Friday, June 26, 2009

Gay parenting


This is an article I wrote some years ago. The picture is taken on the day we collected Joshua (me holding him, Left), from the Princess Alice Adoption Home in Johannesburg. Leon is holding Gabriel.


In any relationship, there is a lot of give and take which is necessary. And gay relationships are not immune from this rather bland observation. So, although I blanched, perspired, threw tantrums, simulated heart attacks and tried spontaneous throwing up at the mention of the word “baby”, I did actually listen. What could I do? I was involved with a man who wanted children. I use the plural judiciously, because, Leon could quite happily have 15 or 16 kids and be perfectly content. But we were not quite there yet. When your spouse says they want children, you have to listen. You have to think, at least momentarily, beyond your own freedom and desire for a quiet life, and listen to what he or she is saying. I suspect if you don’t, you might win the skirmish and lose the conflagration, because these might well be things which come back to haunt you down the line.

So, I listened. I tried to picture myself with a baby. I couldn’t. I tried to think of what it would be like to have someone calling me “daddy” and hated the idea. I wondered what holidays would be like. I wondered what shopping would be like. I wondered what sex would be like with a baby screaming in the next room. None of it conjured up even the faintest glimmer of excitement. It just looked too horrible to contemplate.

But… as I feared, these things start to gain a momentum of their own and before I could say “Bob’s your auntie”, I found myself sitting in front of a social worker from Johannesburg Child Welfare telling her why I wanted a child.

The process was a long one, not because Child Welfare was inefficient, nor because we were treated differently to anyone else (because we weren’t!) but rather because we kept on stopping the process to catch breath – or at least I did!

So we went through the psychometric tests, the relationship tests, the discussions about family support networks, the discussions about what religion we intended bring the child up in, etc etc. It was all extraordinary, but deeply frightening.

And the gay thing, I am pleased to say, played almost no role in the process at all. Yes they spoke about things like, did we have women friends? (yes we do – more women than men actually); how would we handle opposition?(by slapping the opponent’s face) you know – the normal kind of thing. It was ordinary. It was unselfconscious. It was a wonderfully liberating experience. And we knew that the straight couples in our group were having almost exactly the same kind of problems and issues that we were. We knew because they said so. Being a gay parent, we soon understood, was really just about the same as being any other kind of parent.

Our families, on both sides, just accepted the idea. I think there might well have been some issues for them, but (true to form) they decided that we needed to make our own decisions and they would support us in them. But undoubtedly, there were issues. Probably the race issue (because the child would almost inevitably be black) was more difficult for some of them to come to terms with than the gay parent issue. But, whatever their feelings, they decided to support us – which was quite a relief.

The social worker had her doubts about our innate child rearing abilities. (These were nothing, I can tell you, as compared with my doubts!) I had, all my life, maintained only the most restrained, nodding acquaintance with babies and their handlers. I had absolutely no idea of what might be expected. So, she strongly suggested – (nay insisted!) that we go to the Princess Alice Home of a weekend, and feed the babies.

To begin with it was a nightmare. The greatest difficulty, I found, was trying to look composed while sweat broke out on my brow and tremens took over my hand movements. Then there was the business of patting them on the back and burping them and then coping with the almost inevitable gush of regurgitated milk which you were supposed to calmly wipe off your sleeve (or shirt or pants…or face). We did this for several weekends. On our return home, I would reach for the valium. Leon would enter what looked to me like a sublime, but to me, incomprehensible realm of self-fulfillment. He got a sort of seraphic look on his face. A sublime glow would surround him. I contemplated, alternatively, suicide and murder.

Leon read all the books. I read none. They were dull in the extreme. They spoke of stuff I had never heard of. They sought to address issues I had never contemplated and besides, they had no story I could relate to. Suddenly, the magazine holder in the toilet area became filled with baby mags. Where once there were slightly riske boy mags, now there were pictures of pregnant women, dummies, playpen options and my all time favourite, strange looking machines to express breast milk.

