The night before the World
Trade Center fell, I became a father. The social worker
said, “Congratulations. Consider yourself pregnant.”
The adoption applications had been filed, and now the
home study was complete. In nine to eighteen months,
my partner and I would be the parents of a bouncing
baby something—boy or girl; black, white, or mixed.
We didn’t care about the details. Matthew and
I just wanted a baby.
Be careful what you wish for. Forty-two days later,
on the eve of my 40th birthday, I found myself sitting
in a beige hotel room in the American Southwest—numb,
nervous, seriously in need of a gin and tonic. A 7-week-old,
seven-pound infant slumbered nearby in a dresser drawer
that I’d made into a bed with a pillow and white
towels (I didn’t know that room service supplies
cribs as well as croissants). African, Irish, and German,
she had a thick froth of milk-chocolate curls and skin
like coffee with too much milk. We decided to call her
Catherine, after my maternal grandmother.
My mother wept when she heard the news. Then she got
real: “What do you know about taking care of a
baby?” Mom had a point. Matthew and I had enough
trouble grooming the dogs. And who knew when we’d
finish painting the living room? But honestly, how hard
could parenting be? “I was your first baby,”
“What did you know?”
Long pause. Finally, the woman who brought up two boys
largely on her own—my military-officer father
was often away, in spirit if not in body—admitted
what I’d suspected for years.
“Okay,” she said. “I faked it.”
I have to admit that fatherhood wasn’t a biological
imperative. Neither of us was looking to perpetuate
family lines (our fertile siblings had taken care of
that). We weren’t hoping to exorcise childhood
miseries, save a marriage, or anchor lives gone adrift.
Having a baby just seemed the natural order of things.
I’d fallen for a tall, corn-fed, midwestern blond
called Matthew Zwissler, and I wanted to raise a family
Briefly, we considered surrogacy, imagining a child
with his wide blue eyes or my wavy brown hair. Our parents’
reaction to this news was swift and humbling. “Why
would you want to make a baby, when so many children
have no one to take care of them?” my mother asked.
“How could you be so selfish?”
Little did I know that we’d struck a nerve. Turned
out that in the seventies, when Mom brought up the subject
of adoption in the hopes of having a daughter, my father
had refused. It had to be his DNA or none.
So for us, adoption was the plan. Anyway, we naïvely
reasoned, nine to eighteen months was plenty of time
to tidy our lives and find the perfect crib. Then one
day, I was standing in the middle of Newark International
Airport after a business trip, and the cell phone rang.
It was the director of the adoption agency. A young
woman had arrived, asking that her newborn daughter
go to a gay couple; we were the only one on the waiting
list. And we were not ready. I was in the middle of
a major deadline at work and hadn’t closed out
my 401(k) yet. (FYI: Adoption ain’t cheap, and
we are not rich by any stretch of the imagination.)
Matthew was about to open an antiques shop upstate.
So, of course, we said, “Yes, we want her.”
My partner got his landlord to cancel the store’s
lease and headed to Fairway for formula and diapers,
and I flew off to pick up our daughter.
We didn’t go into parenthood entirely ignorant.
On a bedside table was a book by Penelope Leach, the
Barbara Woodhouse of child rearing, but I’d never
looked at it very closely, being too distracted by Law
& Order. Instinct would be our guide: Feed, burp,
change, don’t drop the child, and, when all else
fails, fake it. Catherine slept in a laundry basket
until my boss sent over a bassinet, and for several
months, we bathed her in the kitchen sink.
A year and a half later, it’s so far, so good.
We are parents: pram-pushing, diaper-changing, danger-wary
parents. Only different. We’re conscious of the
occasional raised eyebrow and censorious pruning of
lips. Three men and a baby make a funny movie, but two
men and a baby are still a highly suspicious equation,
especially at security checkpoints. Just try remaining
calm when the plane is pre-boarding, your child is in
mid-tantrum, and an FAA troubleshooter pulls your family
out of line for yet another thorough frisking.
Times like those are surprisingly rare, however. Most
of the time, we fit into the landscape just fine—just
another pair of harried parents chasing an errant child
through a crowded store. Last Christmas, we put 2,200
miles on our rusting 1985 Volvo wagon to visit our families
in rural South Carolina and urban Indiana. It was Catherine’s
introduction to her many cousins, and it was an unqualified
success. My 10-year-old nephew elected himself our daughter’s
personal champion, carrying her in his arms as she peppered
his face with kisses. The extended Zwissler clan was
similarly transfixed, from former stepfather to teenage
nephews, as the latest addition to the family was passed
around, lap to lap, house to house.
A gay or lesbian couple adopting a child is still a
novelty, of course. And not all the attention such a
family inspires is welcome. But what has been most surprising
for Matthew and me to learn is how a child out and about
with her same-sex parents—shopping, playing, singing
as they walk down the street—is an invitation
for perfect strangers to make a connection.
At a Gap in Charleston, a salesman confided that he
and his partner wanted to adopt children, too. A straight
couple in Amsterdam darted across a canal bridge to
congratulate us on our good fortune (a Dutch TV star
and his partner had adopted a baby boy not long before,
so we were especially topical). A restaurateur in Andalusia
insisted on taking Catherine off our hands during lunch,
plying her with Spanish songs and Chupa Chups. And I
was retrieving her stroller from the coat check at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art a few weeks ago when an elegant,
pearl-bedecked woman of a certain age appeared at my
“Where did your daughter come from?” she
asked. We told her, and then she grinned. “Our
little girl came from Vietnam,” she said, Upper
East Side gentility meeting Washington Heights bohemia
in perfect solidarity.
Today, Catherine is 19 months old. She has three middle
names, seven godparents from five different countries,
and eight transatlantic flights under her belt. And
even though she’s brunched at Bayou, lunched at
La Goulue, and dined at Pastis, she’s no new-millennium
Eloise. Most of her clothes come from Wal-Mart, and
her hair ribbons are recycled from Christmas gifts;
we found her antebellum christening gown on eBay. Her
stately, Queen Elizabeth–style wave cheers the
homeless, and she greets passing dogs with a loud bark.
And already she knows that the fastest way around a
reprimand is to blow a kiss.
In case you’re wondering, our lives haven’t
changed much for Pa (me) and Daddy (Matthew). The antiques
shop is on hold while he stays home with the baby, but
otherwise we do exactly what we’ve always done—go
to cocktail parties, museum exhibitions, movies—only
now we arrive as a set of three. Change has enriched
our lives, not hampered them. It has also soiled our
upholstery, poked our eyes, ruined my best Thomas Pink
shirt, and hugged our necks so passionately that we
have been known to cry. Life is different; life is good.