I'm turning 40 this year, celebrating four decades of adventure, exploration, creating, learning, growing, loving and being loved.
I've had the privilege of participating in countless community projects, political movements and artistic collaborations. But the most special collaboration I've ever participated in began 10 years ago -- and I've never mentioned it publicly, until today.
Most commitments in life come with an escape clause. You can join a group and later decide to leave. You can accept a job and then quit. Deep friendships can slowly fade. And even marriages, allegedly the ultimate act of commitment, have an escape mechanism which we all know is used frequently. But to be asked by someone to participate in the act of creating a child... this was truly sacred. Patty and Gabe were inviting me on a journey that we would share till our last breaths, together, inextricably connected as a family. It was perhaps the deepest expression of faith and confidence in who I am, that I had ever felt.
It took about two seconds for me to decide. The answer was yes. I love children enormously. They brighten my life more than any other source of joy. I was also attracted to the challenge of being part of a non-traditional family in a world that encourages conformity in so many ways. And I have tremendous amounts of respect for both Patty and Gabe. The faith and trust that they were investing in me was entirely reciprocal.
They were both surprised at how quickly I accepted the proposal. They told me to think about it further. A week passed, and they asked me again. My answer was the same: Without hesitation.
Santiago was born in February, 2005. He's turning 10 years old next year. I love him more than anything. I've spent a decade watching in awe as he's grown. I'm so proud to be his dad, and to be a part of Patty and Gabe's family.
But some of my own friends still don't know about him, and most of my extended family doesn't know either! I'd like to explain why, and also explain why I want to suddenly share it with you now.
1. Privacy. All parents maintain a certain level of privacy about their newborn kids, but the level of privacy changes drastically from family to family. While some parents post an endless stream of baby pictures on social media, others are very strict about keeping photos -- or even the name -- of their toddlers private and personal. I wanted to let the moms choose their own level of privacy, and I felt the best way for me to do that was to simply keep the whole thing to myself. I told my immediate family, of course, and a handful of my closest friends. But that was it. Anything else would seem, to me, an invasion of Patty and Gabe's privacy. But that was 10 years ago. Santiago is growing up, and his moms are less worried about the boy's privacy than they were when he was a toddler.
I asked them a few months ago if I could be more public about the family. The answer was: "You should ask the boy. He's old enough now to make his own decisions." That was a life-altering moment for me. For some reason, part of me had ridiculously assumed that this project would always be a three-way collaboration. Or, at least I hadn't imagined that the fourth voice would play an active role so soon. I asked Santiago if I could tell all my friends that he was my son. He said yes. Of course, before I asked him, I had to ask him if he actually knew he was my son. That may sound strange to you, but the truth is that we had never really talked about it. We spend lots of time together, the way an active uncle would, and he's always simply called me "Mez," as all my friends do. At what age do you tell a kid you don't live with, "Oh, hey -- I should mention, I'm your dad"? It's hard to bring up that conversation. And to be honest, it just never seemed important -- in the moment -- to bring it up. We were having fun, all the time. And that was all that mattered.
For years, close friends and family would repeatedly ask me: "Does he know yet?" I think my answer surprised them. I simply said "I'm not sure. We haven't talked about it. I don't think it even matters. He knows I love him, and I know he loves me. And I'm not even sure that he would care. After all, the word 'Dad' might not carry a lot of weight to a toddler who didn't have the experience of having a father in the house." So, a few months ago, I finally had a talk with him. It went something like this:
"Hey, so I'm your dad."
"Yeah, I know."
"So, you can still call me Mez, or if you ever wanna call me 'Dad,' you can."
"Are you ok with me calling you my son?"
"So, it's kind of like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, right? I'm your father... but it's complicated."
"...And I promise I'll never cut off your hand." (He seemed relieved).
I also asked him if I could write this piece. And he said yes. So I did.
2. Social Media. Ten years ago, Facebook didn't exist. So there was no forum to announce things to EVERYONE with one click, the way that we now routinely announce engagements, graduations, pregnancies, etc. There was word-of-mouth and there was email. So at the time, I told my immediate family and my closest friends, I sent an email to a small group of people, and that was it. Now, 10 years later, I have 5,000 "friends" on Facebook and I share a lot of my life with them. I post stories and photos about all the most important things in my life. But I've never once posted anything about him.
And for a while, I didn't really care. It was kinda fun to have a secret part of my life. But I want to start sharing pictures of him for two reasons. First: Jealousy! I'm almost 40, so almost all of my friends have kids. And 90% of what they post on their Facebook is about their kids. When they spend a fun day with their kids on Centre Island or at a birthday party, they post pictures and everyone writes, "Oh my god, he/she is so cute!" and everyone feels good about the cycle of life and the cuteness of children.
