Exceptional, Defined by Jerry Mahoney

‘Not typical,’ sure…but also, ‘outstanding.’ As this Westchester father battles his ‘gay dad guilt,’ his daughter unwittingly reminds him that he may just need a shift in perspective.
Author Jerry Mahoney with his daughter, Sutton.

Author Jerry Mahoney with his daughter, Sutton.

“Does it ever make you sad not to have a mom?”

I looked into the eyes of my 4-year-old daughter, Sutton. It’s a question I’d always wanted to ask her, but I’d never come right out and said the words before.

“Yeah,” she said, pouting.

At her age, she’s already perfected her pout to the point where I often can’t tell the difference between the fake one and the real one. I realized instantly what I’d done wrong. The way I asked the question made it sound like “yes” was the answer I was looking for. If I’d asked instead, “Isn’t it awesome that our family has two dads?” she probably would’ve said yes to that, too.

To any undergrad psychology student, it would’ve come across as classic projecting. I was the one who was sad, after all; I want to give my daughter everything, but one thing I’ll never be able to provide her is a female parent, and we live in a world that’s constantly reminding her how awesome moms are. They’re in books she reads, TV shows she watches, in virtually every family we know. But she’ll never have one herself, and I’m left wondering if that worries her as much as it does me.

It goes back to the moment midway through my husband’s and my surrogacy when we learned our fetuses’ sexes. “It’s a boy… and a girl!” Everyone cheered when we told them, insisting we’d hit the jackpot. No one but me seemed concerned that we would be a family made up of three-fourths dudes. I was convinced the one little girl would feel left out.

That was the kickoff of what I call my gay dad guilt. Every self-doubt I had about becoming a father reverberated through my brain. How will you do her hair? How will you explain menstruation to her? The right-wingers are right. She deserves a mom!

From early on, my husband and I have done our best to expose our daughter to what we consider positive female role models—aunts and friends, Madeline and Matilda. Any fears we had that she would resent or reject her gender were unfounded. It was just the opposite. She embraced everything girly without the slightest nudge from us. She picked out the pinkest and frilliest dresses to wear and would make me redo her pigtails over and over until I got them just right. It turned out I didn’t need to teach her how to be a girl. Instead, she was teaching me.

Then I noticed a strange habit emerging. Once she learned to count, Sutton started using her new skill to tally up the number of boys and girls in every group she encountered. “Aunt Kathy and Uncle Larry have four girls in their family,” she informed us after a visit to her cousins’ house. “Uncle Larry is the only boy.” When we’d have friends over for a visit, she’d walk around sorting everyone silently by gender, to see where the majority lay in any particular group.

“Six boys, eight girls,” she’d report.

One day, my son and I were watching a video of the Muppets. “Daddy,” Sutton said, “there aren’t a lot of girl Muppets.”

I realized she was right. Other than Miss Piggy and the lesser-seen Janice, the Muppets are pretty much a sausage fest. In that instant, I found my mission in life. I owed it to my daughter to change the Muppet gender balance, if only for her. “Let’s make our own Muppet!” I cheered. I grabbed some crayons, and the two of us sat down with our imaginations. Soon, we’d designed a blue-faced, pink-shoed, stripey-bodied creature who Sutton dubbed Rosada.

“What’s Rosada’s favorite thing in the world?” I asked.

Sutton grinned. “The purse that her mom bought her!” That’s the other thing that broke my heart: Even in her fantasies, Sutton couldn’t seem to conceive of anyone else having a family like ours.

I made a big deal about Rosada. I had Sutton describe her to everyone we knew. I wrote a blog post and tried in vain to get the Henson people to pay attention. As a special surprise for my daughter, I emailed the picture of Rosada to a company that makes dolls from children’s drawings. Rosada would soon be a furry, plush reality.

When the package arrived, I ran it over to Sutton, practically giddy to see her reaction. She pulled the toy out of the box and stared at it blankly.

“Remember?” I said. “That’s Rosada. The girl Muppet you created!” Granted, a few months had passed since I placed the order.

Sutton shoved the doll back in the box and hid it beneath the tissue paper. “Daddy,” she informed me. “She’s creepy.” I’d predicted one of two reactions to the doll: complete euphoria or complete and utter euphoria. I never imagined she’d be dismissive of the female Muppet we’d worked so hard to create. I started to wonder if I was overthinking things. Maybe being the only girl in the family didn’t make my daughter feel odd or deprived. Maybe it made her feel special. Maybe when she was counting up boys and girls, she actually liked being in the smaller group.

The following week, I found myself with another opportunity to broach the subject. 

“Daddy,” Sutton observed quietly, “We’re the only ones in gymnastics class who have two dads.” It was a strange observation, because there were no parents in the classroom, and half the kids were brought there by their nannies.

“How do you know that? Did you ask the other kids?”

“No.”

“You just kind of figured?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, you’re probably right. Not a lot of people have two dads.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Most people have a dad and a mom.”

This was my chance to pose my question again, to see what she was really thinking. This time I was careful not to be too leading with my words: “How does it make you feel to have two dads?” I asked.

I expected a shrug at best, perhaps a dismissive “good.” Maybe even a “huh?” Instead, what I got was a wild laugh that came without hesitation. My little girl threw her hands in the air and instantly put all my fears to rest. “I looooooooooove it!” she shouted.

Jerry Mahoney is an award-winning comedy writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and whose new book is Mommy Man: How I Went from Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad (Taylor Trade Publishing). Mahoney lives in New Rochelle with his family.

 

More parent essays about non-traditional families:

Blended by Marcelle Soviero

Taking My Son to His First Gay Wedding by Rachel Aydt

 

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