“I was so brave.”
“That girl did not share, and I told her, ‘YOU’RE NOT PLAYING NICE!’”
“I forgive Legoland.”
“I forgive Legoland.”
Just about the most horrible thing you can ask a kid, other than “Do you want to watch Barney?”, is “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
My kids are 3 years old. You really expect them to have their lives mapped out already? If you ask my kids what they want to do later that afternoon, they’ll say, “Eat cookies.” That’s how much thought they’ve given to the future. But you want them to imagine a day when they’re paying into social security? Geez, let them be kids for five seconds. If you’re going to start pressuring them about their future, why not give them a sample SAT test while you’re at it?
How many jobs do you think my kids can even name? Around now, I’d guess 3: stay-home dad, TV executive and exploradora.
So I was a little disappointed when I found out their teacher asked them just that question. C’mon, I had a hard enough time picking a major in college. Can’t they just spend pre-pre-Kindergarten making snowflakes with construction paper and safety scissors?
OK, fine, the damage was already done, so I asked what they said.
“I want to be a train conductor!” Bennett announced.
“And I want to be a princess!” Sutton cheered.
It was worse than I’d feared. My kids were cliché.
I was going to discuss it further, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I mean “a princess”? Am I supposed to take that seriously? Should I have scolded her? “Would you really think about this? This is your life we’re talking about!” Better yet, am I allowed to hold this against them someday? “Hey, you said you wanted to be a train conductor. I’m not paying for law school!”
We were in the middle of getting some renovations done on our bathroom, and when we got home, there was a contractor in our front yard mixing cement.
“Hey, can you show the kids what you’re doing?” I asked. “It looks cool!” Princess, my ass, I thought. I’m going to show you kids what a job is.
I already knew the contractor loved the kids, so I figured he’d be on board. “Grab a shovel!” he told them. “You can help!”
So my kids learned to mix cement, and from the way they talked about it afterward, it was probably the most thrilling thing they’d ever done. (Good thing the contractor didn’t make them stick around and watch it dry.)
I admit, I felt good about myself. Instead of asking my kids to narrow down their options for the future, I was expanding their concept of what was possible, introducing them to something new.
It’s how I feel about most things my kids do. If my son wants to wear a dress, great. Let him know how it feels to wear one. He has plenty of time to figure out his identity, so I’m not going to try to pin him down. I’ll just consider it a non-issue and appreciate his desire to explore. I make sure he knows that I’ll love him no matter what. It’s his job to figure out the “what”.
We told Drew all of this as soon as he got home that night. How they picked out their future professions in school and how, afterward, they learned a new trade. While Drew was wrangling them for bathtime, my cell phone rang. Private number. I wouldn’t usually pick up, but for whatever reason, I did.
“Hello Gerald? It’s Doctor ____. We just got the results of your blood test, and I have some bad news.”
Yeah, it was one of those calls.
“You have an extremely elevated potassium level. Because it is life-threatening, you need to get retested right away to see if we got an accurate reading.”
“Our urgent care facility closes at 9pm, so if you can’t make it there by then, you’ll have to go to the emergency room. I’d really recommend you go to urgent care.”
“I’ll go to urgent care.”
I don’t know how much of the call Drew overheard amid all the kids’ shouting and running around, but apparently, the word “life-threatening” had gotten through. I could tell that much from his petrified expression.
“Do you want us all to come with you?” he asked. His face had completely drained of color.
“No. It’s almost the kids’ bedtime.”
It was only when I saw how Drew was looking at me that the term “life-threatening” really sunk in. It was as if he thought he might never see me again.
I hugged the kids and told them I loved them. What more could I do? Whisper “Goodbye forever!” just in case?
“Will you be back when we go to bed?” Bennett asked.
“Probably not,” I replied. “But I’ll be here when you wake up tomorrow.” (I hope.)
I don’t know how I made it through the 15-minute drive to the doctor’s office. I kept thinking if the potassium didn’t give me a heart attack, my anxiety about the potassium surely would. How did I get so much potassium in my blood anyway? Fucking bananas!
The urgent care center was closing down as I walked in. The gift shop was dark and gated up already. Janitors mopped the entranceway, and there were no more patients in the waiting room. I walked up to one of the two receptionists, and she gave me a form to fill out.
Under “Reason for visit”, I wrote, “Blood test”. When I handed it over, she shook her head. “Oh, sorry, honey. The lab is closed.”
She passed the form back to me. “Hold on,” the other receptionist said. “You Mahoney? Oh, yeah. Dr. ____ called about you!” She grabbed the form and nodded. “Have a seat.”
This was not comforting. If there’s anywhere you don’t want to feel like a VIP, it’s at an urgent care facility.
The receptionist picked up her phone. “He’s here!” she barked.
A few seconds later, a nurse rushed out. “Mr. Mahoney?” I couldn’t tell if the nurse was rushing because she was worried about my potassium or if she was just anxious to go home for the night. She brought me back to an exam room. Along the way, everyone we passed looked up at me, as if wondering, “Is that him?” I almost expected one of them to call out, “Dead man walking!”
Within about half a second, the nurse had taken a new vial of blood and strapped me in for an EKG. “Are you a little nervous?” she asked.
