Wednesday, October 27, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

One of the many unexpected pleasures of parenting Max is the renewed appreciation I find that I have for my neighborhood: the East Village. I have lived in the East Village more or less since Stewart and I started dating in early 2001. I say “more or less” because I was technically living in Brooklyn at the time, and subsequently Harlem, but I spent most of my overnights at Stewart’s pad on Second Avenue and Ninth Street from early on in our relationship. Actually, it was Stewart’s brother’s pad as well, and I’m sure that he will tell you that three is definitely a crowd. Even then I loved the neighborhood. There were so many cheap restaurants, unpretentious gay bars and little boutique shops. So when Stewart and I decided to officially move in together by buying an apartment, we pretty much looked exclusively in the East Village.

We ended up looking at over 50 apartments for sale until we found our dream apartment, a one bedroom where we still live at Avenue A and 3rd Street. In our years together in this apartment since then, we’ve witnessed our neighborhood gentrify. In came the chain stores and the bridge and tunnel crowds that turned the East Village into one big parking lot on the weekends, and out went the cheap mom and pop stores and restaurants. When our surrogate Christie got us pregnant, we knew that the clock was ticking on our time in our one bedroom. Max can only sleep in our bedroom so long before the situation drives him and us crazy. Given the way the neighborhood was becoming so popular and crowded, we seriously considered looking to move to a new neighborhood to raise Max.
But then Max actually arrived, my life as a parent began, and my perspective on the East Village surprisingly changed. While we had been souring on it during our pre-kid lives, I discovered that, as a parent, the neighborhood was completely transformed. A perfect example is Tomkins Square Park. Stewart and I rarely spent time there as a couple, but it is now the main place that Max and I venture to. There are three playgrounds in the park, in addition to another kids’ space that features running fountains of water in the summer. Max and I spend most of our time at one particular playground that has bucket swings for the wee little ones. Max was a little hesitant about them at first, but now he smiles and coos and kicks his feet just at the sight of them. There are invariably other parents on either side of me pushing their own babies in the swings, and naturally we get to chatting. Everybody is really friendly and resourceful and they have become familiar faces that I look forward to seeing. They hail from all types of different backgrounds, and I’m very thankful that Max is growing up in such a diverse neighborhood.
When we are not at the park, we are either wandering around one of the several gorgeous community gardens in the neighborhood or taking a breather on the benches in front of Ninth Street Espresso. Also, during the summer and even now (it got up to 70 degrees today here), the East Village has a ton of outdoor cafes where Stewart and I can grab a weekend brunch or early weeknight dinner with our son. Max loves to watch all of the activity about him while we eat. In fact, he is such a fan of the city that whenever he gets fussy in the apartment, I know I can calm him down almost instantly by taking him outside for a walk around the block. His eyes will dart around the bright, loud cityscape and that endless distraction makes him forget whatever grievance he seemed to be expressing inside. And while I haven’t experienced the neighborhood with a kid during the winter, I am told by my new playground buddies that many families still brave it in the park, and that the 10th Street library branch is a great warmer option to entertain a kid.
So why have I fallen back in love with the East Village? Because it is Max’s home. It has his playgrounds and libraries, his outdoor cafes and communal gardens, and his calming sojourns around the block. A neighborhood is only as good as its people, and the East Village is good people. I hope we get to stay.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Raising (Up) Kids

I apologize for being off the grid for two weeks. My husband has been super busy at work, meaning I’ve been pulling double shifts with Max. That leaves me no time for my favorite extra-curricular activities – including blogging to you all.

One of my recent posts dealt with the amazing Dan Savage youtube project (now with its own website), “It Gets Better.” Who knew that after Stewart and I posted our video, literally dozens of celebs, from Tim Gunn to Kathy Griffin (and most recently President Obama) would join the fight by posting their own videos to combat bullying against LGBT youth. Believe it or not, our video has been watched over 3,000 times!  Had we known that, we would have dressed and rehearsed a little better! Even if only 1 of those 3,000 views was from an LGBT youth who checked it out during a tough moment in his or her life, the effort was well worth it.

