only imagine.
Meanwhile, you're further along in the fatherhood transformation than you think: The most important, most relentless truth about parenthood is that It's Not About You Anymore. And why did you decide to adopt your niece? Because you realized this girl needs you more than you need to stick to your plans. That's thinking like a dad.
Also, there's a good chance you'll be able to incorporate significant portions of your 10-year plan into your new family life. Kids don't sentence you to house arrest. This little girl might expand your world in ways you can't yet imagine.
But that's for later. Now, just carry on by thinking small -- get through the process, get through the shock, get through the days. When faced with unwieldy decisions, choose what's right for, in this order of priority: your niece, your family, your wife, you.