I never did want children of my own. But competitive thoughts about family building started to invade my mind a little over two years ago, when my older brother and his wife had a baby girl.
“Oh, so you think you’re just going to go and give birth?” I said to myself. “I’m going to be the best, most overachieving gay dad in America.”
My drive for one-upmanship didn’t last long. Fearing that if I had a child I would end up with a “We Need to Talk About Kevin” situation on my hands, I soon yielded to gentler emotions: pride at the sight of the flourishing family tree, a protective instinct and giddy excitement.
Overnight, I had become that most doting and caricatured of family figures: the gay uncle.
At last, after years of wondering what role I was meant to play in my family, I could step into one that seemed comfortable: august queer elder, good-natured corrupter, lover of art and literature and spinster-to-be. I couldn’t wait to fulfill this new purpose.
Though I immediately flew across the country to begin teaching my niece about Hellenistic sculpture, I found her, at less than a month old, curiously glassy-eyed and incommunicative. I had to wait two years, at which point she began talking a blue streak.
Little kids and I tend to love one another’s company, if only because we invariably share the same psychotic imagination.
My niece was at that toddler age when language bursts onto the scene with such force that the parallel development of social graces can barely keep up.
I remember my much younger sister saying, in the midst of some neurotic Proustian monologue: “I don’t believe there’s a hell. That’s just something people tell you to make you behave.”
One day, my niece and I were goofing around in the yard when she zoomed off to play house in one of those plastic structures – the kind with beige, red and blue walls that lock together like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.
Believing myself invited, I followed, attempting to squeeze in. It was decidedly not built to house giant adults. My niece stared at me for a second, then said, “Get out.”
My life as sitcom
She offered this blunt command with an effortless, pleasant air, as though she had just said, “Here, have a chocolate eclair.” What could I do but leave the playhouse? And how many times had I longed to turn to some guest in my own apartment, some friend or acquaintance who had just walked in, and say the very same thing?
We finally found common ground when she wanted to spend some time with her wooden toy kitchen. Even I draw the line at playing Sylvia Plath with a 2-year-old, but it was her idea to put stuffed animals in the oven.
When I imagine my future, it doesn’t include the pitter-patter of little feet or the wailing of colicky newborns. It doesn’t necessarily even include domestic partnership.
If shows like “Modern Family” and “The New Normal” are any indication, the shopworn category of the solitary queer uncle is fast being replaced with gay characters who are compelled to find equal footing as part of nuclear family units.
I love kids, but my own adulthood is shaping up to include reading in unbroken solitude, unencumbered travel, free hours in which to write and plenty of time with friends. Friendship, which Aristotle called a “slow ripening fruit,” seems to suit my temperament better than the fruits of partnership – or pureed fruit hurled at me from a highchair. I guess that whatever happens, we know there will be fruit.
It wouldn’t make a great sitcom.
The ever-helpful uncle
I like to imagine my siblings’ children will eventually make as many mistakes in life as the rest of us have. But I hope, too, that I can live up to my new role if they do.
Most parents are stuck being the voice of reason; it’s the luck of the solitary gay uncle that he gets to be the voice of creative anarchy.
Of course, my niece and nephew may become chief financial officers, gastroenterologists or personal injury lawyers. They might just decide they love the suburbs, marry young and find themselves wealthy, healthy and happy as clams. In which case, watch out, kids: It’ll be me coming to stay on your couch.
Evan James is a writing fellow at the Carson McCullers Center in Columbus, Ga.
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