Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Single Child Equation: When Parents Just Aren't Enough Fun

Wanted: One child, part-time only, flexible hours. Ages 5-7, girl preferred, though boys who like American Girl doll play will be considered. Must be available for play dates, excursions, dinner with grown-ups. Sleep-over expertise desirable. All snack, outing, and transportation expenses covered; no reciprocation required.
If there was such a thing as "Craig's List for Parents of Only Children," that would be my ad. You will notice that I am not actually seeking a second, just a loaner, a child we would happily return to her rightful family as needed. In the music world, she would be called a "ringer": someone who fills in whenever an orchestra wishes; though this performer's talents are much appreciated at show time, she is meant to pack her violin and move along afterward.
We need a ringer because, as our only child gets older, it has become clear to her that two 40-something men are not as consistently fun as kids her own age. This wasn't always an issue: When she was a baby, I strapped her on and took her everywhere for stimulation --sing-a-longs, parks, the local mom's group. When she was a preschooler, we spent most of our time with dear friends whose kids she'd known since babyhood. But when they moved away, it became painfully obvious how much their children had acted as proxy siblings for our gal.
It's not like she can't get one dad or the other to sit on the floor and enact elaborate serial dramas involving Barbie talent shows. But there comes a point when pretend-play fatigue sets in. And we adults reach that point long before she does. The truth is that I have about an hour limit on voicing the emotional dilemmas of dolls of any kind (not to mention their assorted dogs, cats, and horses). My husband is not much better, which leads us to a math problem: The Single Child Equation...
Read the rest HERE at Huffington Post.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Two from my new gig at Huffington Post

How to Guarantee Your Children Won't be Teased. (Hint: Don't have any)

Of all the reasons I've heard from people who oppose same-sex parenting, perhaps the most oft-repeated concern is that having gay or lesbian caregivers sets up a lifetime of trauma for the child who will endure teasing about the comparative oddity of her family. As one person recently asked, "Did you ever think about the needs of the child?"

This is an interesting logic and, I suppose, at least premised on a fair understanding of the nature of children: kids can indeed be cruel little beasts and any perceived difference or weakness is ripe for mockery. Where the claim falls short is the implied message that the only people who deserve to parent are those who can guarantee that their children will not be mocked.

I hate to break it to you, but those people don't exist.

Read the rest HERE.

Do Ask, I'll Tell: Gay Dads at Back-to-School Time

The Hello Kitty backpack is ready, as are the Justin Bieber notebook and the shiny purple pencil box freshly larded with Ticonderoga #2s. All that's left now is to pack the first lunch and saddle up for the first day of school drop-off, knowing that our simple presence will provide an education of its own. As the only two-dad family in an elementary school with almost 500 kids, we become the default face of same-sex parenting for some of the children and their caregivers. And that's OK -- when we filled out paperwork to adopt six years ago, we literally signed up for this.

Last year, soon after Kindergarten started, my husband and I eagerly attended Parent Night together. Anyone at this event had no trouble figuring out the relationship between the dude in the leather jacket and the guy in the foofy scarf. But once the semester was well underway, it was rare for anyone to see both dads at once. My husband did all the drop-offs and most pick-ups, while I was the one volunteering in the classroom and organizing after school play dates for my daughter. Some of her classmates' parents only ever saw her with him, while others only saw her with me. Not surprisingly, both of us dads got asked about our wives and we both cheerfully referenced our husbands in reply. That linguistic substitution was usually all it took for our fellow Kindergarten parents to adopt our language.

Occasionally, this prompted an outpouring of curiosity. When one mom commented that she hadn't seen me on the playground the day before, I said that my husband usually did pick-up. As if primed, she pounced on the distinction. "How did YOU get to be the wife?"

Read my answer and the rest of the article HERE.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Family Vacations Are Hell! (Let's have another.)

The pictures from our summer vacation tell a lovely story: The water is sparkling and the skies are clear. My husband strides through the surf in a sort of Daniel Craig-as-James Bond pose. My daughter digs a moat in the sand to protect her castle from the tide. And though I’m usually behind the camera, even I made into a few photos, looking tan and happy in each.

But the photos lie. The best thing about these snapshots is that no one can hear all the screaming.

Family travel can be exhausting, even maddening. But you’d never know that from the online slideshows and Facebook photo albums we all post. In the digital age, it’s easy to cull a few excellent shots from a thousand, weeding out the 990 images that show the rest of the story.  That sparkling water was 60 degrees; my daughter set foot in it on the first afternoon only and never again; and my husband bickered with her so much that the only smiling photos of me were both taken in the last 18 hours of the trip, when I knew it would soon be over.

When we returned from the coast and friends asked about the trip, I was honest, which led them in turn to tell their own Bad Family Vacation stories. The basic outlines were always the same: parents and children clashing over itinerary and schedule, as the children refused to simply play along with adult expectations of how vacations should be.  Travel made longer by whining, meltdowns ruining a long-planned outing, wired children keeping grumpy parents awake all night—whatever the last straw was, there always came a moment when the grown-ups threatened to end the vacation early or, failing that, to never again take another trip all together.

Yet all these travel horror stories had one more thing in common: the parents were already planning the next trip anyway. What makes us such gluttons for punishment?