Life, it was perfectly clear, was going to change fairly substantially. For a month or two, we prepared the baby’s room. We suddenly became weirdly organisatory and cleanliness conscious. It was almost like some kind of demonic possession. From being fairly casual about how the house looked, suddenly, weekends were filled with putting the cot there and cleaning this carpet and putting up these things to stop babies falling down stairs. Know-it-all been there done that straight friends would smile and say the word “nesting”.

Then one day, Leon phoned me as I was coming out of a meeting. “I think we have a baby,” he said, and my blood went cold. He said the name. He said he was four months old. I couldn’t remember the child. So I rushed to the home. Found the child attached to the name he had given me, lying in a cot in a corner of the large room, sucking the forefinger of his left hand and staring impassively at me.
For a long time we considered each other. After a while, I put my finger out. He looked at it, and the hand he wasn’t sucking on, reached out and took it. We stayed like that for perhaps ten minutes or so. And there it was. The bond was sealed between us. I was this child’s father.

I don’t know what it was, or how it happened. And when I think back on it now, it took a very long time for me and him to feel really comfortable with each other. But both of us did something magical that evening. He became my son. And I became his father. It was simple and it was possibly the most surprising and dramatic thing that has ever happened to me. It was, I’m sure, as profound an experience as giving birth.

And so eventually, the day arrived. The day we brought Gabriel home. We had the car seat, the bag with the wet wipes, the bottle at the ready with some really awful smelling stuff in it, which was supposed to be milk, (but which seemed to separate and then reintegrate when you shook the bottle). We had the carry cot, the sheet to keep him warm. We had to take clothes with us, because when you adopt from Child Welfare, it is good etiquette to let them keep the clothes he is in. We brought along about three thousand nappies, just in case.

So we collected him. And we were given this wonderful thing together with him– a photo album of Gabriel from day one, with pics of the people who took care of him, and of his cot and of the home. And on the whiteboard someone had written, “Gabriel is going home today!” That gave the both of us as warm fuzzy, belonging type of parent feeling. And everyone waved goodbye. And the departure was a little delayed because it took us about half an hour to work out how the car seat worked and how to strap the child in it. But finally, off we went.

When we got home, (after what must have been, for Gabriel, a fairly bewildering detour through a shopping Mall – his first) I studied this child for the first real time. I looked into his eyes and he looked back at me. A strange thought suddenly entered my head. “This is not a puppy,” I thought to myself. “This is definitely not a puppy”. Puppies, I had experience of. They look at you in a loving kind of gah gah way. There is not a great deal going on in their heads. They need you. They love you and, more importantly, they really want to please you.

But babies? Well, here was something entirely different. I looked into his eyes and what did I see? I saw processing going on. I saw him looking at me and there was a definite species recognition thing going on there. He was sizing me up! I can’t say I felt uplifted, or excited by this recognition. I suppose, if I am honest, the overwhelming feeling was abject fear!

And so it started – our life together. Leon decided that whatever happens, we must establish a routine. So, we slavishly followed a routine, taking as our cue, the routine established at the adoption home. And, whether it was because we got a really good child, or because Leon’s tough regime worked the trick, or perhaps a bit of both – I do not know, but very soon, Gabriel would be put down at 6.30 and he would wake at 6 the next morning. This is the way it has continued until now.

But of course, other things did not work out quite the way we had planned it. Gabriel very quickly bonded spectacularly with Leon and only very tangentially with me. This was even though I had taken off the 45 days leave the government gives to adoptive parents (yes, why only 45 days, when birthmothers are given three months?). But anyway, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to Gabriel’s and my relationship. When Leon and I were with him together, I would be consciously and pointedly ignored. When I was with him on my own, he would make it perfectly clear that he was only barely tolerating me. When Leon was with him on the other hand, he would be ecstatic. The difference was not very hard to see!

