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Fatherhood and Parenthood: A Gay Dad’s Reflection on Father’s Day

Happy Father’s Day!

These obligatory celebrations — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the lamentable trail of unsuccessful Hallmark efforts to expand the constellation of honorees (Grandparents’ Day! Secretary’s Day! Boss’s Day!?Evil Stepparent Day!) — were pointedly not designed with same-sex parents in mind. At one extreme is the fury-inducing story of an elementary school teacher who wouldn’t let her student make two Mother’s Day cards (creating a kind of reverse Sophie’s Choice for the upper-class). But that’s neither representative nor descriptive of the more subtle issues that Father’s Day raises for gay dads, uncomfortably.

If there are two dads, someone is…missing. This is the kind of essentialist thinking that drives not only right wingnuts, but even many of those who are vocally supportive of families headed by same-sex parents. Well-meaning female relatives and friends will often offer the kind of unsolicited advice that they’d never give to a mother. Our twin daughters have been the occasion for questions like: “Why don’t you let their hair grow longer?” “When they get older, they’re going to want to talk to a woman about boys, dating, the prom, etc.”

Well, maybe they will. But not every kid wants long hair (and they’re pretty clear about this, even at an early age). Not every girl wants to go to the prom, or even to date boys. Some teenage girls want to talk to an uncle, rather than an aunt, when they feel the need to seek outside counsel.

We know that gender is more complex that we once believed. This isn’t to assume a completely postmodern stance; hormones do play a role in our actions. But now evidence suggests that not only pregnancy but also caring for a newborn can change a father’s behavior,  dramatically reducing testosterone levels and increasing production of other hormones, such as cortisol and prolactin. This same article states what many now see in watching men parent their young kids:

“We have the capability to be aggressive and nurturing. The traditional view of men as predominantly aggressive really sells men short and denies their capability to experience the range of human emotions.”

This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to hormones. For whatever reason, I’m hyper-competitive, even when the stakes are…non-existent. Friday was the last day of Pre-School (a surprisingly moving occasion). There were zany competitions involving balloons, eggs, and then…a three-legged race. I was overcome with joy when one of our kids won her egg race (and then wondered if there were to be heats, and finals). Then I was outraged when David and I lost the “adult” three-legged race when a toddler impeded our path, turning our lead into a deficit. I couldn’t help noting that the diminutive reprobate was the son of our competitors’  best friend! (My demands for a disqualification were brushed aside.) Yet David’s not competitive at all, and many women put both of us away in that department. Serena Williams is one of the most competitive athletes I’ve ever seen, male or female. Dara Torres willed herself to an Olympic swimming medal in her 40’s. You get the idea.

There are soft men, and hard women. Mostly,  though, there are people who respond to what their kids need in the moment, and we can go from hard to soft, and back, in a blink. Yesterday, I saw a mother dress her young son down in as stern a way as any father could have; but she did it out of necessity (he’d hit another kid with little provocation), and didn’t belittle him, raise her voice, or threaten violence. He was visibly chastened. Yet a few minutes later, she was hugging him and singing to him softly as they left the playground.

And this is how most of us are with our kids. We are their parents first, mothers and fathers second. So how about a Parents’ Day?     

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