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Families don’t just happen. Gay, straight, single or coupled, nobody could possibly find it easy to build (and maintain) a happy, healthy family. Maybe nobody ever gets it completely right, but Dan Bucatinsky’s Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), a memoir of his experience thus far as a gay father, provides proof enough that compassion, generosity, honesty—and humor—might just get you close.
In these essays, Bucatinsky chronicles his and his partner Don’s adventures in fatherhood with wit and sensitivity. Dan and Don chose to pursue an open adoption, meaning that the birth mother of their future child would be choosing them. Bucatinsky writes with wry exasperation about the humbling process of marketing oneself to potential birth mothers, casting it as part audition, part college application. They were finally chosen by the woman, Monica, who would give birth to both of their children, a daughter, Eliza, and later, a son, Jonah. The children know about Monica and the role she played in helping their fathers to build a family—she even calls on their birthdays. It’s this kind of openness and honesty that have sustained this family from the beginning.
Nearly derailed in its early stages by a malingering, needy, and domineering friend of Don’s who turned out to be a world-class fraud, their relationship managed not just to survive but to thrive. These are two powerful people who, as Bucatinsky writes, “strive to push. . . competitive impulses aside to work together to make a great life for [their children].” Generosity and patience seem to be essential for such balance and compromise. One of the most loving gestures in the book is the one Don makes after an argument over whether to circumcise Jonah. After agreeing to the circumcision without a ceremony, Don nevertheless arrives with Dan’s father’s yarmulke and computer printouts of the appropriate prayers.
It’s not easy to figure out when love means compromising as opposed to standing your ground—and it’s much harder with children than with adults. When, as a matter of principle, do you unleash, as Bucatinsky calls it, that inner Anna Wintour, unyielding and ready to crack down on the most minor infraction? When is it better to keep one’s ego in check and say nothing? While kids are in the process of becoming considerate people, they will say some pretty inconsiderate things. Teaching the child, and not just satisfying a parent’s need to teach, requires a tricky balance between correction and compassion.
Lucid, reflective and sentimental without ever becoming cloying, Bucatinsky’s stories offer plenty of insight about the ways of children but even more about what it means to become a parent. Hearing his daughter grow wistful about having a “mommy,” after watching a Disney movie, prompts Bucatinksy to consider both the flexibility and, to an extent, the validity of traditional roles in parenting, even if they aren’t tied to gender. But however they share or divide their tasks, Bucatinsky realizes “that all parents must feel deep within themselves: a boundless desire and responsibility to nurture and protect.”
Bucantinsky writes thoughtfully about being a gay parent in America today, poised between new possibilities for how we define the family and the prejudices that linger even among those who might seem supportive. “I have no real interest in being a political activist,” he asserts. “It’s a lot of work and it sounds like that could cut into my TV time. That being said, my life is political by its very nature, and I have to be ready to defend my rights and freedoms at any given moment.” Sometimes that readiness might lead a person to mistakenly excoriate a hotel housekeeper who asks an innocent question. But it also means being willing to move beyond one’s own assumptions in order to find new allies. One such opportunity comes for Bucatinsky when he worries that a group of Latina nannies in the park might reject him if he tells them that his children’s mother is actually their other father. He realizes that not giving them the chance to accept the truth about his family—as they do, happily—would have denied them all a more honest friendship. On the other hand, sometimes the most politically powerful gesture is absence, as when Dan and Don quietly withdraw from a friendship with a couple who were delighted to expose their children to a gay family—as long as there would be no PDA in front of the children during play dates.
Maybe the secret to good parenting—or one of them—is something that Bucatinsky demonstrates throughout this book without ever specifically naming it. The ability to examine your own faults and foibles—and be merciful with yourself about them—can’t help but make people both honest and generous about their children’s mistakes, whether heartbreaking or hilarious. You might not have to have Bucatinsky’s sense of humor (about yourself and others) to be a good parent, but it probably can’t hurt to try.
Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? Confessions of a Gay Dad
By Dan Bucatinsky
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Paperback, 9781451660739, 245 pp.