“No. I’m a lot nervous.”
“There are a lot of false positives on this test. That’s why we retake it.” She finished the EKG, ran a printout to the doctor and then pointed me back toward the waiting room. “We’ll have the results in about 15 minutes.”
15 minutes is not a long time, unless of course you’re waiting for blood test results or, worse, sitting through 15 minutes of a Terrence Malick film. Much like it did during The Thin Red Line, my mind began to wander.
Death… my dad died when he was 61… I would be 41… I was 28 when my dad died… my kids would be 3 when I died… I have a lot of wonderful memories of my dad… My kids would probably forget what I looked like… Am I really going to die tonight? Here? Should I tweet something?
I used to think about death a lot when I was a teenager. It was just kind of a rite of passage as a gay kid, I guess. Depression, alienation, death. Too much Smiths music. But there was one thing that always brought me back, that gave me hope, and that was thinking about the following summer movie season. Stop thinking about death, Jerry. It’s a great time to be alive. There’s a new Back to the Future coming out!
I didn’t understand how people could commit suicide, and it had nothing to do with all the hurt loved ones they’d leave behind. Weren’t they curious as to what Spielberg was cooking up for next Memorial Day weekend?
Sitting in that deserted urgent care waiting room, there wasn’t a single movie I wanted to see or place I wanted to visit or experience I wanted to have in my life. My bucket list was complete, except for one thing. It was the only thing I could think about.
I just wanted to watch my kids grow up.
They’re such amazing people at 3 1/2, but who will they be at 18? Or 30? A train conductor and a princess? Right now, that was the best information I had. Something told me it might not stick.
I realized in that moment that all I’ve seen of my kids so far is a coming attraction — a teaser, really — and the old kind. The kind that doesn’t give away all the good stuff. I need to see how their story turns out. I don’t want to die. I can’t die.
I want to watch my kids grow up.
“Mr. Mahoney,” the nurse said. “Come on back.” She was smiling. So either the test results were good, or she was just happy that after this, she could punch out of her shift.
“We have about 2 or 3 of these false positives a year,” the doctor explained. “The blood starts to clot before they get the reading and hemoglobin antigens capillary stat…”. I’m not going to try to recap the medical explanation for why they scared the crap out of me for no reason. All I heard was that I wasn’t going to die.
I know the sitcom version of my brush with death would end with me learning some big life-affirming lesson, like not to take the important things for granted. But honestly, I feel like I already know that. You know Debra Winger’s “I know you love me!” speech from Terms of Endearment? Well, I subject my kids to that every time they get mad at me, just in case I slip on a sock puppet and break my neck against the train table before we get a chance to make up. It could happen.
This wasn’t a wakeup call about my health either. The urgent care center didn’t send me home with a stern warning to eat better or exercise more. Just, “Bye!” It was a lab error. I could’ve stopped for a taco grande and a skillet cookie on my way home, and don’t think I didn’t think about it.
But I realized that, if I went right home, I could actually make it there before the kids went to bed. I could tuck them in, tell them I loved them for — who’s counting? — maybe the 1,012th time that day and, best of all, ask them what they wanted to do tomorrow.
They’d probably say something like, “Eat cookies.” But for now, that’s all the answer I needed.
“I’m not wearing a coat today!”
“Yes you are.”
“Honey, it’s zero degrees outside. Do you know how many degrees that is? None. That’s cold.”
“I’m wearing a sweater.”
“And you should be. But you need a coat, too.”
“I DON’T WANNA WEAR A COOOOOOOOOOAT!”
“I DON’T CAAAAAAAAAARE! Put it on!”
“I won’t be cold! I promise!”
“I’m not arguing about this. There’s your coat. Put it on.”
“What if I wear… a jacket?”
“You’ll actually wear a jacket?”
“Fine. There’s your jacket.”
(I point to her coat. She puts it on.)
“Great. Now let’s talk about gloves.”
This weekend, we took the kids to see a Thomas the Train live stage show. “Daddy?” Bennett asked me on the way there. “Will Thomas be real?”
“No,” I said.
Drew practically swerved off the road. “What?!”
“He’ll be a character,” I explained, “like when we saw SpongeBob in Times Square.”
“Yes, Bennett,” Drew emphatically corrected me. “Thomas will be real!”
It was like I’d blown the whole Santa thing or something. I mean yes, Thomas is real in our hearts, kid, but you’ve been on “real” trains. Are they rendered with pen and ink? Do they have expressive faces and buddies like George Carlin? I didn’t want to set the boy up for disappointment. The Times Square SpongeBob spoke with a thick Mexican accent and practically grabbed his tip right out of my pocket after we snapped his picture. Instead of a pineapple under the sea, he smelled like he lived in a box under the Queensboro Bridge. I wasn’t expecting much more from this show.
We filed into a theater with the barest of backdrops on stage. It was basically a green door and the Thomas logo. Even next to Times Square SpongeBob, this seemed bush league. Bennett was silent as he waited for the show to start. And waited. And waited.
This is a kid who gets antsy waiting for me to spread peanut butter on a mini bagel. He just stared at the stage for half an hour, barely making a peep.
