Gay Fatherhood, Step 1: Stop Pretending You Don't Want to Be a Dad
I'm not sure if this makes me a bad parent. But sometimes when reading a book to my 2-year-old twin girls, I fudge a little on the details surrounding whatever tragedy kicks off the story. Did you know Cinderella's father drops dead in the first few paragraphs? I didn't. And neither do my daughters, because I've never broken the news to them.
But we're all adults here, right? We can handle it if a story about gay parenting begins a little dark. You can at least rest assured that, like all of my girls' books, this story has a happily-ever-after.
Another thing I've noticed while reading approximately 50 to 100 pounds of children's literature is its tendency to celebrate the cold-hearted villain who learns to love. I sometimes imagine this villainous archetype pops up often because so many of these stories are written by parents — who felt like I did.
For me, the first step to becoming a dad was letting my kids return from the dead. I had killed the idea of them years ago. I was the Grinch who stole the picket fence and the puppy and packed it up in some heavy mental baggage.
To illustrate how far my perspective has since swung in the opposite direction, I have to admit that even mentioning “killing” and “kids” in the same sentence stirs an irrational panic that someone will come take them away. I'm so attached now to my twin girls that it doesn't feel insincere, for example, to cheer when one of them goes pee-pee in the potty. I'm not even weirded out by how often I'm trapped in everyday conversation involving their bowels and whether they've pooped, and what it looked like, and whether there's a rash, and what that rash looks like. All of these previously unconscionable details are now the quite minor cost of doing business — if you want a family.
But like I imagine it is for a lot of gay men, once upon a time, I'd forcibly stopped myself from thinking I'd have a son or daughter. You erase their “memory,” even though they never existed.
Admittedly, that all sounds sort of vague. In daily life it's hard to describe the insidious change that happens. Somewhere along the way I stopped collecting potential baby names, for example. And there was a particularly depressing day when I remember sitting in my car, parked a short walk from my college dorm room, reconciling coming out with the traditional picture I'd expected for life. I'd have to scratch out those kids from the picture. In writing classes, they call this "killing your darlings" — which is shorthand for editing out any plotline that stunts the story's development. In life, I think they call it "crushing your dreams."
In defense of my ice-villain inclinations, though, being fully myself had become more important than having kids — or having any family at all, really. Already I had trained myself to live with the risk that my parents or friends might push me away (even though they didn't). I'd mourned a million possible tragedies, few of which came to fruition. And I'd certainly mourned my children.
Luckily the world goes along with this reality. It used to be that when you came out, people would stop asking you about getting married or having kids. Everyone immediately “gets it,” that you can't.
Nathan never got it, though.
I'm not sure if it came up on the first date, but I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware Nathan wanted to have kids. He is a K-12 music teacher, which is simultaneously encouraging and intimidating. I feel better knowing that he's sort of a natural. But next to him I look like a hack.
Nathan is in sync with kids. When the girls tell Daddy to please, pretty please play the Frozen song for the car ride, I've caught Papa concealing a smile because he wants to hear it again too. He's taught rooms filled with little kindergarteners, getting them all to sing along and perform adorable choral-ography. I've got enough trouble getting our two toddlers to follow me down a hallway.
Before the girls arrived, my parenting experience was intentionally limited. Part of me felt it wasn't a muscle worth exercising since I'd never have kids. I concede to having been a bit aloof around my friends' children. I'd smile and wave in a way that hid my real concern about what would happen next if that kid actually came over and wanted to play. I'm not sure anyone who knew me then would have felt comfortable letting me baby-sit without Nathan present. But maybe that's my insecurity talking. I'm told all parents think they are quite possibly terrible parents.
While it was still ”just us,” I always told Nathan that, yes, we'd have kids — one day. To be honest, I knew it wasn't possible to stay with him otherwise.
And it's not like I was opposed to the whole idea, not really. I just needed time to let it sink in, this expectation that I might prefer tossing aside a life filled with quiet dinners and nights at the theater, or trips to Vegas or jaunts to Rehoboth Beach. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Your life will change should you decide to have kids. If you think seeing a movie is expensive now, try throwing in a babysitter who charges by the hour. Disney is our new Vegas. And I shop more often at Baby Gap than Banana Republic.
I told myself that stalling on having children was fine because I wasn't ready to have kids at 25 or 27 or even 30. I had things to do! But the more I think about it, I was dragging my feet so I'd have time to re-imagine my life — yet again.
Now every day starts with the noise of the baby monitor. “Daddy, Daddy,” it sometimes begins like a gentle song. Then it crescendos. “DADDY!” And then if I roll over, “DAAAADYYYY!” There's really no sleeping in. You can bring the girls back to your bed and wishfully think that they'll just quietly snuggle. But if it's past 7 a.m., the girls have things to tell you about and books to read and breakfast to eat, juice to drink, Dora to explore with, and more books and more food and more juice and more Dora.
I've read about Curious George's trip to the candy factory a hundred times. Probably 50 of those dramatic readings were during the first three days after we got that book. The girls tend to fall in love with anything new and listen to it over and over, and over.
Yes, life can get monotonous. We call it a “schedule.” Everything happens every day at the same time in the same order — at least if things are going well.
Maybe that doesn't sound appealing. It wouldn't have sounded appealing to me years ago. But I wouldn't have been able to imagine this life. I'm unexpectedly proud of my girls for little things like learning to jump, and I sort of melt when they hug each other, and you can't imagine the magnitude of melting when they hug you instead. They really do blow kisses when you leave for work, and they really do scream your name deliriously when coming in the door from work, and rush to show you a picture they drew with their crayons.
I'd sort of forgotten all of that would happen. And I no longer pretend I didn't want it.