I'm a dad. I can't believe I get to say those words. "I'm a dad." When I was growing up it wasn't possible for a gay man to utter that phrase unless he'd once had a straight family. There was often shame, sadness, and guilt around the husband that fathered children and then shocked his wife and kids by flinging the closet door open and attending his son's graduation accompanied by his new Yves Saint Laurent-donning male lover. Studies have illustrated the difficulties kids suffer when they feel they are the product of a lie. The wives aren't usually thrilled about it either. But many of them do come around, then everyone spends Christmas together: the kids (all grown up and married themselves), Mom (who never remarried but has a lot of cats), and Dad and Bob (who just got a summer home in Amagansett and "everyone is invited for clam season!!").
It wasn't that I'd come to terms with a childless existence as a gay man. It simply wasn't part of the possible picture, so it just never came up. I was content that I could thrive in an open relationship with a man that I loved. But 20 years later the parental horizon has completely changed. This is the first real generation of gay men and women who are adopting as tried-and-true, real-life couples -- legally and everything. As soon as it was possible I wanted to be a dad. All of my natural fatherhood desires that had been sequestered to an out-of-the-way corner of my heart were suddenly ignited. That was about 10 years ago. But life, the development of my relationship with my partner, Danny, the flux and reflux of a career in show business, living in New York and then Los Angeles, Danny's development of his own successful career, and my coming to terms with alcoholism (oh, that!) distracted and derailed us a bit. In retrospect, I know that life is perfect and happens in the way it's supposed to, in the time it's supposed to.
That would be one of the phrases Danny hated.
Like many couples, gay or straight, we didn't arrive at the idea of having children at the same time. Since I got sober nearly five years ago, my need for children had grown into a literal ache, to the degree that being around our friends' children became painful for me. But Danny, again, like many men, was concerned about what we might have to give up -- our time, our travels, our privilege to spend money on what we wanted when we wanted -- basically, our free, spontaneous, and fabulous life. I didn't get it. None of those compromises compared with what I perceived as our greatest potential joy. I thought that since our life together was so blessed, it was the next step to a fuller life. If I loved the life we had, why not make it bigger? It was like God was knocking on my heart and saying, "You think you know love? You think you know happiness? I am going to give you love and happiness beyond your imagination. Beyond your wildest dreams. Beyond what you know as possible." So, what, am I gonna look at God and say, "Hmm, I'm not sure...let me think."
But it takes two. And Danny's reticence was what was right for him. Healthy for him. And he was suffering for it. Our friends and family knew I was on the kid path and they were all pressuring him to get on board. Tick tock! Everybody knew he was born to be a father. Amongst our friends, he has long been known as "the child whisperer," with kids drawn to him at parties. So it wasn't like he didn't have the instinct. Rosie O'Donnell, who'd been advocating that we have kids for about 10 years (and who has 16 or 17 children of her own), once cornered Danny with the question, "Do you not see yourself as a dad? Afraid you don't have what it takes?"
Danny sputtered, "No, it's not that, I just..."
"Well, that's the only question there is," she lasered in. "If you don't think you're parent material, you don't like kids, you don't think you've got what it takes, you're missing the dad gene, then that's the end of the conversation. But if you do, well, everything else just works out."
That would be another one of the phrases that Danny hated.
When he would voice his concerns, every parent we know said, over and over, "You just have faith and it works out. It just works out...it just works out..."
This was followed quickly by "There is no perfect time" and "God doesn't give you what you can't handle" and "It changes your life -- for the better." Blah blah blah...
At one point, Danny actually believed that parents united to learn key join-the-club phrases in order to scam others into parenthood so they would not be alone in their misery. "It just works out" didn't seem reality-based to him. But Danny needed time, and not on my clock. Finally, when he was ready, on September 17, 2007, we proceeded...
On September 18 (I wasted no time), we met our attorney, David Radis. He'd been recommended by several friends and seemed to be "the" guy in town. One friend said that David "matches souls." I dug the idea of soul matching. It sounded metaphysical, spiritual, and organized (like socks) all at the same time. He explained that it could take as long as a year and a half, maybe two years, but that he felt we'd have a child much sooner because we'd been together for 13 years and we had a good "parental profile."
I won't go into all the requirements for adoption. If you're interested, there is no shortage of material for you to absorb, devour, and simultaneously comfort and scare the shit out of you. Suffice it to say that between the fingerprint scans, physicals, criminal background checks, endless paperwork, agency meetings, classes, essays, baby books (basically a scrapbook of your life to "audition" for potential birth mothers), and money flying out of your hand at every turn, it's serious work. We didn't mind any of it. We were proving our qualifications to be parents, and it was a constant psychological reminder of the mammoth role we were asking to take on. Personally, I think biological parents should have to jump through the same hoops. There'd be a lot fewer lousy parents out there, and a lot fewer screwed up kids. On the other hand, my parents might not have passed, and that would have been a shame -- at least to me.
