The Pain of Others
Please be aware that this post contains discussion of bullying, violence and suicide.
It’s easy to recognize our own pain. We live it. We feel it. We own it. We know it.
I think it’s perhaps easiest to recognize someone else’s pain when we see a reflection of our own pain. I’m sure that’s why reports of gay teens committing suicide resonate so powerfully for so many gay and lesbian adults, myself included. When I read about a gay teenager taking his own life, my heart races. I can feel my pulse in my ears. My hands and feet start to tingle. It’s the fight-or-flight response, two decades later, because my body still remembers the threat to my survival. Just reading about another kid in that situation, my body prepares. It is telling me to survive, and it takes every step it can to help me survive a physical threat.
Writing the previous paragraph was more challenging than I would have anticipated. It’s the middle of a heat wave, but my hands are ice cold. They are an unnatural color, like a corpse on a crime drama. My nail beds, usually pink, are purple. I took breaks. I took in deep breaths through my nose and let them out slowly from my mouth. I went up and down the stairs for no reason. I got an iced tea . I finished it. I pestered my husband, interrupting the episode of Deadliest Catch he is watching. I stuck my fingers down the back of his neck, declaring, “Free air conditioning!” I got the look. You know, that one. I replaced the iced tea with a real drink.
But it was my choice. I knew what writing about this was going to do. This, by the way, is one reason trigger warnings exist. These physical responses aren’t fun, so it’s a kindness to warn others when we can. I’m the kind of person who blissfully ignores those warnings and is then surprised to find myself saying, “Oh, I really shouldn’t have read that!” But, again, that’s my choice.
I’ve experienced this feeling, to varying degrees, a few times in the last week or so. Once, when I read about the suicide of Carlos Vigil, a 17-year-old boy in New Mexico. Again while writing this post. In between those two, where I anticipated the feeling, I was surprised to find myself reacting the same way to an episode of The Fosters on ABC Family. The youngest member of the family, described by ABC as “a sensitive boy,” was excited to be making a new friend at school. It was a sweet scene, but for me the stakes were too high. I know too well what happens when sensitive pre-teen boys get excited about making new friends. We make fools of ourselves, and end up even lonelier than we started. I can only hope that it’s gotten better in the twenty-three years since I was a pre-teen boy.
What I really want to talk about, though, is what happens when the connection to someone else’s pain isn’t quite so visceral. What happens when we decide that their pain isn’t quite the same as our pain?
At the most extreme end, we get atrocities like the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. The jurors were somehow unable to connect Trayvon Martin’s murder to their own experiences, or their own fears about what might happen to their children. Instead, they connected with their fears of black teenage boys. Some of the jurors were parents, and I’m sure that at some point they’ve lost sleep worrying about their own children. And yet, in this case, they found themselves identifying more with a man who stalked a child, provoked a confrontation with that child, and then shot that child dead in the street while the child screamed and begged for his life.
If only Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal were unique.
There’s a mountain of evidence that our criminal justice system fails black people. Perhaps the clearest data is the conviction disparity between blacks and whites. It’s difficult to discuss productively, though, for a few main reasons. The first is simple racial animus — maybe black people are just more likely to commit crimes? Next, you have to compete with the basic belief that our courts are fair. This seems quite obviously incorrect — in the last thirty days, our courts have decided to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and give George Zimmerman free reign to walk the streets of Florida murdering black children. But for white people, the courts are pretty fair. It’s hard to get people to see that their own experience does not necessarily extrapolate. (Just look at how many people roll their eyes and say, “Pfft, global warming,” when they’re shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway.) Finally, we have a tendency to venerate juries, making their conclusions somehow sacrosanct, as if jurors are magically able to leave behind their prejudices when they enter the deliberation room.
