Family to the Rescue!

The day after New Year’s, our house came down with sickness. If you name the symptom, we had it. Someone was coughing, someone was barfing, someone could not stop singing Kidz Bop. Ok, that last one may not be related to sickness, but it’s definitely a symptom of some kind of ailment.

We had just started a stretch of the 5 day parenting schedule. My partner and I played a symptom game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and I lost. (In case you’re wondering, Vomit trumps Cough.) I ended up doing most of the parenting for the next 2 days, balancing a fever and chest congestion. My partner vacillated between the bed and the toilet. It was not good.

By day 3 we were allowing way more screen time than ever, and my partner was able to get back to parenting (even if that meant laying on the couch in a heap while the kid watched her 4th episode of Winx). Some dear friends with kids offered to come by and get the kid for a playdate. They kept her through lunch and dinner, returning her at the relaxing hour of bedtime. Yesterday, another friend with a kid offered to have an extended playdate as well. He took the kid roller skating and out to lunch. At the house, we managed to clean our bodies and weep quietly for the love of our friends.

We don’t often think of friends as family. We’re taught as Americans (and for this house, white Americans), that we are a closed family unit; that problems must be solved by the family. That we can DO IT ALONE, NO THANKS TO ANYONE ELSE. ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE, GRRR. Well after 4 days of the flu, I am happy to report that my family extends beyond the borders of my house. I’ve got kin down the street and across the country.

Thank you to each and every one of you that watched the kid this weekend (and those who offered!) and did so without question, in complete selflessness. Parenting while being sick is so hard, and my partner and I feel so loved and supported by this great extended chosen family!

a Punch to the Gut

Holiday in California

I wish this post was full of tales from my great vacation last week to California with my partner and the kid. I wish it was some sort of heartwarming story about a family conflict that we resolved over snuggle time before bed. Life isn’t always like that, and truth can hurt without a soft landing or a happy ending.

A few weeks ago, my partner, the kid, and I were getting ready to leave the house. This can be a long process, sometimes ending in Yelling Parent who cannot possibly say “Put your shoes on” for the 6th time. I said something like ‘Is this kid ready to go?’, which the kid heard as ‘Is my kid ready to go?‘. To be clear: I do not refer to the kid as “my kid”. She is clearly not the child I ‘created’, and I think that referring to another person as your property sounds a little creepy. Probably exasperated with the nagging adults trying to get out of the house, she said “Anyways, it’s not like I’m even your kid.” Ouch, man. Yeah, you’re not. But yeah, you sort of are.

If the kid is in the house, I’m an active parent. I plan time with friends around the kid’s schedule, making sure I am contributing in some way to caring for her whether it is helping with dinner, bathtime, bedtime, or playtime. I grocery shop with her likes and dislikes in mind. I notice when fun things happen in town and see if she’d like to go. I listen to her fears, her nightmares, her weird thoughts and creepy imagination. I’m there for her sicknesses, her triumphs, her tears, and her fun projects.

No, I didn’t plan her birth. I’m not a primary parent. I don’t have a say in where she goes to school, what state she lives in, and changes in her routine. I don’t choose her doctors and I don’t choose her haircuts. I’m glad she has a concrete understanding about who her parents are, and that neither myself nor her other parent’s partner are clouding that at all. But dang, that was a real sting of a sentence. She wasn’t upset, and we weren’t fighting about anything; I don’t even think she said it with ill will. She was just correcting what she thought she heard me say.

It was a nice reminder of what her teenage years may be like. Sometimes I think it could go both ways; she could find me a refuge from her folks and seek me out as an ally or she could take the stand of “You’re not my parent” and create that distance that teenagers need from the adults in their lives. Time will tell.

Ambiguous Loss

Who knew this baby would turn into such a weirdo!

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a strong family identity. I would do anything for my family, move across the country, drop everything I’m doing, and give them the shirt off my back. It sounds nice, except no one else in my immediate family shares this identity. Looking back, I wonder how I developed this strong family identity. When I was a kid, I asked my older sibling for a sweater that no longer fit them:

“No.” they said.
“But you can’t wear it. It literally does not fit you anymore.” I said.
“I know,” they said, “I just just don’t want you to have it.”

This is a good example of my family’s mentality. Don’t share, look out for yourself. Everyone will take what they can. This example was also repeated by my mother when I moved out for the first time and she wouldn’t let me take my bed. It’s now broken under a hundred pounds of fabric that she’ll use “someday”.

