(I) Love You

A fellow gay adoptive dad (who, being much smarter than me, waited until he was partnered before having kids) requested that I write a post on this topic: Saying “I love you” to the boys–how often did/do I say it, and what have their reactions been over the years.

My hunch is that he is expecting something like this: I used to say it a lot when they were younger, but over the years they have resisted/been embarrassed by it, so I stopped. That would be a fairly normal storyline, which of course means it’s not the one our family followed at all. The truth is much more embarrassing.

First, some background: Growing up, my family wasn’t very big on “I love you.” Among the seven of us—mom, dad, four sisters, me—I’m pretty sure I heard those words roughly, oh let’s just say for a ballpark, probably about: zero times. There was clearly some kind of (often awkward, clunky) love floating around, but verbalizing it wasn’t high in anyone’s skill set.

In best “I’m going to give my kids better than I got” fashion, when I put our little family together, I was a committed “I love you”-er. The minimum was once per day, at bedtime. After stories, wrestling, bedtime hits, whatever other rollicking activity we did, at the tuck-in point, I let each boy know: “I love you.”

As I say, that was the minimum. On days where I was more grounded and present, or just in a better mood, I might remember to toss out an unexpected “I love you” for no reason at all—except, of course, that I do.

The boys, being affection sponges (I’m pretty sure that’s the technical term), soaked it all up. During those first few years, I never once got a blush, or a deflection, or a “Dad, you’re embarrassing me.”

So the daily (plus) habit continued, until it didn’t. And when that shift took place, the culprit was … me.

I can’t believe I just wrote that.

I’ve described elsewhere my “what was I thinking?” relationship with my ex. Here is another reason to bang my head against the wall a few more times: At some point, I intuited—or maybe he told me directly—that my ex was jealous of the open affection I showed my kids. In his defense, I rarely showed him such affection (for reasons which, if you knew the two of us …).

Being an enlightened sort who has maybe the teeniest, tiniest tendency toward taking on other people’s stuff and being an emotional accommodater, I came up with what was clearly a brilliant solution: To stop being so openly affectionate toward my kids.

One of the casualties was our bedtime sign-off—or, at least, the “I” part. Somewhere during the ex years, our cuddly “I love you”s morphed into breezy “Love you”s, all thanks to dad’s dysfunctional inner workings.

The kids, true to form, neither balked at the change nor, for as long as it lasted, expressed any embarrassment at this abbreviated version.

Over the years, tuck-ins gave way to more casual check-ins, which eventually gave way to the kids just … going to bed with no parental involvement. That was probably when “(I) love you” went into hibernation.

Surprisingly—or not, depending on how you slice it—“Love you” made its comeback courtesy of Daveon.  At some point just before or after he went off to college, Daveon began signing off our phone conversations—even the hard ones—with a cheery “Love you.” (To be fair, knowing Daveon, he might sign off all his communication—with his friends, his teachers, the cashier at the grocery store—this way.) So in this minor way, “Love you” has re-entered our world. And as with many things having to do with big hearts and open expression, I have my kids to thank.

(P.S. For what it’s worth, I think Mark would be embarrassed if I started signing off our calls with “Love you.” But when he leaves for school, I’m going to do it anyway. Which leads to this thought for anyone struggling with the more traditional “I want to (or do) say ‘I love you,’ but my kids balk” scenario: It’s a judgment call, but my own bias (and practice) is to allow the kids to lead in most things, especially as they get older (“This makes you uncomfortable, I’ll stop/modify it.”). But I also think it’s important to hold firm to the handful of things that matter most to you. As I jokingly—but truthfully—say about Mark, expressing “I love you” is that important to me when he’s far away, I’m gonna do it. If it makes him uncomfortable … well, sometimes (I) love (you) hurts, right?)

Next: Driving

Pets

Let’s cut to the chase: I am not a pet person. I would happily have no pets, never. Forever.

On the other hand, if my kids had their way, our house would look like Dr. Doolittle’s waiting room. They actually like animals and would like nothing better than to have a bunch crawling underfoot.

Being ever-mindful dad, I’ve tried to find ways to compromise over the years. First attempt? Fish. Fish seemed easy, they live in a small glass box, and I would never have to take them to the vet. This was, in a word, dumb. First off, fish take a ridiculous amount of work for inch-sized creatures whose life consists of swim in circles, dive for something to eat, lather, rinse, repeat. Second, although they “like” the fish, my kids were never really interested in them—which means that these particular pets have, from day one, been solely my job. Nothing I love better on a Saturday than cleaning out smelly tank water.