“When Thomas comes out,” Bennett announced at one point, “I’m going to dance with him.”
Eventually, a woman with a microphone took the stage and told us that after the show we’d have an opportunity to get our picture taken with Thomas. I thought Bennett might explode. “When it’s your turn, please move quickly across the stage,” she implored us. “Also, Thomas asked that you not touch his face.”
Then, another two-legged, zero-engined character took the stage. He introduced himself as Driver Sam, and he wore an engineer’s overalls and hat. This is where having gay dads colors your perspective on things, because other parents probably thought Sam was just a delightful, enthusiastic young man belting out the Thomas theme song. As for my partner and me, our gaydars started to overheat. His go-go boy good looks and overinflated biceps could not go unacknowledged. We quietly whispered jokes about Driver Sam checking his Grindr backstage.
Driver Sam instructed the crowd to sing along with him, and we did… for maybe the first 3 times he ran through the theme song. Then he did it about 8 more times, repeating the same lame choreography over and over. “One more time!” he shouted, long after he’d lost us all. That’s when it became clear. Driver Sam’s job was to fill time.
Enough, Driver Sam! Bring on the Beatles!
Driver Sam coached us on how to properly greet Thomas when he arrived (i.e., give a big wave and shout, ” Helloooooooo, Thomas!”). We practiced it about 14 times.
Then, finally, the green doors we’d been staring at for the last 45 minutes opened. Behind the scenes, a couple of stagehands gave a push, and Thomas’ familiar face poked out about two and a half feet from Tidmouth Sheds, then came to a stop. Thomas was as tall as Driver Sam, yet despite his cartoonish appearance, he was far, far less animated than his human co-star.
I realized this was all the Thomas we’d be getting. He wouldn’t be venturing into the audience or moving across the stage. He wouldn’t be joined by any of his train friends, and he sure wouldn’t be dancing with my son.
“Helloooooooo, Thomas!” we all cheered, dutifully. I glanced over at Bennett, to see if he was as unimpressed as I was. Instead, he looked like he’d just seen Elvis.
“He’s real!” Bennett shouted. He turned to me and said it again. “Daddy, he’s real!”
At that moment, I simultaneously felt like the world’s biggest jerk and the luckiest man alive. I knew instantly that I’d be reliving that experience, that pure, perfect little chirp of “He’s real!” over and over for the rest of my life. I’ve replayed it in my head about a thousand times in just the last two days.
I’d forgotten that at my son’s age, your ability to buy into fantasy is incredibly high, while your taste in live theater is incredibly low. This was the most thrilling moment of his young life, and that made it one of mine, too, because the way Bennett feels about Thomas is the way I feel about Bennett.
Sometimes I can’t believe he’s real myself.
Just over a year ago, my family was homeless. Okay, so it wasn’t in the sleeping-outdoors, panhandling-for-change sense of the word, but technically, we were without a place to live. We’d packed up our West Hollywood condo, and everything we owned was traveling through parts of the country we ourselves had mostly never seen.
Other than our decision to have kids, it was the biggest, scariest choice we’d ever made, but it seemed like the right thing to do for our family.
We spent the holidays with Drew’s parents and siblings in upstate New York, then I came down to meet the movers and start unpacking our stuff. Each item was tagged with a number, so it was easy to see exactly how much junk Drew and I had jointly amassed in our years on the West Coast. The highest number was roughly equal to my score on the SAT verbal section. (Granted, math was my forte.) Three days later, with only about 3 or 4 boxes unpacked, I opened the door to Drew and the kids, all of whom were seeing our new home for the first time.
That was one year ago today, January 1, 2012.
It’s nice to ring in this year with some stability, because the last one started off so full of uncertainty. Would we like it here? Was this the right thing for the kids? Would we ever get unpacked?
I wish I could say I had definitive replies to those questions, but the only one I can answer for sure is the last one — no.
Earlier today, we sat down with the kids and looked through some pictures of our last days in California and our first days in New York. The differences kind of surprised us, as in this image of the moving truck:
They’re crawling! That may not shock you as much as it does me, but in my memory, the last time my kids crawled was a hundred years ago. In actuality, it was just one year, or, according to the Mayan calendar, a mere 355 days followed by a timeless void.
It took me a minute before I could remember the moment. They knew how to walk by then, but the rickety ramp was a little too unsteady for then. Just to be safe, they got down on all fours. As we got ready to leave our past behind, the kids gave us one last glimpse of their infancy.
Confidence in walking ability wasn’t the only thing our family gained in 2012. We made some amazing new friends, reconnected with some old friends and spent wonderful times with our East Coast family (by which I mean our actual families, not the loose network of Bell Biv DeVoe-affiliated artists popular in the early 90s). The kids also made new friends, they learned about 10,000 new words (only 1 or 2 of which we’d prefer they hadn’t), caught a dozen or two kiddie viruses and started school.
Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed at how happy I am in our new home. Other times, I’ve overcome with grief at the lives and the friends we left behind. I’ll ask my kids if they remember someone from our old life, and they’ll just stare back at me blankly. Los Angeles is a blur to them, and soon, it’ll be nothing but a series of pictures their dads show them when they’re in the mood to look back and reflect.
