when the kids aren’t there

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Even after 8 years of this parenting thing, I still have no idea what I’m doing.

Being a dad challenges me at my very core. It challenges the way I view my present and my future, and the way I interpret my past. It influences my dating, my travel, my freedom, the way I exercise, the way I spend money, the ways I choose to spend my time.

It honestly tears me into exhausted shreds sometimes. It is my fondest wish to create a nurturing and supportive home environment for my children. I have a nice home where they have their own bedroom filled with toys… a bedroom that is empty more than it is full due to a custody arrangement that places my children with me about six days a month.

I used to keep a cupboard full of snacks for the kids. But then I found myself eating the snacks when they were gone. So now I just buy fresh snacks when they come over.

Recently I purchased a small cat for my older son’s birthday. He’s been asking for a dog or a cat for, literally, years, and I figured now was the right time to provide that. I took myself over to the animal shelter and I sat in the corner of the cat adoption room, and a small little grey-and-white thing, a 5 year old cat, plopped itself into my lap, then climbed up on my shoulders. I adopted it minutes later. My son named the cat Lilly Potter.

A friend asked me if I enjoyed having the cat, and I said yes, that it was kind of nice to have the company. The friend then joked, wondering if I got the cat for me or for my kids. My response to him was a bit sad, a bit sober. It surprised him.

“The cat is for them, definitely. And the cat represents both of my worlds, strangely. It is my job to provide a safe and nurturing home for my sons when they are with me, and to also create a full and fulfilling life for myself for the nights they aren’t with me. So now, I have a cat. And the cat is for them, but in ways it is for me, cause now I have a bit of company around.”

This seemed to help the friend understand me a bit better. My situation isn’t always easy to describe. There are a lot of divorced moms and dads out there, and many of them don’t get to see their children nearly often enough, and many of them have difficulty finding their lease on life while they balance out the time and money commitments of parenting, the struggles in raising kids, and the heartbreak and loneliness that can set in during times when your kids aren’t around.

I’ve gotten a bit accustomed to sharing holidays now. My sons went on a trip for a week with their mother recently, and my phone contact with them was limited. I don’t always get to see them on their birthdays, and I’ve done Christmases alone, Thanksgivings alone, and, tonight, Halloween alone. They are out trick-or-treating. And when they are done, they will call to tell me good night, and then tomorrow I’ll pick them up and we will do our own little celebration.

I am told often by people who don’t have children, or by people who don’t see their children often, how lucky I am. And I agree completely. I am richly blessed and insanely fortunate to have these two beautiful boys to raise. Anyone who knows me knows how much they define me and how much I love them. That aside, though, it is a major area of struggle.

One of the hardest parts is interacting with people who don’t have kids. Most of my friends are gay men. They travel and hit the gym, they own homes, they date and have parties, they go out drinking and dancing. And, obviously, I date within this community as well. Having kids means I don’t have a tremendous amount of financial freedom. It means I can’t hit many of the parties, or pursue the relationships, or be available for dates. It also means my time is precious and valuable, and I try to make the most of it when I have it.

It also means profound loneliness sometimes, with sounds bouncing off of empty walls, and watching the phone to see if the person you are reaching out to is texting back, and trying not to be unreasonably sad when they don’t. It means inserting myself into social situations haphazardly, when I can, and seeking human connection while I remain a bit aloof from those around me.

The loneliness has been getting to me lately, and it feels a bit pathetic to recognize that, but I think other parents will understand when they read this. I’m lonely when my kids are home, because I want to be around other people and to connect, and I want someone to share the raising of them with. And I’m lonely when my kids are not home, because I want them there, and heading out into the big world of single men when I know I have to pick up my kids in the morning, it’s strange and isolating.

