One step ahead of the bully.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe only objection voiced to us as a gay couple when we decided to adopt, amazingly came from gay friends. None of our straight friends or family thought of it as anything other than a wonderful decision, for us and indeed for our future children.

The objection was a pretty standard one: ‘they will be bullied for having gay parents’, it just came from quite a surprising source.

Naturally we defended our decision and stated that children are bullied for a myriad of reasons, often related to their parents. I pointed out that children at my school were teased because their parents were considered – old, fat, lazy (unemployed), dirty and in one very memorable case ugly. Should all these parents have been banned from having children because their offspring would be bullied as many of their peers found the parents worthy of ridicule?

Of course not, so why should that only be a consideration for gay parenting? When I hear it from broader society I assume it’s just being used to mask homophobia, but when I heard it from within the gay community I was truly shocked. However, with some thought I realised that it was no doubt a direct reaction to what we suffer in our childhood, growing up gay and being bullied – directly or indirectly -for it.

Unlike most of the parents from my childhood who were oblivious to their children being bullied because of them – and consequently could do nothing to help – we are fully aware of the prospect of bullying and we arm our children well, they have a full understanding, respect and indeed pride for having gay parents.

They will never see a negative in the word gay as they are being brought up with it as a matter of fact part of their lives, they are taught that others ‘choose’ to see it as something bad and that as wrong as we may think that is, it is their perogative.

When confronted with that we have to understand that it is just their choice and that it has no value to us. Of course we also share with them that idealistic view of bullies as being the ‘weak’ ones which is why they bully and to treat bullying almost like a weird kind of compliment as it is saying that they actually feel ‘less’ than you and that they are probably threatened by you in some way. Although of course not always true I do think it’s something for a bullied child to get reassurance from.

I don’t for one moment think that we will eliminate the hurt that bullying can cause, but we are hoping that we can at least soften the blow if our children are exposed to it. We are trying to raise children who will be fully open and be able to share with us if they are being bullied and who are strong enough to keep it in perspective.

Whether we like it or not bullying is a sad reality of school life/childhood and I think it just seems to be an inevitability that we all have to teach our children to be aware of and to face up to. Are we not fooling ourselves as parents if we feel that our child/children will not be exposed to it and would we not be doing them a disservice if we did not prepare them in some way?

As much as we can hope that the schools are on top of it, I think the best we can expect from them is that they lessen it or control it, but certainly not eliminate it completely – regardless of the best of intentions and of any Zero tolerance policies they may have in place.

Personally I think it’s similar to how we need to make our children aware of the dangers of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, it’s inevitable that they will be exposed to these and even see their peers embracing them and I feel we have to prepare them for that and give them as much knowledge as possible for them to make the right decisions.

By preparing our children I think we would be taking away the power from the bullies and hopefully putting it in the hands of the bullied by making them strong and not feel like ‘victims’.

None of us want to think of our child being bullied – but the fact is we can stick our head in the sand stating that ‘it is unacceptable and should not happen’ while it goes on regardless or we can face the reality of it and accept that children are being bullied on a daily basis regardless of every effort by us the parents or the schools or even society at large to prevent it.

Also let’s not forget that as much as us parents should be aware that our children could be exposed to bullying we also have to accept that for some of us it will be our children doing the bullying.

Now that’s an even tougher one to get our heads around.

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Kissing

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We kiss our sons – endlessly.

We kiss them pretty much at every opportunity and anywhere that we can reach – neck, tummy, feet, toes, bottom, back, legs, arm, head, back of their hands, all over their faces and of course on their lips. In fact if we are kissing each other in a good morning greeting or at bed time or even an embrace throughout the day it would feel strange not to kiss them on the lips.

My partner and I were kissed as children by both our parents (which isn’t as obvious to some as we may assume) and we don’t think twice about it with our sons. In fact if I stop and consider it at all I would say that we saw it as a bit of a short cut to bonding and attachment and a way of showing them that we were open emotionally to them right from the start.