Browsing through at the photos, I admit, I got a bit choked up. As for Drew, he sobbed uncontrollably and had to leave the room. So the big question facing us now, at the start of 2013, is pretty obvious: did we make the right choice?
I’ve asked myself that at least once on each of the last 365 days, and I sat down to write this post determined to address it. Once again, though, I’m not sure it has an answer. There’s no way of knowing what this last year would’ve been like if we hadn’t moved. All I know for sure is that none of these things would’ve happened:
We would’ve made a completely different set of memories, some incredible, some undoubtedly sad. I wouldn’t have any of these pictures to treasure, but there would be a different set, one I probably would’ve loved just as much. And I’ll never know what they might’ve looked like.
That’s because changing the setting may change some things, but it doesn’t completely alter a story. Wherever we put ourselves, we’re headed forward on a similar trajectory through an uncertain future. Here or there, New York or LA, we’re still us. The same people and the same family.
We end one year tentatively crawling, and the next, it seems like we’ve been walking forever.
I don’t want to write about what happened. I don’t want to think about what happened. For the last few days, I’ve done everything I can to avoid reading about what happened. I just can’t bear it — as a parent, as a (usually) proud American, as a human being. I don’t want to hear the details or see the pictures or listen to eyewitness accounts. I just can’t bear it.
But I can’t ignore it either.
A few weeks ago, there was a horrific incident in Manhattan where a nanny — well, I won’t rehash the details, you know the case. I was so wrecked by that I almost wrote a post on the subject, but then I just couldn’t. That would mean thinking about what had happened some more.
I haven’t forgotten about that incident, though, and I won’t forget about this new incident either. And there will be another incident, we all know there will, where someone who desperately needed help does something horrible to someone innocent, and all we can do is hope that it won’t affect us or anyone we care about, that we’ll be able to go on living our lives and hugging our own kids and saying, “Isn’t it horrible what happened to those people?”
But every time I go on Facebook, I see friends arguing about the causes of this latest incident — I won’t dwell on the specifics. I don’t need to type them out, and you don’t need to read them. Every time I see someone else writing about it, though, all I can think is, “Good! Argue. Debate. Keep talking about this. Tweet it, pin it, tumbl it, whatever. Do everything you can to work through this for yourself and to keep the subject alive.”
So fine, here’s my post. You may not want to read anything else on this subject, and if so, I don’t blame you. Go back and look at the baby polar bear at the top of this post. You’ve earned it. I’m just going to go ahead with my little rant, though, for my own benefit. I hope you don’t mind.
First of all, debate is good, but let’s just not get bogged down in the debate over what we should be debating. Guns, mental health, media coverage? Yes, yes and yes. Let’s look at them all. Now.
Here’s my philosophy on guns: Before you let a gun into your home, picture the worst-case scenario of what might happen with that gun, on purpose or by accident. Now take whatever precautions you need to take to ensure that horrible thing doesn’t occur — locks, double locks, a hundred locks or, if necessary, not buying the gun in the first place. Unless you’re willing to take gun ownership that seriously, you’re probably not qualified to own a gun.
We need to stop indulging people who think guns are toys, that there’s something cool or fun about seeing how many people a gun could kill, how fast… just hypothetically, y’know. That it’s just awesome to have the latest, most lethal killing machine hanging on your wall as some kind of trophy. Again, consider the worst-case scenario of what that gun might be used for… because we’ve seen the worst-case scenario occur over and over.
That’s why the “arm the teachers” argument falls flat. Think about all the things that could go wrong if we put more guns in schools. Trust me, the worst-case scenario will happen, a lot. Also, I had some crazy teachers growing up. Enough said.
I don’t understand the mind of someone who would commit a mass murder, and I’m not sure anyone truly does, but we should be doing everything we can to figure it out. No one should pick up a gun and start firing randomly because we were too heartless or too lazy or too cheap to help them.
Some people think the killers are just seeking fame. I always doubted that argument myself. If I ever wanted to be famous, I would audition for America’s Got Talent (and surely find myself in a montage of people who most assuredly don’t got talent). But let’s assume there are people who would commit these kinds of acts just to get their names in the news. Let’s say that at least some of the killers want to be as notorious as, you know, that guy and the other guy and those two nutjobs from that state.
It’s certainly possible. For a while, people thought the way to get attention was to send someone powder through the mail — either anthrax or, in some cases, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Anthrax. When the media hype died down, so did those kinds of attacks. Maybe we can do the same thing with gun violence. It’s worth a shot. (No pun intended.)
So how do we keep the bad guys from gaining any level of notoriety? Well, here’s my modest proposal: Instead of blasting the perpetrator’s name everywhere, we refer to them like we do hurricanes, from a predetermined alphabetized list of antiquated, almost absurd-sounding first names.
We’ll call this guy Almonzo. The next one will be Bartleby.
You want to make a name for yourself? Go right ahead. Just be warned that name is going to be Clementine.
Sure, the person’s given name will still get out — and it probably should, to some extent, so we can study these people, interview their families and help prevent the next Dudley, Jasper or Phineas. But for the large majority of us who’d rather not make a psychotic into a celebrity, we can just call them Hubert or whatever we’re up to alphabetically at that point.