I thought that with this post I’d look at the mirror image of Dan’s project – not how gay youth with straight parents cope with coming out, but how (presumably) straight youth fare being raised by gay parents.  Fortunately, study after study have shown that children of gay parents are as well-adjusted as those who are raised by their heterosexual counterparts. While the explosion of gay men having kids is too recent for any long-term study, fortunately our lesbian sisters are well ahead of the game, having and raising kids (much of the time off the public radar) for decades now. It’s gotten to the point that Hollywood has finally gotten its act together and produced a film about the subject: “The Kids Are All Right” (which we’ve yet to see, natch, given our new baby-centric lives).

The National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) is the latest and most influential study yet to show that gay families are just as well-adjusted as straight ones. The longest and largest study of American families of its kind, this seminal and ongoing study has been following children of lesbian families (via a male donor) for the last 24 years. The NLLFS began interviewing the mothers when they were pregnant, then began interviewing the children when they were a year and a half to two years old, and then again at five, ten and seventeen years old. They discovered that the kids in this study might be better well-adjusted than even their straight peers. For example, kids of gay parents rated “higher in social, academic, and overall competence, and lower in aggressive behavior, rule-breaking, and social problems, on standardized assessments of psychological adjustment.”

Modern Family's Mitchell & Cameron
As I mentioned in a previous post, the reason is likely because gay parents only have kids because they desperately want to be parents – after all, it isn’t exactly easy for us to become pregnant accidentally! I think that kids intuit that loving desire, and grow up more secure as a result. I also think that many gay parents feel like they have to be “super parents” in order to overcome the stereotype that they somehow aren’t fit to raise their own children. Naturally, one would think, that extra effort benefits the emotional development of their kids.

Unfortunately, the only downside of the NLLFS study is that it found that kids of LGBT parents tended to suffer discrimination at school because of their parents’ sexual orientation. That brings us full circle to Dan Savage’s project, doesn’t it? If the primary obstacle to happy, well-adjusted kids of gay parents is high-school bullying, then what better current message to those kids – until we can finally put the kibosh on such bullying – than that “it gets better.” As an occasional target of bullies throughout middle-school and high-school, I can attest to that. I now have an amazing husband and son. I plan to work hard to make sure that many others have the opportunity to feel the same way.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Surviving the Pinky vs. Binky War

Max will turn five months old tomorrow. How crazy! While the day that we stood in the delivery room in our scrubs, anxiously waiting to hear Max’s first cry, seems like eons ago, on the other hand I can’t believe how quickly the subsequent months whizzed by, or that Max is no longer a newborn. The kid is now rolling over on his own, starting to eat solid foods, laughing, and teething as his first little tooth broke through last week.

I didn’t come into this parenthood gig with too many preconceived notions. However, when I do look back upon these first five months, there have definitely been some surprises. For instance, I didn’t think Max would weigh 19.5 pounds and measure in at 27 inches tall at just 4 months old. Neither myself nor Max’s biological mother are big or tall people. But somehow Max is already big enough to fit into some clothes marked 18-months! I also knew that spit-up was part of the parenting deal, but I didn’t think my adorable, loving child would decide to yak on me multiple times a day, every day! The only one happy about that is our dry-cleaner, and whenever the two of them share smiles together I get very suspicious and dive for the burp cloth! Hopefully since we have started Max on some solid foods the spit up will tamper down. Hopefully.

I have to come clean on one element of parenting that worked out differently than I envisioned it would. I had this grandiose notion that Stewart and I would not use a pacifier with Max, and I was actually pretty loud and proud about this stance for the good month and a half that it lasted. I thought that sticking a well washed pinkie in his crying mouth was a more organic approach to the pacifier. For example, I would go to the local Key Food grocery store in my neighborhood and leave horrified after seeing a three year old who was half my height but still sucking on a binky. I was scared that the pacifier would become a crutch for me and an easy way to shut Max up without having to actually engage with him, as you have to do if you are using your pinky. As the venerable pediatrician Dr. Sears states in his seminal The Baby Book, “Pacifiers are meant to satisfy intense sucking needs, not to delay or replace nurturing.”

