White

My kids are black. My neighborhood is mostly black—until recently, every homeowner on our block who isn’t me was black. My kids’ elementary school was primarily Latino and Asian. Among their California aunts, uncles, and cousins are a number of African-Americans, a mixed Cuban-Irish, a Chinese-American, and a Mexican. Their caretakers/babysitters/tutors/etc. have included an Asian-American, a Latino, and, again, a handful of black folk for good measure.

I am, for those who have not been following closely, a white guy.

Which means … well, maybe nothing, really. The reality is that for over 10 years we’ve been sleeping under the same roof, and waking up under the same roof, and being a family under the same roof. I am grateful that in the 2000s and 2010s, a single white guy having two black kids means a lot more (less?) “nothing” than it would have even a decade, and certainly a generation or century, ago.

So, as with most things regarding my kids, I feel very fortunate.

When I was in training at the adoption agency, they spent a fair amount of time on transracial adoption. They emphasized how it was important for the parent(s) to include in the child’s life people who looked like the child, traditions that reflected the culture of the child, and experiences that involved an understanding of the racial reality of the child.

In other words, don’t try to raise your nonwhite child white.

On the one hand, I had to laugh: Come to my neighborhood, folks. But on the other, I get it—or maybe it’s more accurate to say, I get that I don’t get it. As amazing as I—sometimes successfully—try to be, the experience of having me as their dad is by definition different for the boys than if they had been raised by one or more black folk. There are social, identity, and other realities that I can’t even pretend to understand, let alone engage with them about. So I try to do the next best thing: To let them know that I don’t know, to make it clear that there are ways in which their reality growing up is and will be fundamentally different from anything in my experience. And then I do the next next best thing: Encourage them to seek out, check in, and bond with other black folk, whether in our family or in their own circles.

I like to think that being a gay man gives me some measure of empathy for what “otherness” is like—but again, empathy and understanding are two different things, and the “my pain is just like yours” line doesn’t cut it. I was never stopped by the cops walking to school, nor followed in a store—just two examples of things that the boys have already experienced.

I also encourage them to let me know if anything ever comes up for them about being raised by a white (and/or single and/or gay) man. I tell them I’m a pretty tough cookie—I can handle it. So far, not a peep—my kids are nothing if not extremely loyal. But who knows what may come down the line.

Daveon once reported feeling like an Oreo, “black on the outside but white on the inside.” As someone who’s more comfortable obsessing over my failings than my successes, I immediately started to question whether there was more I could be doing to promote Daveon’s black identity. I never came up with a clear answer—and I’m not sure whether, as his white dad, I even could authentically try to accomplish this. How does a white person encourage a black person to feel more black? What would that even look like?

When I was teaching special ed years ago, a white administrator decided that we needed to celebrate Kwanzaa, given that the student population was almost entirely African-American. We held the event, lit the candles, explained the principles—and then got roasted by the kids, who complained unanimously: “What is this stuff? We celebrate Christmas.”

There’s a lesson there …

Next: Stuff They Didn’t Cover in Training: Relentless

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Gay

Carrying on the trend of saying really obvious things in this section, here goes another one: Being a dad as a gay man is … well, it’s weird.

Weird, of course, in the sense that—you might want to sit down for this—most gay men do not have kids. And, conversely, most people who have kids are not gay. Of the gay men who do have kids, only a small percentage are single. So (although this is changing, slowly but steadily) within the world of gay, I’m something of a novelty.

Which is not to say that people haven’t been wonderful—they have been, and are. I’m a novelty more in the sense of a “wow, isn’t that amazing” piano prodigy than in the sense of an “oh, that’s weird” person with six toes.

Having said that, I do struggle with the fact that non-parental gay folks—especially the dudes—don’t really have a sense of what being a parent means. As in, “No, I can’t meet you for dinner in an hour on a school night.” Or, as I’ve mentioned in regard to dating: “Well, it’s fine that you are canceling at the last minute, but I will have to look at the family calendar before I can reschedule.” Or, on an even more trivial level: “Nope, haven’t seen [insert name of latest must-see TV show or movie here]. I’m kinda busy. But hey, throw a Pixar or Harry Potter movie at me, and there’s a good chance I’ve seen that one.”

Meanwhile, within the straight community, I experience my favorite thing about being a gay dad. I could bring a female friend to a little league game, or go out with one as a dinner companion—heck, I could say hello to a female cashier at the grocery store—and non-gay folk automatically assume that said female and I are a couple. It’s actually kind of charming. If my straight acquaintances had their way, I would have had at least 20 or so girlfriends/wives over the past 10 years. That’s an even worse track record than my actual history with guys. I guess “over there” it’s hard to imagine that a guy could or would choose to raise two kids by himself—or that said guy could be in proximity of a woman without the requisite romantic tie.

