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

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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

Food

One of the things I find funny about parenthood is how much time I have spent dealing with things that, pre-parenthood, it never crossed my mind would be an issue.

Case in point in our family: food.

I have learned over the years from therapists, social workers, et al, that many kids coming out of foster care have issues with food. The two most common are hoarding and extreme pickiness. The hoarding is relatively straightforward: Many, perhaps most, foster kids experience periods of food scarcity, and being denied food as a form of discipline is also a common experience. So when food is available? Hoard away. The pickiness touches a slightly deeper nerve: It’s a way for the kid to exert control over one tiny area of his or her otherwise very out-of-control life. “I won’t eat that, and you can’t make me.”

In addition to what I learned from the experts, I’ve had plenty of direct experience with both hoarding and control-based pickiness right under our roof, all thanks to Daveon.

(For the record, Mark eats just about anything, and plenty of it. His dislikes are limited to various kinds of vegetables—no surprise there—as well as, oddly enough, pepperoni.)

Daveon’s food trajectory goes something like this:

  • When he moved in, he had food allergies to pretty much everything: beef, dairy, eggs, nuts, and I’m sure many others I am forgetting. He came from a home where he ate lots of stuff out of cans—his passion was Vienna sausages, which I’m almost positive do not technically qualify as food. As far as his tastes went, the more processed, the better.
  • Over the years, as can happen with kids, almost every allergy lifted, except for a tiny reaction to peanuts. So “I can’t eat this” got replaced with “I don’t like this.” This list was unpredictable, ever-changing, but always quite long. Candidates included peanuts and peanut butter, butter, mayo, all fruit except apples, chocolate milk, most cheese, eggs, yogurt and frozen yogurt, pie of any kind, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, any Asian food except Americanized Chinese, sour cream, guacamole, and the list goes on and on. Oh, and any exposed fat/skin on meat or poultry.
  • Whatever food he would eat, he took as tiny a portion as I would let him get away with and call a meal—and I’m sure more than one school lunch ended up mostly in the trash. This was the “control” period. It lifted somewhat when we started high school and got more serious about cross-country. He still didn’t go much for quantity—even at 19, his weight hangs right around 100 pounds—but he definitely expanded in terms of variety, so that’s a good sign.
  • Also over the years, occasional hoarding revealed itself. On the rare times I dared to venture into his room to clean up, I often found packets of spoiled food in dresser drawers, under the bed, etc. Stuff he had “socked away” and then clearly forgotten about. I’m still not sure how he could ignore the smell.
  • Late in high school, Daveon agreed to see a homeopathic/holistic doctor to help with his nasal allergies. After doing some blood work, the doctor announced that the allergies were not, as assumed, really environmental in nature. According to her, they were instead caused by allergies to—wait for it—dairy, eggs, and gluten. So right at the time the kid started eating a broader-based diet, we had to scale it back again, or at least find substitutions. What we learned was: Everything contains wheat or eggs, or both. Luckily we found acceptable substitutes with gluten-free bread and pasta products; soy, rice, and other grain milks (no nut milks, of course); and even a handful of gluten/dairy-free dessert options he likes. We have also learned that a “dairy free” food can contain eggs, so you need to read labels really carefully. And the food pyramid of my childhood is officially dead. (Also officially dead, since the day Daveon left for college: This attempt at a healthier diet. I’m pretty sure he’s back to Vienna sausages on a regular basis.)

Coming from an Italian family, the last thing I ever thought about in relation to kids was food issues—unless the “issue” was, how long till the next meal/snack/treat? Or maybe, what do you mean I can only have four cookies? Further proof that when you venture into having kids on your own, you never can tell.

Next: Dating: Kid Division

Relentless

A few years ago, one of my alterna-dad friends and I were bemoaning how challenging and difficult this whole exercise of single gay adoptive etc. etc. parenting is. And then one of us—I’d like to take credit, because I think it’s brilliant, but I can’t really remember—said, “You know, it’s not really all that hard. It’s just relentless.”

And that is so, so true. Most of what you do as a parent—the driving, the meal prep, the “how was your day?” recitations—are not difficult. Some are mind-numbingly easy to the point of paralysis (folding laundry, anyone?). That’s not what makes parenthood the single most ridiculous pursuit any sane adult could choose. It’s the endless, repetitive, relentless nature of the work.

When you’re a dad, you’re … a dad. Always, round the clock, at home, at work (or working from home, as some of us are lucky enough to do), at the gym, on vacation with your kids, on vacation without your kids. Dad. It just … is. Even when your kids are safely tucked away at school, and you’re having Friday lunch with a friend, there’s always the possibilityof the phone call that says your kid is in trouble, and could you come pick him up right now.

“I’ll need the rest of this wrapped to go, please.”

(Not that this ever happened to me. OK, yes it did.)

I remember once, toward the end of the first year the kids were here, waking up early on a Saturday on a very cold, gray morning. Looking up at the ceiling, and thinking, “Wow. They are going to be here … every single day … for the rest of my life.”

That was deep.

Truth be told, as the kids have gotten older, some of the relentless nature of the deal has let up. I do a ton less driving as they have grown more independent—and after Mark finally got his license, I barely drive at all. Even for things like meals, a lot of summer and weekend dinners are based on the principle, “You guys make it work.” Good thing they know how to cook.

And of course, if all goes well, they won’t be “here” here (as in, under this roof) for all that much longer. But they will always be “here” here—in some portion of my brain, my heart, my hope chest, my anxiety chest—until one of us keels over. Which I tell them needs to be me first, because it would be too sad for me to live without them.

In a way, I feel grateful for relentless. It means that the norm for us is the boring, repetitive stuff of daily life, and the actual crises—which we’ve had as well—are few. By comparison, relentless doesn’t look so bad.

Next: Food

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

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