We were lucky because they are cuddly little boys who are clearly as happy with this intimacy as we are and it was obvious that they were right from the moment we were brought together (of course it may not be appropriate for all adopted children – especially when first placed).

However we have been surprised to discover that some of our friends are a little uncomfortable with our overt shows of affection, especially the kissing on the lips. We are even more surprised that it is in fact our fellow gay friends who apparently have the biggest problem with it.

What’s that about? Thinking about it I wonder if it is the result of years of oppression and a forced need to be discrete with displays of male on male affection, or even worse a reaction against that shameful and totally ignorant linking of homosexuality and peadophilia and a fear that a man kissing a boy could be blurring the lines in the minds of the pathetic, mindless bigots.

Actually here in the UK there seems to be huge confusion about the whole ‘kissing thing’ in general and for the majority there seems to be a reluctance to kiss anybody in any situation.

For me when growing up in the 60’s/70’s kissing on the mouth was very much a ‘family’ thing, extended family all kissed as an hello or goodbye, with certain members stealing locked lipped smooches from us kids any time in between – I guess this was especially true from Grandmothers and Aunties. There became a point/age when the men stopped kissing the kids and this interestingly included my father, but I can’t say I recall exactly when that was, but I would estimate around the time we became teenagers. Do straight dads became scared that it is just too gay or just not manly enough?

Then I moved to London and found myself surrounded by friends from all over the world and I soon discovered that greeting somebody outside the family with a kiss was actually expected of certain cultures – but of course never on the mouth. I also discovered that it had been adopted by the gay community and was a standard greeting amongst gay friends.

I’m a tactile person and I liked this and made a conscious decision to embrace it – at least when greeting women or gay friends whom I encountered throughout my day – and I have attempted to make a peck on both cheeks my form of greeting ever since, which over the years I have become aware of as being taken up by many others Brits.

Yet this now leads to such confusion. My family – especially the older members immediately felt a bit offended that I was ‘avoiding’ kissing them on the mouth and thought that I was going all ‘continental ‘ on them and getting a bit above my station.

English friends who I had never greeted with a kiss previously were clearly shocked to have me move in on their space and plant a smacker on their cheek – it was actually barely a touching of cheeks, but one would have thought it was a French kiss by the reaction of some.

And clearly not all people I encountered were as comfortable with it as I am, but how do you know who is and who isn’t, how do we know what greeting is expected of us? This lack of a standard way of greeting in the UK is frustrating and at times even embarrassing.

So what are we suppose to do? I reckon the only way is to go for it with what you are most happy with and stand your ground, I appreciate that it may be uncomfortable for some, but I do feel that they need to ‘get with the programme’.

I think it’s fair to say that as a nation we have a history of being very sexually repressed which I think is the route of the issue here. However, surely things have moved on and in these times of such sexually abandon where just about anything goes isn’t it confusing that a civilised, human greeting such as a peck on the cheeks is still considered questionable and for some inappropriate?
P.S. This blog was written months ago, but it suddenly seems very topical following the outrage and consequent debate around a beautiful photo (bouncing around social media this week) of Victoria Beckham kissing her 5 yr old daughter – on the mouth.

It made me realise that the issue is clearly not just a gay one and that it is quite definitely all about sex, from reading various ‘opinions’ and listening to the subject being debated it was obvious to me that those who have an issue with it do so because of their inability to separate a loving and affectionate parental kiss from a kiss of passion between sexual partners.

To us ‘kissers” this is shocking – and indeed pretty offensive – because of course there is absolutely NO sexual connotation – on any level – to us kissing our children, just as there isn’t when parents touch their children or hug their children – both of which are surely as much a part of a sexual embrace as kissing.

According to a physiologist (who I heard discussing this on the radio) kissing on the mouth is almost exclusively to do with upbringing, if you were brought up being kissed on the mouth then chances are you will continue that.

I have to say that from my perspective I feel very lucky to be in that group and to be able to pass that onto my children.

I feel that our world is SO much richer as a consequence.