It’s a little like childbirth: just as the memory of body-ripping pain is eventually dulled enough by time to make (some) women feel like doing it again, the tear-your-hair-out insanity of a trip gone awry fades the further you get from it. In both cases, this softening of memory is a kind of alchemy performed by the children themselves. When they kiss you goodnight, show you their new dance step, or unveil a finished Lego tower, they’re quietly rounding off all the sharp edges that come with family life.  Little oxytocin delivery systems that they are, they inspire our best impulses, and make us crave more quality time with them—which, in theory, a family vacation provides. 

The problem is that most vacations—even ones we ostensibly plan for the kids—are about grown-ups. The adults typically pick the destination, plan the itinerary, and sweat the cost, and then hold the kids accountable for enjoying themselves. I’ve heard countless stories about family fights breaking out because a parent’s version of the “ideal” vacation was not being met, even though the children had never been consulted about whether that ideal was very appealing to them.  While, on the one hand, it is perfectly understandable for a grown-up to feel entitled to make the primary decisions about the vacation, not factoring in the needs and wants of your children is a recipe for blow-ups.

This year, we didn’t plan a family vacation until the last minute. We settled on three days on the coast of Maine, but didn’t book a hotel until we knew the weather forecast. While that meant we could guarantee maximum beach time, it also made for an expensive room, which ramped up the pressure. If we didn’t get 72 hours of wave-jumping, sandcastle-building bliss, we dads wouldn’t feel like we’d gotten our money’s worth.

For our daughter, however, vacation requires only two things. The first, and most important, is access to an indoor swimming pool, where she could happily frolic till blue. The second requirement is receiving ten bucks of “mad money” to spend on a souvenir, a sudden cash flow which turns her into a precision machine of focus as she compares prices on small toys.  As soon as she’s made her purchase, it’s all over but the swimming.

The inevitable clash of ideals was immediate. During the drive north, she said, “No!” so often and about so many things that, before we even arrived, I snapped that the grown-ups were making all the decisions. That’s an enforceable position, but not a tenable one; by the next day, I knew I needed to work harder on considering everyone’s needs equally, but by this point my husband had been pushed so far over the edge by the arguments, that he dug in his heels. I spent the remaining days running interference between a man insisting on his notion for vacation and a girl insisting on hers.

Not every trip goes like this, but we’ve had enough similar experiences that I’m finally getting the message: Vacations are not a time to insist on playing “My Way or the Highway.” You can’t force someone else to enjoy any activity just because your sense of vacation propriety demands it.

Beyond that, you have to be willing to acknowledge that much of what makes a vacation so appealing to adults—a real break from the daily routine—is what makes vacations so rough on kids, especially younger ones who thrive on predictability. If you start by accepting that transitions may be bumpy and that everyone (including you) might be thrown off, then you can work harder on relaxing your grip. Your child’s needs don’t have to run the show, but the same is true for you: you shouldn’t have to be in control every minute to enjoy yourself.

The greatest skill of all is letting go of the ideal long enough to make the most of the real. What startles me the most about the simplicity of that lesson is that I already knew it; in my first book, I described the exact same learning curve for couples. So why couldn’t I remember that logic when I became a parent? Blame it on lack of sleep or the million demands crowding my Papa brain, but at least I’ve gotten the memo now. I’ll let you know if it sticks…right after our next vacation.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie: Papa and the Small Bikini

When did I become such a prude? This was the question when Diva and I opened the box of summer clothes sent by a relative -- and I saw the teenie weenie bikini. A napkin's worth of hot pink and orange fabric, its arrival sent my 6-year-old into paroxysms of delight. She squealed; I reeled.

It was just a bathing suit and not even her first two-piece, but this was the real deal -- not a tankini, not a shorts-and-top set, but a bikini with a low rise and a string tie bandeau. She immediately declared that this was a "big kid" suit, unwittingly putting her finger on the very reason her dads were not over the moon about this outfit.

As she wriggled into it, her long and lean build presented a challenge: The suit might scream "big kid" but it sure didn't say "tall girl." The top was a few inches wide at best, which meant it just barely covered her nipples. The bottom had such a narrow rise that you could see the top of her hip sockets.

According to the label, this tiny ensemble was actually a size too big for her. I had to wonder: What exactly did the smaller versions look like? Color-coordinated Band-Aids and dental floss?

The timing couldn't have been more perfect for Diva: This was was the first day hot enough to use our new blow-up pool. Not surprisingly, she wanted to wear her new bikini, and I told her she could, but I only said yes because we were staying at home.

As she splashed around in the water, the picture of exuberant near nakedness, I couldn't help but be glad that we weren't at a beach with crowds of strangers seeing, well, so much Diva.

My visceral response to the bikini prompted a little soul-searching. If I was visiting a country in Scandinavia or Europe where women swim topless, or pausing by a pond in Germany where skinny-dipping was all the rage, I wouldn't find anything particularly scandalous about nudity. And there is nothing inherently provocative about Diva's body, which is that of a child, just a long rubber band in motion. So it wasn't the flesh that bothered me -- it was the bikini itself. And what sense did that make?

Read the rest at AOL Parentdish.com

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It's Not You, It's Us

Remember dating? And that most awkward of moments, the end of an evening when it was clear not everyone had enjoyed the experience equally?

