The day had come. I was officially a man with the arrival of my bouncing baby boy. I planned on becoming the flawless all-American Sears dad dripping testosterone laced sweat like the Marlboro man. I had read all the books on single parenting, rearing disabled children, and Terry Brazelton’s volumes on child development. I wasn’t about to make any mistakes.
In the first hour of having my son, I flooded the Boston airport men’s bathroom with the allegedly disposable diaper. I didn’t make my second parenting error until thirty minutes later when I let go of the very collapsible, cheap stroller handle where I had hung my bags. Tiny twenty-two-pound Jason nearly catapulted into the International Terminal. My next big parenting decision was to switch to cloth diapers. A painful disaster. I bleached them “clean” and created a diaper rash from hell. His burned little butt was right up there with the first barbecue on my back porch. The first gaggle of guncles came to meet “the disabled child.” They peered in amazement; a gay man with a child was not the Boystown model. To top the afternoon off they watched as he ran, fell and slid palms up against the hot Hibachi. This was only the first three weeks of parenting. I had some things to learn.
Very quickly my life changed from Sesame Street reruns at 5am and the new babysitter dependency. It was time to tackle the whole sports thing. I wasn’t an athlete growing up, to put it mildly! I never quite got the whole competitive sports thing. I joined a gym and learned some men were stronger and some men were weaker. I wasn’t the weakest, to my surprise.
I ventured into a Sportsmart to explore the unknown world, familiar only with the jock straps and darling little running shorts. I picked up and smelled a baseball mitt. I remembered my childhood when I was forced to go outside and play baseball in the vacant lot with my humiliated brother and his friends. Those baseball games were my first introduction to a baseball glove. I loved the cupped shape and I used it to cover my head should a speeding ball smash my face. They took the glove away from me. I was not worthy and therefore relegated to the outfield, the very far outfield. It was just as well. The ball would never come near me so I could weave my dandelion stem jewelry and create pastel fairies made from hollyhock blossoms and buds. I continued to sightsee the aisles of foreign objects. I did recognize badminton and croquet but decided those probably weren’t real Marlboro man sports. “This one I’ll leave to the schools,” I thought. I was pretty sure they had coaches, bats and things. Perhaps he’d meet a lesbian coach to fill the missing female in his life, which caused so many people to worry. Folks warned me he’d never develop.
In reorganizing and tidying up my life, I did have one last commitment I had to fulfill. I was a man of my word. It would be my last hurrah to a past life more colorful than Elmo’s letter G and the Count’s number 3 that filled my early mornings. Several years prior to fatherhood I had a part-time job that took me to small towns in Indiana and Illinois on random weeknights. My parents always wondered how I would ever use my theatre major with a costume design concentration, and this job was the solution. I had become a stripper.
I had different idols when I was growing up. Remember, my early life was not about Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. I discovered my icon on the shelves of heavy books in the Resource Room in our small town. In bold block letters I was drawn to Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee. I spent hours cross-legged, flipping through photos of the infamous queen of burlesque. At nine years old I was learning the art of striptease.
My part-time art switched to occasional one-time performances in Chicago clubs and art events. I transformed my act into stripping as a man to a woman and back to a man in one fifteen-minute segment. Confused? You should have seen the wide-eyed, mystified, melting faces of my audiences. My committed swan song was to strip as a woman on stage. The Marlboro man ran from the room screaming like a little girl.|
During the weeks prior to my show, I bathed my son, read his bedtime story, tucked his “Mom Dog” pound puppy under his Crate and Barrel planes-and-trains comforter and kissed him goodnight. As he slept, the secret magic of shoemaker’s elves stirred. I cut and sewed and accessorized. I sewed my Vogue pattern Givenchy ball gown in black moiré satin taffeta. I was a classy stripper and rebelled against the traditions of glitter, marabou, and lame. I was not the image your husbands and teenage sons view online.