“But I don’t do that!” is a common reaction from white people when there’s talk about racism. Maybe that’s true. I suspect that if you took the Harvard Implicit Associations Test for race, you would be surprised by the result. You’d be correct, though, that overt expressions of racial animus are less socially acceptable today than they used to be. (Well, sometimes. The Washington Post still lets Richard Cohen write columns.)
Most people, though, do believe in basic fairness, so they are able to identify the most overt displays of discrimination and describe them as unfair. The problem is that employers rarely say, “Jim, I’m firing you because you are black.” Juries don’t come back from deliberation and say, “We find the defendant guilty, Your Honor, because he is black.” We’re all supposed to take great pride in that, declare that we live in a post-racial society, and ignore displays of racism that are any more covert because people might disagree.
When I was adopting, there were hundreds of questions about potential children. What ages would we accept? What gender? What race? How many? There was a multiple page list of disabilities, and we were asked to rank our comfort level with each of them — Can Definitely Accept, Can Definitely Not Accept, Need Specific Information. We zipped through the beginning: infant through age six, any gender, any race, either one child or a sibling pair. We spent a lot more time evaluating the range and severity of disabilities, as strange as that seemed, since you can never really know. Health and disability can change in the blink of an eye. Regardless, we filled out the form as best we could.
And then we had dinner with my parents.
We were casually discussing the paperwork, and talking about how strange it was to fill it out. My mother’s response was coded, barely, but her view was clear: she hoped we would have a white child.
My heart started to race. My fingers went numb. I could hear my pulse in my ears.
I’ve heard racist stories and jokes, infrequently, over the years at family parties. Never from my parents. From my grandfather and my uncles. My dad would sit in silence, and my mother’s face made her disapproval clear. But they never said anything. No one ever said, “Stop telling that disgusting story. We’re leaving.”
Driving home from dinner at my parents’ house, I replayed every discussion of race I’d ever had with my mother. It was easy, because there were so few. I recalled the times she had dismissed her own mother’s racism as “a product of another age,” saying that my grandmother “didn’t really mean it.” I always had a mouth on me, and I remember saying, “Really? Because Nana usually means what she says.”
I started looking at my own childhood, and the shame I felt when I didn’t conform to my mother’s ideas about what a little boy should be. She may have hand-knit a poncho for my Barbie doll, but a few years later I would feel the sting of rejection when I said or did things that embarrassed her.
Would my family love my children less if they were not white? Was I prepared to find out? I sought advice from our social worker. Her recommendation was clear, and we changed the form from “any race” to “white.” What did it say that we felt prepared for a whole range of developmental challenges, but we weren’t sure if we were appropriately prepared to raise a black child? Autism was fine, but a black child wasn’t?
Hearing Melissa Harris-Perry’s voice break while she described her relief at learning she was having a girl made me remember that decision. I had put it in the back of my mind in the panic and rush of actually being matched with children, and the dawn to exhaustion marathon that has followed. I don’t know if the decision changed anything. We were matched with our sons so quickly after we were approved, primarily because we said we would take two children and because the social workers were ecstatic that I was going to be home with the kids.
Is this a story about my racism? I don’t know. But it’s something I haven’t really talked about, which is a pretty good sign that it’s a problem. I talk about everything. When I read Kelly Wickham’s piece calling out those who have remained silent, I decided to write about it.
I don’t know if this story is helpful, but I know that there’s a problem, and that too many people are silent about it.
On Saturday morning, the boys had waffles for breakfast. Andrew really likes pancakes and waffles, in part because we let him practice using a knife. Neither of the boys has great fine motor control, so practicing with a knife is a lot of work for him, and it just doesn’t always go the way he wants.
This was especially the case with his waffles.
I’m not entirely sure how it happened. I know that I couldn’t reproduce it if you gave me a hundred waffles on which to try. Before Andrew managed to take a single bite of his waffle, before any portion of it was cut from the whole, his waffle was somehow airborne. It flipped end over end, almost in slow motion, and plummeted toward the floor.
