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Leaning In to Fatherhood: Even When Life Yanks You Back

IMG_3466It’s super cool to be an involved father right now. There are more Stay-at-Home dads than ever, and I’m pretty sure that every single one of them has a blog where they record everything they’re learning, and document how they’re unlocking the secrets of healthy child raising. I’m privileged to know many of these guys — several of them have  Lean In  posts this week as part of Babble’s  joined efforts with LeanIn.org.

I have a blog myself, and many posts over the years have been devoted to parenting — although when I go back and read what I’ve written about my Dad adventures, it’s mostly stories about how much I’ve screwed up stuff.  And holy criminy, have I ever.  I’m pretty lucky, though my parenting gig has been pretty easy compared to that of other guys I know, mainly because my kid is an easy keeper. Yea, she’s got her issues, her needs, and her uniqueness. She sucked her thumb until she was 7. (Gasp!) She refused to see movies until she was 8 because she didn’t like stuff that’s Loud or Dark (Shock!) She’s sensitive enough to have hurt feelings when another kid laughs at her (Good Lord!  Seth, how do you manage??).

Small potatoes, obviously. As a dad, it’s the basic requirement to “Lean In” for all that. And I know several smart, problem-solving dads that are way more adept at it than me. But that’s the stuff we all know is coming: the twists and turns of our kids’ development.

The truth is, the biggest parenting challenge for me hasn’t been how to help my child cope with her life. It’s been how to be a good father while coping with my own.

When it comes to “Leaning In” to fatherhood… sometimes it’s not about being a good dad to a challenging child.  It’s about being a good dad when your own life is trying to grab you by the shoulders and pull you backwards.

By now, readers are surely sick of me writing about being gay, and coming out at the age of 40 (two years ago). But dealing with such a major life transition and being a good dad at the same time has been hard.

There’s a theory that when an adult finally comes to terms with his/her true sexual orientation, that person reverts to the point in their adolescent development when they stopped… developing. Being closeted means being psychologically and emotionally stunted, basically.  And when the day comes when you’re finally able to open up, be honest, and regain that part of yourself, you have to go through your emotional adolescence thing all over again.

How fun does that sound?

For some people, that means going a little crazy. They come out and feel a temporary euphoria when they announce their gayness to the world. (“I’m gay now!  I can go be gay everywhere!  I can be gay with people!  HUNDREDS of people!”) This can result in behavior that’s over-the-top at best… and dangerously unhealthy at worst. Even if they have kids. Screw the kids, they think:  I have decades of lost Gay Sexy Time to make up for!  I know a couple guys who did this. It didn’t work out the way they thought it would.  They lived to tell their tales, but not without consequences. Big ones.

Some people come out and decide they can’t bear to be around those who’ve known them as straight their whole lives. They can’t even drive around in the same city where they’ve been living because every building, every restaurant, every damn tree conjures feelings of loss. So they simply… leave. They sever all ties and move away, deciding the only way to survive is to start over from scratch: new friends, new job, new identity. They  pull a Keyser Söze and completely vanish from the life they used to have, including leaving their kids behind. I know of a couple guys who did this too.  (That is, I’ve heard vague rumors about them. Since their disappearing acts, I don’t really know what happened to them.)

And then there are some people who get so mired in the muck of shame and depression that can come with being gay that all they can bear to do is crawl into a hole and want to die. I mean, actually die.

It’s not fair to say that people who do this are leaning back. It’s more like they’re being yanked back, away from parenting.

I haven’t gone down any of those roads.  I’m not wired that way. I’ve had my bouts with depression and anxiety, sure. For me, coming out was accompanied by plummeting self-esteem, rampaging insecurity, and walking around with the self-worth of a sea slug for a good long while. (Apparently, that’s what I would’ve experienced in my teen years if I’d been developing fully.) But even on my worst day, none of those above “solutions” dug their teeth in strongly enough to pull me away from who I am, or from the life I want for me and my daughter.

It seems like everyone has a big fat transition of some kind that hits them in their 40s. For me, it was coming out of the closet. For someone else it’s something else equally daunting. Maybe even more so. “Leaning in” to fatherhood means staying through it all. It means showing up, despite all the legit reasons we might have to lean back. For me it’s meant being present for my kid while surfing some gnarly emotional waves of my own for the last couple years.  It’s meant not just sitting down with my daughter and telling her I was gay, but being there for every difficult conversation that came after that, every awkward question.  It’s meant finding ways to make absolutely sure she knew that I’m still the same guy, the same dorky dad, the same me that I’ve always been.

I’m pretty sure I’ve messed things up spectacularly at every turn, incidentally. In ways I don’t even know about yet.  Only my child’s future therapist in the year 2025 will be able to tell me for sure.

But at least I’ll be able to say I  leaned in. I was here.

 

We’re celebrating Father’s Day by celebrating leaning into fatherhood and by recognizing the extraordinary men that are our own fathers. We hope that it will inspire you to thank your own dad or the dad who most inspires you. Find more letters and stories about leaning into parenthood here. And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org

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