There's something about family vacations that always makes me want to bring out the dad in me. I still remember my own father strapping suitcases to the roof of our Buick Skylark, singing, "Those were the days, my friend. I thought they'd never end." There was never any doubt that he was the captain of the ship as we prepped for long car rides to American meccas like Niagara Falls or Washington, D.C. But now I'm the dad -- along with my husband Don -- off to the beach this July 4 weekend. But after a recent excursion to the East Coast, I've found it surprisingly difficult to tap into that inner captain.
Recently, we were on a plane to visit Don's mother at her lake house in Pittsburgh. We settle into our seats, and I hand each kid their own backpack full of coloring books and snacks, which the mommy in me spent a lot of time assembling. Don pulls out two iPods, and the kids hungrily snatch them up as he leans back to read the paper. They've clearly already found their captain. The kids are buzzing about the trip.
"I want to swim in the pond," says Jonah.
"Can I go fishing?" Eliza asks.
All I can think about are mosquitoes. And worms. And mosquitoes. But I smile and nod, happy that they're so happy. "Yes," I say, trying to sound dad-like, "and afterwards, we'll fire up the barbecue!" Who the hell is this guy? Please tell me he's not about to tug on his crotch and spit.
The plane rolls forward, and I remember something crucial about me, the real me: I hate to fly. I'm terrified by it. Moving so quickly in such a volatile piece of machinery, crowded together with loud, flatulent, failed dieters? Is there even enough oxygen? I take Eliza's hand. "Don't be nervous, sweetie," I smile, transparently projecting my own hysteria.
"I'm not nervous, Daddy," she says with an eye roll. She's 8. She lifts her window shade, I guess to see how far we are from being able to crash and still survive.
Then my 5-year-old, Jonah, pulls out the seat card with safety instructions. For him, it's a giant cartoon, and he wants to know, "Can Eliza and I go on the big slide together, or do we have to go down with a daddy?"
Oh, God. That's the last image I need in my head right now. But I smile at Jonah as if I were the kind of dad who thinks its "cool" to fly 39,000 feet above the ground and doesn't desperately crave the second half of that Xanax he took at the airport.
When we finally get to Grandma's lake house, the kids are in their bathing suits before I've even put my bags down. My inner mommy makes sure I've got enough snacks and sunscreen for our trek down to the mosquito-infested lake. The kids want to fish. Damn. I'm going to have to suck it up and dig for worms. I hate worms. They're gross. And icky. But the dad I'm aspiring to be doesn't say words like "icky." Why can't I be more like those other kinds of dads?
Wait. Stop. Why am I feeling this wave of envy for those other kinds of dads? Is it just internalized homophobia? Probably. So what am I saying? If I weren't a gay dad, I'd be more like "them", those other dads, the ones who watch football and drink Coors Lite and don't choreograph numbers to Katy Perry songs in their heads and aren't afraid of a stupid worm on a hook? Maybe.
But honestly, in this moment? What does it matter what kind of music I listen to or what cocktail I drink (no pun intended) or whom I chose to marry (thank you, SCOTUS!)? In this moment, it's about me and this worm and the wide-eyed enthusiasm of my irresistible children longing for me to make some kind of move, preferably a bold, confident, dad-like move.
I impale the poor, slithery, repulsive little slug with the hook, not just once but three times, before we cast the rod into the pond. After a few minutes, the kids feel a tug. Eliza and Jonah scream with delight. I want to scream too, right into a big, puffy pillow. But I don't. I grasp that rod with all my might and wrestle our reluctant kill onto shore. OK, it's not much bigger than the worms, but much slimier as it bucks frantically in my hand, its gills sputtering for its last breath. I'd rather be doing almost anything than freeing the hook from this poor guppy's mouth -- until I see the look of delight on the kids' faces. Priceless. They cheer joyously for us to do it all again! OK. I could get used to this. But maybe we'll drive next time. Do they still make Buick Skylarks?
We are now pulling into the beach parking lot. I walk confidently to the trunk and pull out the towels, sunscreen and other beach gear. Am I being particularly mom-like or dad-like? Who cares? This is me. And they seem happy enough, especially since I've recently turned the kids on to the excitement of boogie boarding. Well, I boogie board, and they ride on my back, but we all love it -- especially me. At long last, I am the captain, and this tiny Styrofoam board my ship. The kids look nervously at a "giant" wave rising behind us. "Hang on, kids," I tell them. "Daddy's got this!"