As gay men, we all feel it from time to time. We go to a theme park and see the seemingly benevolent young father (OK, a "DILF"). We see the interaction between father and son, or father and daughter, and there is a pang in your heart in recognizing the fact that he has something in his life that you don't yet — and might not ever have. Or, you see a picture of you with your father, or your father with your grandfather — or even great-grandfather and so on — and that pang comes back. You think about getting older — maybe occasionally of not being here anymore — and wonder what you will leave behind, like so many fathers before you in your own family line. And there's the pang again.
The furter I've gone into middle age, the more I've felt that pang of part-sociology and part-biology that is being a father. My husband and I have made our decision — carefully, and with discussion — to not have children. But just like lesbians might have the maternal instinct to deal with, we gay men have the paternal instinct. We might not want to have sex with women to make babies, but many of us occasionally want to have babies, however they come about. This is because sexual orientation and the maternal/paternal instinct live on related, but parallel lines of identity and existence. Mother Nature is a clever gal, if perhaps a bit mischievous. Our desire to procreate with women is gone, and was never there, but the paternal instinct lives on. How amusing. It also kind of sucks, because we can easily feel conflicted and, just like women, feel our "biological clock" ticking.
While I know many gay men who have found ways to procreate, for many — even most — of us gay men, we're going to go through this lifetime, and complete it, without having children of our own. Great; as if we needed one more thing to come to terms with in midlife, but cope we must.
In the absence of having children, perhaps even unconsciously, we seek substitutes, particularly if we are partnered or married, but even as single people. The twink who bumped shoulders with you at the bar last weekend may be sweet and slim and ready to let you be the boss, but he’s not it. For one thing, he’s already an adult, so the "daddy" deal is really just a sexual archetype role-model. He may be fun, but it’s fun in a whole different way from the love of a child of your own. While there may be good reasons to decide not to pursue having a child, there are several ways to at least partially satisfy the intense, primal, paternal instinct. As perhaps imperfect as they are, they are coping strategies, and sometimes incremental gain is progress. There are ways to cope with the paternal instinct, some that include children, and some that don't:
1. Getting a pet. No, seriously, many people (straights do it, too) opt for the simpler satisfaction of caregiving for another by getting a dog or cat, or even a more exotic pet. Good animal shelters (like www.petfinder.com) will want to check you out by giving a thorough pet adoption application to fill out; some may even require a home visit to see if you and/or your partner/spouse pass the test. Welcome that; it means the shelter cares about your future buddy and they can teach you a lot about how to make this work well for everyone involved. If you or your partner want a designer breed, make sure you’re dealing with an ethical breeder so you don’t take home a new friend with deformities or other health issues, or are contributing to the social scourge of "puppy mills". Before you pick your furry friend, think about what you’re really looking for, and what you're willing to commit to for the life of the animal. Do you want something small and warm to snuggle with on the couch, or are you looking for an enthusiastic partner for your morning run? Usually, pet rescue organizations love gay male couples because, in general, gay men tend to spoil their pets, and that's exactly what the adoption services are looking for.
2. Mentoring a youth. If you’re not prepared to add a child to your household permanently, you can pretty easily find a child who needs a friend. Big Brothers Big Sisters not only allows openly gay men and lesbians to participate, but has told balky affiliates to get with the national policy. You’ll be matched up with the child of a single parent, with the approval of the parent and can finally go see Frozen as many times as both they and you like without feeling like a dork (get in touch with your Inner Elsa).
3. Adopting. OK, so maybe it's not a pet or a youth support program. Maybe, after careful discussion and planning, you go for it and work toward the day you envision a cuddly, pink infant being placed in your arms by a grateful mom who needs someone to adopt. It’s a nice visual, but the reality is that you’ll have much better luck in the adoption process if you are willing to consider various scenarios: a mixed-race baby, one with some health issues or special needs, an older child whose life hasn’t been all sunshine, a child from another country in upheaval. These kids are not “leftovers” or second-best. They are as perfect as any other child. What they need is a dad with enough heart, smarts and courage (Easter-egg shout-out to my friends who know my "Oz" obsessions) to help them enjoy the life they deserve. Adoption by gay parents is legal now in most states in the U.S., although there are variables (some allow only singles to adopt, for example). If you’re in a stable relationship, check into second-parent adoptions, which allow both you and your partner to become the child’s legal guardian. In states with full marriage equality, the process is easier. (For a great book on gay men adopting, see my friend and colleague Tony Zimbardi-LeMons, Psy.D., MFT, and his book, Forever Dads).
4. Surrogacy. It’s becoming increasingly popular to pass on your genes through surrogate pregnancy. If you don’t have a female friend willing to do it for love, you can pay for a surrogate to carry your child. Costs can run up to $150,000, including the woman’s compensation, agency fees, costs for insurance, legal fees, maternity clothes, travel expenses, etc. Surrogacy is not legal in all states, so check out your state’s rules.
5. Adult Mentoring. My personal favorite of all these, I mentor adults in several ways. I teach graduate students in the University of Southern California (USC) School of Social Work to do what I do (the practice of clinical/psychiatric social work, psychotherapy, coaching, and social activism). I also offer counseling and life/business/financial coaching for young adult gay men, particularly creative professionals (actors, writers, designers, singers, dancers, models) in the crazy life of "Hollywood". I have a long history of providing clinical supervision in non-profit organizations and in my office, mentoring clinical associate interns who work with their own clients, under my supervision, in my office on the weekends. You might consider other kinds of teaching, providing training, or even just having an "open-door policy" with associates in your office to give them career guidance whenever they need it. It's a rewarding opportunity to support someone's growth, just as others helped you (or you wish they had) when you were young.
So, if you're struggling in any way with your paternal instincts, especially at midlife, give these options some thought. If your paternal instinct is marred by problems or traumatic memories — including abuse — in your relationship with your own father (or mother), consider therapy that focuses on this so that you can separate, once and for all, the good from the bad. It's only natural for you to have at least occasional feelings about paternity, and it's also OK if you don't have these feelings, and you shouldn't feel guilty about either. As I describe in my book, self-empowerment means being an adult male who can make his own decisions, for your life, and for the lives you touch.
For help with your own feelings about this, or any other important topic in your life, call me at 310-339-5778 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information or to book an appointment.
Ken Howard, LCSW is a gay, poz (24 years), sex-positive, LGBT-affirmative, licensed psychotherapist who has specialized almost exclusively in working with gay male individuals and couples for over 22 years. He provides counseling, psychotherapy, or coaching sessions in his office in Los Angeles (near Beverly Center), or via phone or via Skype, nationally and world-wide. Ken is available Monday through Friday, including evenings, and associate clinicians are available on Saturdays/Sundays. Your referrals are always welcome.