I got depressed. I started to doubt whether or not I had done the right thing. I started to get unbelievably jealous. And angry. And… well yes, the word “childish” springs to mind. It really didn’t matter what people said about “Oh this is just a phase, it is perfectly normal, all kids do it, it’s just the same with heterosexual couples”. I wanted to kill someone. But then, one day, I looked at myself in the mirror and said “Oh for goodness sake, just grow up!” And things got better from then on. Yes, it is still true that Gabriel prefers Leon to me – so bladdy what? When Leon is not around (and even sometimes when he is), Gabriel is fine and we have gotten to the point when we all seem to understand very well each other’s needs.

On the other hand, as he grows and develops and as we grow and develop together with him, I am continually amazed at our capacity to give to each other. Leon and my relationship was pretty strong to begin with. After all, we (unlike most heterosexual couples) went through a zillion “relationship tests” to prove it. I can’t help but wonder what havoc a child could bring about in a relationship that was not so strong, because you certainly get stretched way beyond what you thought were your limits.

And as bottle gives way to cup and hands become more able to deal with a fork and spoon. As Tellytubbies and Barney become one’s stable diet, (so much so that you find yourself humming Tinky Winky Barney songs in the shower). As the slow suspicious primeval circling of the potty begins. And as every square centimetre of the house is turned meticulously and systematically into a playpen, one does, every now and again, try to remember what life was like when babies were things straight people had. And then, suddenly, he runs up to you and squeals with delight and grabs your knees in a fairly good imitation of a bearhug and guess what? You feel a feeling of contentment and wellbeing like you never have before – like nothing else can duplicate.

It is extraordinary just how much emotion babies are able to evoke in a person. A friend of mine once said that babies are designed to bring out emotions in you which you never knew you had! How completely right that is. Because Gabriel knows exactly how to press both our buttons simultaneously. The good buttons and the bad ones. It is a spectacular skill. It is a skill, undoubtedly, which he learned in the womb. I blame the womb entirely.

“Not meaning to be rude,” people often say to us, particularly people we have met for the first time, “but what is he going to call you both?” I have never really understood the meaning of this question. What is it that people are expecting us to say? That he will call one of us father and one of us mother?

The truth is, he is going to call us what he is going to call us. He can call us both Dad, if he likes. And actually he does. He also calls me “Ikor” which seems to be what he hears of Michael. And he calls Leon (much to his extreme irritation) “Ion”. These are things he is going to need to figure out for himself in the big bad world. We live in a world where the whole notion of “family” needs to be re-thought and re-defined. We can’t pretend that things are today as they always were. Nor can we pretend that the old model was necessarily the best. In a world of HIV/AIDS, in a world of ever increasing orphans, we need to reassess all our notions of what is proper and what is ideal and what is practicable.

At his playschool, one little girl asked Leon if he was Gabriel’s Daddie. He said, yes he is. “Well then why is Gabriel so brown?” she asked. Leon explained that Gabriel was adopted. That meant, he explained, that “his Mummie asked us to look after him for her, because she wasn’t able to”. The little girl was entirely satisfied with the explanation.

The other month, we found ourselves at a wedding in Soweto. Pictures of the bridal couple were being taken in a local park. Gabriel was running around like a child possessed. Two teenage girls, you know the type, careful dreadlocks, belly button piercing, pants pulled down so as to reveal the pubic line (or where it was before it was shaved) said (between chews on their oh-so-kewl gum) “Hi” to me. I tried my best to look ever so kewl back and also said “Hi”.

They considered the scene. “Is that man over there his father?” they asked, meaning Leon and Gabriel, whom I was struggling to contain. “Yes,” I said. “And so am I.” They paused. Considered what I had said for a couple of chews.
“How can he have two fathers?” they wanted to know.
“Well,” said I, “all sorts of people have two fathers. Children whose parents are divorced often have two fathers and two mothers.”
“Oh Yea!” they said. “Kewl!” “And are you also that man’s father?” they further enquired, meaning Leon.
“No”, I said. “We live together and we are both Gabriel’s father”.
The conversation moved on to who the bride was and where we came from and where they came from. And I rejoiced in the fact that we live in such a strange and curious place as this, where the conversation could, quite easily, just move on.