Each night the sewing machine was pulled out of hiding and whirled through the black fabric so perfect for altering a male body to female by doubling the full skirt to design the illusion of hips. I pulled the exaggerated puff sleeves into the body to soften and narrow the shoulders. The oversized wide sash tied tight to emphasize the waist. The accessories were added slowly. The deep red almost brown upswept wig easily loosened as clothing fell. The makeup practiced. The eyelashes tested. The seamed black nylons worn with one seam crooked, a trick to draw the eye.
Finally, the night before my swan song, I stood in full attire and accessories down to makeup, eyelashes and painted burgundy red fake nails adhered with florist’s clay. I stared into the full-length built-in mirror at the end of our hall. Everything was perfect until I heard the now horrible but familiar sound of plastic footed pajamas. God help me, he was awake. My concerned parental instinct flew me to his side, my gown rustling and billowing all way, high heels clicking. I leaned over him and asked, “What’s wrong?” His little fist rubbed his sleepy eyes as he looked up at me puzzled and said.(wait for it)…“Mommy? Mommy?”
Oh. My God he called me “Mommy.” I immediately ripped off my wig and dipped into the secret parental lying resource we all possess in case of extreme emergency. “Oh, honey, this is my funny Halloween costume just like the silly pound puppy costume daddy is making for you. Halloween is so goofy.”
I quickly ushered him to bed, hoping he’d fall back to sleep quickly and think he had a nightmare.
“Oh, my God he called me Mommy,” I thought as I clicked back down the hall, happy the florist’s clay really worked. As I stared back in the mirror, disheveled, I thought of what I used to tell first time parents. “Read everything you can. Listen to everyone’s advice. Tell everyone to bugger off and rear your child the way you know is right for you and start saving for the best therapist money could buy to correct your parenting screw ups.”
I’ve often thought of that evening thirty years ago and still roll my eyes. I remember my role as a single parent being both mommy and daddy. I know the Native American term Berdache, meaning a person of Two Spirits, one processing both genders. The Berdache is well respected and honored as a spiritual mediator and healer. Maybe it was my two spirits who reared my son, both Mommy and Daddy.
Daddy first met him and questioned his ability to handle drooling and a three year old still not potty-trained. Mommy hushed him and said, “This is our son.” Mommy feared the learned doctors were correct in their deadly prognosis he would never speak or read or develop. Daddy insisted he was talking and no one listened and understood his language. It was Mommy who wrapped her arms around him against her naked chest. Skin to skin, with hope the child who had never bonded would feel her heart and miraculously they would become one. She prayed for the day he would “attach” and be able to look directly into her eyes. Daddy told her to be strong and steadfast with her love. Daddy envied every woman’s ability to give birth and cursed every woman who complained she had to breast feed. They went to school staffings where Daddy would wear his power suits and blatantly charm the female-dominated meetings. He held Mommy in check when she morphed into an angry jungle beast ready to devour anyone denying her baby his rights.
When he fell down, Daddy said get up. Mommy kissed his ego and wounds. Daddy was proud when he saw him perfectly roller skate down the sidewalk. The paralysis had somehow disappeared. Daddy laughed when his son faked awkwardness near older girls. Mommy smiled as girls grabbed his hand to help him skate and said, “Yeah Daddy, we got a straight one on our hands.” Daddy was horrified when he learned days later the truth about the three-inch deep slash in his hand. The wound puzzled the emergency room doctors. He learned his son had intervened when a gangbanger was harassing a young woman. His simple confronting face-to-face retort, “That’s no way to treat a lady!” escalated into a knife fight. Mommy was hysterical when he told them the police almost arrested him. Daddy laughed inside with pride when he learned his young son had knocked the gangbanger out with a single punch. Mommy lectured him on safety and instructions on calling the police. The young man he was becoming honored Daddy and Mommy. Mommy and Daddy fell asleep holding each other emotionally drained and softly sighed as they often did after his surgeries and traumas of childhood. They were relieved to have each other.
So you see, a single parent, a Two Spirit parent, has many switching roles. Mommy is Daddy, Daddy is Mommy. Some nights, Mommy is a stripper.