'Twas the week after Christmas, when my sweet 3-year-old
Came down with a cough, and a nasty head cold.
I suggested that rest might help him recover.
He requested a story: my son’s a book lover.
Wrapped in his blankie and snug in his bed,
“I want something new,” my young bibliophile said.
I perused his small library and pulled from the shelf,
The classic winter tale of the jolly old elf.
With the sing-songy rhyme and repetitive meter,
My son’s heavy eyelids soon started to teeter.
He seemed to be lulling, and all appeared fine,
Until I recited the following line:
“And Mama in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap – ”
Before I could turn to the next page, my son stopped me. He placed his finger on the bright illustration, specifically indicating the kerchiefed woman whose head was gently resting atop a fluffy white pillow.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“That’s the mama,” I answered, in my most soothing – this is quiet time and we really should be trying to fall asleep – story time tone.
When I reached to turn the page, my son stopped me a second time.
“Who is that?” he asked again.
Again, I looked down at the drawing. This time he was pointing at the sleeping man in the stocking cap, with shaggy hair and a mustache inspired by the Village People; in retrospect, he looked a lot like a guy I met at the Castro Street Fair in the mid-1980s.
“That’s the daddy,” I replied with a quiet nonchalance.
I glanced back at my son and there still seemed to be a small sparkle of question in his tired eyes. But after a slight pause, he simply said, “Oh.”
So, on toward tome’s end I continued to plod,
While my boy’s stuffy head continued to nod.
In very short order he fell fast asleep,
And out of his room I managed to creep.
In the immediate aftermath of our first reading of Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, I realized that my toddler had clearly perceived something in the story that I had missed – an implicit suggestion that there was something amiss in his reality regarding who was sleeping with whom. You see my son has two homes; in one of his homes Mama sleeps with Mommy, and in the other Daddy sleeps with Paul. Up until his exposure to that particular story, much of our reading was Dr. Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, or books about the ABCs. To my recollection, there had never been such a clear representation in one of his stories of adult-type sleeping arrangements. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that my boy was a little thrown when he saw mama in bed with daddy.
As soon as it dawned on me that I had been too slow in the moment to understand why he stopped to pose the question “Who is that?” I began to beat myself up a little for not having been more prepared or just aware. I should have known that these types of queries were coming. As a gay man, and particularly one of a certain generation, I am all too familiar with those enlightening moments of recognition, moments of being reminded that my reality is a far removed from most popular media representations of the world. I grew up bearing a certain burden of abnormality because my emotional sensibilities seemed very different from those being modeled in the world all around me. And regardless of my son’s sexual preference, his adolescent home life will never bear much resemblance to the living situations of most of his friends.
I clearly needed to be a bit more on the ball.
Fortunately for me and my self-flagellated confidence in any ability that I might have to parent a perceptive and inquisitive child, I was offered an opportunity to redeem myself just a few days later. #thanksuniverse
After picking my son up from preschool and strapping him into his car seat, he informed me that he was hungry. So before we made our way to the freeway on-ramp to begin our commute home, I turned in to the drive-thru of a conveniently located McDonald’s. I know! This is inarguably another misstep in parenting, and I have already taken some blistering heat for this unconscionable blunder. For the sake of staying on track, however, I will defer scolding myself for nutritional incompetence to a later blog posting. The point here is this: In that box with the overly salted fries and processed chicken nuggets – and, in my defense, some apple slices and a bottle of milk – there was a small book, "Flat Stanley Goes Camping."
My son was very excited about his Happy Meal’s storybook surprise, and as soon as we walked through the door at home he requested that Paul read for him. Later, after bathing, brushing his teeth, and settling into bed for the night, he wanted to hear another reading of Flat Stanley. We sat next to each other in his bed, and I opened to the first page and began the story of Stanley; a young boy who was tragically flattened after a large bulletin board – a gift from his father – fell off of the wall over his bed and landed on top of him while he was innocently sleeping.
The whole premise of this book seemed completely antithetical to anything that I might consider reassuring, pro-daddy, bedtime storytelling, but my son seemed fascinated so on I read. Before we got in too far, however, he stopped me at an illustration that included Stanley and his entire family. One by one, my son pointed to each character and wanted to know who they were.
“Who that?” he asked.
“That’s Stanley,” I said.
“Who is that?” he asked again.
“That’s Stanley’s younger brother, Arthur. “ I explained.
“Who is that?” he repeated, pointing to the man this time.
“That’s Stanley’s daddy, Mr. Lambchop,” I said.
Finally, he gestured to the last person on the page, “Who’s that?”
“That is Stanley’s mommy, Mrs. Lambchop,” I answered with a lilt of final resolve in my inflection. Without hesitation, my son looked up to me and asked, “Where’s his other mommy?” #unequivocal
I closed the book for a moment and explained to him that there are all kinds of families: some with one mommy and one daddy; some with two mommies; some with two daddies; and some with two mommies, a daddy and a Paul.
Again, he simply replied, “Oh,” but this time it was clear that his question had somehow been adequately addressed. He then asked that we get on with the story.
He eventually drifted off to sleep and I made my stealthy exit. This time, in the immediate aftermath of our reading, I paused in the hallway for a moment to recognize and thank God for the gift of my son’s inquisitive perseverance.
I’m grateful to have been conveniently blessed,
With a chance to revisit the topic addressed.
I know my son’s queries won't lastingly rest,
But in that do-over I managed my best.
And now in this year so beautifully new,
I’m resolved to the job a gay daddy must do.
It’s my duty to find a collection of stories,
That celebrate all sorts of love, all its glories.
With a new sense of purpose I’ll try harder to hear,
The questions he’s asking, and answer them clear.
Ahead he and I have a lifetime together,
With missteps and troubles aplenty to weather.
Yes, the week after Christmas held lessons galore,
And before I sign off, I’ll share just this one more.
When my son says, “I’m hungry,” I’ll drive across town,
Whatever it takes to avoid that damn clown.