I moved to a neighboring state in my early 20’s, driving three hours round trip to see my parents once a month. They returned those visits twice in the four years I lived there. This theme continued for years, and I finally stopped asking if they’d visit. My parents and sibling don’t write, call, email, facebook or text me except on rare occasions. I once asked my mother how she would know if I was ok, and she said “One of your friends would contact us if something happened to you.” I recently told them (via email) that my partner and I are trying to get pregnant. My mother’s response was “What’s ‘IUI’?” and no one else replied. This non-reaction sent me over an emotional cliff that I didn’t even see coming. As a comparison: my partner’s parents showed excitement, wished us luck, and hope for more grandkids.

I’ve always managed to push down any disappointing family of origin behavior by reminding myself that as a child, you don’t pick your family and I know they love me (I do know this). But something is happening to me as I am, for the first time in my life, feeling like I am part of my own little family. I am finding it hard to accept my family of origin’s ambivalence about my existence. Do I want my kids to see that this is how families treat each other? I find myself wanting more from my family of origin. They don’t seem to care about my life, or want to get to know me as an adult. I’m lucky to have extended family members that fill that gap, and we make the effort to stay close (though I could do a better job there). But it doesn’t replace my parents; the very people who loved and breathed me into existence. As my friend recently said: “It is just difficult to understand how a parent’s profound love for their child doesn’t translate into action very often.”

So what now? It’s not as if I’ve been cut out of my family of origin. There’s no situation or event that I can point to, memorialize, or mourn. I can’t change them; I can only let myself grieve and try to heal in some way. I can be grateful and love my own family a little bit more. I can keep working to make our family strong and healthy and know that I’ll always be interested in who they are and where their lives may take them.

Summers We Remember

Summer is winding down. I never do as much as I think I’ll do during the summer; I didn’t get out and paddleboard and I went swimming just a handful of times. I did hang out with the kid every Friday to cut down on the childcare costs. It seemed daunting at the beginning of the summer. Every SINGLE Friday?! I’ve spent plenty of evenings and random daytime hours watching the kid alone, if her mom has plans with a friend, or wants to catch a yoga class. I had not spent an uninterrupted 8 solid hours of being solely responsible for her. It turns out that it’s not a big deal. You just roll with the punches, find time when you can to be alone, and make sure there are enough snacks to keep everyone’s blood sugar level nice and even. I’m not saying every Friday was a perfect parenting dream. On the Fridays when we had her for the weekend, it made for a long stretch of kid time where my patience ebbed away. Overall, I really liked spending our Fridays together and I’m a little sad that they’ve ended. She started school (1st grade!!), and the routine was needed by everyone, in both houses!

One thing that stood out to me over the summer of Fridays is how strong she is in defining her family. We had adventures all over the city on our Fridays, and we ended up interacting with different stranger adults and kids that would assume things about our family. The kid was swinging with a kid she just met at the park who wanted to invite E back to her house to play.

If it’s ok with your dad.
I don’t have a dad.
(Kid gestures to me) I mean, if your dad says it’s fine.
Yeah but I don’t have a dad. I have two moms. That’s Ethan.

We went to storytime at the library and the librarian was identifying everyone’s relationship in the room (I really don’t know why they did that. The stories were not about families or relationships. Seemed strange and without context to me..), she got to us and said “Oh, and this must be your Papa!”. E clung to my arm, buried her forehead in my side, and said nothing. Body language cue heard loud and clear, kiddo. I smiled and said “I’m more like her stepdad.” The librarian stammered a bit and made a vague statement about families and referred to me as “Papa” again. “Stepdad.” She hastily picked up a book to get started.

We have a different family that other people may not be used to. But we know who we are and don’t need others to define us for us.

Without further ado, here’s a photographic glimpse into our summer:

Science Museum colors

Six years old!

Hanging out with Dylan‘s kid

BONES

End of summer vacation (and haircut!)

* I do not post photos of the kid’s face or other kid’s faces. The internet is a vast place. To read more, check out this Salon article.

Unicorn Father’s Day

Facebook says we’ve been friends since September 2009. I think I knew of him way before that, though I’m not quite sure how. He sort of appeared in my queer context like a whispering unicorn; visible, yet a calm and reassuring presence.

Dylan and Little Bear

If it seems like I’m building up to something, you’re right! As we are close to Father’s Day, I’d like to highlight a dad I am particularly fond of; Dylan, fellow blogger!