In contrast to all this, I have to give a major shout-out to the other kids in our lives. As is usually the case, compared to anyone over the age of 12 or so, they are so much more open-minded and flexible about what reality can look like. They neither make assumptions about our family one way or another, nor do they care when the “truth” is revealed. The best example was the time Daveon revealed to his second-grade class that over the summer we went to New York “to celebrate my dad’s boyfriend’s birthday.” The kids still let me come and help with reading. I’d say the most probing conversation I’ve ever heard from the under-18 set went something like this:

Kid (pointing to me): “Hey Mark, is that your dad?”

Mark (in his usual verbose, descriptive manner): “Yeah.”

Kid (waving): “Hi, Mark’s dad.”

If only everything about parenthood were that easy.

Next: White

Dating: Dad Division

Note: A lot of what follows has been slowly changing for me as my kids have gotten older. I’m keeping the post in the present tense with the thought that it might ring true for single parents whose kids are still under their care 24/7. Maybe one of them will send a copy to a potential person-of-interest, and maybe that will help said p-o-i understand the parent’s situation better. Anything to help the cause!

Here is one of the most obvious things you will ever hear anyone say: When you’re a single parent, dating is really, really hard. The obvious reason, of course, is just finding the time to get out of the house and meet people. Especially with younger kids, the days are a flurry of remembering who needs to be where, getting them there and back, feeding, checking on homework, bedtime—all on top of one’s “day job” (or jobs, in the case of us freelancers).

There are other issues, as well. Believe it or not, the “flurry” of activity described above commonly leads to exhaustion. So even when you finally make it to Friday or Saturday night and things are quiet and the coast is clear, the last thing many a single parent wants to do is dress up, go out, and make nice with a stranger—especially with the thought of putting one’s best foot forward to try to make a good impression on a potential mate. Often, the only thing we want to do with our feet is put them in our slippers, to complement the sweats we are wearing as we finally collapse on the couch in front of the TV. The most seductive dream we have at this point is an early bedtime.

My hunch is that another factor may be more prevalent in the gay world, but I could be wrong. Where dating is concerned among gay men, it’s treated a bit like deciding whether to get dessert after a meal out. Tonight I will, tonight I won’t, nothing on the menu here grabs me so I’ll go somewhere else, I have a pint of ice cream in the freezer at home. It’s all very spur-of-the-moment, subject to change on a moment’s—or whim’s—notice.

In response to that, I’d like to point out one thing that doesn’t work very well in the parenting world: spur-of-the-moment. Of course, we make spontaneous decisions all the time where our kids are concerned: “Michael just asked if I can stay for dinner. Can I?” “The store doesn’t have any shoes in your size. Let’s try that other one.” “You have a fever. Need to stay home from school today.” And so on.

But where our adult lives are concerned, the magic word is: plans. My own experience tells me that folks who don’t have kids really have no clue how vital it is for us to plan, as far in advance as possible, for get-togethers—and how important it is for those plans to stick, barring emergencies. And again specifically in the gay male world, the epidemic of “Can’t make it for the date that was supposed to happen in an hour. Sorry.” can really throw a potential date-parent off his or her game.

I know this flakiness epidemic is … well, it’s pretty epidemic across our community. The difference is, if you’re a non-parent and you get stood up, you now have an open slot that you can fill pretty much however you want: going to try to meet someone else, waiting till tomorrow, etc. For the parent, that few-hour block of time might be the only free space for the next couple of weeks. Trying to regroup and figure out how to spend those hours—for what, a hookup?—isn’t exactly inspiring.

The other thing that factors in here—and again, this may just be me—but as a parent, my expectations for what I want from a guy have gotten pretty high. Given that the bulk of my time is spent nurturing—or creating a system for nurturing—two young and growing lives, I’m not really in the market for someone with a lot of unmet needs. That screens out of lot of people, unfortunately. I need stable, and, for good measure, someone who can actually step forward and take on a little bit of need-addressing himself—especially if he does not have kids of his own. This seems to be a tall order, especially if you throw in the fact that it would be nice if he were cute.

It doesn’t help matters that I work from home, so my daily routine doesn’t allow for a lot of socializing. I’ve tried online dating, which … well, you get a lot of first dates. The second? Still reaching for that brass ring.

Next: Gay

Single

As someone who loves my kids more than life itself, I say this with all sincerity:

Single parenthood? … Dumb.

It doesn’t matter how good, responsible, and/or on-the-ball your kids are. Raising even one … and especially multiple … kids by yourself—and, in my case, choosing to do so—is dumb. And it’s dumb for a lot of dumb reasons.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a very, very long time, you probably are aware that the traditional model of “one mom + one dad raising some number of kids under the same roof” is an ever-shrinking family construct. Be that as it may, the reality is that most activities your kids are involved in still assume a two-parent structure. This plays itself out in a number of ways. Many of them involve timing and schedules:

  • The 4-5pm practice that ends at 6, because, hey, mom’s home to make dinner and watch the other kids.
  • The school event that goes to some ridiculous hour—on a school night—because, hey, if the little kids need to go home, parent 1 can take them while parent 2 stays to bring home the older ones.
  • The endlessly shifting schedules for practices, competitions, events (I’m looking at you, skating). Same principle: Of course we can change the Friday practice—on Friday—to Saturday afternoon, because, hey, with all those spare parents lying around, who cares if skater child has siblings who might have other commitments? Spare parent is there—with spare car, of course!—to pick up the slack.