Your date would ask the question, "What are you doing next weekend?" And, instead of saying "avoiding you," you'd stay pleasantly vague. "Ooh, sorry. I think I'm busy." For that matter, you'd be busy the weekend after that, too. Suddenly, your calendar was just packed.

Marriage is supposed to put all that behind you, right? Not if you have children. For every time your kid makes a new friend, you end up doing the getting-to-know-you-waltz all over again with a new set of parents. It's a little like having a 40-inch yenta stubbornly pushing you toward an endless series of blind dates. And if you think chemistry is hard to predict between two people, just try making it work with four...

Continue reading here at Parentdish.com

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fathers' Day--the Plural form

On Sunday, my household will observe a holiday that is somehow universal and statistically rare all at once: Fathers' Day. Note the location of the apostrophe, indicating the plural possessive form, which is to say two dads but only one day.

We've been celebrating (and punctuating) this way for six years now, since Diva was a peanut small enough to rest comfortably in the space between my palm and elbow. In the years since, we've gotten quite an education about what society thinks a father is and is not. Based on my not-especially-scientific reading of all the relevant cultural indicators -- commercials, sitcoms, and the greeting card aisle at CVS -- we've become aware of the following definitions.

Father (noun, singular)

1. Parent who does all or most of the following: throws a ball; plays golf; farts copiously; watches sports; thinks he's a stud if he can make pancakes; uses tools to fix (or claim to fix) broken things; buys women jewelry at the last second before a birthday, anniversary or holiday; and says "ask your mother" without interrupting what he is doing.

2. Parent who cannot do any of the following: sew; dance without embarrassing all parties present; cook a meal not involving pancakes; choose a decent outfit from the current decade to save his life; please the woman he bought the jewelry for; or understand why he has not pleased that same woman.

By this definition, Diva might as well be fatherless...

Read the rest HERE at Parentdish.Com

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Meant to Be: A Letter to My Daughter on Her Birthday

Long ago, before there was you, when Daddy was not yet Daddy and I was not yet Papa, he and I promised each other that someday we would be parents. We had a wedding and bought a house, but then let more than a decade pass while we waited to be "ready" for a child. (We didn't realize there is no ready, only willing.)

In the early fall of our 11th year together, Daddy's beloved Nana passed away, one week after deciding it was her time to go. But first, she'd called her children and their children to her bedside, sharing her love one last time and commanding us all to live full, happy lives.

When Nana died, Daddy and I both felt something stirring inside, a clear impulse that it was time to move forward with our plans to adopt a baby, adding a new life to the now smaller family. Many of the people who would become your relatives, godmothers and aunties were thrilled when we announced this decision.

But my own mother didn't think God approved of two men raising a child, an opinion also shared by the governor of our home state and some of the most prominent men in the land. The doubters didn't stop us: Our course was set...

Read the rest here at AOL's ParentDish.com, in The Family Gaytriarch's, the nation's first mainstream media same-sex parenting column.

A Piece of Unsolicited Advice: Don't Offer Any

My friend Gwen was taking a stroll, her sleeping 1-year-old daughter Lola pressed to her chest in a baby sling. It was a lovely day, the nicest so far in a too-late spring, and Gwen was thrilled to be out of the house. A Friendly Stranger rolled up alongside her on his bicycle, cooing over Lola before asking, "How old is she?"

When Gwen answered, Friendly Stranger asked if he could "say something." He was already "saying something," so the phrase was just a euphemism for his real intention. Like a preacher at a revival, he lectured Gwen.

"Your problem is that your daughter is facing the wrong way. She has to face out at this age."

Until that moment, Gwen had been unaware that she had any "problem" or that this wasn't a casual chat. But she played it cool.

"Lola likes to sleep this way."

The cyclist's voice rose. "But she's too OLD! You CAN'T let her do that any more!"

Gwen's a writer and a lawyer -- she could have verbally sliced up the Less-Friendly Stranger, but instead she tried to de-escalate the situation.

"I'm aware there are a lot of opinions on this, but I'm comfortable that she'll be fine."

"You're going to DEFORM her! Her neck will be TWISTED!"

Gwen's jaw tightened. "OK. You've shared your opinion. Move along."

The decidedly Un-Friendly Stranger did roll off, but not before shouting: "This is ABUSE! They should TAKE THAT CHILD AWAY FROM YOU." And thus ended Gwen's lovely morning.

Is there anything your average parent wants less than unsolicited advice?
And, yet, we all get it...

You can read the rest here at AOL's ParentDish.com in The Family Gaytriarchs, the nation's first mainstream media same-sex parenting column.

The Men in the Mirror: Modern Family & Me

Question: Where can I find the following family?

Two gay dads -- one slender and uncomfortable offering public displays of affection, the other hefty and prone to flamboyant gestures. Add one adopted daughter of another race, the youngest member of an extended family whose senior patriarch is remarried to a younger woman, which makes him now the parent of a child close in age to his grandchildren. Need a hint? Their wacky adventures are broadcast on Wednesdays.

Answer: I just have to look in the mirror.

