Memoir

My Unusual Path to Gay Parenthood

As a single gay man, having a kid with my friend seemed like a great idea. But when our daughter arrived, I wondered whether planning to be a part-time dad was fair to her.

My Unusual Path to Gay Parenthood

I was about to turn 36, sitting in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, wondering about the next stage of my life, when I noticed a father and daughter walking under a line of trees together. They had a similar gait, their figures turning into silhouettes in the fading afternoon light. An emotional wave washed over me, and I started crying, right there on the bench next to an old Chinese lady reading the paper. Was there a male biological clock? Was there a gay male biological clock? If there was, my alarm was going off.

I’d had some professional success in my 30s, a second novel published, a record deal. Fatherhood now felt possible. I could make it work. I could watch a part of myself grow, love and impart wisdom on a little creature who would surprise me and make me laugh and challenge me. A child would be a way to make better sense of my life, to become a better man. I had always imagined what it would be like to be called “Dad.” The only thing that was nagging at me was how people would react. It was one thing to be out; it was another to be a gay parent, especially a single one. It was 2005, and a friend of mine joked, “Gays are doing it everywhere.” But it didn’t feel that way.

A few days later, I went on a small tour, opening for a well-known folk artist. Katrina, a fan of mine who had also become a friend, came to the show in Hartford. When I finished my set, we were hanging out backstage in the dingy greenroom. After a couple of vodkas over ice in plastic cups, I told her about the park, how I had just started bawling. She knew how much I loved kids; I had even spent time admiring hers — a spirited girl and an adorable boy who were in middle school then but whom I’d known since they were toddlers.

The stage manager came in and asked us if we needed anything. We said no, and what followed was a weighted silence, with only the muted sound of the folk singer through the wall. In a larger sense, we did need something. There was something missing.

Kat said, “I could have your child,” like she was offering to make me toast or something. I looked at her, sipping from her cup and smiling. She was beautiful, with her perfect Cape Verdean skin, and she had a very sweet demeanor, if maybe a little overzealous (when we first met she brought me a homemade scrapbook with a collage of pictures and my lyrics in it). I smiled at her, my brain turning. She was gifted with kids; I’d seen it firsthand. She had this way of talking to them on their level. Most important, it was clear that she had instilled in both of her children the difference between right and wrong, and how to be kind to people.

“Really?” I said, feeling my heart in my throat.

Her face turned serious, and she nodded. We poured another drink and talked some more about it. She wanted another kid, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. We could share custody, it would be an ideal situation. Later that night, in my room at the aging Sheraton with beige walls and bad artwork, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Most gay guys adopted or used surrogates, usually as couples, but this would be something entirely different.

A few days after the tour, Kat started instant messaging me about it. I was at my temporary job at the front desk of a spa, and there was a lot of downtime. I wasn’t supposed to be messaging, but everyone did. Our chats were playful at first. Me: We could get the cutest baby outfits! Her: What would we name it? Then they got a little deeper. Me: As long as the child would be surrounded by love. Her: With my two kids we’d have built-in babysitters! Until finally, logistics: Me: I could do three weekends a month. Her: What number could you afford for child support?

As our messages continued, the whole idea started to come into focus for me. I pictured myself in the park pushing our baby, playing peekaboo. I looked into setting up a monthly bank transfer for child support. I dorkily practiced saying the words “my son” and “my daughter” in the mirror. I confided in my photographer friend, who was all for it. Why shouldn’t gay people be parents, whether they’re in a relationship or not? I started convincing myself that this could be real. I noticed all of the parents on the streets and imagined what situations they were in. Surely, they weren’t all traditional. Then, one Friday, an instant message came in right as I was checking a woman (and her tiny dog) in for a glycolic facial. It was from Kat, and it read: The time is now. The dog yapped. The woman scowled. I knew that Kat’s fertility window was diminishing. I typed a simple okay, but my hand hovered over the keyboard before I eventually hit send. Even though I had thought it all through as much as one can (which was probably not enough), it felt like I was jumping off a cliff.

“You’re all set, have a seat,” I told the woman, my voice cracking. She had no idea I was freaking out.

My boss walked in the front door, and I quickly minimized the chat screen.

“Is everything all right?” she wanted to know.

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“Of course,” I replied.

