Puerto Rican TikToker and Single Dad José Rolón on How He Turned Heartbreak into Laughter and Love
There was a time in my life when I thought that fatherhood was not a possibility for me. When I came out at 18, there just weren't a lot of gay men becoming parents. But by 2007, when I met my husband, Tim Merrell, the world had changed and so had I. By our third date, I was like, "Listen, you want to have babies or what?"
Tim didn't. He told me he was too selfish to share me with anybody else, and I knew he meant it too. So I made peace with it. Being with this amazing man was worth the sacrifice. But eventually, after seeing an interview with Elton John on fatherhood, he changed his mind. When Tim told me he was ready, I just started crying.
Becoming a Father
After we got married in 2010, we found an amazing surrogate and put in two embryos-one from me and one from him-and nine months later, our son, Avery, was born. Tim loved being a dad so much that when Avery was only 2 months old, he came out of the room with him in his arms and said, "Babe, know what I'm thinking?" I was lying on the couch, totally exhausted, and I said, "Pizza or Chinese?" He said, "I think we should have another kid." And so, we went for it, this time using my sperm.
Honestly, I was hoping for another boy. When it eventually came time to do the sonogram with the surrogate, the nurse looked at me and said, "You're going to need two hair bonnets." I was like, "Are you kidding me?" I couldn't believe it. Twin girls? You'd think that, as a gay man, I'd be happy because we could do pretty things together. But in truth, I'm horrible at all the pretty things. My ponytail game is so not on point. I only know about being a boy, and the idea of raising girls scared me.
Living a Nightmare
Our surrogate was 11 weeks pregnant when Tim had to go on a business trip. He always traveled for work, but this was his first trip since Avery was born. We FaceTimed that night. I'll never forget it-we talked for 36 minutes. He asked to see Avery sleeping, and I said, "Absolutely not. I just got him down, and I'm not about to turn on the light." But he begged me, and finally I gave in. Then, we both said, "I love you," and that was it. I remember getting off the call and saying out loud to myself, "Wow, that was really nice."
Tim would always wake me up, and when he didn't text the next morning, I got worried. I kept texting him with increasing urgency throughout the day. I was at a Christmas work event when I got a voicemail on my phone. It was the police, asking me to call them. As I dialed, I was shaking. I remember thinking, "Please just let him be alive." When the detective told me he'd passed away, I just collapsed. He'd had a heart attack in his sleep. He was only 48.
The rest of that day was a blur. It soon became clear, though, what I had to do next: End our pregnancy. Who was I to raise three kids on my own? But six days later, on the morning of Tim's funeral, I looked at Avery and thought, "What if something were to happen to me?" I didn't want to leave him alone in this world. So I made a decision, and during Tim's eulogy, I announced to a church full of people that we had twins on the way.
Building a Community
What happened next was so beautiful. People swooped in to support me in every possible way. When you're a two-parent household, nobody ever offers to help. They assume you've got it, even though parenting, no matter what, is always a hot mess. With me, nobody assumed I had everything under control, and it took a good year after Lilah and London were born for me to start kicking people out of my house. They say you know who your true friends are at times like these. I don't always believe that's true, because people deal with grieving differently. But I had friends, family, and strangers offer to help. I'd only just launched my business as a wedding planner, and three different caterers, two of whom were in legal battles with each other, even showed up for us!
We never want people to see our own ugly or craziness, but unless you let them in and say yes to help, you will get overwhelmed. The pandemic is a great example of that. Suddenly all parents experienced this collective burnout. That's why I began making TikTok videos as @nycgaydad. It really just started as a way to break up the monotony of remote schooling and the stress of parenting and trying to save my business. Plus, as a single parent, I don't have somebody at the end of the night to talk about our experiences with. When the kids score a goal or get a good grade, whom can I tell? It's just me, and that's the hardest part. But on TikTok we've found a community-sharing lip syncs to Celia Cruz, our attempts at making flan, and even a few tributes to Daddy Tim.
I don't have a ton of Puerto Rican relatives. I'm an only child, and I lost both of my parents a long time ago. My father passed away when I was 18. He was a total monster-a drug addict who was mentally and physically abusive. He'd take me on drug runs because he figured having a child in the front seat made him less likely to get caught. And he had this whole machismo attitude that's so deeply rooted in Latinx culture. He'd tell me to "walk like a man, not a faggot." My wonderful mom couldn't deal with the grief, and she succumbed to drugs too. She eventually got back on her feet but passed away five years later, when I was 23. They said it was a heart aneurysm.
I'm not someone who believes you have to forgive to move on. I certainly don't forgive my father. The blessing I've found all these years later, though, is that I'm the complete opposite of him. He was never affectionate. He never once said, "I love you." But me? I say it to my kids all the time. We have this routine at bedtime. One of us says, "I love you." The other says, "I love you more." Another says, "Impossible!" That's not to say if I had a good dad, I would've been a bad one. But I don't think I would've gone through all the effort to be the father that I am for my children now.
Finding the Blessings
Sometimes I wonder how I've done it, grieving while parenting. There were times I'd think, "Okay, I can cry, but only for five minutes because then I have to show up for my kids with a smile." But, really, they've allowed me to move through the grief. Being a modern Latino dad means I'm not afraid to be openly vulnerable. I can show my kids when I get emotional. I can show them empathy and not put up walls around myself, like my dad did. I feel that it's up to me, and all of us, to break down those barriers.
When I look at all the tragedies I've been through, I just feel so lucky. My kids are awesome human beings-and so different. Lilah is an entertainer, a tomboy who loves showboating and acting. Her twin, London, is the caretaker, a "let's throw glitter in the wind" girly girl. Avery is a cool little cat, so easygoing and balanced. We walk the streets together like a posse, and my days are filled with joy again. And at some point they'll know: They saved my life.
What's In, What's Out
José Rolón's guide to being a modern papi.
Machismo: Go ahead and talk about your feelings-vulnerability is a sign of strength.
Hot tempers: Instead, channel your passion by finding joy in all the little things.
Gender norms: Get your son in the kitchen and your daughter on the soccer field, then switch.
Hugs and kisses: Don't let a day go by without showing affection and saying "I love you."
Individuality: Let your kids be who they want to be and discover their own identities.
Inclusivity: Kick it with people of all races and backgrounds. It will help your children adapt to any situation as adults.
This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's June/July 2021 issue as "Papi Power."