You can read the rest here at AOL's ParentDish.com in The Family Gaytriarchs, the nation's first mainstream media same-sex parenting column.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Where babies--and tongue-tied papas--come from

"How do babies get out of a mommy's tummy?"

Like so many incredibly loaded topics, this question arrived over dinner. Diva was then 4, a preschooler whose primary understanding of adult female anatomy came from Barbie. We'd been joined for supper by Diva's Auntie Mikey, to whom she addressed the question, but since we hadn't been talking about either uteruses or Angelina Jolie, Mikey's jaw fell open in surprise.

Our general philosophy is to tell the truth in the simplest terms. We'd long ago settled on the idea that, when the time came, we'd neither stigmatize nor aggrandize the subject of sex. We just didn't expect to that moment to arrive while our daughter was still watching "Sesame Street"...

Read the rest at AOL ParentDish, in The Family Gaytriarchs blog, the nation's first mainstream media same-sex parenting column.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Roy & Silo & Me: The Shocking Truth About America's Most Banned Book

My life doesn’t seem very radical most days: I teach my students how to write, come home for family dinner around the table, put my daughter to bed, and then start picking up the abandoned Barbies, empty water glasses, and half-read magazines that comprise the domestic detritus of my house. But the American Library Association’s newly released list of “Most Frequently Challenged Books” confirms that I am a rebel--I’m the proud owner of the single most banned book in America last year: And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about penguins.
Of course, Roy and Silo, the true-life leads of this troublesome tome, are not just any penguins. Like me, they’re gay, and that makes them dangerous. Their very existence threatens the sanctity of the arctic pool—other penguins, good penguins, might find their own feathers bent, if they don’t watch out.
Also like me and my husband, Roy and Silo became parents, which makes them rare. When word spread about the new family at New York’s Central Park Zoo, crowds gathered around for a look at Roy, Silo, and Tango, the kind of novelty you just can’t see at Six Flags every weekend. As gay dads, The Hubby and I know the feeling of being an unusual species—two-dad households account for slightly less than 3 of every 1,000 families. This does make us something of an object of fascination. My family has never been on exhibit formally, but we have, more than once, been stopped so that well-intended strangers could gush about how much they support us, or at least have no problem with us, or once had a gay cousin. (Maybe we know him?)
Family-structure uniqueness landed Roy and Silo a book deal—and, actually, it landed me one, too. But no one protested my book, Homo Domesticus, because it was a grown-up book, the sort of thing you’d actually have to purchase yourself, and the word “Homo” was a dead giveaway to its contents. You couldn’t accidentally read a few chapters and only then discover that the missing bride was never ever going to show up.
But And Tango Makes Three is a children’s book, which means it must be meant to recruit innocents, or at very least to inure them to the vagaries of penguin affections. Worse, the title doesn’t shout “gay” in any way, so that you might think you were getting a book about dancing or counting or both. The cover illustration shows three penguins but with no helpful genitalia to distinguish their genders and thus reveal the awful hidden truth.
You must actually open the book and read it to discover the deviance lurking within. And it’s pretty sick: there’s rudeness (the boys ignore female penguins), mental delusion (they think a rock is an egg), and child abandonment (another penguin has too many eggs to care for). Such dark themes for a children’s book!
But it’s the positive themes that rile critics: the boys find love, they want a stable family, and they nurture a child. What is objectionable is that this teaches children that gay people can be loving, healthy, and well. Even if families like mine live out this truth every single day, what the fevered critics of this book—and of us—really want is to only allow for representations of the gay lives that they imagine. If a childless Roy and Silo went clubbing, took ecstasy, and made bitchy comments about puffins while redecorating their expensive nookery, the book might not only fall off the banned list—it might well become a key fundraising tool for a certain stripe of politician not long on intellectual gifts.
Instead, the book tells what actually happened in that zoo, and does so in language even a child can understand. That’s the real problem: sometimes, the simple truth is uncomfortable for grown-ups who’d rather all our children stick to made-up stories about magical worlds that none of us (including them) live in.

Childrenfreude--Why I Take Pleasure in Other Parents' Pain and You Should, Too!

My daughter, Diva, and I were at a friend's house for a playdate and Rose, her buddy, was in fine form. Just before we got there, Rose's mom had given her one explicit instruction: Stay out of the hair care products in the bathroom, which Rose had been treating like playthings.

Naturally, Rose disappeared with Diva the instant we arrived, returning moments later to show that they had frozen their tresses into sticky Aquanet sculptures. This set the tone for a day which included explicit disobedience, tantrum-throwing, a bold-face lie or two and weeping when criticized for any of the above.

I have to admit my immediate reaction was this: Oh, thank God! My daughter's not the only one! Indeed, the whole thing warmed my heart with what I'll call childrenfreude: the secret pleasure of watching bad kids happen to good parents.

Read the rest here at AOL ParentDish.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Diva goes national--AOL ParentDish features my tale of our Chicken-turned-Princess

I'm thrilled to be the first gay dad ever writing a same-sex parenting column for a national mainstream media outlet. Alternating weeks with lesbian mom Valerie Rhodes, I'll be chronicling adventures with my diva at ParentDish.com, an AOL site. The first column is up and begins below. Follow the link for the whole read.

When my daughter was not quite 3, she told my husband and me that she wanted to be a chicken for an upcoming costume party.