Everything was not all right. I was dizzy with possibility, knowing that this would change everything, but also fueled by some uncontrollable impulse. It was like eating a pot edible, but instead of saying, “There goes the next few hours,” it was “There goes the next 18 years.”

So our plan was set in motion. We would meet at her friends’ house in Nantucket the following weekend, when Kat was ovulating. Though a lot of people tried to talk us into it, we never signed any kind of agreement. We simply shook hands on the child support number and how much custody I would have. She agreed to be the primary caregiver.

Kat wanted to go about it the old-fashioned way, but I wasn’t up for an awkward Big Chill moment. The first night at her friends’ beach house, she whispered to me that they were unaware of our plan. She hadn’t seen them in a while and didn’t want to be like, “This is my gay friend and he’ll be impregnating me in your house this weekend.” But the ovulation window was closing quickly, so it was either do it then or wait a couple of months, since I was scheduled to go back on tour. I excused myself during dinner, the little plastic cup bulging in my pocket.

I stood in the unfamiliar bathroom that smelled of cheap soap and mildew and balanced the cup sideways on the sink so I could aim into it. I tried not to concentrate on the faded floral-print shower curtain in a hideous shade of orange. When I was done, giddy and thrilled, my first martini kicking in, I looked in the mirror. Was this the face of a dad? I returned to the dining room and discretely passed the cup to Kat under the table. She faked a yawn and excused herself to complete the process. While talking with our hosts, I wasn’t even hearing their words. This was happening. We were creating a human.

Three weeks later I did a reading in the West Village, and there was a man in a suit in the back asking a lot of questions. He was handsome and fit, with kind hazel eyes. He looked like he could run a board meeting but also fix your sink and cook you a steak. I gave him a double take before I left, but we never spoke. The next morning, I woke to an email from him in my inbox. He explained he’d had to go to the bathroom because he’d been drinking too much Diet Coke at the reading. It was a weird fact to lead with, but I responded in turn, suggesting we should get together for something stronger than Diet Coke. We arranged to meet later in the week.

From the first moment, Steve was someone I felt comfortable around. We had tapas and laughed about the book reading, the one jerk in the front row. He asked me about my writing process and talked about his own impressive corporate job in radio. It was so good, I didn’t want to potentially ruin it by sleeping with him right away. Also, impending fatherhood was distracting my thoughts. When I got home that night, I immediately checked my email, and there was one from Kat: a picture of four pregnancy test wands in a spiral, each one showing a pink line. I literally gasped, my heart smashing against my chest. I looked out my window into the darkness, images flashing in my mind. A beautiful child with Kat’s dark hair and my blue eyes, singing with me, like in one of those viral YouTube videos. The child would be musical and athletic, just like me and my siblings and cousins. I’d watch their talent shows with pride, cheer at their games from the sidelines, chatting with the other parents. I’d get a reality show called something like Dad Reinvented.

A friend threw me a baby shower, and everyone drank wine out of repurposed baby bottles. I got the most beautiful presents, including a yellow-and-blue blanket with stars on it that I still have today. It seems like all of those beautiful things are really for the adults anyway.

As the day got closer, so did Steve and I. He came to one of my gigs, and even though I tried to make it universal, it felt like I was singing every song to him. After the show, he confessed that he was married to a woman but had been separated for two years, finally coming out after choosing the life he thought he was supposed to have. He kissed me at the top of the subway stairs, and for a second I lost track of the city, the people around us, the stoplights, everything.

I went on a trip to Spain with a friend, and while I was there, Steve and I emailed about what was happening with Kat and me. I tried to get a sense of his reaction, half-expecting him to run in the other direction. But he was excited for me. He had two kids of his own and loved being a father — he understood, and wasn’t judgmental, and I hoped that wouldn’t change once reality set in.

I got back from Spain and went to Kat’s town in western Massachusetts, waiting for the due date. When the doctor informed us that he was going to induce labor, I rushed to the hospital, bringing champagne and my guitar. I paced the hallways, fielding texts from my family and friends. I asked the nurse if she had any flutes, and she just laughed and walked away. Steve drove three hours from New York City and even brought a knockoff Chanel baby suit. I came out into the hallway to hug him, and he had a look on his face like all of this was completely normal, which was one of many signs that he was a keeper. Our fourth date ended up being the day my daughter was born, and still he didn’t run.

Me and newborn Rowan, 2006.

“Is this a bit much for you?” I asked.

“I think it’s great you’re having a kid. I think everything about you is great.”

