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The Velveteen FatherReview - The Velveteen Father
An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood
by Jesse Green
Ballantine Books, 1999
Review by Sundeep Nayak, M.D.
Jul 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 31)

Parenthood is a challenge in perpetuity. When Jesse Green falls in love with an older high school counselor who has recently adopted baby Erez (“a very large squirming gift?”), he starts living in a previously unimagined world where semi-digested projectiles christen the new family car. As a single childless man, he is not ready for a life of “Boy Scout troops, Hebrew school car pools and platters of cupcakes for PTA bake sales.” Deciding to adopt a child requires a huge amount of strength, leasing your life up to anonymous inspectors who perform “home study”. If you are a gay man, the ordeal is coupled with the additional (apparent) hurdles of prejudice and legal obstacles, but the dispossessed will often go to impossible lengths in order to create a family of their own. The events leading up to the abrupt adoption are honestly depicted in this book. “Even the most alternative parent still has to do the laundry.”

Gay men, perhaps more than lesbians, are conflicted about becoming parents. Green attempts to use clever turns of phrase (“My calendar lists our travels but none of our travails”) to tap into the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of many gay men to rethink how the evolving dynamic of gay liberation continues to encompass behavior today. The introduction of a chaotic child element into an otherwise neat, obsessive, perfectionist gay lifestyle is like letting a monkey into your kitchen: there is no primer. The old sources of intimacy, social support, and community are no longer helpful. A stuffed toy takes center stage; the child’s love makes it all real. Unsurprisingly, Green becomes progressively involved in the tenth load of laundry even at the cost of diluting his physical partnership with Andy, the adoptive father: “fatherhood trumps gayness”. While the propriety of chronicling the early years of family members is debatable – it is without their consent – the intensely personal yet intermittently amusing writing tries too hard to staple down nebulous notions of identity crisis, gay exclusivity and meaningful adult responsibility on a very small corkboard. A modicum of purple prose ["the devastation of AIDS was directly linked to (gay men's) thoughts about becoming parents – not in order to produce gay children per se but to replace, in whatever form, the great lost souls they had known"], worshipful respect for his separately living partner who has cited another as the legal guardian for the boys [“Andy's life was punctuated by periods of relative monogamy alternated with periods of intense (albeit safe) promiscuity”, pop-ups of the ex-lover-to-be cruelly demoted from birth announcement inclusion to babysitting uncle status] and some misguided attempts at pithy epithets [“A value not deeply held has a narrow jurisdiction”, “If you’re not trapped, you’re not a parent”] punctuate an otherwise flowing narrative, that includes the men’s dissimilar and rather unspectacular childhoods. Two disparate but absolute loves clearly watermark every unopened page: the devotion of Green for his stolid partner, and the unconditional adoration of Andy for his two adopted boys. This is more a story of love than of adoption, which will disappoint many prospective adopters. “If we don’t always get to have our love in exactly the forms we desire it, it is love nevertheless.”

It is estimated there are six to ten million children with at least one gay parent and studies have shown a great degree of similarity between the parenting styles of gay and non-gay fathers. Not a single study has found these children to be disadvantaged, and their home environments are as likely to successfully support a child’s development. There is no evidence to suggest that the children of gay parents are less intelligent, suffer from more problems (including gender identity conflict), are less popular, or have lower self-esteem than children of heterosexual parents. However, owing to the inherently small sample sizes, any exact significance or long-term outlook ascribed must remain cautiously optimistic as more studies are devoted to heterosexually married gay men and lesbian or transsexual couples raising children rather than gay couples. Nevertheless, our library of instincts reinforces what Andy already knows: good parenting is influenced most profoundly by the parental ability to structure a loving and nurturing home, that ability being independent of sexual orientation.  Rather, it is a function of the inner adult within, Ferberizing and slipcovers.

We are facing a critical shortage of adoptive and foster parents that leaves thousands of children languishing without permanent homes or within state foster care systems that lack qualified foster parents. Yet there are woefully limited resources for single gay adopters, who are viewed with a schizoid air of indifference coupled with the ugly issue of pedophilia among the young partner-craving crowd (“There are things I do routinely to Erez that, if done to Andy, would constitute foreplay”), and sadness marinated with envy among the smug senior set. Indeed, Green finds himself desexed (sic) and alienated from “gay men who remain single (and) make a kind of life’s work out of adolescence, their days filled with gossip, crushes, self-beautification'', while being increasingly accepted by lesbian and straight couples. At least twenty-one states have granted second-parent adoptions to gay couples, ensuring that their children can enjoy the benefits of having two legal parents, so vital in the event of parental death or incapacitation. Andy’s inflamed gall bladder skewers Green’s newly suburban existence on Unambivalent Parenting Street. That episode and the Adoption Finalization indicate talented fingertips beating the emotion out of an ergonomic keyboard.

            “As the saying goes: Don’t live alone too long. You might get used to it.” This sweet indulgent memoir/fantasy-in-progress will appeal to many who would consider adoption, tabling as it does the way in which parenthood, biological or otherwise, can awaken the adult and the child within us, a recurring renewal albeit at great expense. Here, it happens to a very self-absorbed and self-aware freelance writer when he is least prepared for it, unlike most pre-adopters. We should expect the more enlightening studies to focus upon the long-term presence of children, the longevity of the gay relationship and the timing and degree of disclosure of the couple’s relationship. Any curious reader will be inevitably interested in what happens after: how will the growing children and the same-sex parents affect each other? To displace the transferred metaphor, what happens when the velveteen rabbit is no longer a bunny?



·        Benkov, Laura: Reinventing the Family: The Emerging Story of Gay & Lesbian Parents

·        Bozett, Frederick (ed): Gay & Lesbian Parents

·        Hicks Stephen and McDermott Janet (eds.): Lesbian & Gay Fostering & Adoption: Extraordinary Yet Ordinary

·        Martin, April: Lesbian & Gay Parenting Handbook, The: Creating & Raising Our Families

·        Morgen Kenneth B: Getting Simon: Two Gay Doctors' Journey to Fatherhood

·        Pies, Cheri: Considering Parenthood: A Handbook for Lesbians

·        Pollack, Jill S: Lesbian & Gay Families: Redefining Parenting in America

·        Savage, Dan: The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Get Pregnant

·        Sullivan Ann (ed.): Issues in Gay & Lesbian Adoption: Proceedings of the 4th Pierce-Warwick Adoption





Dr. Nayak is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Radiology in the University of California School of Medicine San Francisco and his interests include mental health and gender studies. A voracious reader and intrepid epicure, he enjoys his keyboards too much.



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