It did not hit the floor, of course, because the world’s happiest dog caught it and swallowed it in one triumphant gulp. She waits under the table at every meal, because she is no fool. She knows where food falls. But a whole waffle? This was no accident. Buffy was certain that Andrew had given her the greatest gift a child can give to a dog.
So the humans are all silent for a moment, taken aback by the sight of a flying waffle. But Buffy knows what you do when someone does something nice for you, so she trots over to Andrew to thank him. Her tail is wagging so far from side to side that her entire back half is waving with it, and she rests her head on his lap.
Part of Andrew knows that this is funny. But another part of him is certain that he has LOST HIS WAFFLE FOREVER. He’s trying to hold back his tears, but it’s a struggle. There’s a sharp intake of air after every word.
“I <gasp!> know <gasp!> that <gasp!> you <gasp!> didn’t <gasp!> mean <gasp!> to <gasp!> take <gasp!> my <gasp!> waffle, <gasp!> Buffy! But <gasp!> I <gasp!> really <gasp!> wanted <gasp!> to <gasp!> eat <gasp!> that.”
Once Austin and I were able to stop laughing long enough to reassure Andrew that we would replace the waffle, everything returned to normal pretty quickly. But Buffy, who usually thinks Jordan is a more reliable source of food, has been standing a lot closer to Andrew at meals now.
Food can still be sort of fraught for my kids. It’s better now than it used to be. Usually it’s safe to mention food in front of Jordan these days. A couple of years ago, if you mentioned food outside of mealtime — “I think I’ll make spaghetti for supper today” or “What’s your favorite food?” — it was likely to trigger epic crying and screaming. The idea of food was just too much. Too powerful.
It still holds a certain power. Last week, I had a call from the psychologist at Andrew’s school. He had been late getting to class a couple of days in a row, because he was in the cafeteria eating breakfast.
A few times this year, Andrew has taken it upon himself to buy breakfast after I take him to school. His lunch money is on an account with the school, so if he buys two meals instead of one, we won’t notice until he runs out of money sooner than we expect.
The first time he started buying breakfast, it was a conversation.
“Are you hungry when you get to school? You have breakfast at home every morning, and you bring a snack to have in the morning.”
No, not hungry.
“Would you rather have breakfast at school instead of at home?”
No, he hates the idea of waiting until he’s at school to eat.
“Ok, so then you’ll eat breakfast at home, and not at school. You really don’t need to buy breakfast at school.”
The second time he started eating breakfast at school, we had the same conversation. Not hungry, not willing to wait for breakfast. Great, then stop buying breakfast. We eat when we’re hungry. If you’re hungry, let me know, and we’ll get you more food.
The third time he started buying breakfast, he realized he could eat slowly, and then saunter into class fifteen minutes late. It’s hard to blame the teachers in the cafeteria for letting him be late. They assume, and I suspect it’s usually a good assumption, that kids who are buying breakfast probably need that breakfast.
So this time I spoke to the teachers in the cafeteria. They had suspected something was unusual — most kids buy breakfast more regularly than my son, and most of them don’t wait until their parents are out of sight to buy it. I had kind of hoped that it was something he’d be able to manage — Dad told me not to buy breakfast, so I won’t buy breakfast. — but it looks like he needs some adult assistance to stop himself.
A couple of weeks ago, we went to a Bar Mitzvah for one of Austin’s cousins. We had a good time, and it’s always nice to see Austin’s extended family, who are fantastic. But despite warnings that it was almost time to leave, both kids were in tears as we went out the doors. Jordan was crying because … well, because there was a transition, and we always cry at transitions.
Andrew, though, was upset about two things:
- Austin and I were irresponsible parents, and we had let him eat too much, and now his tummy hurt.
- Austin and I also were mean parents, and would not let him have any more ice cream.
I tried to explain that those were really mutually exclusive things to be upset about, but you can imagine that kind of argument doesn’t have much weight.