When the social worker was interviewing me and asking what I thought I could give to a child, I said this one thing. I said, I didn’t know how they did it, but my parents gave me a wonderful gift. The gift they gave me was to feel comfortable about myself, to be at home in the world. And so, no matter what has happened to me, no matter how bad it might be, I have always managed to tap this reservoir of my own self-worth and to depend on that, no matter what the circumstance. I said to the social worker, if I can give my child only that, it will be enough.

Because I do sometimes stop and think about all that Gabriel is going to have to cope with as he grows up. It is not inconsiderable. He is black and his parents aren’t. Most likely he will be straight and his parents aren’t. He has two dads and most children don’t. If he isn’t teased at school about the one thing, he will probably be teased about one of the others. And more than likely, he will cope, one way or another.

But I sometimes wish, just wish, that the innocence I see in him now, the unvarnished, untainted, pure joy in his face when either of us walks in the room after a long day at the office, could be the way it is now forever. I know it can’t be. The world, with its harsh judgements and its lack of love and its pitylessness will intervene. And Gabriel will just have to cope. That is his lot in life. That’s what I will tell him. We all get a package in life, to do with what we can. This is his package. What will he do with it?

And I just hope that his not inconsiderable charm, the charm he showers on everyone around him, will get him by and serve him well. Because the truth is, that the world is not only filled with heartless and unforgiving and unbending people. It is also filled with good people, kind people. And in the short time we have had Gabriel, these have been the majority for us. And why should he really bother about the others?

I know this about the whole exercise of parenting Gabriel. That when I die one day, whether it be soon or far off, it doesn’t really matter. I will know this one thing: that whatever else I may have done in my life, nothing could ever be as good as being one of his fathers. I will be able to hold up this thing and say, proudly, “I am his father. This is my son”. And somehow, the world looks considerably brighter with Gabriel in it.

And now I have something to blame my sister for. She was playing with Gabriel one day and said to me, “You know”, she said, “You live in a very nice area, where Gabriel can play in the veld and have a very nice time growing up”.
“Yes I said”, nervously.
“Well don’t you think he would have a whole lot of a better time of it if he had a brother to do it with?”

I blame her entirely. Because we now have another child. Joshua ("Bin Laden", I call him, because of his inordinate ability to destroy things and cause unbridled terror wherever he goes). And how he came about was that I vowed that I would listen to conventional wisdom for once, this time, late in my life though it might be. Conventional wisdom said that if you have two children, they play together. If you have one child, you are the playmate.
And that bit has proved to be true. They play sometimes well with each other. They sometimes want to kill each other, and competition over toys from day one has been fierce. But having two does take the pressure off on the odd occasion. The difference between their personalities, is another story altogether.

7 comments:

  1. "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).

    "But the ... abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8)

    Truly shocked to read your blog -- didn't realize when we were fellow students in the Theology Department at Rhodes in the 70s how far away you were from the Truth (the real Jesus).

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  2. @ Anonymous: If you are truly shocked by this, you must be horrified by things like a round earth and devastated by modern cures for leprosy!

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  3. @ Anonymous - and you might be interested in this http://www.melwhite.org/blog/91

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  4. totally supportiveMarch 22, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    @anonymous - just what is 'the truth'? Certainly the 'truth' expounded above lacks the basic human laws of compassion, acceptance and love. I hear only judgement in your 'truth'.

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  5. I have come late to this conversation - and am left puzzled as to why @anonymous chooses to be .. well, anonymous? Doesn't it say somewhere in the bible (I'm not 100% familiar with it, I confess) that you must speak the truth without fear, that you should have the courage to stand up and be counted? Or something along those lines.

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  6. I am a "Kango" Mom who cares for newborns until they are able to be placed with their "Forever Families" and your blog warms my heart..... I send love to you across the miles, and know that your boys are going to have wonderful lives because of their Daddy's. I just wish the powers that be would wake up and realise that a loving family (no matter how many Mom's or Dad's there are in the equation)is a gazillion times better than being an orphan in an orphanage, home, or whatever other sugar- coated names these places are given. You Go Guys!!!

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