It’s a starting point. Let’s do that and see how it works out. Meanwhile, we’ll keep working on reducing unnecessarily overpowered weapons and helping the mentally ill.
I don’t want to think anymore about what happened last Friday, and you probably don’t either, so let’s make a pact that for now, we won’t shut up about it. Let’s make it a priority to do whatever we can, so won’t ever have to wonder what name comes next after Zelda.
I’ll admit that 90% of my parenting philosophy comes from Supernanny, because watching a reality TV show is easier than reading a book or taking a class, and you get to look at cute kids acting like animals, which is always fun. What I love about the show is that Jo Frost, the Supernanny, only has about 3 techniques, which work 100% of the time and turn even the nastiest little monsters into complete angels with only four commercial breaks in between.
Sign me up!
I’ve since learned that everything the Supernanny advocates is a tried-and-true parenting method, like Ferberizing, but she doesn’t use the real terms so it seems like she came up with them herself. Oh, those clever Brits!
One thing Jo does in every single episode is give Time Outs. She puts an adorably British twist on it, sending kids to “the naughty ____” [chair/step/Barcolounger]. But it’s a time out. The kid does a bad thing, you make them sit still for a bit, then you all move on with your lives.
That’s what happens to grown-ups, after all. You do a bad thing and we punish you by making you go away for a while. First-degree murder gets you 20 to life. Raiding the cookie jar gets you one minute for every year old you are. Sounds fair to me.
Or so I thought. It turns out there’s a whole anti-Time Out movement that wants me to feel guilty for being so barbaric and heartless.
Well, fine. I’ll do what I do any time someone criticizes my parenting skills. I’ll listen closely to their arguments, ponder them calmly and rationally, then shoot them down one by one.
It’s time to play Ultimate Parenting Smackdown! Hit me with your best shots, anti-Time Out people. I’m ready for you!
ARGUMENT: The child is only acting out because his needs aren’t being met.
Which need are we talking about here? The need to beat the shit out of his sister? (For the record, my kids rarely hit each other, so I must be doing something right.)
Most of the arguments in my house happen when one kid wants the other kid’s toy. I calmly give them a list of options — ask for a turn, find another toy, come up with a way to play together — and once in a while, one of those methods actually works. More often, they just grab the toy and run. That’s when they get a time out.
I think some people confuse needs with wants. Most kids want everything, all the time. Any rational parent is going to push back. What if I got mugged by a junkie? Would you tell me not to call the police? Or would that fail to address the criminal’s need for crack?
You want to talk about needs? Let’s talk about my need for peace and quiet. When my kid’s need to yank the cat keyboard from her brother’s hands infringes on that, then my need trumps hers.
ARGUMENT: You’re treating the symptom, not the underlying cause.
When I have a cold, I take cough medicine. It doesn’t make the cold go away, but it eases my discomfort for a bit, and that’s all I expect it to do.
Putting a kid in a time out may not teach them never to misbehave again, but it keeps them quiet for a few minutes, and sometimes, that’s good enough.
Kids do bad things — always have, always will. It’s natural, it’s healthy. They’re testing their boundaries — and my patience. You have a method that makes a toddler never want to take a toy away from another kid, ever? Great, I’d love to hear it. Until then, I’ll take the 3 minutes of silence as the next best thing.
ARGUMENT: Kids can’t understand consequences until they’re 4 or 5 years old.
Most kids can’t read until they’re 4 or 5 either, so should I not allow my children access to books? Should I not teach them how to spell their name or that “J” says “juh”? Trust me, if I put them in enough time outs, they’ll start to make the correlation way ahead of whenever a psychologist thinks they’re able. And won’t I be proud!
Nobody ever says of a violin prodigy, “Man, their parents must be so cruel, shoving that instrument into their hands at such a young age and forcing them to practice.” You just enjoy the music and the cuteness, right?
Well, I’m creating discipline prodigies, so sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor, world. You’re welcome.
ARGUMENT: Redirecting is a more effective method of curtailing bad behavior.
Some people say that the best way to handle bad behavior is to remove the child from the activity and get them interested in something else. It’s certainly quicker than forcing everyone through the several-minute ordeal (those of you without kids, trust me: every minute feels like an eternity) of a time out.
Really? Ignoring the problem is your solution? Forget “redirecting”. This is avoidance. And since when is that a psychologically healthy way of dealing with a problem?
What’s wrong with telling a kid he did something bad? What message is he going to get if I redirect him instead? “Hey, I saw you hit your sister. Wanna come over here and play with my iPad?”
ARGUMENT: You’re withholding love from your child in order to teach them a lesson.
Damn right I am. They’re screaming their heads off and driving me nuts. What’s the appropriate amount of love to show them at that moment? Once they’ve calmed down and done their time on the chair, I always tell them that I love them and I think they’re good kids, but that [x] behavior was unacceptable.
Don’t worry. My kids get plenty of love from me, and they’re smart enough to realize (or they will be eventually) that it’s love that makes me sentence them to time outs.
