What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Wednesday, November 27, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
The Velveteen Father by Jesse Green
I can imagine that a certain portion of the population, who seem to hate any work based largely on navel gazing (one person's attempt to intimately examine their own reasons for being or doing), would really, really hate this book. I, however, am not one of those people, and as long as the self-reflection comes off as honest and the prose is engaging, I'm quite happy - often even eager - to peek through someone else's self-revealing windows. So I will say right up front that I really loved this book, which is, indeed, a lengthy self-examination of one man's "unexpected journey to parenthood."
Author Jesse Green is a gay man who, like many gay men, never considered having children...until he fell in love with another man who had just adopted a baby boy. While Green's identity as a homosexual is certainly integral to the book, however (it's the context he uses to explain many of his feelings about parenthood, family, and the societal forces that act on him day in and day out), it's really not the main point of his story. Instead, what he provides is a surprisingly universal musing on the nature of parenthood, why people have children, and how the process of becoming a parent changes a person.
And this is where Green's position as a gay man actually becomes a major boon to his position as narrator. Because, as he points out, most people who become parents (which is most people, period), don't often think too much about their reasons for doing it before they have children. Parenthood is something most people simply grow up expecting will happen to them, and when it does - whether planned or by accident - sliding into the role of parent is something people often just do without too much reflection on the whys and wherefors.
As Green points out, however, parenthood has not been a traditional part of gay male culture in this country, and when a gay man begins to consider becoming a parent, he is forced to consider details other people generally don't have to put much thought into...starting with just how or where to acquire a child. And having to confront all those details -- from how to find a child to what your parents and friends might think of the idea...not to mention all the day-to-day, nitty gritty details of raising a child -- forces people in his position to really think long and hard about the reasons they may or may not want to become a parent. And as he discovers, those reasons are no different for gay men than for anyone else.
The book begins with the story of Andy, the man Green eventually falls in love with. Andy is nearing 40 and determined to have a child, despite the faint (and sometimes not so faint) disapproval of his friends and family. At first, Andy agrees to be a sperm donor for a couple of lesbian friends who also want to have a baby...but this arrangement goes awry after a long and difficult time spent trying to create a pregnancy through artificial insemination. So Andy finally decides that he needs to have his own child, and not be merely a biological participant in someone else's attempts to conceive.
Eventually, Andy adopts a baby boy, whom he names Erez (Hebrew for "cedar"), and when he breaks the news to his mother, she adamantly declares, "It's not going to be my grandchild." The very next day, however, she calls Andy back to ask how many people she should invite to the bris. And it's this same pattern of denial/rejection, reconsideration and, finally, enthusiastic acceptance - from casual acquaintences, friends, family and even themselves - that both Andy, and later Green himself, face again and again as they grow into their roles as parents.
In fact, this same pattern plays out when Green meets Andy at a party, less than a year after Erez' adoption. When he sees the handsome man enter with a diaper bag, he assumes Andy must be holding it for someone else. And when he discovers that it's Andy's own bag, for his own child, Green is a bit startled. But his initial attraction wins out, and he spends the next several hours in fascinated conversation with Andy.
Green's own conversion to parenthood, which comes as a result of his relationship with Andy, and his growing desire to share all parts of Andy's life, is a bit slower and more reluctant than Andy's. Unlike Andy, Green never spent long years longing for a child...and had never developed a sense of what he'd be like with children. But as he falls in love with Andy, he falls in love with Erez, too...and when Andy decides, a couple of years later, to adopt another baby, Lucas, Green plunges into family life with only mild trepidation.
Green is a fine writer, and his prose is friendly and easy to read. He also does a nice job of including peeks into the lives of other friends and acquaintences who have considered adoption and faced the many issues it raises for parents and children. One of the most interesting of these asides involves Green's neighbor, the actress Mercedes Ruehl, who longs to find the son she gave up for adoption 20 years earlier. Eventually, Ruehl adopts a baby of her own...just a few months after she does locate the son she gave up - Christopher - who becomes the new baby's godfather.
In the end, Green notes that fewer than half of all American households now consist of two married, heterosexual parents of the same race, raising children. He expresses hope that this signals a greater degree of acceptance for "alternative" families...and notes that, with these numbers, perhaps now we're all "alternative" in some way.
The only note that feels just a wee bit off in Green's narrative - and makes me doubt his expressed enthusiasms just a bit - is that we don't learn until the very end that the whole time he's growing into his role as a second "daddy" to Erez and Lucas, who obviously accept and love him without question (as does their father, Andy), that Green isn't actually living with the rest of the family. Near the end, he makes a "big" move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, to be closer to the others...but he still officially lives several blocks away from them, and walks over several times a day to participate in things like dinner and the boys' bedtime. At the very end, Green decides to pursue legal status as the boys' second parent...and says he will eventually live with them "when the time is right." But one can't help wondering at this point, after all of Green's rhapsodization about finally becoming a "real" parent, why the time still isn't right...and when it might ever be, if not now, while he's still so besotted with the whole situation.
Aside from this one slight chink, however, the rest of the book is truly charming, and probably a must-read for anyone having children, or contemplating having them...no matter who they may be or in what way those children will come into their families.