I also didn’t want to use pacifiers for purely vanity reasons. I didn’t want all of Max’s early baby photos to have a large piece of plastic sticking out from his face. Now if he had turned out to be an ugly baby -- which was nigh impossible if you’ve seen Christie’s other offspring -- maybe I would have preferred a huge binky to cover up his face (I kid!) But of course he was, and is, adorable, so I tried to stay binky-free. And, it turns out, I apparently succeeded because after a search of all our photos, I couldn’t find a single photo with Max sucking on a pacifier to use with this post (annoyingly).

But my policy soon ended. For while during the first month and a half our pinkies seemed to do the trick when Max got fussy, for some reason they stopped working their magic. Soon after, our baby guru, Gloria, came into our lives. She is Max’s babysitter who relieves me some weekday mornings. She asked us to provide her with some binkies, and whatever she says goes! When she started using them she was getting results that our pinkies weren’t, so we reluctantly gave in and soon enjoyed the calm, quiet results out of Max. What wasn’t so enjoyable though was when friends and family members would say, often with a playful smirk on their faces, “Ah! I see you are now using a pacifier, when did this happen?” I had to admit to them that pacifiers indeed have their time and place after all (though not forever!)

A lot of parenting, I’m realizing, is about trial and error and lessons learned. If I’m not willing to eat a little crow once in a while about how my pre-conceived notions on raising a child aren’t always perfect, and change accordingly, I’m not being the best dad I can be. And Max deserves nothing less than my best.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fragile Dwellings

This past weekend, Stewart, Max, and I went out to New Jersey to celebrate Sukkot at my sister-in-law’s and brother’s Sukkah. My sister in-law asked everyone to name who they would have invited to the Sukkah had they been able to -- irrespective of whether that person is alive or deceased, and irrespective of whether that person is known personally or famous. Some guests declared that they would have invited people dear to them that couldn’t make the event or had deceased, and others stated that they would have invited particular famous individuals that inspired them or piqued their curiosity. For example, Stewart named Christie, Max’s surromom. When it then came to my turn, I named the sex advice columnist and author Dan Savage because he inspired me recently by using his talent, stature and resources to support LGBT youth.
Last week Savage created a You Tube video channel called the “It Gets Better Project” after hearing about the suicide of Billy Lucas, a Greensburg, Indiana, high school student who was bullied and harassed by classmates for presumably being gay. Savage explained in his sex advice column (third letter down) that after he posted about the suicide on his blog a reader commented that he wished he could have spoken with Billy Lucas for five minutes before he killed himself to explain to him that things do get better for gay kids after the hell that high school can be for them. Savage responded that he had that same reaction, and then realized that with social media like YouTube, that is so popular with teenagers of all stripes today, gay adults actually can reach out to bullied LGBT kids before it’s too late. Savage explained: “gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.”

Out of this realization, Savage created the “It Gets Better Project” and asked his LGBT readers to post short videos of themselves on his You Tube channel describing to gay kids that they too had discouraging high school experiences that included bullying and harassment, but that “it gets better” and they have now grown into strong and proud gay adults happily living their lives. In other words, the message is: life really does get better after high school, so hang in there! As Savage eloquently explained in an interview with the New York Times, through his project “[g]ay adults can show our present lives and help them [gay youth] picture a future.” Savage told the Times that within the first 24 hours of launching the channel, he received 3,000 e-mails! The ones that affected him the most, he said, were those from straight kids who wrote that they were e-mailing the link to the project to their gay classmates and friends who are being harassed.  Sadly, that includes 9 out of every 10 gay teens.

Savage’s project could not have come about at a more urgent time. Unbelievably, in the short time since Savage launched his video channel, three more gay teenagers have committed suicide due to bullying and harassment at school. Hopefully this project will (and maybe has already) given some despondent gay teens the glimmer of hope and encouragement they need to step back off that ledge and embrace life and all its potential.

Stewart, Max and I have recorded our own video and have submitted it to the project. My middle school and high school years were not the best years of my life. I was definitely picked on during those years and, at times, called “fag” and other terrible names. But I knew that life could only get better. Even so, I don’t think I realized how much better my life could get! That’s what I want the kids who visit our video to know. If it gets approved by Savage and posted on his You Tube channel I will let you all know. In the meantime, the video is below. (Go easy on us -- we're youtube newbies!)  Thanks for watching, and please spread the word about the Project.