And so tonight, I sit with my fingers clacking on a keyboard, a decaf coffee and a glass of water at my side, in a coffee shop full of strangers because that feels less threatening to my own house, and I type out my thoughts on a blank screen for a handful of strangers and loved ones to read… while my sons, dressed as a Jedi and Harry Potter, knock doors and ask for candy. And in an hour, they will call me and tell me about their night, and there won’t be a hint of loneliness in my voice. I’ll be thrilled, and interested, and ask about every detail of their days like what they learned at school and what they ate for lunch and what they played at recess and if they had fun trick-or-treating. And then I’ll tell them how much I love them, and I’ll hang up. I’ll turn on music and crack open a beer and fold laundry and maybe watch an old Halloween movie by myself, and then I’ll head to bed and listen for the sounds of my sons’ breathing even though they aren’t there.

Father’s Day

When I was a Mormon missionary, I didn’t trust others easily, I was too afraid of letting them see my real self. But from time to time, I would open my heart up, just a little bit, in small pieces, and see how it reflected off of others.

A random woman in one of my wards in Pennsylvania, an older and unconventional woman named Del, was a kindred spirit. We would find ways to laugh and share all at once. There seemed to be an ¬†unspoken understanding between us, an ability to say very little and yet see each other’s subtext somehow, to realize that with a few words we were conveying much more than that.

Del once told me I looked like Donnie Osmond, and we had a good laugh over that. My companion was talking to her spouse, and Del and I started talking about fathers for a bit. It was a natural normal conversation with a lot of underlying pain in it.

“My father was a difficult man,” she had told me. “He was stubborn. Unbending. He loved us, but he never said it. He showed it. Not with hugs, not with words, but with consistency. He went to work, he came home. He’d flash a look, a silly smile, then be gone for days. What about yours?”

I avoided speaking of my father at the time, having a difficult time taking the conversation in that direction. I remember trying to change the subject, but Del redirected me, not letting me get away with it.

“My dad was a quiet man.” I paused, and she encouraged me to go on. “He was always in a lot of pain, but he never spoke up about it.”

“Well, what kind of pain?”

I had grimaced, looking over to my companion to make sure he wasn’t listening. “The heart kind. But he was silent. He was a strong presence of emotion all the time, but his face never showed it. Well, not very much anyway. He would lay on the floor after work and just be there until he fell asleep for a while. He’d find reasons to be by himself almost constantly. He never laughed, never smiled. He’d lose his temper sometimes, but–”

“But mostly he was just quiet.” She stopped me, not even looking over. “When I joined the Church, years ago, someone explained to me that the way we see God’s presence in our lives is in direct reflection to how we have experienced our own father. I think there is a lot of truth to that.”

“So you see God as difficult?”

“Absolutely. God is stubborn and unbending, just like my dad. But he’s consistent. And he loves with force.”

There was several seconds of silence while she let me think things through. I thought of all the endless prayers I’d made both for myself, to help me be righteous and good and to let me be healed from my attractions to men, and for my family and friends, to ease their sufferings and improve their circumstances, prayers that had always come from the right place but which always seemed to be met with a stony silence.

I looked back to Del and just nodded. She knew what I meant. To me, God was quiet.

“Well, we learn from our fathers, too. We learn how to be different kinds of parents. I made my share of mistakes, but I made sure my children knew they were loved. I spoke it loudly and often. But I was also rigid and stubborn. And when it comes your turn to have children, you’ll be the same. You’ll do things differently and make your own mistakes.”

I didn’t mean to speak the next part out loud. “I don’t think I’ll ever have children.”

Del whooped and slapped my shoulder, this time drawing the attention of my companion and her husband. “Of course you’ll have children! You’re handsome, spiritual, you can sing, and you have a great heart. You’ll make an excellent father and a great husband.”

The conversation turned after that, but I remember thinking, loudly, to myself that I wanted to be a father, but that I couldn’t do that unless I stopped being gay. And at that point, I was 20, and the cures hadn’t worked yet.

I type this story now at age 37. This morning, I made my sons pancakes and cuddled them. I played with them and helped them clean their room. I set up my expectations for them when they got into an argument. I sang songs to them, and I reminded them, with an enormous kiss and hug, that they are loved.

And if my sons grow up believing in a God, I hope they see one that is consistent, and present, and loud, and affectionate, and playful, and funny, and strong, and clear.

Though she couldn’t possibly have seen this far into the future, and I doubt she would have predicted this set of circumstances, it turns out Del was exactly right.