The other day, I joked to Austin that “first grade is like the black box on an airplane. We’ll only find out what’s inside when it crashes.”
In some ways, I think no news is good news. I’ve had very brief conversations with the school psychologist and with the special education teacher who supervises Andrew’s classroom. It sounds like there’s not much to say because the things going on are the things we expect. But I’ve found myself missing the daily communication that came with preschool and kindergarten.
When I pick up Jordan from preschool, his teacher always lets me know how his day was, even if it’s just a quick “great day today, buddy!” directed at my son. When it’s a more complicated day, she tells me about the specifics.
This week, though, I had one of those phone calls that I was a little surprised I hadn’t received in the last six weeks. Andrew’s gym teacher called me.
“I just want to start by saying that Andrew is fine. He hasn’t been injured. Parents are always worried when I call,” she began.
Her list of concerns about Andrew’s behavior in her class was exactly what I would expect. He fails to follow directions, doesn’t attend to tasks, and can’t keep his hands to himself.
“Yes,” I said, “those are definitely the kind of challenges Andrew has in a classroom.”
It’s why he has an aide in his classroom, but it sounds like the gym teacher isn’t really kept in the loop on that. Actually, it sounds a little like she’s left in the lurch with no assistance.
I couldn’t help feeling that she expected me to have a solution for her, something I would say that would fix the problem. It’s something my best friend and I had talked about just the other day, too, that we’re just not shocked enough when teachers call us.
“I swear to god,” she said, “the next time his teacher calls me, I’m just going to say, ‘My son is autistic?!?! I had no idea!'”
It’s hard not to feel like you’re falling short as a parent when people keep looking to you for solutions that you don’t have.
Riding in Cars with Boys
If I want to know what Andrew is thinking, I just need to put him in the car. The five minutes between dropping Jordan off at preschool and dropping Andrew off at his elementary school are often the five most informative minutes of my day. I find out all kinds of things — did he get in trouble at school yesterday? does he have a new best friend? is he worried about something? All kinds of things that I’d never hear about if we weren’t in the car together for a few minutes.
This morning, I spent the entire ride to school being compared, unfavorably, to their mother. The boys were telling me that their mother loved Halloween, and always had the best Halloween decorations. Apparently she baked special Halloween desserts, too. Now, I can’t say how much of it is true, but I can tell you that my sons, especially Andrew, believe it. He spent a lot of time and energy telling me how much better Halloween, and life, would be, if I had more Halloween decorations and made more Halloween desserts.
Now, I’m no stranger to being compared to others and found to be wanting. My kids compare me to my husband all the time, and tell me how much more fun he is, how much more reasonable, and how much better. I make the rules, and like that episode of Modern Family where Claire and Phil traded roles, it wouldn’t work any other way. Still, when the boys ask, “Is Mark coming to the zoo with us?” and cheer when the answer is no, it stings a little.
I know they don’t really mean it, and they fall over each other in a race to tell me all about whatever adventure they had.
It’s harder when I’m compared to their mother. I know a lot about the reality, and they mostly just have mythology. To them, Mommy was perfect, a mythical creature made out of hugs and love.
Really, isn’t it better to remember her that way? There’s no question in my mind that she loved her sons, and that’s certainly what they remember. If nothing else, showing her children that she loved them was something she did well. A success in a long, sad string of failures.
I’m never sure how best to respond to their grief over losing their mother. All responses seem insufficient.
The other day, again alone in the car with the boys, Adele’s “Someone Like You” came on the radio. Now, that cd was in my car for months. They’ve probably heard the song hundreds of times. This day, though, Andrew said, “This song makes me think of Mommy. I really miss her.” Suddenly, a car ride to Nana and Grandpa’s for dinner was filled with sobbing from both my children, crying over the loss of their mother.
When we got to my parents’ house, grief was quickly forgotten in the impulse to look at Grandpa’s pumpkins and ask Nana to sew a rip in a stuffed animal. My mother could see it in my face, though, and we spoke about it briefly.
