I am going to New Zealand with my life partner to visit our son and his wife and, of huge importance this time, our grand-daughter, Frida for the very first time.
Born nine months ago, contact so far has been on Skype. All very well: a great improvement on waiting for letters or photos but, for someone specialising in intimate personal relations skills, definitely second rate to skin-to-skin, face-to-face connection. We couldn’t be more excited!
One unusual dimension to this story is that we’re gay dads who fell in love thirty-three years ago when my sons from my recently ended marriage were just three and seven. Jeremy was twenty-two, ten years my junior. How those years have flown!
I’d always had relationships with males and females and met my wife while living with my boyfriend who was her friend. No surprises or secrets then!
Growing up queer in working-class London, poor schools and children’s homes had been difficult: my sexuality only one of many ways I felt different and was never much of a surprise to anyone! I had no real relationship with my drunken dad, except fear, and no grandparents: all had died before my birth. This adds poignancy and charge to travelling to meet Frida.
When my partner and I met it was difficult for gay men to be carers for young children. I was a trained primary teacher and my partner a play leader so we had skills to help us fight mainly sexist, but sometimes homophobic, bigotry. Thatcher changed the scene for the worse, however, when she pushed through Clause 28 and demonised ours as ‘pretend families.’
We put enormous love and commitment into building and keeping good relationships with our wider families, the boys’ mother and her family, and the diverse communities in which we lived, worked and socialised. Our sons were adored in two stable homes and led the complex lives of London children, eventually successfully finding rewarding love and work of their own.
My partner became a donor father for good lesbian friends eleven years ago, so we’ve avoided an ’empty nest’, our gorgeous third son being an intrinsic part of our lives for ten years now. He increasingly spends time at home and away with us as he gains more confidence and we’re excited about that.
Being with Frida
Five years ago our second son moved to Auckland with his wife, whose mother grew up nearby, and they’ve made their lives there with interesting jobs and a good home. This raises painful stresses of separation for us all: most of their friends are in the UK as well as all of his family. It’s tough that the two countries are so very far apart and tough that two such close brothers are!
The first sounds each day blend loud birdsong in the palms with Frida’s singsong chatter while she plays. Parting the curtain and sliding the door between our bedroom and the living room, my first sight will be her beaming smile and delighted eyes as I peep round. She encapsulates joy and this thrills me.
Long days of sunny winds in Wanaka and rainy forests in Waitakere pass with us all mesmerised by her. She is a bright, beautiful, cheery nine month old person who loves to engage through clapping, singing, dancing, hiding, banging, burping, playful contact. She starts to crawl while we are here: for us a great thrill, for her no big deal!
It is heartbreakingly poignant for me to watch my beautiful younger son, whom I still cannot but regard as my ‘boy’, fathering Frida so elegantly, so sensitively, with boundless, patient love and I feel a happy pride. This stirs deep longings in me to be the child of such a father, or the father of such a child. He and his wife are so in love with their longed-for daughter, in love with parenting together, that the three of them create a kind of sacred triangle.
The rôle of granddad is unknown to me so I feel a little precarious: who and how are my partner and I in Frida’s life? My son’s ‘in-laws’ are delightful, respecting and welcoming us as equals, yet (is this entirely from a lifetime dealing with prejudice?) I find it hard to feel equality with them, struggling with a sense that they precede my son’s mother and that we come third in a line of grandparental significance. These feelings sadden me – and evoke some shame.
I always felt alien in my dysfunctional original family and this echoes still, conjuring ancient demons. So the experience of living in this ‘perfect’ happy family for a couple of weeks is bittersweet: I long to be at the heart of it, partly a creator of it but, honestly, feel quite often like I’m trying very hard to join. This is familiar and no-one’s responsibility but mine.
Frida is a daily delight: the warm buttery smell of her, the soft silk feel of her, her delicacy and fineness; in form and character she is delicious.
Christmas and New Year swell with friends and family with Frida as a central star. My partner and I are warmly received everywhere. We fill ourselves up with her in order to have a store for when we are without her back home. It has been a huge journey in every sense to get ourselves together like this.
The way ahead
Facing physical separation takes its toll again as we each begin to close down to cope: the brute fact is that we will not touch one another for at least another year! Only Frida, who will change most, does not know this, thankfully will not know this. We will yearn for her presence now as we have longed year after year for our sons. Love hurts.
Since my life partner and I returned from meeting our granddaughter for the first time early this year, much has changed. She has changed most: just under a year old when we met, she’s now cut lots of teeth, walks well, spends two days a week happily at nursery, talks a great deal and chatters knowledgeably on many topics. She remains joyous, humorous, full of verve.
We keep in touch by Skype, of course: everyone says what a blessing it is in such circumstances and that’s true – a lot better than waiting weeks for a letter full of snapshots! Meeting us ‘in the flesh’ has meant Frida now knows we’re us somehow, hearing us on screen, and we can continue little verbal games we invented when we were together. When I say, “Are you dancing, Frida?” in a certain tone she takes it as a cue to climb on a box, wave like a diva to her parent for music and start gyrating excitedly. We pretend to sleep and she wakes us up and puts us back to sleep again.
Relating increasingly is rewarding, as when she makes ‘a cuppa’ and rushes it to the screen for us to taste or puts us to bed next to it and wakes us up with a start, giggling. It’s still poignant, however, that she – and her mum and dad – are so far from us physically and, as we switch Skype off, we usually let go some tears. Close connection with those we love is so natural it’s strange to need all the planning we must do in modern life to get it. It would feel great to drop in to their home with a casserole to have that cuppa and babysit Frida.
It’s never too late...
Being in New Zealand with them raised old ghosts about separation and loss for me and I eventually wrote at length to explain those feelings to my son.
His experience was obviously entirely different: he didn’t feel the separation between us I had felt – one of our special connections has, in fact, always been writing to each other. My childhood was full of painful separation and losses while his was mainly shaped by loving care and positivity. It was constructive for us both to have these buried hurts aired frankly and has led to planning greater contact when we can, as well as opening me up to sharing feelings with his mother, although we separated thirty-four years ago. It’s never too late to be honest or to clear things up.
Meeting Frida has helped me to embody her: from holding, cuddling, kissing and nurturing her I feel her in me more now, just as I do my two sons, and that’s a comfort and a pleasure. We now have the added excitement, shared with many friends and family, of a visit from her to us and planning for that.
Everyone longs to see them, to meet her, to introduce their new spouses and children to them. I know that waiting time will quickly pass and that there is less time until we meet than it has been since we met.
By Charles Neal
Charles Neal founded and chaired the Association for Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Psychologists, co-edited the bestselling ‘Pink Therapy’ trilogy of handbooks with Dominic Davies (Open University 1996 & 2000) and is Hon. Clinical Associate with Pink Therapy Services, the largest provider of therapy and training on these issues.