I’m not claiming that time outs are perfect or even perfectly effective, but as a parent, I need to do something to keep my kids off the path to hoodlumhood. So until someone comes up with a cure for childhood misbehavior, I’m sticking with them.
I always encourage my kids to share, so don’t think you’re off the hook either. If you liked this post, I hope you’ll use those buttons below to post it to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Digg or whatever other service you use. And if you haven’t yet, please show your support for the blog by liking me on Facebook, following me on Twitter or subscribing in the little box on the top of the right column of this page. Then, in the future, you can skip these little post-asterisk messages. Okay, time out’s over. You know I love you, right?
This is the latest in a series of informational posts I’ve been doing on the gestational surrogacy process. This is for those of you who might be where I was about 5 years ago, weighing the options you have for becoming a parent… or for those who are merely curious about the process. This time, I’m sharing my advice on what questions you need to ask your surrogate before deciding if you’re a good match.
To the rest of you, I apologize. More peepee poopoo jokes next time, I promise.
Meeting with a potential surrogate is like the most awkward first date imaginable. You’re face-to-face with a woman you barely know, and both of you spend most of the time talking about making a baby together. Talk about rushing things.
There are probably a million things you want — and need — to know. I’ve seen some websites that suggest you approach your surrogate with a massive checklist of questions, many of which are not exactly subtle, like:
“Do you smoke?”
“Are you sexually active?”
“What were the results of your last pap smear?”
Sure, those are great things to ask… if you want the surrogate to throw a drink in your face and slap an instant “No Vacancy” sign on her womb.
Remember, this isn’t a job interview. She can reject you, too, and if you treat her like an employee or a menial laborer, she probably should.
Don’t worry, if there are any red flags, they’ll turn up in her medical and psychological exams, and you’ll be made aware of them by a professional, neutral third party.
When you sit down face-to-face with a potential gestational carrier, try to empathize with what she’s going through. After a huge amount of deliberation and soul searching, she’s decided to do something incredibly generous, terrifically inconvenient, and more than a tiny bit risky, for a virtual stranger. She’s nervous to meet that stranger, but also a bit thrilled.
Then you come in and ask about her pap smears.
So what should you discuss in your first meeting? First and foremost, it’s time to take the mystery out of your relationship and just get to know each other. If things go well, you’ll be creating a life together.
That being said, it’s not exactly a first date. You need to check your compatibility on some pretty weighty matters.
If you’re working with an agency, much of this subject matter will be covered by them, but if not, these are the questions you need to ask, in increasing order of unpleasantness.
1. What made you want to be a surrogate?
No one’s going to reply, “I need the money,” and if they do, you should probably run away as fast as you can. Sure, the money is a nice perk, but with all a surrogate goes through, she’s going to earn that cash, and it is a limited sum. No one’s getting rich as a gestational surrogate, so it’s a safe bet she has bigger motives.
Our surrogate heard a report about gestational surrogacy on the radio when she was 19, and it made her cry. She turned to her mother and said, “Someday, I’m going to do that for someone.” Once she’d completed her own family, she googled surrogacy agencies, and that’s how she was eventually paired with us. It was such a sweet story, and it told us so much about who she was as a person.
Raising this basic topic is a great way to get to know your surrogate and to show her that you appreciate the sacrifice she’d be making on your behalf.
2. What were your other pregnancies like?
Again, the medical exam will clue you in to any relevant technical info, so try to keep this as light as possible. How bad did her babies kick? Did she get morning sickness? You may not know very much about the surrogate at this point, but you know she’s been pregnant before (at least in most cases, since most gestational carriers have a proven history of successful pregnancies).
You, on the other hand, in all likelihood have never been and never will be pregnant. Show some curiosity and empathy by asking her to describe exactly what she’d be going through for your benefit. This is also a great way to show you appreciate the sacrifice she’ll be making on your behalf.
And if you find out pregnancy makes her crave pickles and ice cream, file that away. Someday, when she’s carrying your child, you’ll know just what to put in her care package.
3. How do your friends and family feel about you being a surrogate?
Surrogacy is physically and emotionally demanding, and no one can do it alone. Make sure she has a good support system, people who care about her who appreciate what an amazing thing she’s doing. If she’s religious, it’s very helpful if her spiritual leader is on her side as well.
This is especially important for gay intended parents. If your surrogate has a homophobic husband or goes to a gay-unfriendly church, you’re not off to a good start. Someday soon, she might find herself at the Wal-Mart in her tiny town when a woman comes up, points at her belly and says, “Aww, lucky you!” She’ll have to reply, “Oh, he’s not mine. I’m having this baby for George and Steven.” Is she ready for whatever may come next?
Let her know what kind of homophobia you’ve faced and how you’ve persevered. It can be very difficult for a (most likely) straight woman to willingly expose herself to homophobia, but that’s what she’ll be doing by having a baby for a gay couple.
One surrogate my partner and I met with had previously carried a baby for a gay couple, and she hadn’t encountered any resistance, so we knew she’d be fine this time around as well.
4. Are you comfortable with me/us being in doctor’s appointments and the delivery room?
Sorry, guys, when you came out of the closet, you probably thought you were exempt from discussing (and possibly seeing) ladyparts. Not any more. Obviously, let the surrogate know that you’ll respect her privacy as much as possible. But one of the main benefits of having a baby with a surrogate is being able to participate in all the exciting prenatal moments, like finding out the baby’s sex or seeing him or her for the first time on a sonogram monitor.