We thought this was hilarious and I found myself snootily proud of her choice. See, my kid's no joiner. Let every other girl be Cinderella; mine is going to be a chicken. I did what any self-respecting gay dad would do next: I bought feathers -- lots of them -- and began sewing the bantam costume of her dreams. But then, the unthinkable happened: She came home the next day saying she wanted to be a princess, instead. How did this happen?!

She'd gotten the idea from day care, though it was never clear whether the mastermind had been a teacher or playmate -- toddlers can be so vague! Either way, I was outraged and disappointed that she'd been led away from her perfectly original first idea and steered down the conformist path. So, as excited as she was about her new choice, I didn't exactly run to a fabric store to make her a fabulous ball gown.

We live in the liberal Northeast and move in circles where princess culture is viewed with deep suspicion, as the embodiment of old school sexism mixed with naked consumerism. My husband and I boasted that our daughter wouldn't be the princess type -- we were raising a strong girl with independence and spunk, not a damsel in distress waiting to be saved.

So, I put off her costume request, hoping it would go the way of the chicken, soon replaced by something else. Instead, she dug in deeper -- and so did I.

My husband broke the stalemate. He pointed out that if we'd had a son who wanted to dress like a princess, we'd have said yes in a heartbeat, proud of ourselves for supporting his self-expression. Yet, we had trouble supporting a girl who wanted the very same thing. What sense did it make for gay dads to tell their daughter she couldn't be whatever she wanted?


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Coming Clean

“Who’s coming over?” My daughter asked this question innocently enough, and when I answered that we weren’t expecting anyone, her reply was telling: “Then why are you cleaning the house?”
It does not seem like a good sign that my daughter believes one never cleans if guests are not imminent. But she’s displaying a clear sense of cause and effect: if Papa’s hands are seen clasping a broom handle or dustpan, 95% of the time this means our doorbell will be ringing with a few hours.  If Daddy busts out the vacuum, too, the odds increase to 100%. And if the kitchen floor gets mopped? Well, that’s as good as writing “Grandmother coming” on the calendar.
In between visits, when we’re fairly certain no will see how we live, the various cleaning tools languish locked away in the closet. Magazines pile up haphazardly like glossy stalagmites, rice from Chinese take-out forms a floor-level halo beneath Diva’s dining room chair, and kitchen counters disappear under the detritus of family life: lunch boxes and drawings and mittens and phone chargers and Japanese erasers and 0% interest offers.
Let me assure you: we’re not actually rolling about in naked filth; no will ever walk in and find houseflies buzzing around a sink full of mold-encrusted dishes or walls smeared with dog poo. But should a Cheez-It fall out of Diva’s lunch box, or an errant grape escape the fruit bowl, it’s not impossible that the fallen item could enjoy a few days liberty before I ever get it swept up—and I’ll only notice it then because I’m preemptively seeing the floor through the eyes of whatever person is arriving later.
Growing up in my grandmother’s house, I enjoyed the pleasures of clean living despite doing little to help keep things that way. In preparation for every Sabbath, Grammy engaged in an hours-long  top-to-bottom sweeping-dusting-vacuuming ritual. During the week, she mostly concentrated on her continual fight against clutter—never letting me or my brother leave toys, clothes, or books just lying around the living room or dining room, the places company might see.  
When it came to our shared bedroom, all bets were off.  My brother and I didn’t have a lot of toys, but those we did have—a plastic octopus, for instance, or a train that made real whistle noises—ended up on the floor because we had no shelves or bureaus. We didn’t ever make our beds—they were as rumpled when we crawled into them at night as when we crawled out of them in the morning. This was only allowed because our room was upstairs, a part of the house that guests never saw. I believe my grandmother’s exact words were: “If you want to live in a sty, you go right ahead, but I’m not gonna.”
She meant for this statement to express disapproval of our slovenly behaviors, but she inadvertently sent a different message: The dirt no one can see won’t hurt anyone. I so internalized this maxim that, as a grown-up, I instinctively fill the little-used porch with random junk, pile objects on the hidden-away stairs leading up to the second level of our condo, and generally turn our bedroom into a free-for-all of clothing items I don’t feel like putting away. Indeed, the entire house becomes fair game in this logic: on any day that no one but us comes through the front door, then everything inside qualifies as unseen, and can thus be a mess.
Fortunately, all of us in my little family are social creatures—which means people are coming over a lot. The steady stream of arrivals gives me impetus for cleaning and keeps me from sinking beneath the clutter most of the time. Truly, having friends saves us from our own worst impulses. But in that rare week when no one is expected and our housekeeping slowly devolves, even I—a guy who worries as much about the illusion of being clean as actually being clean— can reach my limit. When all countertops are lost to view like sidewalks under this year’s snowdrifts and the couch looks like a doll version of the Jonestown massacre, I sometimes do the unthinkable: I clean just for us.
That’s what got Diva so confused: she caught me sweeping for no obvious reason. I explained that, despite how it sometimes seems, I do actually believe that it’s healthier to live in a clean house. I wasn’t talking about epidemiology so much as mental health. I confessed that when our house is too messy for too long, it makes me feel a little crazy.
Only after the words were out did I consider what lesson I’d just taught my daughter. Having already demonstrated that the primary reason for cleaning is to fool others, I’d now told her that housekeeping is something you save until you’re on the brink of insanity.
So you can imagine my surprise when one of her old teachers told me that Diva was the neatest kid in the room, often goading her classmates to pick up the play area. “My daughter?” I asked, eyes wide—and the teacher assured me that yes, Diva was a bit of a nudge when it came time to clean up. I was grateful, relieved, and baffled all at once. And then I considered that her school persona was the public antidote to one more lesson she’d learned in private: Home is where the mess is.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Fairy Papa

(In response to the enormous wave of discussion that accompanied Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua's exaggeratedly stereotypical explanation of why Chinese mothers believe that you can raise the best concert pianists by being cruel to them for years, I offer this humble reply.)