So from fish we started negotiating warm fuzzies, with the caveat: Nothing that could run underfoot. I already had two kids, I wasn’t trying to trip over anything else. That led to—what became the first in a series of—hamsters. These were Daveon’s pets, and true to form, Mr. Man took excellent care of them. Not just the requisite feeding and cage-cleaning, but talking to, holding, playing with them. Unfortunately, hamsters only live about a year and a half, and after a while I think Daveon got tired of the little funeral ceremonies we would hold in the planter box on the side of the house. Later he talked about wanting an iguana.

My biggest pet mistake was the rabbits. For a long time Mark begged and pleaded for a rabbit. Clearly my inner voice was working strong here, because I held back. But he persisted, and persisted, and … after about six months, I relented.

When we got our first rabbit, Blackberry, from the shelter, he came with a phonebook-thick set of instructions. The “dos” and “don’ts” included an endless list of what he could and couldn’t eat:

  • Iceberg lettuce, out—too much water, makes them gassy. Romaine, OK.
  • Pellets? OK in small amounts for one meal only. The rest, greens. Organic greens. Pesticide residue is bad for bunnies.
  • Carrots are the perfect rabbit food, right? Wrong. Too much sugar. One baby carrot per day, tops.

Once I was at the store buying organic dandelion greens, basil, mint, and cilantro. The woman next to me said, “Wow, you eat really healthy.” I told her, “It’s for our rabbits.”

Update: This truly just happened this morning, same grocery store. Bagger: “You buy a lot of herbs, huh?” Me: “For the rabbits.”

That’s just food. You’re also, according to the instructional phone book, supposed to let your rabbits run free in your house. Let me repeat: Rabbits, which are basically big mice with cuter ears and tails, running free in your house. Except: They love to chew on cords, so you need to unplug everything, keep the cords high, and cap your outlets for good measure.

Did I mention I work from home, writing for tech companies? Do you know how many cords are in our house?

Then there was: You can’t let your rabbits outside, because it’s too cold and they might get picked up by a hawk. The shelter wasn’t even wild when I told them I was building a pen in the garage, because even that would be too cold.

In our garage. In Oakland.

When I was a kid, I had a rabbit who lived for 12 years, outdoors, in the Northeast. Sniffy ate nothing but pellets, and survived real winters. My mother would have no sooner let him in the house than the Grim Reaper. Sniffy was kind of grumpy—maybe he missed getting organic Italian parsley—but otherwise he seemed fine.

Not to mention: When we first got Blackberry, he lived in a pen in Mark’s room, under the loft bed. That worked for a while, except Mark was scared of the rabbit. So it made perfect sense that he started  pleading for a second one. When I finally agreed and we went for number two, I built a large, two-story pen in the garage—the one the shelter said was cruel and unusual punishment.

This led us to: Bunny dating. I am not kidding. You bring rabbit 1 to the shelter, and put it in a small enclosure with a series of rabbits, one at a time, and see how each pair does. Sometimes they go straight for the jugular—not good. Sometimes one chases the other’s butt—not good. Sometimes they ignore each other—not great, but better than the other options. If they sniff and start grooming each other, that’s the best-case scenario. We tried about 10 potential roommates with Blackberry,  never getting any farther than ignore. So that was the one. And into our life came Hugs.

At which point Mark immediately decided he didn’t want to take care of the rabbits, and could we bring them back.

Luckily Dr. Daveon Doolittle stepped in, agreeing to take over half the chores. And there they remained till Hugs passed on to rabbit heaven, two love bunnies in their split-level garage condo. And my electric cords survived to live another day.

Next: (I) Love You

Hair

During my Adopt A Special Kid fost-adopt training, the instructors warned the group of the many things we might or would have to deal with in the years ahead with our kids: attachment issues, identity and esteem challenges, inward and outward expressions of anger and rebellion. But there is one key issue they forgot to mention.

Hair.

This may be specific to transracial families, and maybe more specific to non-Black parents who adopt Black kids. But … brother. Have we ever had some battles around hair.

When the kids were little, I kept the hair situation simple—or at least, attempted to do so. Every couple of weeks, I got out the clippers, and gave them a full buzz—just like dad’s. They looked good with no hair, being naturally cute enough to pull off just about anything head-wise.

Where Daveon was concerned, this went easily enough. His hair grows in these wonderfully even, regular rows, so running the clippers through them was as easy as running a knife through softened butter. No muss, no fuss.

And then there’s Mark. You know those descriptions of dark forests in Grimm fairytales, where thick undergrowth grows all tangled and matted, making it almost impossible to scrape through to get to the floor? That’s Mark’s hair. Wiry, stiff, and knotted in about a million directions at once. Trying to clip his hair was like trying to drive a tractor through a field of barbed wire. You get stuck a lot.