Dylan and I have been in each other’s lives during some important shifts. I’ve seen him move through the world, steady as a rock, helping to create and support this family he loves. He has done this in the same way that he helps to create and support the queer and trans* community of which he is a member. Never demanding recognition for his activism or his work, he fights tirelessly against a system that does not intend to include us. When there seems to be no space for the “others”, he helps carve out space. He doesn’t leave his friends behind.

I’ve learned a lot from being in community with Dylan, but the most important thing is that I’ve learned to push back against even myself. The kyriarchy has this way of twisting things up in our brains. We’re born to believe in this myth of male superiority; that white, male bodies allow a particular ease through life. Dylan could move through the world a lot more easily than he does. Instead, he continuously questions and rejects the idea that he should allow his privilege to benefit him. While his child was born and grew into toddlerhood (eep! so fast!), he was a stay-at-home dad, part time worker, and part time student. He wrote about the complexities when out in public with his child in When is a Dad Like a Unicorn?

That men aren’t as perceived as competent at care-taking is just another facet of the gendered division of labor enforced by heteronormative, patriarchal norms. It’s a little exaggerated, but sometimes it seems that society sees me as above and beyond incredible for meeting my child’s basic needs, or so clueless that I should hand over my kid to someone else who hasn’t been wiping her ass for 14 months. I do want to be a fabulous dad, but not because there’s a low social hurdle.

So this is a shout out to Dylan. Rarely recognized (publicly), but always appreciated. Thanks for continuously teaching me all the ways that we can be great dads and better activists.

For Boston

Seems close, but we still only have the one stoplight.

I’m from Boston. Ok, I’m not from Boston. But if you grew up west of Pennsylvania, it’s just easier to say Boston rather than: “Just outside of Boston. About 45 minutes west. Have you heard of Hopkinton, where the Marathon starts? What about Framingham? Ok, well it’s right next to Framingham. No, I don’t have the accent.”

It just so happens that I took a loosely planned road trip with a friend from Minneapolis to pick up hir furniture in New Jersey (where ze is from) last week. With room in the trailer, we headed up to Massachusetts to get my drum set out of my parents’ house. We drove through Hopkinton to get there, and though we didn’t drive over the starting line of the marathon, we were very close – close enough to read all the signs store owners had placed in their windows for the runners.

The marathon falls on a state-specific holiday every year. Officially called Patriots’ Day, most locals call it Marathon Monday. My father ran the marathon nearly every year since I was a child until his Achilles heel injury in 2005. We would find a spot on the route, coordinate with extended family members about the time and place, make signs of encouragement, and bring snacks. The night before, we’d have a large spaghetti dinner so that my dad could carbo-load.

I can’t imagine that anyone reading this has not heard of the Boston Marathon bombings that occurred exactly one week ago. Feels like a lifetime. My friend and I were able to spend some time with my family-of-origin as we packed up some of my things on the Saturday before the Monday bombings. Several (agonizing) days of driving later, and we were home. I was setting up my drums in my basement Monday after lunch, listening to NPR, as the word came through that someone had bombed the finish line of the marathon. Of course there’s confusion at first, and denial that it’s as bad as they say it is. I was thinking “I was just there. I asked Dad if he was ever going to run it again. I was in Hopkinton two days ago.” I was glued to media outlets for the rest of the day week. All my family is fine, by the way.

It made me start to think about conversations with kids. No one talked to E about the bombings; she’s too young to notice and we left NPR off for the week. I realized that I feel mostly reactionary with kids. If they ask a question, I will answer it – or at least I’ll think about it and get back to them. But how do I bring up things that may come up for them? How do you help kids deal with potential danger while allowing them to be be kids while they can? After an extended Captain Planet marathon the other day, E asked me: “Are there like really real bad guys out there?” and I didn’t know how to answer that. Yes, there are. But they won’t be putting a force field around an island to heat it up; they’ll probably try to touch your genitals. Reality is a hard thing for me to wrap my own brain around sometimes. I can’t imagine a world where I’m not hypervigilant about danger. Balancing the weight of the good and evil in the world and making the best choices you can make each day; that’s all I’ve got. But how to explain this to a kid?

“The word is beautiful and shitty, kid. Learn to enjoy booze and your friends and you’ll make it just fine.” I guess that’s not going to make it into a kid’s book any time soon. Any tips on bringing up conversations with older kids? Can’t Mr. Rogers just raise our children for us?

