I knew our social workers were coming this morning. We were even dressed when they arrived, which isn’t always the case. I knew they were bringing paperwork, but I hadn’t really thought about it. The 6-year-old needed her lunch for camp made. I was trying to get the 3-year-old to use his proud new kid scissor skills on scrap paper or blank paper rather than furniture or clothes. Oh, and we’re getting married tomorrow, so there are a few details to deal with about that.

And then suddenly—which sounds idiotic because we’ve been working and working toward this, but it was sudden—quite quite suddenly we were all sitting at the table, signing mortgage-size bundles of paper. Certifying that we will take legal guardianship of our kids. What their names will be. That California, while generously helping with Health Insurance and a few other expenses until the kids turn 18, is signing them into our care, as their permanent adoptive parents.

I was in the oatmeal chair (the 3-year-old’s, named for obvious reasons, no doubt smeared on the back of my pants right now), trying to keep the boy from cutting up the documents. And I felt overcome by the emotion of it. The enormity of it. The impossible-to-grasp reality that just one court date from now, when these papers are approved by the judge, we’re free and clear of the adoption process, on our own. A family.

I cannot take this all in. I just don’t believe it.

I’m sure all sensible parents feel a similar thing. It’s the kind of job you just can’t absorb all at once, and that the reality must sneak up on you in stages, even if you birthed the kids. So it’s likely going to be years of milestones, if ever, that I feel myself, fully and completely, to be a father. There are moments where it’s completely clear of course. They usually involve yelling, or poop, or shelling out a good deal of money. I feel very much the dad when there’s trouble falling asleep (the little one has taken to startling and grabbing onto my face as he goes to bed, sort of sweet and suffocating all at the same time). But other times I kind of startle. I’m the dad? What?!

We’ve been explaining marriage to the kids (did I mention we’re getting hitched tomorrow?), as a sign-the-contract-and-you’re-a-family, akin to adoption. So it was perfect that our wonderful social worker brought a certificate for the kids to sign as well. It spells out what it means to be a family, their responsibilities and rights. I doubt a judge would uphold the contract in a court (something we might regret when the kids are teens). But it’s a certificate of their new family status, and they both want theirs framed in their rooms.

Me too. Having the paper, all our names spelled out there on the line, is one of the milestones that will help me believe it’s not just a dream, but is, as our six-year-old says, “really for real true.”