When Brian and I were dating, just getting to know one another, we spent a long time talking, usually when we were running while training for the Austin Marathon. It was actually good for keeping our pace. Too fast, and talking wasn't possible. Those talks were typically about things happening in the present or our hopes and dreams for the future. But sometimes, we would slip into the past -- talk about growing up, mistakes we'd made, coming out, and a lot about our families and how we were raised.
On the surface, our families look very different. Mine is fairly small, most people having one to two kids at most, while Brian's family is huge. I have one sister; he has two. I have one aunt; he has more aunts and uncles than I can count. My parents divorced when I was very young; Brian's are married to this day. But as we talked about our families, we realized they are very much the same in some powerful ways. They are all very close, both in relationships and in proximity. Everyone knows everyone else's business, and usually gets involved, mostly because they all live within a five-mile radius. Brian and I were the only ones to "go off" and live someplace else. Truthfully, being gay probably influenced some of that, as we each needed space to explore and become comfortable with who we were, out from under our families' gaze. Not that we lived in oppressive or unsupportive families, because we didn't. But there was one thing we can both see looking back, something that definitely influenced our upbringing: an abundance of fear. Fear of being different, fear of outside influence, and fear that something bad would happen.
Fear in my family was probably influenced by my mother raising two kids on her own in her 20s. Hell, who wouldn't be scared at that prospect? I always remember my mother lecturing us not to wander off, for fear that someone would "get us." My sister and I slept with our mother in the same bed for many years because she was always afraid that if a fire broke out in the house, she wouldn't be able to get to us. There was always love in our home. And joy, fun and laughs. But there was also fear.
For Brian, fear was of the outside world and how it only brought temptation and evil. Raised as a Southern Baptist, Brian was taught the church kept you safe, and, in addition to family, was made up of the only people you could trust. Outside, tempters waited to lead you away from God. Being adventurous, trying new things, and taking risks were typically greeted with a, "Well, why in the world would you want to do that?"
As it became clear that Brian and I saw a future together, talk of our families shifted to what type of family we wanted to build together, and that included children -- what type of parents we wanted to be and what we wanted for our child's future. One thing we agreed on very early was that we did not want to raise our child to be scared of the world. We wanted him to approach the world with a sense of wonder and excitement, to dare and take risks, to look back on his life and have few regrets about roads not taken. You see, while it's true that Brian and I each left our families, ventured out into the world and overcame any fears we had, there have been regrets. Both of us have recognized that at times in our lives, we have acted, or failed to act, out of fear. Fear of judgment. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection.
There was a time I wanted to be an artist. Brian wanted to be a sportscaster. But out of fear, we chose different paths. Good paths, but when you think back and realize you took that path because you were afraid people would laugh at you ("Whoever heard of a gay sportscaster?") or you feared failure ("You're an artist? How do you eat?"), it doesn't feel good. We knew that we wanted something different for our child.
Well, we got it. And we should have been more specific.
Clark has always been an amazing little man. Brian and I marvel at his independence. Even from an early age, just learning to walk, he walked ahead of us. Dropping him off at day care, our hearts were breaking and he barely tossed us a look over his shoulder as we said goodbye. He takes risks and walks into new experiences like it's something he's done a million times. He makes friends easily and shrugs off rejection, moving on to his next adventure without a care.
There was one time when we went to a local burger place with a playscape and kids everywhere. Clark was about 3 and went right up to this group of three boys, probably about 5-6 years old. I swear, he walked right up to them and said, "Hey there! What are you playing?" Now, looking Clark over and deciding quickly that they didn't want to play with this boy who was much smaller than they were, one of the boys said, "Only three people can play this game." Brian and I watched the whole scene unfold and held our breath as Clark walked back to the table. "What's going on, Boog?" I asked. Clark just shrugged and said, "Only three people can play their game." Grabbed his chocolate milk off the table, took a huge drink, and ran off to climb on the jungle gym where there were other kids playing. Soon, he was running around playing freeze tag with new kids like he'd known them his whole life. Now, had this happened to either Brian or me at his age, I can guarantee you there would have been tears and our mothers would have had to coax us to even try again and find different kids to play with. We most likely would have just sat the rest of the time by our mothers. Sniffling.
I don't want to paint a picture of Clark as an emotionless child, though. He gets plenty excited over things sometimes. He yells, laughs, tells us he loves us randomly, and surprises us with kisses. But he can also get mad and defiant, just like all kids. And try as we might, there are times when we get mad and frustrated and yell back. But just like Clark didn't crumple at the rejection of some random kids on a playscape, he also rarely shows any real fear or concern when we are upset or unhappy with him. Brian and I often joke that we are "people-pleasers," whereas Clark doesn't care what you think about him or if you are happy with what he is doing. I am simultaneously proud and horrified. Don't get me wrong, because I don't want Clark to be scared of me. Brian and I remember having a "healthy" fear of our fathers. But there are times, I swear... Would a little fear be so bad? Just enough for me to know he is taking me seriously and I am getting through to that stubborn little head of his. I mean, fear will keep him safe, keep him from jumping off a cliff, keep him from doing something stupid, right?
And there it is.
My own fear. And me trying to put it on my son.
We wanted a son who didn't look at the world and feel fear, and I guess this is what it looks like. He's not afraid of rejection, of failure, of judgment, or of us, it seems. Yes, he needs to respect our rules, follow our directions, and do things he doesn't necessarily want to do sometimes (like pick up his Legos or get off the computer). But he also gets to live this fearless life I didn't, and I need to remember that this is new for me, too. I need to celebrate his fearlessness and be there without an "I told you so" if he does fall. I need to not be fearful for him, because it will show. I don't want him to selectively share with me only those things he thinks I want to hear. Or worse, not include me in his risky ideas because he thinks I will just try to talk him out of them.
I want my son to be fearless, but it scares the hell out of me sometimes.
Andy Miller is co-founder of The Handsome Father, a national nonprofit that fosters a community of support to connect, equip and inspire gay fathers and fathers-to-be. Find your path to fatherhood or a community to support you along the way.