Fathers and sons: a man’s strength echoed in the youthful form of his male offspring, a family lineage carried forward into a new generation. It’s an image and an ideal that’s held up and revered, and for many gay men, it’s never going to happen.
I always thought I was going to be someone’s father. With typical male narcissism, I assumed I’d have a son or two. And a daughter or two as well--why not? But sons are culturally prized, and we are the products of our culture--at least, until we exert some thought and some will, and pry ourselves out of the deeply carved cultural ruts we’re expected to follow mindlessly and automatically.
The thing is, I probably would have followed those cultural ruts if I’d been straight. Before I realized that I was gay, I had no other expectation that to do what I saw done; work, marry, reproduce... drink, holler, bully... Somewhere in there I knew I wanted to get educated, and I wanted to write for a living. Whether these elements were disparate or contradictory didn’t even enter my thought process. I could almost envision myself at age 30 or 35, a working class guy doing some sort of working blue collar job that involved writing. I’d come home to my three or six kids; they’d climb all over me, and I’d crack open a beer and watch TV while their mother made dinner.
That image had to stretch, change, and reinvent itself as I realized that there were reasons why I wouldn’t live that life, and wouldn’t want to. I never developed (or cultivated) a taste for beer; and after seeing what it eventually did to my family of origin, I decided that literal distaste was just as well.
Then I realized that I wasn’t going to have a wife. Still, I somehow thought that children would be part of the picture--until year followed decade, and I was in my mid-20s, then my mid-30s, and now here I am in my mid-40s, with no children to call my own.
I know that I am extraordinarily lucky to have lived the life I’ve had, and I’m grateful. But there’s a lack and a longing that I can only call primal; I don’t think the resounding pierce of that ache makes me ungrateful. I think it simply means that I, like anyone else, have a biological imperative to reproduce. In other words, I still want to be someone’s father.
My muse, my icon of female beauty, my soul-sister Gisele took me aside at a dinner party a few months ago and told me that she was thinking of having a child. She wasn’t interested in re-marrying; she was feeling the burn and the urge for a child of her own, and though she’d not yet found a man with whom to share home and hearth, she had decided that she had found a man with whom to share the joys and the challenges of rearing a child.
"Me?" I asked.
I’d been asked before, a couple of times, but it had never worked out. Would this occasion be different? If it was going to happen at all, I reckoned, it had better be now.
Gisele and I took her proposition to my husband. To my surprise, he did not reject the idea out of hand--and I knew from the outset that he had every reason, and every right, to veto the notion. I mean, think about it: I wanted to be involved in this child’s life, not as a distant figure or an "uncle," but as a father. That meant late night feedings, lots and lots--and lots--of time spent tending, feeding, and watching over junior, and not inconsiderable expense. I neglect my poor husband enough as it is with my workaholic ways; what would a child, and all the accompanying demands of a child, do to our relationship? Especially since I would be rearing this child with (gasp!) another woman?
Iqued saw right away that my husband wasn’t going to go for it. "Forget it," he told me. "This would end in divorce." Moreover, Iqued was of a mind that a child’s parents ought to be married. "A child needs a mother and a father," he told me.
"He’d have a mother and a father," I responded.
"Who live together," Iqued added. "Who are married to each other. Ask yourself this: how would things work out for a man who asked his wife if she’s mind very much if he were to go and have a kid with another woman? And then, by the way, spend a lot of his time at her place helping to care for the kid?"
"Max could stay with me at our place too," I argued.
"I don’t think your husband would appreciate a crying, screaming brat around the house," said Iqued. "And what do you mean, ’Max?’ You already got a name for this hypothetical son of yours? For one thing, what if he’s a daughter?"
"He could be Maxine," I said. "And he wouldn’t be a screaming brat. He’d be my son--or my daughter--and my husband would adore him."
"Hmm," said Iqued--a skeptical sound from a man of little faith.
But he had a point. What spouse would take kindly to sharing a husband with someone else, even if the relationship wasn’t sexual and the aim was to bring a new life into the world?
But Gisele’s proposal had opened doors of possibility that resonated and exerted a powerful pull. The idea of a child with her was itself like a new life, growing and changing before my eyes, intruding on my sleep with its demands. Max showed up in my dreams, a brown-haired boy with blue eyes. He was quiet and thoughtful. He was a smart kid, the sort who would get picked on until he issued a dazzling smile and a remark that the dullest of boors and bullies would find charming. I woke up thinking about how he’d love museums and zoos and swimming, how he’d excel at his schoolwork, how he’d play piano and guitar.