Mum

fillipo lippi V&CBoth our boys on occasions have called my partner and I ‘Mum’, as we are both men it has surprised us and we have considered it long and hard.

They have done it to me only a couple of times and in fact I’m pretty sure it has stopped completely now, but although it has lessened for my partner it will very occasionally and apparently quite randomly still pop up. He is the stay at home parent and consequently takes on the more ‘motherly’ role, but trust me he is every inch a man and a father.

The obvious question is – why?

The obvious answer to many – because they wish they had a Mother.

Yet we are sure that is not so at all, we regularly discuss being a family and them having two dads and we have directly asked them on a number of occasions if they wish they had a mum. In the beginning they would sometimes say yes – and we were pleased that they were being honest and felt able to be so – yet that stopped some time back and now they simply say ‘no, we love having two dads’. They usually go on and point out that they do have a mum anyway – referring to birth mum.

As I am sure is the case with other families that do not fit the stereotype, we have became acutely aware of how the ‘nuclear family’ of Mum, Dad and usually two children (mostly a boy and a girl) is an image that is constantly and relentlessly fed to our children.

The good news is that the awareness does make us address the issue and we spend some time seeking out books, films, TV programmes etc that have less obvious family set ups and it’s great to discover that they are out there nowadays.

The bad news is that trying to normalise our family is a tough battle to fight and we are now realising that it is one that can never actually be won. No matter how many alternatives we find these are so greatly outnumbered that the ‘normal’ image of the nuclear family will always win through, I guess the most that we can hope for is to soften the blow of that as much as possible.

I have to say that it has filled me with a whole new found respect for single parents, divorced parents, large families, stay at home dad families (where mum works) or any family that does not fit into the stereotype our children are taught to see as ‘normal’ and as a consequence are facing the same issues that we are.

Our sons are clearly proud of their two dads and they tell everybody we are a family – which occasionally freaks out the odd stranger or two on the 38 bus. They are clearly happy with us and not on any level embarrassed or ashamed of having gay dads which is wonderfully reassuring – although as with any parent/child relationship we are pretty sure that being ashamed of their parents will rightly develop with age and will be ever present throughout their teenage years.

The great positive in our sons calling us ‘Mum’ is that we now clearly see it as a sign that we are in fact meeting all of their ‘motherly’ needs and that they are in fact just reassuring us of that fact. It seems to satisfy them and consequently that certainly satisfies us too.

Listen Closely

 

20150716_102245I recently met a beautiful and totally delightful 11-year-old girl who at the age of 10 – after a long and very difficult struggle – had finally managed to make her parents realise and accept that the male body she was born into was wrong and that she was indeed female.

The parents shared with me the terrible time they had coming to terms with this reality and how they now realise that they had seriously failed the child that they loved so very much for so long because of their own ignorance and prejudice.

They explained that their resistance to accept the truth had caused the daughter so much unhappiness and distress and that it had resulted in her becoming ill and developing stress-related alopecia and then how it had simply gone away once they listened to her and allowed her to be the person she knew herself to be.

As a parent this conversation touched me greatly. And as a parent of a child whose genes I do not share maybe even more so. It made me realise the huge responsibility we have to listen to our children and to respect that they have a voice, to comprehend that they may not be the ‘mini-mes’ we want them to be, nor the people we expect them to be and, most importantly, that it just can’t matter.

Whoever they are and whatever they are is a fact. We can teach them to understand and appreciate social mores and expectations and we can equip them to be the best they can possibly be within the framework that society lays down, but we can’t stop them being who they truly are. And even if we could, what on earth right would we have to do so?

We can educate our children to understand and appreciate our lives and the way we live them, but we can’t change their being to suit us, to suit our extended family, to suit our friends, our neighbours, our religion. Maybe we can influence them, maybe we can bully them into our ideals, or to meet our expectations or our beliefs, but does that change the people who they truly are? Or does it just result in them hiding their true selves to meet our selfishness, potentially confusing them and no doubt making them hugely unhappy in the process?

