As a Gay Dad I Was Always Intimidated By the Suburbs, Until I Moved There
I knew I wanted to leave New York City when I started fantasizing about garages. My partner Ira and I and our two kids, then 4 and 1, were headed out to breakfast one snowy winter morning. Everyone was hot and cranky as we bundled up in our typically overheated city apartment. When we were finally outside, pushing the stroller through snow banks and pools of slush with snowflakes stinging our faces, a vision came to me: I pictured us walking into a garage, hopping into a car, and arriving at a diner with 10 times less drama. This image planted the seed of moving to the 'burbs that I couldn't shake.
That spring we fell in love with a house in a small town, just 35 minutes from the city. It had grass and a beautiful yard for our spirited kiddos. The schools were good. There were even good restaurants. The only red flag: Census data estimated only 0.1 percent of the population was gay male. This was a big move for us. Would we like it? Would we be liked? I knew it would come down to the people. A friend gave me the best piece of advice: "When you move to a new place, any interaction that doesn't end with a phone number is a wasted interaction." I took that to heart, and we made lots of great (straight) friends who invited us to so many dinner parties and playdates that I proudly began to think of us as the gay pioneers in our small town.
Sure our suburban gayness had growing pains that we couldn't have anticipated. For instance, when we attended our first dinner party, within minutes the hostess went to the kitchen and the other wives followed her, while the husbands settled into the living room. Ira and I froze, looking at each other. In the city, our straight friends hadn't separated out like this for the evening. Should we stay with the dudes, exert our masculinity, and blow off the mom we liked? Or does one of us go with the wives and accept the personal branding that comes with that? We did a quick rock paper scissors in the foyer. Ira went with the wives.
There was also the time when we were invited to our preschool's Mom's Night Out. It was an inclusive gesture, and we figured the only way for us to navigate this gay dad in the 'burbs thing was to try everything and see what fit. I was the one who went. The evening at the bar started off fine, but then I ended up in a detailed conversation about the emotional struggle of not being able to have a vaginal birth after having had a C-section, and I was reminded of how different I was.
For the most part, our little family of four was settling nicely into the community, though one concern kept nagging me: I realized I wasn't applying my usual proactive zeal to the way I was parenting my kids. I had been so wrapped up in making the move and finding our footing that I pushed aside worries I'd had in the city about my parenting. I had been passively hoping for the best. I waited until my son turned 5 before acknowledging that the way we were managing his "spirited" personality wasn't helping. I also wasn't doing anything to understand my toddler's constant whining. I wanted the way we handled this behavior to encourage her to move beyond it. Were we helping or making it worse? I couldn't be sure.
I started doing research—getting books, scrolling through websites, and meeting with helpful experts. I learned a lot of useful strategies, like that I should phrase commands as statements instead of questions. "Ready to eat lunch?" might be a polite way to chat to grown-ups, but it opened the door to frustration with my kids. Because, in fact, no, they don't want to stop playing to eat lunch! I learned instead to say, "In 5 minutes, it will be time for lunch" to make transitions smoother.
On one hand it felt great to be getting new skills; on the other, all of the advice was difficult to put into practice. When I surveyed friends and colleagues who had kids—it didn't matter whether they lived in the city or the 'burbs, they immediately understood. Realizing I wasn't alone in wanting to be the best parent I could be, I was inspired to start Bright Parenting. It's an app that features a customizable library of bite-sized lessons. But what parents tell us they like most are the daily, doable tips that help them stay positive and feel in control.
A decade ago, if someone had told me that Ira and I would comprise two of the 0.1 percent gay men living in our suburban town with our kids, I wouldn't have believed it. Back then, I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a parent. But once we became dads, being a parent defined me more than I ever imagined it would. Ira jokes that I wasn't content to just be a gay dad in the suburbs, I had to go all in and make my career about my parenting too. If my career decision is what makes me the ultimate gay dad, I'll take it! And I would do it all over again, even the awkward playground phone number exchanges and "where do we belong" dinner parties.
Steve Jacobs is the founder and CEO of Bright Parenting, an app with daily reminders and lessons to help you stay in control of how you parent. Prior to Bright Parenting, Jacobs was a technology executive, responsible for the digital experiences of top brands, such as Gilt, Saks, and more. He lives in Westchester with his partner and two young kids.