“You know,” she said, “Jordan is older now than Andrew was when the boys moved in with you.”
I nodded, not sure where she was going.
“At the time, we talked about how mature Andrew tried to be, and how he used to have such adult conversations. Try to imagine Jordan having the kind of conversations that Andrew used to have when he was four.”
It’s impossible. Jordan has the kind of conversations that four-year-olds have. He tells you about his toys. He tells you what camouflage is. Andrew used to say things like, “I know that Mommy can’t take care of me now, but how does the judge know that she’ll never be able to take care of me? I don’t think he can really know that.”
Carrying that weight on his shoulders, it seems only fair that I should have to carry the weight of subpar Halloween decorations.
Quick Followup on Rupert Everett
I wanted to say a couple of things, just briefly, that have come up in responses to my post about Rupert Everett yesterday. There’s a couple of pieces of feedback that I’ve heard a few times, and I just want to summarize them and respond:
First, because this one is really easy for me to respond to, some folks have been saying that Rupert Everett is just no longer relevant. He’s a bitter has-been, and he just lashes out at every opportunity. Essentially, folks are saying that Everett isn’t worth my time.
I can think of a few bitter has-beens that have been making the rounds lately. How about Kirk Cameron, Victoria Jackson, and Newt Gingrich? It doesn’t take much for folks like that to make a brief return to the spotlight. The National Organization for Marriage is happy to give Kirk Cameron a platform. And they’d be happy for Rupert Everett’s comments on gay dads to be out there, too.
So I think it requires a response, even if the speaker doesn’t seem especially relevant anymore.
Second, and this is much more complicated, I’ve been hearing concern from a few folks that my post only addresses kids who were in a bad situation, and not gay parents who have children through one of the many other avenues for becoming a parent. Tied up in that concern is another message — that Rupert Everett was really talking about gay parents who chose surrogacy, and not gay parents who adopt from foster care.
Let me be very clear — regardless of how a gay person became a parent, Rupert Everett’s comments are contemptible and disgusting. It doesn’t take much of a logical leap to deconstruct. If Everett is opposed to gay parents choosing surrogacy, but isn’t speaking out about straight parents choosing surrogacy or becoming pregnant, then his issue clearly isn’t with bringing children into the world. (Though if that were his issue, we’d have another reason to think he’s disgusting. Telling people that they should or shouldn’t reproduce is horrific.) No, his issue seems to specifically be with gay men parenting.
The very funny Jeff Byrne said on twitter:
Seeing all gay men as himself, egotist Rupert Everett is rightly horrified at the thought of kids raised by 2 of him.
And I think that summarizes it better than I can.
As far as my post only talking about kids in a really awful situation? Well, that’s the actual story for my kids. Those aren’t hypothetical examples. And I chose to respond in that way as a rhetorical device, answering Everett’s question about what could be worse than being raised by two gay dads.
I think someone else could write an amazing response to Rupert Everett that really dismantles the inherent bigotry in what he’s saying about the decision of two men to bring a baby into this world. I hope someone does. But that isn’t my experience, and I think my writing is the strongest when I speak from my own experience.
Failure to Launch
Our new morning routine is working pretty well. Austin gets up and gets ready for work, the boys get up and Austin gets them ready and feeds them breakfast while I get up and get ready. Austin heads to work, then the boys and I get in the car. Jordan’s school starts at 8:30, so we drop him off, and then Andrew gets dropped off at 8:45. I’m back home by 9:00, and have a luxurious nearly two hours before it’s time to pick Jordan up at 11:00.
Yesterday was only the second day of preschool, so a lot of the kids are still nervous about being dropped off. This school does a car line (which is awesome), and yesterday there was a very sad little boy ahead of us in line. I’ve seen some sad kids in the first weeks of school, but haven’t yet seen one quite as upset as Jordan’s new classmate. He really seemed to think his mom was driving away, never to come back.
