Father’s Day is to honor good men everywhere who faithfully tend the vineyards of family duty.
It’s also a theme-for-a-day meant to romance the idyllic and caress our mythology. Even in first grade, many of us learned to read with pictures of Father driving home after work to his cozy bungalow. There to greet him were Mother in her frilly apron alongside Dick, Jane, Sally, and panting Spot jumping up for a pat. All eager to welcome home their lion of domesticity.
Myths are important, but reality trumps, because the nagging truth for too many of us is that we didn’t (or don’t) have very good fathers. It’s a fact that can lead to self-pity, anger, or reinforce the importance of the many wonderful dads out there—the ones we didn’t have. So, it’s important to place a high value on great dads, whoever and whatever they might be.
In that pursuit, I found a couple who had to fight hard to be accepted, both as married and as parents, and who seem to live the domesticity that we idealized in our Dick-and-Jane primers.
Ryland Madison and Mark Fisher are two fathers under the same roof raising a small son. That’s right. They’re gay parents.
(Some of you are now saying: “Aw, here comes another kumbaya, bleeding-heart lecture.” But, come on, hear me out.)
Madison, 44, and Fisher, 46, are marketing executives who would fit comfortably into any Rotary Club. I don’t know how they vote, but Mitt Romney would certainly love the looks of them.
Max, their son, is a six-year-old first grader who was adopted at birth. That was before gay marriage was legal in California. Paradoxically, adoption laws have always been more liberal than marriage laws, probably because of the insistence of hetero single persons to be able to adopt.
The Madison-Fisher family lives in an upscale condo in Solana Beach with two large rescue dogs. I can think of few communities where gay parenthood would be more accepted. Even if a neighbor didn’t approve, it would be déclassé in that environment to show it. Even so, the fathers seem too assured of themselves and the family they’ve created to be bothered by the prospect.
Max is a strapping boy with a robust but polite manner, bright blue eyes and a blond ‘fro. His birth parents were Polish and Creole, which is a name for Louisiana mixture. He calls Madison Poppa, and Fisher Daddy. Max was given Madison’s last name, and Fisher’s as a middle name: Max Fisher Madison.
To each man, his mate is a husband. The men married three years ago, as soon as it became legal in this state. They’ve been together for 25 years since sharing a dorm room at UCSD, cemented by a commitment ceremony 13 years ago. They are undecided on adopting more children, although Max says he wants a sister.
Fisher is mellow and soft-spoken, but when he talks about public perceptions, he reveals a bit of edginess. For instance, when a store clerk casually asks Max about his mother, Fisher will correct her and say Max has two fathers. That elicits a red-faced apology, which, of course, results in nothing but a little take-that satisfaction.
The fathers aren’t worried about the difference between their family and others and its effect on Max. “Some people think if you’re gay or straight you act one way or another. But since we happen to socialize mainly with straight families—about 70 percent--he won’t notice a difference socially,” Madison says. “We teach him that families can be different; there’s not just one type of family: some have a mom and dad, some have two dads, some have two moms.”
On the issue of when to tell Max he was adopted, the fathers are not quite ready to move forward on that.
“We tell him he was brought to us by an angel,” Fisher says. When Max tells him that some kids wonder why there is no mother in his house, Madison says, “Tell them you were brought to us by a female angel,” still reluctant to use the word “adopted.”
But when Max is asked what he says to kids who wonder about his not having a mother, he says, “I tell them I’m not adopted.”
That takes the fathers aback. “We’re getting to that point,” Madison says after a pause, referring to the need for an adoption discussion.
The fathers also have to deal with being of different religions, a common thing in marriages of today. Madison is Catholic and Fisher Jewish, although neither seems preoccupied with it. As Fisher says, they “celebrate the main holidays,” especially Christmas and Chanukkah.
“He [Max] may end up being a Buddhist,” Madison says.
“What’s a Buddhist?” Max asks.
Their attitude toward discipline is a model of modern parenting. Madison, the more talkative of the fathers, explains, “We sit down and have a conversation with him. Up front, we decided corporal punishment wasn’t right, and yelling doesn’t make sense—“
Max interrupts: “Sometimes you yell at me.”
Madison continues, unfazed: “We talk to him like an adult, and obviously we have to be a lot more patient than him. Once he went to his room and slammed the door. So we went up and talked to him and said slamming the door is like talking back to us, and how does that make the situation better?”
Max has had no bad experiences in school, although you wouldn’t expect it in first grade. That’s more typical of junior high barbarity.
As to the long-term effect on children raised in a gay household, Madison says, “The studies I’ve read say that children of same sex couples are exactly the same as others, with just one slight difference. They tend to be just a little bit more social and with slightly better communications skills.”
Other than my hope of retiring forever that hideous “significant other” label, gay marriage and parenthood are not passionate issues for me either way. However, I’m something of a traditionalist, so I have to be pleased to see a child in a happy, secure home who might otherwise be psychologically crippled in a dysfunctional family trap or shuttled between a succession of foster parents.
As a society, we have to work through our disputes over radical changes in our culture’s rules and values. Those debates are how democracy works. They can be loud and messy, but over time they generally iron things out. So, tomorrow, let’s resume the argument, but today let’s have a time-out and celebrate that Max is in a loving and happy home.
And for that, I say Happy Father’s Day to Ryland and Mark.