Stay safe out there. #bostonstrong

Lit Review: Be Who You Are

Hello! While E and Mama are away on a spring vacation, I thought I’d review a kid’s book I got in the mail last week. Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr, pictures by Ben Rumback.

This book is, overall, really amazing. It has age appropriate, clear language. I read it to the 5.5 year old kid a few nights ago. In the story, a kid assigned male at birth expresses feelings that they’ve always felt more like a girl inside. Their parents are unflinchingly supportive and have her talk with a therapist who understands.

I did wince a bit at the “born in the wrong body” language, because I really feel like that is an oversimplification on an experience. Yes, some trans* people feel like they were born in the “wrong body”, but this puts language in where there doesn’t need to be. To say that some bodies are wrong, that means that most bodies are right. Instead, I like to think that all bodies have value and self-determination should dictate what we get to do with and to, our bodies. We don’t need to classify them as “wrong” in order to change them.

A kid of color! A trans* kid of color! Awesome! It would have been a lot more important that the main character be a kid of color, in my opinion, because of the prevalence of whiteness in our world. Yet again, people of color stay in their supporting roles on the side. 

The ending was nice, without the pretense of perfection. It was pretty amazing that the parents in the story were so supportive, although if you are a kid receiving this book – I think your folks are already going to be supportive.

I posted my excitement of this book to my Facebook page last week. I got lots of people interested and excited about it, and even a few people who had heard it already! I did get many questions about where to purchase it, with the explanation that the person knew someone who had a kid that would benefit from reading it. At first I was happy that people were interested in purchasing the book for the trans* kids in their lives, but then I started to think more about that. I got this book to make sure that our house has a wide representation of people. The kid has books about families with two moms, families that are divorced, families that live in other countries; this is just another book about the different ways to be a person in the world and how your family supports you. The kid shows no sign of being trans*, but she’s also 5 and a half; I have sweatshirts older than her. She may turn out to be a poly queer homo trans person. She may turn out to be a fiscally conservative hippy straight cis woman. Having books, media, and people in her life to show her what sorts of choices she can make help her figure it all out. She has two supportive parents and plenty of adults in her life that remind her that she doesn’t need to grow up into what the patriarchy expects her to.

People who wanted to buy the book specifically for kids who may be trans* miss the fact that their kid still could be trans* and come out later in life. Or they may have a friend or family member who comes out as trans* someday. Or they may just grow up to be a decent human being and learning about people who may be different than themselves is actually a great thing for anyone. So buy this book for the kid in your life. All the kids, not just the trans* ones.

No, You Can’t Do That: Being a Kid is Hard

As I get older, I forget things. This is true for everyone, of course. What I’m thinking about these days is how “parent” and “child” seem like two separate entities. I don’t remember, besides some specific memories, what it was like to be a child. There are things I enjoyed playing with, the friends I had, the holidays at various family houses. What I don’t remember are the feelings I had. What did it feel like, for me, to be a kid? Did I feel helpless? Did I feel misunderstood? How did I work through my anger or sadness?

These days I find myself getting exasperated with E, who is 5 years old, in some really minute moments. She got new superhero bedsheets this weekend, and I had put them through the washer. They were in the dryer when she went upstairs to pick out her pajamas. This was before dinner, before books, and before teeth brushing  She came downstairs to ask me to get them for her.

“They’re in the dryer. They’re still sort of damp. They’ll be dry by your bedtime, though.” I said.

“But I want them on my bed now!” She said in an instantly shrill voice, furrowing her brow.

“Well, your other sheets are dry. If you want sheets on your bed now, you can put those on. Or, you can wait for your Batman sheets, which will be dry by the time you go to bed.” Sometimes I think explaining things will help, but it usually doesn’t.

“No! I don’t want those sheets!” Now she was getting upset.

“Do you want me to go into the basement and get the Batman sheets for you so you can put wet sheets on your bed?” I try ridiculous logic. This is me, grasping at straws.

[She stomps back upstairs]

If an adult had reacted in this way, I would have unfriended them on Facebook. When does the logic development start, and more importantly, what does it feel like to not have a well-defined sense of logic at this age? What does it feel like to a young person to hear “You’ll still get [X, Y, or Z] if you can wait [2 minutes, 40 minutes, 3 weeks].” and not have a comprehensive sense of time?