Then I laughed at myself for doing what all parents do: laying plans, however unconscious, to correct my own life through the life of my child. Let him be who he would be: that was the main thing to keep in mind...
My husband was supportive of the idea in the abstract, laughing with Gisele and I over the idea of the trips to the children’s theater and the pottery studio that we would take with our hypothetical child, one of us or all of us playing the role of devoted and doting parents. But the practical aspects of the plan started to gnaw at my husband, who has a pragmatic and detail-oriented mind. He eventually brought Gisele and me, dreamers that we are, back to reality.
We were too old to have a baby. We’d be in our early 60s when the kid graduated high school--and then there’s still be college to think about it. And even if Gisele and I felt that we could stay young and vital enough to take on that challenge, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to deal with it as he approached retirement age. "I want a golden moment after all these years of working," he told me. "I want to stop worrying. A child means that you are a parent forever--and a parent worries."
The other reason he decided that we should not move forward was the state of the planet. Entire ecosystems are dying--and we do nothing except carry on poisoning, desertifying, and warming up the globe. We live an artificial standard of living that is destined to come crashing down--not because of God punishing us for our moral failings, but because we have been too greedy, and too numerous, for the ecosystem to sustain us much longer. We are a civilization heading toward a great and probably catastrophic unraveling: that was the conclusion my husband had reached, having perhaps read one too many books by Jared Diamond.
But I know he’s right. Religious leaders prime us to blame the gays for the end of our fat, easy years, when it’s consumers and the values of consumerism (consumption as opposed to production, and rapacious production as opposed to sustainability) that are driving us toward ruin. Not that the logical and inevitable consequences our consumer culture will actually be attributed to the perpetrators--namely, just about everyone, gay and straight, evangelical and atheist. The blame will be assigned to gays, feminists, and those who do not subscribe to conservative Christianity, and the blame will be assigned by religious leaders and politicians desperate for scapegoats. The mass of Americana--the mass of humankind, eventually--will buy into this version of history because it’s easier to think in terms of blanket moralism than to accumulate a detailed understanding of the many overlapping mechanisms that are even now re-enforcing one another and propelling our complex, multi-national economy down the quickening river and toward the falls.
And Max would be just the right age to be caught in the middle of it. What sort of consequences would he suffer, simply for coming from such a "non-traditional" family? Anti-gay activists argue that children are poorly served by any family model other than one-man-one-woman; science shows that this is simply not true, except as and when the anti-gay crowd themselves make a point of inflicting suffering and a loss of equal access to rights and protections on families that fall outside those strict and narrow parameters.
In the end, I met with Gisele for coffee to tell her how sorry I was that I had to decline to be the father of her child--of our child. My husband was right that there were too many factors stacked against us.
"I think you gave in to him too easily," she told me.
And in a way, she was right: no matter what the odds against our family, our beautiful son (or daughter) would have been worth a headlong rush into the teeth of the storm, laughing all the way, celebrating the life of a child and the life of a family that would do anything to protect and nourish his mind, his body, his spirit, and his future.
But what I didn’t tell Gisele was that in marriage--our marriage, at least--there are times when you know in your gut that you have to acquiesce to your spouse’s needs, just as there are times when you know beyond question... beyond reason... that you must insist on something for yourself. Sometimes you have to sacrifice something for the person with whom you make a life--and sometimes you have to demand sacrifice. My husband has given me things he didn’t want to; he’s seen needs I had that had to be met despite inconvenience, expense, or doubtful outcomes, and he’s been gracious in giving me those things, because he loves me.
How could I do any less?
The real reason I couldn’t do this for Gisele, or for myself, or even for Max, was that my husband was growing increasingly anxious about it. That anxiety had every possibility of turning into anger, resentment, and--eventually--an irreconcilable breach. Yes, I wanted to be someone’s father... but I had already promised to be someone’s husband. As much as I wanted Max, I could forsake the joys and challenges of parenthood to fulfill the demands of my marriage, and to answer my husband’s needs... needs I had vowed to fulfill to the best of my ability.
"I’m sorry to be the one who disappoints you and Gisele," he told me.
"I didn’t marry Gisele," I said. "It’s okay..."
And it is. Gisele and I will simply have to wait for another life to have our horde of kids. As for Max... well, he’ll find his way. Somewhere, a quiet but quick and charming little boy will delight parents who are not us: a mother who is not Gisele, a father who is not me. The child of our dreams will be the true living child of others.
I only wish that those anti-gay straights who make it so hard on families like mine understood that some of what they enjoy is theirs only through our sacrifice. Maybe if they comprehended that, they’d be a little less eager to destroy our families.