We announced to our family and closest friends that we were "in the process." Soon the circle expanded to other friends, acquaintances, and finally, strangers -- usually people with strollers or pregnant women.
"We're having a baby too."
"We don't know."
Everyone was happy for us. The gay issue literally never came up -- except from one neighbor who was drunk at a dinner party and kept making stupid remarks about which one would carry the child. Adoption does bring out some strange questions, however. Someone we don't know all that well said to us, "My friends adopted a boy. And then a year later they had a real boy." Danny and I stared in shock. And then, to break the silence, I said, "Did they name him Pinocchio?"
Only a month after our first meeting with the attorney, we got a call. A birth mother who was carrying twins (huh?!) was deciding between us and another couple (straight and older). We spoke with her daily for a few weeks, only to find out she had committed to the other couple but hadn't wanted to give up the attention we were pouring on her. That hurt. Deep. Like a death actually. But we knew that our baby would come to us when our baby was ready.
During "the process" I must have read 30 books on child care and another 15 on adoption. The adoption books and the adoption agency and the adoption attorney tell you about the procedure, the waiting, the cost. They tell you how to create your baby book, carefully choosing the perfect photos and words to paint the picture of your life. They tell you about the typical profile of most birth mothers ("24 years old, two children, Caucasian, rural, religious, undereducated"). They inform you of the legal aspects, like how long the birth mother has to change her mind, the relinquishment papers, the termination of birth father rights. They tell a few horror stories and a few sob stories, but most of the stories have happy endings. They try to educate you on the dos and don'ts when you get a birth mother and attempt to prepare you as best they can.
Then one day, only five months after our first meeting with Radis, the call from a potential birth mother came. Danny was out of town, so I spoke to her by myself. I knew in 15 seconds that I was speaking to the mother of our child. She was due in about six weeks. She lived out of state. She asked if we were sure we wanted a child. I told her yes, more than anything in the world, and that this child would be the most important thing in our lives, above all else, for the rest of our lives. She said no one had said that before. I later found out she knew we were her choice as quickly as I knew she was our mother. I FedExed her our baby book with a letter. The next morning I was at my publicist's office talking about me me me and my phone rang. I had already put her ID in my iPhone and saw that it was her. I nervously ran into a private office, answered, and heard the words, "I choose you and Danny to be the parents of this baby."
And so it began. But after all the meetings and books and classes, after all the online information and advice from other adoptive parents, nothing had prepared us for the most intense, emotional, trusting, mistrusting, thrilling, terrifying, volatile, roller-coaster relationship of our lives. Strangers one day, and forever tied the next, we entered with this birth mother into a trust deeper than we'd ever known. Would she betray us? Did she make the right choice for herself? Will she keep the child after all, or decide that an aunt or grandmother might do a better job and keep him in the family?
She fit the profile almost to a T, and since she was out of state and we wanted her to come to Los Angeles for the last month of her pregnancy, she asked if she could bring her family with her. We said yes. We said yes to anything and everything she may want, need, or think of. We tried to pick up on clues to furnish her with whatever whim, gift, surprise, or treat she might crave. We broke nearly every rule and crossed nearly every line. For the next six weeks our single purpose was to make this woman happy -- this woman who was giving us the greatest gift possible in the entire world. I will admit that some of it was out of fear -- that she would change her mind, that she might sneak away in the middle of the night -- but mostly it was out of gratitude. During one of our weaker moments near the end, when we were frayed and tired and scared and complaining of the emotional slavery of our situation, a friend pointed out, "This is your labor." It was a mantra we would use in the coming days and we never complained again.
Danny and I fell more in love than ever. We listened to each other with a ferocity that we'd previously only had when talking. We began to honor each other in a new way. We were going to be parents and we had to unite on a deeper level than we'd known. Egos were put aside. Competition was not an option. Our child came first. Our child. The phrase alone changed us. And we fought. God, how we fought. If there was shit to work out, this was the time. Just like the cabinet door that needed repairing and the car that needed to be replaced.
Biology and nature kicked in with gusto and I found myself waking every three hours at night, subconsciously preparing for a feeding schedule. I reorganized drawers and scrubbed floors at 3 a.m. We registered, and everyday was like Christmas as gifts rolled in at the rate of about 10 a day. The nursery was hand-painted and stenciled and would make Martha Stewart proud. In fact, it did. I got a P-touch labeler and labeled everything: places for bibs, onesies, pants, socks, crib sheets, pack 'n' play sheets, changing table covers... Everything has a place, and that place was going to have a goddamn label on it.
People still asked stupid questions:
"Is it Chinese?" (The concept of adopting an American child seemed impossible and even wrong to some.)
"What is she?" (Translation: Is the birth mother white?)
"Is she healthy?" (Translation: Is she a crack whore?)
"What do you know about the father? Because I saw a movie where the father came back four years later and took the child." (Translation: Tell me every sordid detail you know about the situation.)
We found two good answers when anything personal about the birth parents was asked -- no matter how "concerned" people seemed to be -- to quiet curiosity. We said either "And why do you need to know?" or "That is our son's story. He will know everything about his life, and when he chooses to tell, it's up to him."