Most surrogates will fully anticipate and welcome your participation in the process, but raising the issue in a polite and respectful manner will set the right tone for when those intimate moments inevitably arise.
5. What kind of communication would you like to maintain after the birth?
There’s no correct answer to this. Some surrogates and intended parents want to stay in close touch. Others might want to be your Facebook friend so they can see pictures of your kids growing up. Still others may be content merely to get a holiday card every December. As long as both parties are on the same page, anything can work.
My advice is to offer up a safe but minimal amount of contact. If you and your surrogate hit it off (as we did with ours), you can always have more contact than you planned.
It’s important to reiterate that your surrogate will have no legal rights to your child. Once your baby is born, you are well within your rights to cut off all contact with the surrogate and never see her again. I’d imagine that kind of clean break only really happens in extreme circumstances. Most people and their surrogates form a bond through the process and want to stay in touch afterward.
Once your child is old enough to understand how he or she came into the world, they’ll likely be curious about who their surrogate was, so it helps if you’ve kept up the relationship.
6. How many fetuses are you willing to carry?
My partner and I were very lucky to have twins with our surrogate, but it made the pregnancy considerably harder on her. She was confined to bed rest for most of the third trimester and there were a few scares where we thought she might be miscarrying one or both of the fetuses, which meant some late-night trips to the emergency room.
Thankfully, everything worked out okay for us, but the more fetuses involved in your pregnancy, the higher the risks. A woman carrying triplets is almost always put on bed rest. It’s not surprising then that many surrogates limit the number of babies they’re willing to carry to one or two.
If you were hoping for octuplets, in other words, you’re out of luck.
7. Would you be willing to undergo a selective reduction?
Here’s where the questions start to get really dicey.
Even if your surrogate only wants to carry one baby and you only want to have one kid, you may still want to transfer multiple embryos to increase the odds that one of them attaches.
So what happens if your surrogate becomes pregnant with two or three embryos? In that case, she may undergo a selective reduction, where excess embryos are removed from her uterus at a very early stage, leaving only the number of babies you’re willing to have.
We interviewed a surrogate who had undergone this procedure with a previous pregnancy and, for various reasons, didn’t want to go through it again. She was asking that we not transfer more than two embryos, so she could be mostly assured she wouldn’t have to carry more than twins.
Some IPs plan to transfer as many embryos as they can, then reduce down to just one or two if too many of them take. That’s fine if the surrogate agrees to it, but not everyone will be comfortable with that.
This is obviously a very tricky ethical situation, so for everyone’s benefit, it’s important to make sure you’re on the same page.
8. If we were to decide, due to complications with the fetus, to terminate the pregnancy, would you be willing to do so?
You and the surrogate are both entering into this agreement with the same goal: to make a baby. Neither of you wants to think about terminating a pregnancy, because that goes against the very reason you’ve come together.
However, everyone knows that things do sometimes go wrong, and the baby will be yours, not hers, so if there are complications and you become concerned with what your child’s quality of life would be, it should be your call to make.
There are people — surrogates and intended parents alike — who would never terminate a pregnancy under any circumstances. That’s fine, of course, but if you feel that way, it’s good to have a surrogate who would defer to your judgment in the case that your feelings change.
Again, no one wants to think about the worst case scenario. You both want a healthy baby. So bring this up now, and then forget about it. Hopefully, it won’t end up being an issue.
9. What concerns do you have about us or this process?
You never know what your surrogate may be thinking or how you may come across to her. She might have a special request that’s very important to her or a fear she’s working to get over.
Our surrogate had two requests: One, she wanted an epidural, because she went without one when her son was born and didn’t want to do that again. And two, she wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t be handed the baby in the delivery room. When doctors first handed her her son, that’s when she bonded with him. To make sure to establish the right boundaries, she didn’t want to see the baby until later on, when she was in the recovery room.
Let her know that her concerns are important to you, and in case she does have a vastly different idea of how the birth should go, it’s better to find out now rather than a trimester or two into the pregnancy.
Hopefully, you’ll find plenty of common ground with your surrogate on these topics, because once you’ve discussed them and agreed about the important things, you’ve earned the right to never discuss them again. In all likelihood, you won’t have to, and now that you’ve gotten past the tough stuff, you can talk about things that don’t really matter: what her favorite sports teams or TV shows are, what kind of sense of humor she has and what she thinks of the baby names you’ve picked out.
Then, finally, you’ll know for sure if you’ve found “The One.”
“What’s that?” Sutton asked.
“Um… that’s Spookytown.”
That’s what the sign out front said, though instead of o’s in the word “Spooky”, there were two fiery red demon eyes. If I thought the name might scare my kids, I was dead wrong.
“Oooh, can we go there?” Sutton pleaded.
“No, it’s only open around Halloween.”
She brought up Spookytown constantly — whenever we passed by it, whenever the subject of Halloween came up, and sometimes completely unprompted. “Next Halloween, we’ll go to Spookytown!” she announced. “I won’t be scared, because it’s just pretend.”
