Derek Hayes didn't think much about fatherhood when he was a younger man. He didn't think about much at all.
In his 20s, Hayes bounced between jobs, took direction from the wrong people and ran afoul of the law. He landed in jail for burglary in the mid-1990s and later violated his probation by driving drunk.
He was aimless and accountable only to himself, he said. At one point, his probation officer, Mike Roach, said to him, rather defiantly, "What do you want to be?"
Hayes had never thought about it.
"It kind of stuck with me that I need to make some positive choices," he said.
Fast forward a dozen years, and the 39-year-old Sanford man has an unmistakable identity: father.
Hayes and his wife, Rebecca, have a 9-year-old son, Parker, and a 9-month-old daughter, Shiloh. Their first child came not long after they were married, but growing their family has been a painstakingly slow process beset by roadblocks.
That journey has renewed Hayes' conviction as a parent and affirmed his decision to turn his life around.
"When other people are depending on you, you think about your choices," he said during a recent interview ahead of Father's Day. He held a squirming Shiloh in his arms and paused the interview from time to time to remind Parker to be patient.
"He's a pretty active kid," Hayes said. "Sometimes, the thing you love about your children is what drives you crazy, too."
Derek and Rebecca started trying for a second child when Parker was 3. After a year, Rebecca got pregnant and then lost the baby. They tried again, and the same thing happened. That's when adoption came into the picture, but they assumed it was out of their price range.
"Then someone at our church challenged us. They said, 'How big is your God?'" Hayes said. Faith has played a role in his growing up. It gives him strength. It keeps him grounded.
"That was really convicting for us," his wife added. "Within a month, we contracted with the Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers. We didn't know where the money was going to come from. We just put one foot in front of the other."
Lindsay Bragdon was the caseworker who shepherded the Hayeses through the adoption process. Her agency is based in Waterville but has statewide reach. Derek and Rebecca were ideal adoptive parents, she said.
"They are just so energetic and so positive," Bragdon said.
But adoption didn't come easy. Their first attempt fell through. The birth mom wanted to go through with it, but the dad changed his mind at the last minute.
The Hayeses didn't get discouraged. In about two weeks, they got another call.
Rebecca flew down to Houston the day after Shiloh was born. Three weeks later, the adoption cleared and they returned home to Maine.
Derek said having Shiloh, a daughter, has reawakened his fatherly instincts.
Did it matter that she wasn't biologically his? He answered before the question even got out: "Not at all."
Becoming a father himself did force Hayes to examine his relationship with his own father. It's good at the moment, he said, but it wasn't always. His parents divorced when he was in elementary school, and his dad simply wasn't around as much as the boy needed.
"Right when I needed to learn how to be a man, I didn't really have my dad to show me how to do it," he said.
Derek said that won't happen for his kids, and his parenting philosophy is simple. "Just be there," he said. "Just be open."
Rebecca said he does more than that. Recently, he left his job as a manager in a local lumberyard and took a job as a custodian at Noble High School. He took a pay cut, but now he's home every day by 2 p.m. That is worth more to him than a paycheck.
"There's nothing like being home every afternoon," he said.
The couple would like to adopt again but aren't sure if they will be able to afford it. But they want a bigger family. They might join Maine's foster care network instead.
"There are so many children that need homes right here," he said.
Hayes said they probably will wait until Shiloh is out of diapers. In the meantime, as their daughter grows from infant to toddler, the Hayeses plan to send letters and pictures to the birth mother back in Texas.
So far, Shiloh's biological mom has not written back. If they do talk to her, Derek and Rebecca have a simple message, one he'll be thinking about as he spends Father's Day with his kids.
"We would just say, 'Thank you for choosing life,' " he said.
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