I wonder how many of us parents can look back at how we were brought up – and what we inevitably bring into our own parenting to some degree – and recognise just how strongly we were expected to live up to our parents’ expectations and how wrong that was for us.

I for one wish that I had been able to stand up for myself and say – ‘NO, listen to ME. That is NOT me, that is NOT what I want and that is NOT who I am’ – but as a child I was never given that chance, was simply chastised for trying to be true to myself and made to feel guilty for disappointing my parents’ impossible expectations.

Of course we have to make sure our children know right from wrong; we have to make sure that they are good citizens who abide by the law and respect others as they would wish to be respected. It is our responsibility to arm them well to take their place in the adult world, but surely only as the adults that they know themselves to be.

I now look back and realise that over the years I have been around a number of parents who I think did wrong by their child/children by forcing their own ‘needs’ or their own agenda upon them. That has left me as a parent wondering if I will be able to hear my children when they need me to, if I will really listen to them when confronted with something that I would struggle with or simply does not suit my expectations.

I certainly hope that I can and if required: I truly hope that I do. Of course for their sakes – but equally for mine.

P.S. I guess it is not going to be as easy as I had hoped it would be. A short time after writing this, I was having a conversation with a parent about their child (who has been privately educated) not wanting to go on into further education, and I found myself saying, “Well of course he has to go to university. The investment you have made has been huge and what will his future hold without a degree?”. To which I was quite rightly told “I know my child and he is not remotely academic. This is not about money; it is about him knowing himself and about me respecting that”.

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas #7: So Macho

DSC_4363Last year for Christmas we gave our oldest son a simple MP3 player. We went through our music collection and filled it with happy pop songs that we felt he would enjoy – and enjoy them he does.

Very quickly he learnt some of the lyrics and he merrily sings along – often at the top of his voice – and very quickly we realised the error of our ways.

We are gay dads and without considering it we had filled our young son’s gift with VERY ‘gay man’ music.

Immediately his favourite song became ‘it’s raining men’, closely followed by ‘dancing queen’, ‘YMCA’ and ironically, ‘So Macho’.

I have never been under the illusion that I have a cool taste in music, which is fortunate because if I ever had been it would have been quashed when my nephews reached the age when they could express their feelings about it; it was often clearly stated that I like ‘sad old gay man’s music’.

And here I am passing it on to my son.

I am the first to scream about the merits of gay adoption, but even I have to acknowledge that when it comes to music, there could be a real downside for our children.

I am now going to take my tongue out of my cheek to go and ‘daddy dance’ around the Christmas tree to something very butch…where is that K D Lang CD?

The long and winding road.

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It seems obvious that for the vast majority there is quite simply an inevitability that you will one day become a parent and indeed a social expectation that will be so right from the very beginning – all those references made to children about their futures as a mother or a father, all those dolls, push chairs and other baby related toys – even those young adults who buck the trend and do not consider themselves all that child focussed may soon find themselves in a relationship where parenting is the next logical step or around their peers who are establishing families which opens up the possibility of the same for them. I am sure we all know people who categorically stated that they would never have children who somehow found themselves swept along with this inevitability and are now proud, loving and totally committed parents. When on that path and the unthinkable happens and a natural pregnancy is not possible and medical intervention fails too, adoption becomes an obvious consideration and hopefully a solution.

However, for gay people all of this could not be further from reality. In the not so distant past acknowledging to ourselves that we are gay was also acknowledging a childless future, particularly for gay men. Lesbians of course had options gay men didn’t and a relatively small number managed to establish families pretty naturally (with the help of a friend and a turkey baster for instance) however if gay men where involved they were usually in the back ground and even if part of a child’s life were outside the nuclear family.

We do a great job of getting on with our child free existence and indeed for many our fun filled, self centered existence apparently has much to be envious of – however not being a parent can often be a huge disappointment that no amount of time and effort dedicated to children of friends and family or substitute children – pets – can truly fill.