When I wasn’t spending a lot of time with young children, I interpreted a lot of this behavior as disrespectful. I sometimes still have that knee-jerk sarcastic reaction of “Oh hey, you’re welcome for [washing your sheets/doing your dishes/cleaning your things].” when it happens, but now I don’t point it out. I’m understanding more and more that some of these things are developmental. It must be really hard to go through our world without the ability to connect A to B to C and make it to F where the solution may be. I can’t imagine what it feels like to a young person to be constantly relying on adults to provide everything for you, even as you are trying to build and own your power and agency in the world.

I wish I could remember how it felt to be on the other side of this equation. I guess I’ll have to rely on my own understanding of time to know that she will develop better logic and reasoning skills. It’s pretty clear that I don’t remember my emotional past. Is there a child version of ginko biloba? Maybe I could start E on them now, so she won’t go through this with her kid(s), if she ever has any.

So This is Christmas

kids

The kids open presents last night

My feelings around the holidays are complex. I grew up going to various family houses with my parents and my sister. My folks are the oldest in two large families, so the holidays were always a big party.  My birthday is thrown into the mix there, and I grew up learning to put that last due to everyone’s holiday tension and plans. As I got older and left home, I noticed that the delight in spending time around family rested almost exclusively with my extended family. My parents don’t really celebrate the holiday on their own, reminding me that they don’t exchange gifts when I have asked what they got each other. We don’t talk much about our feelings, so I’m not sure their reasons for not participating in christmas. We didn’t have a ton of money growing up, though my parents are comfortable (not well off, however) now. My mom has said that if they need anything, they will just get it and not wait for a holiday. They raised us, out of necessity, to challenge capitalism. “Do you really need that?” I can hear my mom whisper in the back of my mind while I’m browsing in a store. Some days I feel lucky for that resistance. But this year I was buying for a 5 year old and an 8 year old in my life.

Our queer holiday situation is new, and we don’t have the years of tradition and ritual behind us. We all gathered at my girlfriend’s home to open presents. Me, my girlfriend, her daughter, her Baby Ima, Baby Ima’s partner, and Baby Ima’s partner’s son. We slowly opened a few presents, the adults had a few beers, we ate some food, we opened a few more presents. Adults put batteries into gifts and the house turned into chaos. There were toys that made farting noises. Radio controlled toys that sped into the kitchen and rolled over people’s feet. Tons of books. Toys that were THE EXACT SAME so the kids wouldn’t fight over them [good call, Baby Ima and partner!]. The evening was messy, fun, loud, silly, chaotic, and happy. Friends came to visit amid the bedlam. During the night, everyone sang Happy Birthday to me, and I got to blow out candles.

I’ve always wondered why I have a different idea about what it means to be “family” than my family of origin. Why do I care so much that we are all together? Why do they seem to not care? My process around it is just that – a process. Hopefully, the kids in my life know that holidays mean spending time with people you love and care about, and maybe making them laugh with your fake farts for awhile. It’s not perfect and it may be messy at times, but at least we’re together. That’s all that matters to me.

The Non-Parent

e

When I sat down to think about what I wanted to say in this piece, I felt a rush of insecurities. How do I talk about the challenges of parenting when I’m not a parent? I bathe, feed, cuddle, and play with a small person, but I’m not her parent. I buckle them into a car seat, bring them to the library, withhold treats until the vegetables have been eaten, and

listen to their feelings, but I’m not their parent. She has an Ima and a Mama. When she introduces me to people, she’ll say “This is my Ethan!”, sometimes followed up with “He’s my mom’s boyfriend.” How do we name our families when there are no words?

There are many moments of caregiving, whether challenging or joyous, when I emotionally retreat a bit. It’s clear that the situation calls for a primary parent action. I readily acknowledge that I’m not (nor want to be) this person’s father, and the intensity of parenting that is needed is not within my ability. This is not a question of length of time as a caregiver; I’m simply never going to be this person’s father. The disconnect between parental-seeming duties while not being a parent is something that needs more reflection. I want words that say “This is who you are to me” without taking the place of “parent”*.

Not having a specific name in this kid’s life isn’t an issue in a day to day way. I am a constant presence. We have our disagreements and our cuddle times. She asks when I’m coming back; I tell her when I’ll see her next and that I’ll miss her until we see each other again. I get annoyed with her behavior and love her creativity at the same time. She is excited to share things she’s learned at school, and I genuinely enjoy hanging out with her. We know who we are to each other, even if there is no particular name for it.

 

*I’ve looked for books, communities, or support groups that are discussing ways that blended queer families are creating new identities. I have not found a lot of resources, so if you know of any, comment here!