But when I go to Centre Island with the boy or to his birthday party (I've been to 10 of them), I come home, upload my photos (well, the first few birthdays were on rolls of film) and then... I do nothing. I've never posted a single picture of the boy. Why? Because it's awkward to post a picture of your child when many of your own friends and some family don't know about him! Imagine the thread:
"Hey, who's the kid?"
"Mez, he's looking really cute."
"Is that your boy?"
"What the heck?"
"Is this a joke?"
"He's got your eyes."
"No, really: What the heck?"
"You do not have a son."
"What is going on here?"
By publicly announcing my role in Santiago's family, I can now join my friends in the popular act of sharing cute pictures of our offspring without triggering outbursts of confusion.
But aside from jealousy, there is another reason I want to post pictures of him/us: I want him to know that I love him. I know that sounds silly. There are lots of ways of showing love, and surely social media is not one of the most important. But the truth is, the ways that we express ourselves in our myriads of public profiles sends a message about who we are, what we care about and where our passions lie. And I'm not comfortable with Santiago looking at my Facebook page one day and seeing pictures of my friends, my family, my projects and hobbies... but nothing of him. I love him more than anything in the world. And I want to share that, and I want him to know.
3. He's my friend now. Babies are cute and fun, but they are babies. You giggle at them and they giggle back. It's a shallow relationship. I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point, Santiago became a person. And a friend. So, it was one thing to not share photos about a giggling toddler. But as he increasingly becomes a part of my social life and my intellectual growth (he learns from me, I learn from him), it seems less appropriate to pretend that he doesn't exist.
4. Pride. This is perhaps the most important reason. Two years ago, when Anderson Cooper came out of the closet, he said something that really resonated with me:
It's become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something -- something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true. I've also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible.
As a straight male, I've never thought of myself as being closeted. But his words made me question the way I was handling my relationship to the family. Despite the fact that Ontario now has a lesbian Premier who campaigned proudly with her partner, it's easy to forget that there is still a lot of discrimination out there, a huge lack of awareness and understanding and a sense of isolation for many in the queer community. I remember the first reaction from my parents, ten years ago, was peppered with confusion and concerns about what it would mean to be a donor and become part of a gay family. Their fears came from a place of love and from a complete lack of experience with anything like this. When they were growing up, there was no talk about queer families or donors. It just wasn't a part of their reality. And we are hard-wired to fear the unknown. So the question I've been asking myself is: Am I contributing to the social stigma facing gay families by keeping Santiago a secret? Or, more importantly, could I help play a positive role by loudly and proudly declaring myself to be a donor?
I also know that a surprising number of men, when asked to be a donor, often decline the invitation for reasons based on fear: How will this work? What will my family think? How will this affect my personal relationships? Will it be confusing? Will the relationship be difficult? Again, I've asked myself: am I contributing to this fear by not offering myself as a role model and showing my peers what a healthy donor relationship can look like?
I'm proud to be a donor. I'm proud of my son. I'm proud of his moms. And this week, as my hometown celebrates World Pride, I'm proud of all the people who have stood up against fear and discrimination and created a space in this world for Gabe and Patty to live their lives as they choose, without having to hide who they are. From Stonewall, to Toronto's Bathouse raids, to Harvey Milk, George Hislop, Glenn Burke, Matthew Sheppard, Proposition 8, Svend Robinson, Michael Sam, "It gets better", Kathleen Wynne, etc... It's so important for us not to forget this history, to celebrate how far we've come and to recognize how far we still have to go. And I want to -- proudly -- be a part of that.
So that's why I'm suddenly sharing with the world that I have a son: Circumstance, practicality, jealousy, love and pride.
Donor relationships are fascinating. In many ways, it's been easier and simpler than I had thought. I envisioned regular family meetings with the moms, trying to sort out difficult questions along the way. But we've never had anything to sort out as a family. It's been extremely smooth -- and fun. And my own immediate family (my parents, siblings, etc.) have all been very supportive and welcoming to Santiago and his moms.
But in other ways, it's been more complicated than I thought, with occasional questions or circumstances arising that I simply hadn't anticipated (like when and how to tell my young nieces and nephews that my little friend Santiago isn't just my friend, but my son... and their first cousin!).
It's been fun and challenging to figure these things out as I go, and I'm surprised that there isn't a donor support/discussion group in Toronto. I'm thinking of starting a group to help facilitate sharing, learning and mentoring for local donors or those who are considering being a donor. (If you or someone you know might be interested, let me know!).
Anyway, I just wanted you all to know about my amazing kid. Santiago brings so much love into my life, I can't possibly describe it here with words.
He's so lucky to have two amazing moms, and I want to thank Gabe and Patty for inviting me into their family and giving me the most precious gift in the world.
This post originally appeared on http://meslin.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/santiago/.
Follow Dave Meslin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/meslin