As a result my partner and I came to parenthood/adoption by quite a long and convoluted process: growing up thinking that of course we would be fathers, realising we were gay and assuming parenting would never be an option, falling in love and recognising how we both yearned to parent, trying for a birth child with a close friend and failing, discovering later – in our early and late 40’s – that gay people were now able to adopt, feeling it came too late and that we were too old, being full of doubt that we could do it at all, struggling to let go of our great child-free life, but then being inspired by friends who had already taken the step.

The first visit from this new family literally changed our lives. We of course knew they were going through the process and we were aware that they had been approved and later that the children had been placed, we also knew of their need to stay away from extended family and friends until the dust had settled and the family had bonded and the children attached.

We were thrilled for the new Dads and so excited to finally be meeting their sons for the first time, brothers who we had heard so much about who at the age of 2 and 6 being a sibling group and one of them a short way off being considered ‘older’ for adoption could have been close to spending the rest of their lives in care or could have been seperated to give them a better chance of placement. Seeing them in this new family with so much love and with hope for a great future ahead of them had a huge impact on us.

It was a wonderful weekend. They are lovely little boys – beautiful, funny, warm and affectionate. They are great dads – firm, fair and totally loving. They are a great family and a total inspiration.

We realised that up until this point our thoughts on adoption had been all about us satisfying our desire/need to parent, suddenly that all changed and we were now discussing being able to do what our friends had done and give children a loving home and a far greater chance of a happy, productive and positive future. Of course its not selfless, we get to satisfy ourselves at the same time – the desire to parent was as strong as ever, but the new perspective put the negatives we had been focusing on and the fears we were concerned about into perspective. The difficulties we knew we would be facing and the ‘sacrifices’ we thought we would be making would be minimal compared to what we could bring to children in need of parents, in need of a home, in need of a future.

We immediately started the process, it was over five years ago and being before the recent changes in the system it was a slow and laborious experience that took almost three years from the initial enquiry to placement. At the time that seemed quite painful, but on reflection we can see that it really gave us time to consider and to reconsider (over and over) just what we were doing and what we would be taking on. It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride and the ups were of course great and exciting, but these were offset by many negatives that we had to work through and the slow process allowed us to do exactly that and most importantly without the pressure that rushing through the process may have added.

The length of time it took also brought us to two wonderful and very special little boys who are our sons, had the process been any quicker it could have resulted in us not being in the right place at the right time for what we see as a perfect match and that now feels unthinkable. Of course I realise that had we been matched earlier with other children they would no doubt now feel like the perfect match, but that is immaterial as we are a family that was ‘meant to be’ and NOTHING else is even remotely relevant.

Things are not perfect – of course not – and we know that we still have much to learn, as parents and indeed as a family. However, we never question the decision we made on any level and realise that all the steps that led us to where we are now add something to us being the parents and the family that we are.

People come to adoption from many, many angles, but amazingly we all end up at the same point – as parents of a child or children that we love with all our hearts and that we could never imagine life without.

Does it matter how we got here? On the journey I guess it feels like it does matter – especially if it’s a difficult one, but once we reach the destination then I think maybe it doesn’t matter at all.

We are all where we are and surely that is exactly where we are meant to be.

Tiara

It’s early and as usual I am up first and I’m watching the news on TV. Our 6 year old comes downstairs and after the briefest of ‘good morning’ hugs and kisses goes into the play room and busies himself.

His brother is up minutes later and comes and joins me on the sofa and starts asking questions about the news, I would love to think that at 7 he has discovered a real interest in current affairs, but in fact I have worked out that it is his way of getting me to give up on the news – which I am now missing big chunks of – and agree to switch to CBBC.

I do and we are watching something together when the younger brother walks back into the room, I look up as he enters and immediately notice his posture and his slow, determined walk – it’s positively regal – and then I see that he is wearing one of his favourite possessions – his Tiara.

It is not one of any value – well monetary value anyway – just a cheap plastic affair with brightly coloured plastic ‘jewels’, but he loves it with a passion and keeps it safely stored away for special occasions – and apparently he has decided that this is exactly that.