He kissed me, and a nurse who was walking by blushed.

“You can say it’s great in two months when she’s projectile vomiting.”

My plan was to stay behind Kat during the birthing process, but when Rowan started to come out, I got right in on the action. The doctor let me cut the cord, and my whole body shook with excitement. I played a song for her right away, and everyone in the room was crying except for Rowan, who just stared upward at the heat lamp, mesmerized.

            I can only imagine what’s in store for you

            A life of wonder, a world brand new

The beginning was blissful, and she brought so much joy to our lives, as babies do. She squirmed and cooed and wiggled, and it seemed like there was a permanent smile on my face. She started to see, to eat real food, to say her first word (“juice!”). Still, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, Is this right? I’d decided from the get-go to be a part-time dad. When I explained it to people, it sounded horrible coming out of my mouth, like Rowan was my side project. Or like I had something to prove to my family. Not only will the gay guy have a child, it will be a mixed-race child! Take that, WASPs!

Me with Katrina, holding one-year-old Rowan, 2007.

One time I booked an event for writers who were parents. It was a fine affair, in the lobby of a sleek hotel, and I was on a panel of writers I really admired. I was asked how I was able to juggle parenting and writing. I looked around at the crowd, mostly intellectual types, urban sophisticates, academics. When I explained that I was only a part-time dad, it sounded wrong coming out of my mouth. As if I wasn’t a real parent, and was merely phoning it in.

After the event, I schmoozed with some of the attendees. Most of them were genuinely intrigued and seemed to approve, but some did not.

“I think it’s great what you’re doing,” a woman said, even though it felt like something she was supposed to say, her smile stapled to her face.

Rowan was the flower girl when I married Steve, and to her it was an entirely natural thing. Of course, not many kindergarteners know about the years of struggle to legalize gay marriage, but still, she’s an evolved child. She has two siblings on Kat’s side, and two siblings on Steve’s side, and no, nothing about her life is conventional.

Rowan as the flower girl at my wedding, 2013.

Eventually, she started to pick my brain and work it all out. One day, when she was about 10, she asked, “So, you and my mom are just friends?” We were walking our French bulldog, Oliver, who looked up at me, almost like he knew it was complicated.

“Yes.”

This seemed to appease her. When I think of all the kids affected by divorce, it appeases me too. She’ll never have to live under that cloud. As we kept walking, she started to veer into my path, like a toddler or a goofy Labrador. I kept stopping so that I could move around her. It drove me a little insane, but if there’s one thing that kids know, it’s how to push buttons.

“So is Steve my stepdad?”

“Yes.”

“And I have four brothers and sisters?”

“Correct.”

“OK. Can I have a cookie?”

That was it. If only we could all have the pure outlook of a 10-year-old. It got me thinking. If Rowan was OK with it, why wasn’t I more proud about telling people?

I spoke to Steve about my doubts, and he told me to just “do me,” which was simple advice, but kind of perfect.

I started to accept my unique situation, but I still struggled with the picture I had seen in my head versus the one that was unfolding before me. Rowan is not athletic, blue-eyed or musical; in fact she’s a little (ahem) tone-deaf. But she’s funny and gorgeous, goes to trapeze school, and raps Hamilton songs. It’s become about giving up my expectations and simply loving her and everything that makes her who she is. Also, being OK with the fact that I’m not doing it the “normal” way. What’s normal these days anyway?

Someone asked me recently if I feel the love that mothers feel when they garner superhuman strength to lift a car off of their child. I wasn’t sure. But Rowan and I have a lot of fun together. We do improvisational dance and we make up our own languages. I laugh harder with her than anyone else in my life. One time she told me, “Michael Jackson is God’s sister.” You can’t make this stuff up.

A few months ago, I took her on an errand to the jeweler. I have a bracelet on which I engrave a small star every time I publish a novel. When she saw that there were six stars, she said, “Dad, you’re gonna need another bracelet” for all the books she believed I’d publish eventually.

It was the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me, and my love for her swelled, like maybe I actually could lift a car.

We got ice cream and walked down by the river. She started doing that thing, veering into my path again. But instead of getting frustrated, I just thought, Let’s swerve. She didn’t start on a straight line. In fact, neither one of us are straight-line people. We’re swerving our own path.

Steve, Rowan, and I at our wedding rehearsal dinner, 2013.