Once Jordan gets out of the car, I have about five minutes alone with Andrew in the car. This is the time of day when we get our best talking done. There are no distractions, so he can actually pay attention long enough to get his thoughts together.
Andrew had noticed the little boy crying and screaming, and asked me about it. I explained that it was only his second day of school, and he was scared.
“Remember when some of the kids at your old school were scared? I remember how sad Aidan was for the first couple of weeks, but then he realized that he loved school. And remember how scared Aubrey was, and she wanted you to hold her hand all day?” I reminded him.
“I wasn’t scared about starting a new school, though,” he said.
“No,” I said, “you get really excited about it. But you’ve had a lot of practice. You went to daycare when you were very little, and then you went to Headstart, and then preschool.”
He was quiet for a moment, then said, “That’s not all.”
“When I was little, I lived with different families, too. So I had lots of practice meeting new people and going new places.”
“You’re right, you did,” I said. “You’ve had a lot of practice.”
“I don’t think some of these kids have had very much practice.”
“No, you’re right. This is the first time some of them have gone to school,” I told him.
“Daddy, I think that some of these kids have lived with their mommies for their whole lives. Can you even imagine that?!”
I explained that almost all of them had lived with their moms for their whole lives, and we talked about a few kids we know who are also adopted. We don’t know many kids who actually remember a time before they were adopted, though. Even his little brother doesn’t really have a clear picture of a time before he lived with us.
Something about the way he said it made me chuckle, though, like he just couldn’t fathom these underachieving three-year-olds who were still living in their parents’ houses.
A Drive Down Memory Lane
This afternoon, we went to a cookout at my brother’s house. It’s actually the first time I’ve been to his condo since he and his wife bought it last year. Usually, they come to us. Or more accurately, they come to my parents’ house, and that’s ten minutes from us. It just ends up being easier for everyone.
But today, we took the back roads and went through a town and city that I almost never go through. It’s the city where my sons lived with their mother, and where they were in foster care. We drove past a school with a playground that my older son remembers. We drove past a street that made me nudge my husband’s shoulder and whisper, “That’s the street with that daycare.” As in, that’s the daycare where our younger son was assaulted.
My husband didn’t know the location of that daycare, I realized. I only knew which daycare it was because our older son pointed it out to me, back when we used to drive through this city. I don’t think he knew about what happened to his brother there, but he certainly knew that it was his brother’s daycare.
We had a nice time with my brother, his wife, and her family. The boys had fun, and my sister-in-law’s father(who is the father of three girls) was excited to get to play with some boy toys. The boys were shockingly well behaved.
On the way home, we took a slightly different route. I don’t think the boys really have negative associations with the landmarks on our first route, but I can never really be sure. But on the way home, we drove by some landmarks that brought back memories for my husband and I.
“Do you remember the playground over there?” he asked.
And of course I do. It’s the playground where we first met our sons, on a playdate with their foster moms. Andrew was much more interested in what he was having for snack than meeting some “new friends,” but Jordan, who wasn’t really even speaking yet at the time, wanted me to hold his hand so he could drag me around the playground.
“I think you can rest assured that as long as I live, I will never forget that playground,” I tell Austin.
Now it’s my turn to point out a landmark. “That’s the Dunkin’ Donuts where we stopped after meeting the kids,” I say.
We both remember it because we got in the car to drive home after our playdate, but we were both shaking so much we had to stop. So we pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts and sat there until we calmed down a little.
One more landmark? I’ve been writing this blog for a year, and this is my 42nd post. Not quite up to my goal of one decent post per week, but not as far off as I thought.
Need a laugh? I looked at my search terms. After terms you might expect, like “geek gay” “gay dad” and “gay geek dad,” my next most popular search term is “spy kids gay.” Apparently, people wonder about whether the spy kids are gay, and think maybe I have the answer.