But the worst thing people would say would always leave me angry and dumbfounded:
"You wonder, How could a woman give up her child? I just don't understand."
Let me be clear. When a woman comes to the realization that she cannot keep her baby without severely compromising and even damaging the life, health, and future of that baby as well as that of her already existing children, the choice to give a child up for adoption through this process is the single most loving, selfless, and noble act I have ever witnessed in my life. It is a mother's love at its zenith.
She could have aborted him. She could have remained in her own city and delivered him at a county hospital for free, leaving the state to deal with it. She could have secretly had him at home and dropped him at a fire station or, as we've seen in the news, in a Dumpster. But this woman, like so many others, chose another path that would require strength and selflessness beyond measure. She bravely contacted an attorney through an ad in a paper. She filled out piles of paperwork, got proof of pregnancy from a hospital, and took pictures of herself to prove her reliability. Then she spoke to a roster of potential parents and, based on instinct alone, chose us to be the parents, nurturers, and guardians of her child. Next, she left her home and everything familiar and came to another state in the care of strangers, who escorted her to a series of meetings with the attorney, social worker, and an obstetrician, where she was grilled, prodded, and poked (figuratively and literally). They looked for lies. They looked for inconsistencies. They pried into her personal life and asked her about her history, her sexual conduct, her personal habits, her philosophies, her religion, her family. They were looking for red flags.
She signed more paperwork and made plans to move to Los Angeles for the last month of her pregnancy. And on top of the ongoing physical and psychological drama of being a young pregnant woman with children, being terrified, moody, and hormonal, hot and cold, and uncomfortable, stripped of her surroundings, friends, everything familiar, emotionally in turmoil, and in the care of strangers -- at the end of all this, she was going to give her baby away! She was prepared to jump through all of these hoops to ensure that her child would go to the family of her choice that could provide a better life -- the last and most important decision she could make for this child's welfare. What better exemplifies a mother's love than this kind of sacrifice? She, and all women like her, are heroes to us.
It had been decided in advance that we would be in the delivery room and that we would cut the umbilical cord. We stood by her side as the birth mother pushed, focused and present, throughout the delivery. And when our son came and was lifted into the air covered in vermix and blood, screaming and gasping for air in this strange new world, our entire relationship with her had culminated in and was defined by this single instant. At the exact moment in which we were experiencing the greatest gift of our lifetime, this woman was experiencing the greatest loss in hers. In the same room. At the same time.
We wanted to jump through the roof and sing to the heavens in celebration, while simultaneously she stared silently at the ceiling in mourning. It was mutual understanding so deep -- the most human moment of my life -- that allowed us all to recognize that we were having polar opposite experiences and that respect must be paid to both. That is what the entire six weeks had been -- a balance of respect.
She had requested that the baby be placed on her chest so that she could have a moment with him. We left the room and stood in the hall. I asked Danny how long we should wait before going back in. Every second that mother and child potentially bonded was an eternity for us. Wisely, Danny said that we would have our son forever and needed to give her as long as she needed. A minute or so later, a faint "OK" came from inside and we walked back into the room. Our birth mother was holding our son. Her son. Our son. She was gazing at him as a mother does. Then she took a deep breath and looked up and out, at nothing in particular. Her jaw clenched as we watched her attempt to disengage. Her eyes darted to mine for a split second and I knew that it was time. Danny and I walked to her bedside, and she lifted our little baby boy ever so slightly to meet my arms, her stare fixed in front of her. I cradled his tiny, swaddled body against my chest, and Danny and I backed out of the room, facing our birth mother, whispering "thank you, thank you, thank you." A single tear fell down her cheek as we walked out of the room.
Nearly three months later, we've come a long way. I never could have imagined the joy that is in my heart. It is the most important and unexplainable experience I've ever had. Of the many show biz highs I've had in my career -- from Star Search to Carnegie Hall to gold records to Broadway to TV series -- nothing remotely compares to the simple joy of staring into the eyes of my son. He doesn't have to do anything. The first smile was life-changing. The first time he reached up to me is forever cemented in my heart. And watching him sleep... Well, it's the best TV there is. Better than Project Runway and Top Chef combined, for those of you who need a reference. And I get to live it every day. Adoption vs. biological never occurs to me. He is our son. Period. We have thus far experienced no raised eyebrows, questions, or prejudice from anyone. Granted, we haven't been out of the house much, but in a nutshell, people love love. Many have said that our son is lucky to have us as parents. The truth is that we are the lucky ones. It doesn't hurt that Cooper Atticus Harris-Jacobsen is stunningly handsome, intelligent, and yes, even at this age, showing signs of incredible athleticism and wit. His impression of Jack Benny is spot-on. At his first outing, a trip to the pediatrician, I noticed even then that all the other children were thoroughly unremarkable in comparison. And I know it's not just me. My mom, who was visiting, was with us and concurred 100%.
I am a dad. I can't believe I get to say those words. "I'm a dad."