How I made it through the first year of parenting, but will I ever get past my insecurities as a gay parent?
Just moments after our last guests departed, my wife and I basked in the post-party glow of a successfully thrown one-year-old birthday party. Parents had mingled. Toddlers toddled. Kids played, but no bandages were required. Our daughter's icing stains on her dress were simply proof that the custom-design smash cake had indeed been a smash. Miraculously, we had gotten everything right -- from the barnyard animal theme, to the sing-a-long music playlist, to the perfectly inflated helium balloons all the way to the delicate buffet balance honoring our child's ethnic heritage and our yuppie tendencies: ethnic Filipino dishes, Southern mac and cheese and organic, locally grown fare. In that moment, our chests puffed up with pride for making it through the first year of parenting without breaking our first-born, driving ourselves nuts or becoming a family of recluses who yearned for an affordable and trustworthy babysitter.
So, it was during this self-congratulatory mental victory lap, that my mom busted out with a question that hit the room like an anvil/headache/roadside bomb all wrapped up into one.
"Aren't you worried that your daughter (her only grandchild) won't realize that it's normal to have a mother and father? How is she going to learn what normal is?" my mother asked in alleged innocence. I must have been looking at her incredulously when she followed up with, "I'm just asking... trust me, I'm not the only one who is wondering."
For 35 years, I could always count on my mom to harsh my mellow. At the very least, she's consistent with her brand of blunt, sometimes brutal, form of honesty.
"I'm not worried," I answered as nonchalantly as possible. I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly in an effort to bring down my blood pressure and calm myself. My mom is like a shark or a dominant dog. She senses fear, pounces on it and uses it to confuse and disorient her opponent.
I launched into my gay parent rhetoric, which I had been rehearsing with my wife since the day our child was born, "You see, there are all kinds of families. Our daughter has two mommies and other families have two daddies, or one mommy, or one daddy or grandparents raising kids. Families come in all different shapes and sizes. Our family is a loving family with two mommies who love their daughter." To drive the point home, "That's what normal looks like for her," I added as non-defensively as possible.
After my canned comments (which admittedly had been designed for placating the pre-school crowd and not as a counter argument to my 72-year-old mother's questions about my alternative lifestyle), I turned to my mom to gauge her reaction. She gave me a look that simply said, "Seriously?!?" That's the moment when I started to admit a few things to myself (and apparently to the English-speaking world through writing this blog).
The truth of the matter is that I have been worried about the inevitable day when my daughter asks me why she doesn't have a daddy like other kids. It makes me sweat just thinking about the moment when she's going to start asking about the donor who made our family possible. I am concerned that she'll have to work harder to develop healthy adult relationships with men, whether they become romantic or platonic. I have a google alert set for any news about "gay or lesbian parents," so I will be the first to know about studies proving (or disproving) that kids of queer parents are likely to grow into well-adjusted adults.
All of those thoughts and more are the reasons why I have developed the affectionately dubbed "all families are different" script and constantly role play conversations with my wife. In these neurotic rehearsals, I act like the inquisitive child as she responds as the patient, nurturing adult. In truth, the character assignments are very telling of our marriage's dynamics.
"How come I don't have a daddy like other kids?" I ask channeling an elementary school version of our child.
"Because you have two mommies just like xx, xx and xx (insert name of any of the many lesbian-parented children we know)," my wife responds as her reasonable self.
"But I want a daddy. It's not fair that so and so has a daddy and I don't," I begin to whine.
"I can see that makes you sad, but let's think about all the good things about having two moms, like how much fun we have as a family...then end with a list of how fun we are and how much we love each other," my wife says without hesitation nor hint of nervousness.
After each run-through, my wife tries to drill down two things into my anxious head. First and foremost, it's important to empathize with the kid and not ignore her sadness. Second, meet the kid where they are at and just answer the questions they're asking. A kid, unlike the 35-year-old Woody Allen fan writing this blog, is usually happy with a simple answer to their simple question.
Let's use this true-life example from a recent church picnic. If a 13-year-old stranger asks me how a child can possibly have two mommies when he knows that's not biologically possible, I have learned that I should fight my instinct to tell the kid to shut-up, mind his own business and walk away. Instead I should give the most basic answer possible, "My wife and I had our daughter with the help of modern-day medicine. My wife is her bio mom and gave birth to her. Once she was born, I adopted her legally. That's how she has two mommies who have loved her all her life." The kid looked at me, shrugged and said, "Ok" and scurried off to skulk around with the other pre-teens.
I was shocked that it worked. I was elated that it could be that simple.
So, let's go back to my 72-year-old devoutly Catholic mother who was genuinely worried that her only beloved grandchild would not be able to grasp the meaning of being "normal." I decided to meet her on her own terms which meant ignoring her initial question and getting to the tangibles.
"Did you have a good time at the party?" I asked.
"Yes, it was the best kid birthday party I've ever been to. I like how you included all the kids and parents in all the activities. In our family, the kids get pushed to the side while the adults gossip and eat," she answered.
"So, it wasn't your normal Filipino family birthday party, but you had a good time anyway?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered as she caught on to my strategy, "I liked the way you did things...and I guess I learned a few things too."