A lot of people wonder how Fairy Papas raise such stereotypically fabulous kids. They wonder what these gay parents do to produce so many dance show winners and Broadway legends, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I'm doing it. Here are some things my daughter Diva is always allowed to do:
• host playdates with playmates of her choice
• maintain a costume bucket the size of a Hummer
• perform self-choreographed dance shows in the living room
• make her playmates participate in dance shows in the living room
• dress her playmates up in costumes for dance shows in the living room
• complain about their deviations from her choreography
• refuse extracurricular activities so that she may stay home dressing up and dancing
I'm using the term "Fairy Papa" loosely. I know some straight, bisexual, and transgender parents of both genders who qualify too. Conversely, I know some dads who are gay in orientation who are not Fairy Papas at all. I will also use the term "Manly Dads," and I will use that loosely, too, as they come in all varieties.
All the same, even when Manly Dads think they're being playful and inventive, they usually don't come close to being Fairy Papas. For example, my Manly Dad friends who consider themselves good at pretend play can keep up with their children perhaps 30 minutes at a stretch. An hour at most. For a Fairy papa, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three—when you’ve exhausted Barbie AND Polly Pocket—that get tough.
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Fairies and Manlies when it comes to parenting. The vast majority of the Fairy Papas believe their children can be "the best" actor-singer-dancer triple threats, that creative thinking reflects successful parenting, and that if children don’t know any of the lyrics to Annie, then there is a problem and parents are not doing their job. Compared to Manly Dads, Fairy Papas spend approximately 10 times as long every day doing gorgeous paint jobs on their children’s nails. By contrast, Manly kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.
Fairy Papas and Manly Dads just don't speak the same language. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was flouncing around in one of my mother’s outfits, my father called me "trash" in his somewhat slurred drinking voice. It worked really well. I felt deeply ashamed of him. But it didn't damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how big a jerk he was. I didn't actually think I was a piece of trash, not with that fabulous red silk blouse on.
As an adult, I once used similar language with my daughter, whom I’ll call Diva, saying her outfit—not she herself, mind you—looked a little trashy when she paired a mini-skirt with a mesh top fashioned from a bag that fruit had come in, an outfit inspired by my husband’s Madonna collection. My choice of language wasn’t the issue, but when I mentioned at a dinner party that I had done this, we were immediately ostracized for having exposed a 5 year-old to Madonna in the first place. One guest named Amy got so upset at my parenting that she left early to make her children learn a complicated etude even if they had to stay at the piano all night. It was up to the host to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.
I wasn’t bothered. Fairy Papas can care less about all sort of things, such which gender their kids grow up to love (or even be). Manly Dads can only ask their kids to remember slogans like “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Fairy parents can say, "You're five--you don’t have to know if you like boys or girls yet!" By contrast, Manly Dads have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about gender and orientation, and try to persuade themselves that they will not be disappointed about how their kids turn out.
I've thought long and hard about how Fairy Papas can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Fairy and Manly parental mind-sets.
First, I've noticed that Manly Dads are extremely anxious about their family reputation. They worry about how they will feel if their kids fail at conforming, and they constantly try to reassure themselves about what good dads they are, notwithstanding a child’s mediocre performance in a ball game or while pledging a fraternity. In other words, Manly parents are concerned about how their kids make them look. Fairy parents aren't. They assume their own fabulousness is unquestionable and, as a result, they behave very differently.
For example, if a child comes home with a grade less than was expected, a Manly parent might sit his child down and express mild disapproval, but then hire the best Kaplan instructor that money can buy. In contrast, no matter what grade a Fairy child gets on a test, a Fairy Papa will ask the child how the grade feels and then (regardless of the child’s gender) chirp “Lets’ play Barbies!” Perhaps the Fairy Papa would even be tempted to get dozens, maybe hundreds of Barbie outfits for his child as reward or consolation depending on the grade.
A Fairy Papa responds to all homework with more play time because he believes that his child is a child. If his child doesn't get play time at school, the Fairy Papa assumes the school’s value system is warped. The solution to a substandard school day is always to play dolls, do dress-up, or have a dance party. The Fairy Papa believes that his child will be creative enough to take the playtime and learn a valuable lesson from it.
Second, unlike me, Manly Dads believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this belief is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of watching too many TV sitcoms and the fact that these Dads work soul-sucking jobs with terrible hours to provide for their children. The understanding is that Manly children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.
By contrast, I don't think most Fairies have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband actually has the opposite view. Once, he said, "Parents who make everything about themselves really crush a child.” And I said, “Don’t I know it!” And then we both laughed and snapped our fingers the way we Fairies do.
Third, Fairy Papas believe that self-discovery is best for their children and therefore capitalize on their children's desires and preferences. That's why Fairy daughters can get tattoos and facial piercings in high school and why Fairy kids know the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” But it's also why no Fairy son would ever dare say to his Papa, "I have to join the college Chastity Club because sex is dirty and immoral and I cannot experience it outside the sanctimony of marriage.” God help any Fairy kid who tried that one.
Don't get me wrong: It's not that Fairy parents don't care about their children. Just the opposite. They just have an entirely different parenting model. Manly Dads worry a lot about their children's success. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child is to define success by the miserably ceaseless pursuit of finite goals you set for them. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than a child learning she can make life joyful and still succeed at something her parents never even imagined.
All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. We Fairies just do it better. Snap!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Don't "quote" me on that.