And now, a pop quiz: Guess which one of my kids is “tender-headed”? Could it be Mr. “Smooth as Silk” hair, so that the irritation would be minimal? Of course not. If anyone was ever going to call Child Protective Services on me during those early years, it would be when I was trying to clip Mark’s hair. The kid started screaming bloody murder before I actually touched his head with the blade, and wouldn’t stop until I finally brushed him off. This process took an extremely long time, as I had to keep stopping to let him regroup and catch his breath.

Six-year-olds aren’t big on the concept that if something is unpleasant, the smartest thing is to get it over with as quickly as possible.

He gets bonus points for the time I was cutting his hair out front, and he was actually pretty calm about it—over the years, I had learned how to lighten my hand pretty well. And then Aunt Leigh pulled up and got out of her car, and out came the bloody murder screams all over again. Who says the kid can’t act?

After those first couple of years, I gave up, moved on to paid haircuts, and let the boys wear their hair however they liked. This led to the “unkempt Afro” phase. They looked great coming out of the barber’s, but since they never met a comb they felt obligated to use, they quickly moved into “I have no grooming habits” territory by about day three.

They also subjected their hair to a variety of experiments. They both tried braids: Daveon’s wouldn’t stay in because—surprise—he didn’t take the proper care of them, while Mark “Mr. Tender-head” couldn’t even get through the process. At that point Aunt Steph—who had valiantly offered to do the honors on him, as she does for her girls—and I realized that we could make a fortune if we could invent a “scalp numb” product for just such occasions.

As the boys have gotten older, the hair issues have settled down. Daveon usually sticks with a mini-fro that he’s pretty good at keeping in shape, though a recent attempt at blonde from a spray bottle left said ’fro a pretty interesting shade of orange. Mark has been more experimental, variously trying out a flat-top and a Gumby, both of which I must say he pulled off pretty well.

Me, I just stick to the clippers. It’s free, and gets rid of the gray. And I don’t scream.

Next: Pets

Dating: Kid Division

As much as I love all things Harry Potter—and believe me, you won’t get far in our house without a sufficient love for all things Harry Potter—I do have one bone to pick with J. K. Rowling.

Which, I am sure, sitting in her mansion making paper airplanes out of 100-pound notes, she is very concerned about.

The odds that you will meet the love of your life at 14, commit to them by 17, and be in a happy long-term marriage with them by the Epilogue (that’s another bone: The Epilogue? Bad.) are … um … slim? But thanks to J.K.—and Hollywood, and the Disney Channel, and Glee, and Degrassi, and a million other inputs I’ve worked really hard to block out—my kids have been utterly and absolutely convinced that one must have found “the one” for a long-term, committed relationship by the age of 15, 16 tops.

This has led to nonsense at best, tragedy at worst. One year, when they are probably 13 and 15, both kids met someone at summer camp. The total time they spent talking to these someones—combined—was probably about an hour. This meant they were “dating.” They continued “dating” even though said someones lived at least an hour away, and I think each boy saw his someone exactly once. I’m pretty sure they spent those outings discussing china patterns.

Mark recently reflected that so far he has only had one relationship. It took me until the next day to realize he meant the someone he had gone to dinner and bowling with. Once.

For his part, Daveon decided he needed a relationship by about age 12, and he spent the next two years in relentless pursuit. And by relentless, I mean coming on so strong and getting so overattached so quickly that he pretty much scared off, freaked out, grossed out, or otherwise alienated just about everyone. Including a few who, with a slightly subtler approach—like, maybe two conversations before you tell this person they are “the one”?—might have actually been candidates. (This rejection in turn led to some of the self-harming behaviors I describe elsewhere.)

I was in my finest “old man” mode when I reminded them that one could date from 16 to 106 (look at me—I’m still working at it), so there’s no rush. They in turn hit all the high teen notes:

  • “It’ll be awful if I don’t have a relationship by the end of freshman year.”
  • “It’ll be awful if I don’t have a relationship by the time I graduate.”

And everything in between.

Ironically, as they have gotten older, they’ve eased up on the pedal somewhat—the opposite of what you might expect. Daveon has figured out that he has many more opportunities to explore in college*, while Mark has resigned himself to being too busy with skating to worry about much else.

(*This did not stop him from calling me on Wednesday to tell me that as of Tuesday, the girl he had met on Monday was his new girlfriend. Some things never change.)

As the dad who sees pretty much everything my kids do in terms of how it might impact me, I of course am more than happy for them to take their time pursuing serious involvements. If they can find some happy middle ground between Harry and Ginny at one extreme (committed before they’ve left the acne-prone years) and me at the other (still in the hunt approaching 50) we’ll call it even.

Next: Hair