Hill Harper says he was 'petrified' about adopting as a single dad: 'I had never really changed a diaper in my life'

Hill Harper gets candid about being a single dad to a young son, and how technology informs his parenting decisions. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Hill Harper gets candid about being a single dad to a young son, and how technology informs his parenting decisions. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
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Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

You'd be hard-pressed to find an actor with a more varied (or impressive) resume than Hill Harper. While fans know him best from his work on series like CSI: NY and The Good Doctor, the star holds three degrees from Brown and Harvard and has carved out spaces outside of Hollywood as an activist, author, entrepreneur, finance whiz and, most recently, host of the new tech podcast from NortonLifeLock, 5-Factor Authentication. Despite his accolades, Harper was pretty unprepared when life threw him the biggest curveball — and most rewarding role — of all: fatherhood. Harper was in his late 40s when he was asked to take in a newborn baby boy whose birth mother was homeless; the single dad finalized his adoption in 2017.

"I had never really changed a diaper in my life, and three weeks later I was holding a newborn baby in my hands," the He Got Game star tells Yahoo Life of his sudden foray into fatherhood seven years ago.

It wasn't that Harper, 56, had never considered being a dad; he had just assumed that his journey to being a parent would be more conventional — and involve first getting married. A close friend pointed out that he had long expressed his wish to be a parent, both by having biological kids with a wife, and adopting.

"You're letting your relationship status dictate your parenting status," she told the actor. "What are you waiting for? Why don't you think about it differently?"

He pushed back.

"I was like, 'No .... I want to get married, I want to have kids [but] I'm going to adopt for sure [later on],'" he recalls. "God and the world had different plans."

Undeterred, Harper's friend connected him with an adoption attorney, who shared more about the process and ultimately called on the TV star when the infant who would become his son needed a home. Harper says he was "petrified" — but said yes anyway.

A baby coach helped the diaper novice master some of the basics of baby-raising, and the actor laughs when he recounts joining a listserv for moms in need of frozen breast milk. "I want to make a movie about this someday," he says.

Being a single dad continues to be tricky. Noting that most of the other parents he interacts with at school pick-up are moms, Harper shares that something as simple as setting up a playdate for his now-7-year-old son can lead to awkwardness.

"They're like, 'Should I give you my number? That might make my husband upset,'" he says. "I'm like, 'Listen, that's between you and your husband, whatever.' And so it's been interesting since I don't fit into that traditional mom circle."

He's also navigating the nuances of raising a son without a traditional mother figure around, and the "sadness" that can come with that absence.

"I never realized how mom-centric everything is," Harper says. "Like, in every book, everything is like, 'my mom, my mom,' and it always made me feel some kind of way because of Pierce not having that traditional mom in his life. I always felt, does he feel left out of this?"

Harper named his son Pierce after Pierce Brosnan, "a very dear friend" who produced and co-starred in his 1998 film, The Nephew.

"He and I have been friends ever since, and I've had so much respect for him," Harper explains. "I always said to myself, if I ever have a son, I want him to be like Pierce Brosnan, because Pierce is just the coolest dude. He's relaxed, he's happy, he's interesting. He's an artist, he's intelligent and he cares about people. So when it was time to choose a name for Pierce, I was like, you know what? ... I love getting them together."

The younger Pierce is fresh from surf and skate camps, with Harper noting that he's big on exposing his son to new and exciting experiences. As a dad, he adds, he sees himself as "not being strict enough."

"I purposely made a decision to be very different from my father, and I don't know if that was the right decision," he says. "My dad was a tough, tough dad; it was like being in the military. And for certain aspects of my life that served me very well, to be honest, because it created a real rigidity, a real level of respect and discipline, and I operated accordingly. I didn't get into a lot of trouble; I wasn't that kid.

"I've given my son a much wider bandwidth," he adds. "Maybe because I'm an older parent, maybe because I have at least a sense that he's still his own human and he's going to figure out his own path. And certainly, kids need boundaries and containers and I've always been trying to find what those are, but I've given him a pretty wide leeway, I think, for him to be him."

Harper is, however, a stickler when it comes to screen time and gaming. Pierce isn't allowed to watch much TV or play a lot of video games, though as someone who discusses technology on his 5-Factor Authentication podcast, Harper admits that he wonders if he's overlooking the purported benefits of gaming — like improved hand-eye coordination, coding skills and so on — and "pushing an old-school narrative on him in a new school world."

Discussing issues like cybersecurity and social media, Harper says he's drawn to the ways in which tech shapes our individual lives. As a parent, he says, "I think about technology all the time."

A lot of that is trying to predict how technology will change the learning process in the future, and what that will mean for his child. Recalling that his most impressive classmates at Brown and Harvard were largely multilingual and proficient in playing a musical instrument, Harper has had Pierce enrolled in a Mandarin immersion school (his attempts to teach his son an instrument haven't yet panned out). But will, as his tech-savvy friends suggest, those lessons be obsolete or unnecessary once his son hits his 20s, and there are new learning resources and shortcuts available that most of us can't even imagine? Is teaching long division still worthwhile in the era of calculators and computers?

These are the questions Harper asks himself, but ultimately he wants his son "to be very comfortable with technology, never intimidated by it."

As his son embarks on a new school year, Harper marvels at how much his life has changed since, as he puts it, "Pierce chose me to be his dad." First and foremost has been letting go of his "unwarranted" fear that he wouldn't be up to the task of adopting.

"I think so many people out there have the capacity to adopt," he says. "And so many people have an internal desire, but they're afraid. Fear often stops us from making decisions that we know we should deep down make. And I always call fear "false evidence appearing real." Most of the fears we carry are false. ... [But] I was confronted with something that was very clear: That the best option for my son was to be my son.

"I knew I had the capacity and the ability and the resources," he adds. "But I didn't know what all of the externalities, and all the different things that would come along with that, what that meant. And so it's been a beautiful, interesting, challenging journey."

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