Storytime

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“You guys wanna play storytime?”

I take a seat on the couch as my sons sit on the ground in front of me, eager. It’s nearly nap time and they have full tummies. J, age 6, starts first grade

in a few weeks and is growing more mature and creative every day. A, just barely four, looks up with bright blue eyes, his imagination already spinning tales.

I look down at them, my eyes growing wide to convey excitement, and begin.

“Once upon a time, there were, well, three grasshoppers that lived in a beautiful patch of grass, where they ate leaves. They–”

“What were their names?” J interrupted.

“Well, Ernst, Ferdinand, and Gilgal. And one day a really nice old lady who lived in a house nearby was working in her garden and she saw the three grasshoppers, who were brothers. The woman, whose name was Clementine, thought they were the most beautiful grasshoppers she had ever seen so she asked if she could take them home and they agreed. She put them in a little jar and carried them home, and she made them a nice big home in an aquarium where they could hop up and down all around the aquarium as they grew older. She decorated it with plants, grass, leaves, and sticks, and they were so happy. She fed them every day two times.”

“And then what happened?” A asked, intent.

“Well, one day Clementine got sick and she had to go to the hospital and she couldn’t be there to feed them.”

“Use their names!” J reminded.

“She couldn’t be there to feed Ernst, Ferdinand, and Gilgal. They were so hungry, they were too tired to hop. But the next day, she came home and said ‘I’m home and I’m okay!’ and she fed them some delicious eucalyptus leaves as a special treat and they were so happy, they lived happily ever after.”

Both boys seemed to want more, looking at me expectantly.

“Well, what did you guys think? What were your favorite parts?”

J thought for a moment. “Well, I liked when they ate the leaf.”

A made no effort to hide his disgust. “I didn’t have a favorite part. There wasn’t any bad guys this time.” He’s particularly fond of toothy creatures.

“Okay, J, your turn.”

J and I traded places, he taking his seat on the couch and me moving to the floor next to A.

“Okay, this is a good one,” J started, and he looked up, pressing his lips together tightly like he does when he’s thinking hard.

“Once upon a time there were two sisters named Elsa and Aana, but not the ones from Frozen, some different sisters. They lived with their mom and dad who were gone. And when the sisters were playing one time, a giant giant attacked and the sisters runned into their rooms and were hiding until their mom and dad came home and they had turned bigger than the giant and the house and everything and they stopped the giant who ran away and the sisters were okay. The end.”

I clapped my hands. “Great story! My favorite part was when the sisters were smart and hid in their room.”

A stood up, knowing it’s his turn next. “I liked when the giant mom and dad came in and punched the giant right in the nose and killed him dead!” He punched a little fist into the air.

J, looking proud of himself, climbed down. “Okay, A, your turn!”

A took more effort to climb up onto the couch, pulling himself by his arms and bringing his knees up, pulling his body up, then twisting himself around. I smiled at him as J took a seat by me. A is so big for being so little.

“Okay, here we go. Once upon a time, there was two boys named J and A and a mom and a dad. They lived in a big house. One day, a big big big big big mean mean mean shark came over. Oh, I forgot to tell you that the mom was a mermaid and the dad was at work and the brothers was twins who lived in their mom’s belly. Then the big shark came in and he had a lot of teeth and he was mean and he tried to bite them a whole bunch but the kids popped out of the mom’s tummy and the dad came home and punched the shark til he was dead a lot and then they winned. The end.”

I clapped my hands for him again and J looked up at him proudly.

“Great job! My favorite part was when the dad saved the day!”

“Good job, A! My favorite part was when the brothers came out of her tummy.”

The boys, knowing the routine, climbed up onto my lap for some snuggles, one on each arm, winding down for naps. J, my compassionate and intuitive son, patted my shoulder.

“Aw, you’re a good daddy. You make us breakfast, snuggle us, tuck us in, and play with us. Thanks for everything.”

And soon they are sleeping, and I’m watching their little prone faces breathe peacefully, soft music in the background, and I’m thinking once again how this part of my life is the best thing in the world.