Probably the best academic project I ever turned in was my 9th Grade Social Studies video interview with my then three-year old brother on the subject of God. The piece, if you will, is about twenty minutes long and is still absolutely hilarious today. From the mouths of babes, kids say the darndest things, yadda yadda yadda, you know the drill, and of course, my brother’s brilliance and aforementioned cuteness – did I tell you that he goes to Harvard? (See? Like a proud parent…) In the video, he describes Heaven and Hell and Fiddler on the Roof communicating with the deceased “in your heart” and, in my favorite moment, when I push him to admit that everyone dies:
ME: Even me?
THREE-YEAR-OLD BROTHER: In a long time.
ME: Even Mom & Dad?
THREE-YEAR-OLD BROTHER: (exasperated) In a long time.
ME: Even you?
THREE-YEAR-OLD BROTHER: (sternly) That’s not gonna happen for a long time, Benjie!
Anyway, besides my brother’s incredible wisdom and stunningly fully conceived worldview, the other take-away from the video is how plugged into my brother’s mind I was to be able to get so much out of him and how deeply invested I was in him, not only as a toy and karaoke audience/victim, but as a thinking, feeling individual human person.
Around that same time, I was coming out of the closet. Pre-adolescently, I had always envisioned growing up to be a family man with four children. So what if I wanted to name my daughters Scarlett and Alexis? As much as I struggled with accepting my future as a gay man — a future that would be created as much by accepting who I was as it would altered by those who would deny me — I never for a moment doubted that I would be a father. As much as anything in life, or more so, it always felt like something I wanted and needed to do. Some day.
When I got to college, parenthood was the farthest thing from my mind. Having been, for all intents and purposes, the only gay guy in my high school class (with no place on the sexual food-chain), I had always felt like a loser, a dork. I desperately wanted to be cool and fabulous, sexy and popular. From the first day of my Freshman Year at Berkeley, I was hell-bent on partying and just generally gaying it up big time in San Francisco.
By that point, I had incorporated being gay into my vision for my future. I pictured myself winning my first Tony before I turned 30 and living in a fabulous penthouse on Central Park West with my perfect gorgeous boyfriend. We would fertilize each other sister’s eggs and have our genetically fabulous spawn carried by some nice a rent-a-womb (so there would be no “I carried you for nine months” possessive maternal instincts to deal with from our generous egg-donor sisters). I could only imagine bearing the responsibility of parenthood in a version of my life where everything else was ideal and I had the money and resources to sacrifice nothing. Sounds great, right?
Well, cut to 10, 15 years later. Here I am, over thirty and I haven’t won that Tony. I can’t even complain about being egregiously overlooked for a nomination given my ineligibility — never having directed on Broadway. And I often feel like I’m still that wide-eyed freshman running around town, carrying on like every night is an event and I can’t miss a single party.
I look around at my straight friends (and even one or two gay ones) that are having children and I wonder if we live on the same planet. Their lives are so different from mine. Over the last few years, I’ve seen them with their babies, their hilarious, adorable, beautiful amazing children, and it’s like my biological clock is ticking, there’s a parenting urge in me that aches and churns and pulls when I’m around those kids. I want them! I want to see the world through their fresh eyes and talk through their thoughts and feelings taking in so much new information every day. I want to help them understand what they experience and instill in them confidence and sensitivity and nurture their passions and gifts.
But I can’t even keep a plant! I struggle month after month to keepe the ceiling from caving in – or the floor. Later. Later, I think, comforting myself with the knowledge that I don’t actually have a biological clock and that, technically I could father a child, or certainly adopt one, when I’m a very old man and there’s lots of time between now and then. And I’m not partnered to a woman, so my timeline is on my schedule, whatever that turns out to be.
Still, though, I can’t escape the sense that I’m missing out on something, something I want, need, now, not later. It’s hard to ignore the feeling that I have something to give that I’m not putting out into the universe, that this is not the fullest me. Sometimes, on the subway, I’ll see a mother with a small child. The kid will make ostensibly incomprehensible sounds, speaking gibberish which the mother understands completely, and to which she will respond with astonishing specificity.
BABY: Gaga googa baba booba. Patti LuPone.
MOTHER: Sweetie, you can have rice pudding without raisins when we get home, but you know Gristedes only has the raisin kind so you’ll have to wait.
Amazing! I want that. I know I can do that!
Last weekend, my extended family (to the second cousin degree…) convened Upstate in Saratoga for my great-aunt’s ninetieth birthday. One cousin, only slightly older than me, was there with her two sons, four and 14 months. As usual, I gravitated towards the children, spending most of the family reunion blowing bubbles, balloon-sword fighting, flying a kite. My four-year-old cousin and I made up this really fun game where we sat facing each other on stools and insulted each other to the delight of the entire room. “Stinky sock face!” “Broken TV head with no body and no DVD!” In general, I was easy on him, and never went above the vocal energy level he was giving (in fact, part of the fun of the game was the way I would hurl back different words in the same rhythm and tone as his), but I did allow myself to throw a little shade (“Pre-K Haircut!”) when he insulted my glasses. Bliss.
It’s hard to describe how rewarding all that was for me, but suffice it to say that the weekend brought things into clearer view. I don’t need the Tony or the penthouse, or maybe even the boyfriend, in order to be a dad. I know I can’t squeeze a kid into the cabs-home-at-4:30 AM routine, but wanting something more, wanting and needing it more deeply, is showing me that there is more to want, more to be. Isn’t this how the traditional nuclear straight family forms, slowing down after their frat party or “Sex and the City” days?
But maybe up to now my reluctance to grow into a more responsible lifestyle has not been some psychological defect in me, rather, it’s a natural occurrence considering the lack of real incentive for me to do so. I’m gay, and I certainly share these booze-soaked nights and wasted hung-over days with many of my gay friends. But then of course now there’s a little something called marriage equality . . . .
I’m beginning to think that a large part of what I’ve always loved about kids is that, in taking care of them, I build a confidence that I can take care of myself. It’s also a way to show myself that I can live for more than just myself. Maybe that’s why it makes me feel so great.
I realize that the thing I was most excited about in my fantasy future was being a dad, and that feels like a real goal, one I’m prepared to commit to now. When friends with young children complain about getting no sleep or having no time for haircuts or movies or sex, I just smile. I’ll take that over losing a Tony any day.