She was simultaneously horrified and fascinated. At two years old and change, scary is supposed to be simple. If something’s scary, you stay away from it. But here, there was this store that sold nothing but scary stuff, and people went there ON PURPOSE. My curious little girl was dying to learn more.
As someone who’s never much liked Halloween, it’s taken me some adjustment having a daughter who’s obsessed with it. She brings it up every single day, all year round — more than Christmas, more than her birthday. The topics range from what her costume will be to the character traits of different types of monsters like vampires, ghosts and wolfmen to, of course, Spookytown.
We drove past that deserted eyesore for months, and every time, it launched a conversation. Then one day, it was gone. Spookytown disappeared, and overnight, a tile store moved in. They slapped on a fresh coat of paint, installed a new sign and dismantled the demon eyes.
Sutton was crushed — and Halloween was only getting closer. “We’ll find another Spookytown,” we assured her.
For months, she lived with the uncertainty of not knowing where her October scares would come from. Drew and I know that Halloween stores are the bad pennies of retail. You can always count on one showing up again. Sutton was forced to take our word for it.
Then, in late September, there it was, a quarter of a mile up the road from the old Spookytown. New Spookytown. The second we saw it, Drew jerked the steering wheel toward the parking lot and the tires screeched cartoonishly as we skidded up to the entrance.
It was, as expected, a shithole.
There were cheap packaged costumes, cheap overpriced decorations, and a display of animatronic ghouls in a decorative graveyard. Even though the store had just opened, only half of them seemed to moan on cue.
The kids loved it.
The way they ran from the Smurf costumes to the zombie makeup rack, shrieking at full dog-whistle pitch, it was like they were in Disneyland.
Neither of them could make up their minds what costumes they wanted to wear, so we bought them each three different ones over the last month. I know, we’re suckers, but we’ve gotten plenty of use out of them with all the costume parades we’ve had up and down the hallway of our house.
As we counted down the days to Halloween, reports started coming in of an unprecedented storm headed directly for us. Drew and I gathered candles and filled the bathtub with water, while the kids played quietly with their toys and talked about candy.
“Why did you take down the pumpkin in the front yard?” Bennett asked.
“Because the Frankenstorm is coming,” I said.
It seemed like a joke, like the kind of twisted boogeyman parents make up to scare kids. A Frankenstorm. But this wasn’t something out of Spookytown. It was real, and Drew and I were genuinely scared.
Somehow, the storm that tore apart most of our geographic area left us untouched. The lights flickered a few times, but we never lost power. By Halloween morning, everything seemed normal. I put the kids in their costumes and herded them to the car.
“Who wants to go to Spookytown?” I asked. They went nuts.
It seemed like a simple plan. We’d been to Spookytown half a dozen times over the last few weeks. Why not now? I made a right turn off our street and almost immediately had to hit the brakes. Up ahead, the road was blocked by a giant tree.
It was just sitting there. No one was even trying to remove it. I turned down a different street, and I soon realized why that fallen tree wasn’t a priority. There were downed trees everywhere, practically one every block. I saw one that had landed on the roof of a house, but mostly they were in the streets. It was like driving in a maze, constantly having to turn around and find a different path.
The ten minute drive to Spookytown took forty-five minutes, even with almost no traffic on the roads. When we pulled into the parking lot, it was eerily empty. A man at the door told us that the store had no power. It was their biggest day of the year — in fact, the only day that really mattered — and they weren’t sure if they’d even be able to open.
I took the kids instead to the supermarket. It was open, but barely functional. The shelves had yet to be restocked from the pre-storm hysteria. The freezers were cordoned off with police tape, and what remained in the refrigerated cases was marked “Not for sale”. Employees whose job was to fill up the shelves were instead spending the morning throwing things away. Clearly, they had lost power at one point, and all the perishables had perished.
So this was our Halloween. One thing was for sure: it delivered on spookiness.
The only bright side was that my kids didn’t have many past Halloweens to compare this to. For all they knew, this was a kick-ass All Hallow’s Eve. We decided that our afternoon would be spent watching Halloween specials on TV and having a pizza party. You know, typical Halloween stuff.
Then, the doorbell rang. It was Cinderella. She had tiny glass slippers and a school jacket draped over her light blue ball gown. Her tiny arms spread open the mouth of a shopping bag full of fun sized candies.
In my 17 years in Los Angeles, living in apartments and condos with security codes, I’d never had a single trick-or-treater come to my door. This was the first time I’d given candy to a little kid in a costume since I was a kid myself.
I thought Halloween had been canceled, but when I looked up and down my block, I saw more of them. Harry Potters and Spider-Men and, for some weird reason, a lot of Crayola crayons. (Seriously, what the hell? Is there a factory nearby?)
“Drew!” I shouted. “Trick-or-treaters! Tons of them!”
It was like the sappy final reel of a Christmas movie, where the protagonist loses his last bit of holiday spirit only to glance out the window and see snow falling or Scrooge hoisting a roast goose.
A Halloween miracle.
We turned off Dora’s Halloween episode and raced the kids to the door. “You guys want to go trick-or-treating?” we asked.