Friday, July 17, 2009

Doing the best I can - Gay parenting - the trials - the joys.

I have just spent the last two hours trying to work out why my ADSL isn’t working. I have tried this and tried that. I have switched this off and switched that off and on again. And it was only when a cousin phoned on my cell, complaining that she couldn’t get through on the landline, that I realised that our youngest son, Joshua (5) (“bin Laden” – so dubbed because of his extraordinary propensity for death, mayhem and destruction) has been up to something. Like phoning America, or planning a coup in Guatemala.

My life could have been quiet. I sometimes imagine myself getting ready for early retirement now at a cottage near the sea, reading a book, doing a course in astronomy – whatever. Instead, I am defending my ADSL line against attack, shouting because Joshua bin Laden has drawn with indelible ink on his wall and inside his cupboard, and worried about some of the often rather peculiar behaviour of our oldest child, Gabriel (7).

Let me start at the beginning. My partner of 9 years, Leon, was broody from the day I met him. And when your partner says they want children - achingly, desperately, completely – you either shake their hand firmly and wish them a nice life, or you get used to the idea. I had never considered children. (Well, I suppose I might have, briefly, when I was married to a woman – but the thought soon perished, along with the marriage.) And suddenly, at the age of 45, I was faced with some extremely uncomfortable prospects: Nappies! Projectile vomit! Teething! It is, you will agree, rather strange, when most other Gay boys in Cape Town are driving around in cabriolet splendour and planning their next holiday on a little known Greek Isle with beautiful local waiters.

Well, it happened. First, 4 month old Gabriel. We learned the ropes. We stayed up at night. Leon, my partner, read all the books. (I looked longingly at the sedatives). Gabriel was, and is, a quiet child. He bonded spectacularly with Leon, and regarded me as an obstacle to his unfettered relationship with his other father. In six years, not a great deal has changed. Leon is still this child’s raison d’être. I am still the mild encumbrance. But we get along.

From the earliest days, there was something innately feminine about Gabriel, evidenced, not only in his focussed attachment to Leon, but also in the fact that he seemed more interested in things unusual for a boy. We have chosen to let him make his known decisions and to go his own way. We neither encourage, nor resist. We simply allow him to express his preferences, as far as birthday gifts are concerned, as far as things he like to do, (like dance) – as far as what he likes to wear.

When I was in Ghana a few years back, I saw a really unusual pair of furry sandals. I just knew Gabriel would like them, and I was not disappointed. They were certainly a bit strange – typically Ghanaian – but strange to the South African eye. They had strips of yellow fur – long yellow fur – for the straps. (Our equivalent would be something like doggie slippers, or sandals studded perhaps with diamante). They were difficult not to notice. However, Gabriel chose to wear them to school, and said to me the next day, that some of his friends had laughed at him (I wasn’t surprised!). I said to him, “Look – what you need to be concerned about, is what you like, and what you think looks and feels right. You must never allow other people’s opinions to dictate who you are and certainly not what you want to wear-” – or, you know, words to that effect. I could see he was listening to me. And I have to say, I have never been more proud of him than when the next day, completely unprompted by me, he wore those same gaudy sandals to school again!

Joshua, on the other hand, couldn’t care a damn what anyone thinks anyway. As Gabriel is reticent, so he is forward; as Gabriel is shy, so he is bold. As Gabriel is artistic, loves dance and seems perfectly comfortable on the stage, Joshua will one day, probably be a good prop in Rugby. They could not be more different. And what one hears is that this is often what happens, even with biological siblings.

Joshua, from the word go, was a free spirit. As the tiniest baby, if you teased him, he would not hesitate to give you a sharp crack on the chops. He knows what he wants, and most of the time, he gets it. He is also an extraordinarily happy child. He loves danger, he thrives on thrills. One day, I am sure, he will indulge in the most extreme of sports. (As I write, he has decided to take advantage of a beautiful mild pre-spring day, by leaping into a freezing cold swimming pool!). He loves everyone, indiscriminately and seems to have very little shyness. I am quite sure he gets his own way on the playground.

We noticed, after moving to Cape Town, from Johannesburg, that it took exactly three weeks for Gabriel to adopt the most broad of the local accents. So he will say things like “Naaaa-ooooh!” for “No” and “Chuldrrin”. Joshua, on the other hand, didn’t adapt at all. He just carried on with exactly the same accent he had before. Somehow, from somewhere, he doesn’t need anyone’s affirmation, or acceptance.