“Because he’s the ‘Daddy,’” said Diva, as she held up her tiny fingers to make air quotes. The Hubby and I were thunderstruck, not by whatever point she was trying to make, but by the fact that our 5 year-old was using air quotes. We burst out laughing, partly from shock, partly from nervousness as we both wondered: What have we created?
Ask any parent and they’ll tell you: kids come out of the womb with personality. You can try to channel their innate gifts and work with their temperaments, but you cannot actually change who they are for love nor money. Parents who try to make a child in their own image are doomed to disappointment and chagrin. (Just ask my mother.) The single bit of child-rearing advice that I’ve most repeated to new parents is this: Love the one you’re with.
Diva has been a Diva since she was born. She spent the first six months of her life wearing one of only two expressions: her brow furrowed as she eyed each new thing like someone sizing up an opponent; or her eyes sparkling, as she beamed a double-dimple smile that attracted the praise of complete strangers and seemed to net her endless freebies (in restaurants, in stores, even on airplanes). There wasn’t much middle ground in her personality, which was offered a hint about who she’d become once she skipped by crawling and started walking at 10 months. Since then, she’s always either been fully on or fully off. “On” means ceaseless running, climbing, dancing, singing, bouncing, or—in the quieter moments—directing whoever is nearest in elaborate pretend play scenarios. “Off” means sleeping so deeply that we can pick up her slumbering body (which may well have made a loop around her bed) and move it into safer position without her even noticing. Even asleep, she’s in motion.
That is all nature, not nurture. I’m not athletic in any fashion, despite my brief career in Little League as a player so bad the town let my coach assign me a fake position (deep right field). And my summers as the world’s most overweight lifeguard are now two decades behind me. The Hubby is a cyclist, which even he admits is the way nerdy guys make themselves feel butch and cool, but he not only plays no sports, he cannot follow the rules of any. But Diva could hit a baseball and kick a soccer ball by age three, and now claims to like basketball best, which is grand since she’s a beanpole. (Clearly, she got none of my DNA.) I still remember the moment The Hubby realized how sporty she was and turned to me, horrified, moaning, “Oh my god—are we going to have to go games?” (Yes, dear. Bring a book.)
Accepting her as she is and embracing that does not mean we have no influence on our own child. Nurture does actually rear its head from time to time, as in the case of her musicality. I started singing in public at age 5—my grandmother being the church choir director—and was a self-styled singer-songwriter all through high school, a budding balladeer who sang mostly about love or the coming apocalypse. I even went to college on music scholarship—a deal which lasted three semesters until the department finally noticed I wasn’t actually a music major. The Hubby is also musical: he plays piano and sings (in lusty, key-defying fashion) all the time: in the car or while cooking or doing laundry or at the beach or [fill in the blank]. Between us, we are perpetually making up lyrics to songs about the minutiae of our lives.
I am doubtful that there is a strand of DNA with a Sondheim marker, but this is where nurture kicks in: Diva has lived all five years of her life hearing improvised songs about the mail, her meals, the weather, the poodle’s behavior, and even her dad’s gassiness. The girl grew up in rhyme and you can tell: she’ll sing us her opinions and complaints, make up elaborate songs with hooks and refrains and bridges. If Daddy starts a song about kibble in the kitchen, Diva is likely to usurp my old role, throwing in her own verses from the dining room, and woe be to the dad who does not make the next line rhyme. This, I love.
But I am less crazy to discover how well we have modeled another behavior pattern: sarcasm. A five year-old does not learn air quotes from PBS—she learns them from listening to her dads as they mock politicians or fake people we’ve encountered (and who knows what else). And sarcasm comes with more than just hand motions. This girl can already say, “Fine”—air quotes implied—with such irritated fatigue that she sounds like a true pro. Until Diva began saying the word this way, The Hubby hadn’t realized how often he uses “fine” to mean “it’s not fine but I’m sick of discussing this so I’ll just give in if it means you’ll shut up.”
What can I say? We’re not cruel people and our hearts are not at all shriveled, but, really, sarcasm is pretty much like breathing for liberal northerners with advanced degrees earned in the irony-soaked 1990s, which may well have been the Golden Age of Air Quotes. That was the time period in which you could practically major in eye-rolling, with a specialty in double entendre, and graduate summa cum snarky. Parenting (not to mention turning 40) has helped dull the cutting edge we Gen X’ers once honed so carefully, but sarcasm is still built into the way The Hubby and I tease each other or wage arguments. And now it’s part of daughter’s vocabulary.
We had to hold a family talk about this around the dinner table (where most capital-T Talks take place). In so doing, we admitted that sarcasm isn’t the nicest way to express an opinion and that sometimes it’s downright hurtful. Diva, of course, leapt on this: it’s very exciting when one’s dads acknowledge that they’ve been misbehaving. Now that we have shared language with her to describe when she is being too mocking or rude, she can do the very same thing to us when we are. I guess this is progress: we’re all going to have to watch our mouths. We’ll see who learns fastest.
Hopefully, as nature and nurture battle to shape the girl who will someday be a fully-grown Diva, the things we do right will outweigh the things we do wrong. And when she looks back on her childhood, I hope she thinks it really was fine (air quotes not included).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why Diva Can't Read

