by John Gustav-Wrathall
John Gustav-Wrathall, in addition to working at a law firm and being a parent, is author of Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (University of Chicago Press, 1998), and teaches American religious history at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
Or, right-click here to download the audio file: Gay-at-home Dad
When I was coming to terms with being gay, I went through a grieving process when I realized that I would likely never be a father—something I’d always thought I would be really good at. But being in a relationship with a woman in a context where I could create my own children wasn’t really going to work, so I had to re-think the future. I finally reached the point where I was willing to say, “Well, not everybody in the world has to reproduce. I can put my time and energy into other important things. And I can be a good uncle.” I had pretty much written fatherhood out of my life.
I was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1986 at my own request, shortly after I almost committed suicide. But a few years ago, I had a spiritual experience at a Sunstone symposium that brought me back to the LDS Church, and while remaining committed to my husband, I started attending church regularly.
While visiting Utah and attending church with my parents, I felt the Spirit telling me in a very clear and discernable way that I needed to open myself up to the possibility of parenting. I had no idea how that was going to work. But about six months later, a friend introduced me to a social worker who was also Mormon and worked with a foster care agency. One day she phoned me and said, “You know, I think you and your partner would make really good parents. Have you ever thought of foster parenting?”
The moment she asked me the question, I thought, “Okay, I need to be open to this.” So I talked to my husband about it. We were concerned about the financial and time issues. We agreed that somebody would have to be at home to care for our foster kids. We talked with many foster parents, and from time to time I’d look at Göran and say, “Well, what do you think? Should we become foster parents or not?”
He’d say, “Well, I’m ninety percent sure.”
Then a week later, he’d ask me, and I’d say, “I think I’m ninety-five percent sure.”
Finally we got to the point of both being one hundred percent sure.
When we made this decision, I went to the law firm I work at as a paralegal to see if we could broker a deal. Even though it’s a Minneapolis-based firm, we manage all of our cases online because we have attorneys in California, Ohio, Florida, Washington, and other places. So, technically employees don’t have to be in the office to do the work.
“Is there any way that I could work from home?” I asked.
They resisted, saying the attorneys really like to have a physical person handing out papers to sign. But later my firm switched to a paperless system; it was all email and electronic signatures. The day after the switch, I sat all by myself all alone in the office all day, never seeing another human being. So I went back to the officers and said, “Now may I please work from home?”
They were still reluctant, arguing that if I were allowed to work from home, everyone else would want to as well. Finally, by offering to do after-hours services for the firm, I obtained permission.
We received Glen, our first placement, almost four years ago. His father had died when Glen was thirteen, and we were asked to act as parents until he could transition into independent living.
Being able to work from home has enabled me to be a more effective father. Some days Glen would come home from school feeling pretty discouraged or even in tears, and he’d want to talk about things. I was glad to be right there, right when he needed me. And since he’s a teenager, pushing boundaries and trying to be more independent, I’ve had the time and presence to guide him away from choices that could have messed up his life. I think my always being at home has meant a lot to both of us.
Becoming a foster dad has transformed my self-perception and worldview. From the moment Glen became a part of our home, all our efforts became focused on his needs, trying to provide the most nurturing, supportive environment possible. I’d expected to have difficulties making the personal sacrifices parents must make, but they don’t feel like sacrifices anymore. I feel as if I’m doing one of the most important things I will ever do.
My perspective on the world is changing, too. I’m much more concerned about improving our community and making the world more family-friendly. Suddenly I’m concerned about all the junk on TV. I look at my neighborhood in tactical terms, deciding what’s safe and what isn’t. I’m concerned about the quality of education in the local schools; I’m concerned about teachers. And of course I have a new awareness of the political and fiscal issues related to the foster care system and the resources provided to kids before and after they “age out” of the system.
My husband Göran has envied my position, wishing he could be a stay-at-home dad, too. I’ve had to work extra hard to communicate with him frequently, sometimes calling him right away when something comes up in order to include him in the decision-making process, so that he doesn’t feel left out of anything. It has also meant having more frequent family councils and really working to make sure that we do everything by consensus.
I’ve paid a price at work, though. If you’re not in the office, some folks will perceive you as being less serious. I’ve seen some female attorneys pay the same price for trying to work from home too much. Some attorneys have actually pulled work away from me. Fortunately, my supervisor helps by transferring work to me from attorneys who don’t mind my working at home. I’ve had to have faith that the Lord will provide for us. Because I believe that my decision to work from home was the right one for our family, I feel good about asking the Lord to help maintain it.
When I first told my bishop that Göran and I were foster parents, he looked appalled and offended—though he’s never actually said anything. But most ward members (especially the younger ones) seem to treat us just as they do any other family. The first Fathers’ Day after Glen was placed with us, the young women gave chocolates to all the dads, and the daughter of a friend of mine who knew that Göran and I had just received a foster son made a point of coming over to give me a chocolate. Apart from my being a chocoholic, that little gesture meant everything to me.
Glen is on the edge of independence now, about to start at the University of Minnesota. We’re not sure how much longer we’ll formally be his foster parents, but we’re definitely going to open our home to other kids when he moves on. Even though I’m called a foster dad, I think my feelings for Glen are fundamentally the same as those a biological father would have. For me, family is the most important thing. So being the guardian of the hearth makes me feel like my life is prioritized correctly. I’m where I belong.