When my son turned seven earlier this year, I had a couple of simultaneous epiphanies. First, I realized Jon was now the age I was when I experienced two of the most significant milestones of my life. Second, he’s going to remember a lot more from here on out, so I’d better get my shit together.
Not long after my seventh birthday, I did what every good preacher’s kid does around that age — I got “saved.” Accepted Jesus into my heart. In non-Baptist layman’s terms: I officially became a Christian. My father baptized me shortly afterwards.
My motivations were probably typical for a seven-year-old; a mix of peer pressure, avoiding Hell, and a sense of inevitability. Having been taught about salvation since birth, there was never any doubt I’d end up born again. And fear of eternal damnation aside, there was some comfort in knowing I was fulfilling my duty as a Good Son.
In thinking about this from my own fatherly perspective, it’s more meaningful to me than it has been for quite a while. Notwithstanding my spiritual path from that point until now, I can only imagine how special it was for my father to have that moment of bonding, when he baptized me in front of his congregation. I aspire to such moments with my own son.
The other milestone from that year was on a much less public scale, but equally significant. I had my first dream about a boy.
I don’t recall the dream being overly romantic or sexual; it was the intimacy that struck me. A faceless, nameless boy and me, both naked, sitting side-by-side on the floor by my bed. I don’t remember how I felt immediately following the dream; yet after coming out as gay nearly 20 years later, it was the point I looked back to and said, “This was the first time I knew.”
While I have memories from as early as two-and-a-half (hello, little brother … goodbye, only childhood), seven certainly sticks out at as a watershed year.
And now my son is seven. Will there be things this year that impact the rest of his life? Have they happened already? There’s no way to know for sure what these things will be for him, but I’m sure he’s old enough now to remember them. This is both an amazing and terrifying thing to ponder.
When I was a new dad, I found solace in the likelihood a one- or two-year-old wouldn’t remember any of my fuckups; the few years following would produce spotty memories at best. But it’s a different story now.
Thinking about my own seventh year has driven home the fact that my son is fully aware; he’s listening and watching. And it feeds the fear I so often fall back on. Will this disappointment be the one he recalls when he’s a teenager? Will this argument be the one he hears when he yells at his own kids?
I spend a lot of time second-guessing myself as a parent, much of which is due to fear. Fear has kept me in a state of inaction for much of my life, even playing a significant part in my seven-year-old benchmarks. Fear of hell lead me to the church; fear of being different and of being bad, kept me there (and in the closet) for nearly two decades afterwards.
In addition to the fears of how my actions (or inaction) will affect my son in the future, I also worry sometimes I’m too late to undo any damage done. That everything is already as it will be.
I get that this all may sound kind of irrational, spiraling to nowhere good. But bear with me — trudging through the doubt is part of what helps me out of it.
I only have to look at recent photos or videos I’ve taken of Jon to be encouraged. Every day he’s more and more adventurous and more tender; more opinionated and more thoughtful; more analytical and more creative.
That’s not to say it’s smooth sailing on into the tweens and teens. This year has been hard — a lot of change, and a lot of conflict. I’ve been tested as a parent and failed more often than I’d care to admit. We’ve been stretched to our limits, our home a place unrecognizable from my daydreams of what family life would be.
But daydreams are not reality, and reality is sometimes bumpy and emotional and loud.
When I came out as gay, I understood I hadn’t known what it was like to really live life. The closet gave a false sense of safety, but I was just stuck. Only after coming out was I able to experience all the highs and lows of love and sex and relationships. Parenthood has been a similar experience — more joy and sorrow, anger and laughter than I’d experienced pre-dadhood. But all worth it.
In this year and the next and the ones after that, my son will grow more and more into himself. It’s a privilege to be witness to all this, and to help shape it and direct it.
While the memorable events of my seventh year were interwoven with fear, my hope for my seven-year-old is that his will be laced with hope and happiness, and of facing and overcoming fear.