He takes a seat beside us, he is sitting very upright and has just a touch of a smile and is radiating a look of total contentment.

Not a word is said by any of us. I was somehow touched by the moment and I take the opportunity to snap a photo and post it on Facebook. The boys watch their 30 minutes quota of morning TV and joined by my partner we go for breakfast.

My partner’s question of ‘it’s a Tiara kind of morning this morning is it?’ was simply answered with a huge beaming smile.

He decides to remove his Tiara and return it to it’s special place on the way to breakfast and it doesn’t reappear for a couple of weeks or so.

Although the Tiara is his pride and joy he has a fascination for all jewellery and has amassed quite a collection of cheap and cheerful bits – which he calls his treasure – given to him by various family and friends who have been so touched by his interest in it. He plays with his treasure and wears certain pieces as he pleases.

We are gay parents and having our son show such an interest in what others may call ‘girly’ things is of little significance to us and in fact barely registers most of the time – he clearly knows what he likes and neither of us would consider for one moment trying to stop something that obviously brings him so much pleasure.

In our 2 years as a family we have never questioned his choices and never pointed out that some things that he enjoys so very much are ‘meant for girls’, We have a general attitude of ‘people are people and that’s cool’ and it’s expressed whenever we see the boys notice somebody ‘less normal’, which in London is wonderfully frequent. In the early days it was with some regularity, but now I am proud to say that it is hardly at all. They just don’t notice ‘different’ or ‘unusual’ the way they used to.

We have never said ‘we shouldn’t judge others’ because somehow in stating that you seem to be setting yourself apart as somebody who has the right to judge, we just want them to feel that everybody is equal – no matter how they come or what choices they make. We want them to feel that they can indeed follow paths that they feel are right for them – no matter how ‘non normal ‘ they may be.

Do we feel our son’s interest in girly things is a sign of him being gay? Not for one second.

It’s true that many gay men had an interest in girly things as children, but many – like myself – didn’t. Equally many boys who enjoyed playing with their sister’s dolls and the like when young turned out straight, so it’s certainly not an indicator of sexuality.

Do we think we could be turning him gay by allowing this behaviour?

I think we are maybe the exception to the rule in embracing the behaviour so freely and those parents that don’t, who force their children into ‘appropriate’ gender roles don’t manage to stop their gay offspring being gay by making them play with cars – so no we do not, not all all.

I would also like to say that regardless of how comfortable we are as gay men we wouldn’t choose it for our sons. It’s a misconception to think that prejudice against gay people is a thing of the past – I would argue that in some respects it’s getting worse – and of course we want to protect our children from anything and everything negative – however, not by trying to make them into something they are not.

Do we consider that it could be a sign of ‘sexual identity disorder’? Again no, he has as many ‘boy’ interests as ‘girly’ ones and there is nothing at all suggesting to us that there is a stifled little girl inside our son trying to break out. However, we are aware that he had almost five years before we became his parents of being conditioned by others and may already feel a need to hide or pretend in order to suit the values of those around him, so we will always be observing him and will keep an open mind.

If there is something that he needs to come to terms with then we need him to know that we are not questioning that or judging him and certainly not putting up any barriers. We need him – and indeed his brother – to know and to be sure that we will support them no matter what. Literally – no matter what.

I guess it’s obvious that we are trying to do what our parents – as most parents of gay children back then – sadly failed to do, to prevent the pain caused when they fail to understand and accept their offspring for who and what they are. Even worse when they try to change and shape them into something they are not, just to suit their own bigoted or ignorant view of the world.

We know what that pain is like and how tough it was for us and there is of course no question that we would want to be responsible for that in a child of ours.

Something amazingly positive we have learnt from the above Tiara episode is just how wonderful the people around us are. We both have great families and have clearly chosen our friends well, the Facebook post got nothing but positive comments and more ‘likes’ than anything else I have posted. It’s heartwarming to see that those close to him embrace our son for exactly who he is and not what they want him to be or indeed need him to be.