As you might have guessed, I’m pretty protective of my time. I’m happy—well OK, willing—to run around all day for either or both of my kids, as long as I have some warning—in advance—of when and where said running around needs to happen. The last-minute thing? Not so much.

Schedules and timing are only the most obvious of the external issues with single parenting. There are plenty of internal ones, as well. A friend of mine recently reminded me that being a parent in and of itself means that I am in “taking care of” mode all the time—it’s so consistent that it becomes second nature. And like many second-nature things, I often forget. I forget that my life is substantially different from my non-parent peers, which means I forget a lot of corresponding things: like how it’s not only OK, but healthy, and even necessary, to take as many breaks as possible. As many evenings and days off as possible. Heck, as many weeks off as possible. How that’s better not only for me, but for the kids as kids and for us as a family.

How it really, really takes a lot out of a person to be making all the decisions, all the time—especially when you try (with variable success) to base your decision on what’s right for the other person in question, not (always) what works for you. It’s like having a running “Who’s on First?” dialog in your head at all times, except there are three voices instead of two. One of them is your own, and the others are the voices you are imaging the other two people are contributing to the conversation, as you imagine what their owners might actually say. And somewhere in there, you need to figure out who actually is on third base.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Please understand that I know in theory—and know in practice folks who are examples of this—that being in a parent couple doesn’t necessarily make any of this easier. In fact, when two parents aren’t on the same page about a given parenting issue, the potential conflict can actually be worse—I’ve witnessed how some of those “Who’s on First?” routines play out, and it isn’t pretty. So this isn’t a “my pain’s worse than yours” argument—just that they are different, and unique.

Plus when you screw up as a single parent, even if you kick yourself out of the bedroom and sleep on the couch, it doesn’t give you quite the same sense of a break.

Next: Dating: Dad Division

Weird

For the next few posts, I shine the light on the guy who pays the bills and was the brains behind this whole enterprise in the first place: Yours truly, the humble alterna-dad blogger.

We start with what my kids would probably say is my most distinguishing characteristic as a parent.

A little background: In my 12+ years as a dad, I have noticed that the relationship of child to parent very often looks something like this: The child is the star/comedian/actor/personality, while the parent plays the straight man/woman. Over time, the parent fades bit-by-bit into the background while the child’s presence overtakes not just center stage, but the whole darn theater. We’ve all seen the most extreme version of this: Children who don’t pay any attention to their parents under any circumstances, listening to or ignoring them at whim. I believe these children have—correctly, unfortunately—somewhere along the way picked up the message that their needs, interests, and whims matter, while the parents are simply stage crew in the production.

And the parents, all too often, are willing accomplices in this game: Kids’ needs, important. Mine, not so much. On the other hand, based on the amount of complaining I have heard over the years, it may be more of a case that the poor parents didn’t know what kind of monstrous situation they were creating.

Purely by luck of the genetic/personality draw, I have a secret weapon that I believe has helped our gang avoid this dynamic:

I’m pretty weird.

Being a pretty weird dad has had two terrific consequences: one, as a family we have laughed a lot, especially when the kids were younger and our senses of humor were more aligned (i.e., before they became teenagers and  no longer had a sense of humor). And two, even though I hope/think my kids have developed pretty sparkling personalities along the way, our home is definitely a three-person show, and I claim my fair share of the spotlight.

How weird, you ask? A few examples:

  • For a long time, when I would say goodbye to the kids—for example, when they left for school in the morning—my standard line was (probably inaccurate) “goodbyes” in every language I could think of:

“So long, see you later, don’t forget to write, auf weidersein, sayonara, au revoir, adios, ciao, arrivederci roma, vaya con dios, aloha means hello and goodbye.”

  • For about an equally long time, I spoke to them in the voice of Scooby-Doo—which translates as 1) starting every word with an “r” and 2) referring to them (either one, it didn’t matter) as “Raggy”:

“Rood rorning, Raggy.” “Row are roo, Raggy?” “Rinner’s ready, Raggy.” Etc.

  • And when they would do something noteworthy: “Wunderbar! That’s German for, wunderbar!”

(And let’s not forget our world-famous bedtime hits, which were a long-standing tradition that I will explain in detail elsewhere.)

So yeah, weird. The good news is that it has kept them guessing—always a useful strategy for a parent—and helps them enjoy and express their own quirkiness, so everyone can feel comfortable being himself.

Though I’m funnier.

Next: Single