Diva stood in a line of classmates, looking at the “Word Wall” board, knowing that she was supposed to be able to decipher the assembled letters in front of her—and she panicked. There was a “t” but no “h” so she knew it wasn’t “the,” but feeling the pressure of eyes upon her, she couldn’t solve the problem any further. The word might have been “went” or “to”—she couldn’t remember which it was when she told me the story at bedtime. “I got so scared,” she said, her face hidden by a pillow. “I almost cried.”

She’s 5.

That a girl so young feels embarrassed that she can’t read well enough is a reflection both of our time and of our location. We live in one of those towns people move to for the “good schools.” By “good,” many people mean that students test well. In fact, just a few years ago, the elementary school Diva attends had the highest average standardized test scores in Massachusetts. For some parents, those results are reason enough to desire this particular district in our town above all the others (and it’s not like the other schools are chopped liver).  But we didn’t buy in our neighborhood with an eye toward testing; we snapped up our condo mostly because it was the first place we could afford. Only after we moved in did we learn how “good” our school district is.

Our school earns its high marks by being fairly rigorous from the word go. Just four months in, Kindergartners are expected to be able to read and write an array of words, and by the end of the year they will be writing narratives. They’ve had written homework since week one, a practice meant to establish a pattern that will ready them for first grade, which will involve daily homework, a much faster pace of new language acquisition, and nightly reading. In theory, standards like these will help keep the children of our town statistically on par with, say, the children of Shanghai, while yielding a smarter, stronger workforce for our nation’s future. But in practice, it means that a single kind of learning—outcome-based academics— determines all things, while other modes (social development, citizenship, creativity) can be valued only insomuch as they do not impede progress in more numerically-measurable areas.

This emphasis is a problem if you are a five year-old with terrible memory. For several years, Diva grouped all her friends in categories named for the first member of each whose name she learned: all blonde white girls were Tess, all Asian girls were Emmeline,  and both her young cousins were Alice. She routinely refers to her favorite toy as “My American Girl Doll,” a moniker which is three words longer than its actual name, which she can’t remember no matter how much we use it. Her own birth date escapes her most of the time and she cannot tell a story about something that happened yesterday without first being reminded of the context. Not surprisingly, we were nervous in advance of this school year about how it would go.

Don’t get me wrong—we weren’t nervous because we think that she can’t learn or won’t read. She’s a smart, creative kid, and she’ll get there when she gets there, even if not on the school’s timeline. We were nervous only because we didn’t want her to feel badly about learning at her own pace and thus end up associating school with failure—yet there are hints that this is already happening.  In the first week of school, her class was told that none of them could ask parents for help with spelling words and that the teacher would know if they did. The idea behind this approach is that it should force the students to be more independent and to do their own problem-solving. Yet when Diva couldn’t sound out a word she needed for her initial homework assignment, she burst into tears and hid under the table.  From the beginning, then, the very theory meant to empower her to “do it for herself” instead taught her what she can’t do.

Her teachers, I must be clear, are not villains. They are neither whip-cracking fiends nor developmental alarmists.  They simply know what waits for Diva in first grade (and second and third…) in our school system, and, beyond that, the greater expectations of the age we live in. In this particular cultural moment, many teachers like hers no longer have the old-school luxury of  adapting instruction to allow for the needs of different learning styles; they must ever teach with an eye toward the quite-inflexible tests which will eventually come.  With so much federal money dependent on those tests, high scores drive the engine of public education, no matter how teachers or families may feel about it.

As Diva’s dads, we’re doing our part at home to soften the fear created by the pace of learning our daughter faces. We’ve made a memory game out of the “World Wall” words, and we let her figure out the words her own way when we play. But, even more, we’re trying to remind her that every child is different, that reading doesn’t have to be her thing right now. Sure, some of her classmates are good sight readers and some are great at math, while others are better at drawing pictures or scoring goals in P.E. We love her for who she is and want her to feel good about her own skills and talents.

But she’s no dummy: she already understands that no one but us values her song-writing ability, or the speed with which she is mastering skiing, or her fabulous pretend play scenarios.  No one will ask her to stand in front of her peers and answer a question about doll-houses or fuse beads. In her five year-old way, she’s already learning a tough lesson: her school wants one thing from her, and it’s something she doesn’t yet have to give.