Nevertheless, despite his cheery disposition, he has one or two behavioural habits which concern us. At the moment, we are trying to make sure that one day, when he is fifteen, that he will have no fear to tell us whatever his problem is, no matter how serious. We both expect something, sometime and all we want is that he will not fear to take us into his confidence and ask for help if and when he needs it.

In the beginning, when Gay adoption was still a new thing, there would be the questions, the occasional stares, the occasional insensitive questions to the children, like “Where is your mommy?” But, by and large, these don’t happen anymore – (though I must say, Cape Town is really another, rather underexposed planet which seems to revolve entirely on its own axis!). A long time ago, we were sitting at the dinner table, and Joshua suddenly started talking about his mommy. His mommy this and his mommy that… We all looked at him slightly puzzeled. It was Gabriel who shut him up by yelling “YOU DON’T HAVE A MOMMY - YOU HAVE TWO DADDIES!” - and, really, that was the end of that!

Children at Gabriel’s school asked Leon why he was pink and Gabriel brown. They seemed to be satisfied with the explanation that he’s adopted. And what does “adopted” mean? It means that his mommy couldn’t look after him and so she asked us to look after him for her. So that makes him really special, because we really wanted to have him live with us and be our little boy.

So now, we can point to a whole network to which they belong, which was much more dispersed in Johannesburg, from where we moved. Here they have loving grandparents, an uncle, an aunt and cousins their age. They belong to a family that loves then and will always care for them. And we make the effort to see them all regularly, so that the kids can all get to know one another as family. And I am pleased to say that it seems to be working very well.

The social worker told us, when we were limbering up for our first adoption, to expect that the child would have “abandonment issues”. She was most emphatic. “All adopted kinds have abandonment issues,” she said. “Yours will be no different”. And I think she was right, though it’s hard to say exactly how the thing manifests. It is perhaps in Gabriel’s extraordinary need for Leon; in Joshua’s surprising fear of the dark and his nightly 2 am trek from his bed to ours, his hating it when you are lost in the car, his hatred of a closed door. These are things which are not, in themselves exceptional, but when placed alongside other things, then seem to us to add up to “abandonment issues”.

Now, the thing is, should we be getting worried? Should be getting therapy? Should we wonder if we are not doing enough? Nah. I don’t think so. My philosophy about childrearing has been, and still is, fairly straightforward. What we are giving them, is the best we can. This is their package in life. They are black, we are white. Most parents are heterosexual, we are not. Most kids have a mommy and a daddie, they have two dads. That’s the package they have been given and they need to learn the tools to deal with whatever life throws at them. And that, nothing else, is the very best thing we can do for them. Their lives are what they are going to make for themselves. Our role is to enable them to make good choices – I don’t even say the best choices, just good ones.

On the question of being a parent, I have come to a fairly simple conclusion. I have decided that the world isn’t what it seems at first glance. It isn’t divided between rich and poor, black and white, north and south, gay and straight. My great discovery is that it is divided only once – between those who have children and those who don’t. Those who don’t may well be very nice people, but there is something so essential, so critical to their existence, that not to know it, is a kind of non-being.

Because this is the truth. If you let them, children give you back - pressed down and running over - a contentment that nothing else can. Even when I am screaming at Joshua for doing something so completely and utterly dangerous and crazy, I know that I love this child completely. And when Gabriel, on the rare occasions that Leon isn’t around, will come and cuddle next to me, sucking his thumb and starting to fall asleep, I know that this is more than mere words can dare to express. It is a bond forged deep in the human psyche. It lies buried in some unfathomed region of the brain and it bursts to glorious life, when a child enters your world and takes it over.

When I see primped gay boys sitting at coffee shops around Cape Town, looking delicious and lovely, I sometimes ask myself what is different between them and us? I was never the natty dresser. I was never the theatre diva or the intellectual guru. I have, mostly, just trundled on with my life, and been Gay as well.

With children, that all changes in a flash. Because a baby doesn’t care whether you are Gay or not. Babies want nappies changed and food put in their mouths and sleep. Their needs get a bit more complicated as they grow up, but there is seldom any debate on who does for whom.

So, Gay or Straight, Lesbian, Transgendered, Bi, it really doesn’t matter at all to the child. All they need is love and care. And for that, they pass no judgement on you, just so long as it is there.
Surely, these things will get more forgrounded as they get older – but we have decided not to bother about that, until it happens. And in the mean-time, to spend quite a bit of time and energy on helping Gabriel and Joshua on how to cope with under-exposed people around them in a way which hurts them as little as possible

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