Yesterday, I gave a talk at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology & the Humanities (aka MITH) about changing the way humanities PhDs are educated. It was titled “Stop Being Polite and Start Getting Real: Professional Education for Professional Humanists.” The really wonderful (and super-speedy) folks at MITH just posted the audio of the talk on their website; it’s about an hour long, but if you’re interested in things like how PhD programs should be built more like AK-47s, please check the link above and give it a whirl.
A lot of the talk is based on my own experience having gotten a humanities PhD and not being able to find a tenure-track job or full-time employment doing other kinds of university work, and how I eventually wound up becoming a technology journalist. So at the end of the lecture, I talk about a lot of personal stuff, including my son being diagnosed with autism, the accident where I broke my arm & leg, waiting a year to go on the job market and getting walloped by the 2008 economic meltdown — all stuff I’ve talked about here before.
One thing, though, I haven’t — the principal reason I cautioned the folks in the room who were live-tweeting the event to tweet this carefully. So I wanted to lay it on the table before some of you downloaded the podcast and were like, “what the what?”
I am a birth dad. I have an older son who was born and placed for adoption in 2003, during the spring of my first year in graduate school. He’s going to be eight years old in just a few weeks, and I love him more than anything.
We have an open adoption, which means that he knows that he’s adopted, that I’m his birth father (as it happens, his only father, because he was adopted by two women), and we see each other and exchange information and phone calls pretty regularly. We (he, me, Sylvia, Noah, his family) have a great, casual, very loving relationship. He’s just like me. I mean, just. Maybe better adjusted. And yes, he has red hair.
When I was 22, I was so terrified of both being a father and what the news of the adoption might mean that I told no one — including friends, family, and especially the people in my graduate program and at school. (This included my upstairs neighbor, which was tricky.) I’d just moved to Philadelphia. I felt completely intimidated and totally alone.
The only thing I did well was study and write and perform in my graduate seminars. So I threw myself into them and pretended it wasn’t happening. I even walked from the hospital downtown to attend classes just a day or so after he was born.
Over the years, as my relationship with my son has changed, grown more open and more clear that we were always going to be a significant part of each other’s lives, I opened up to more and more people — friends, family, sympathetic acquaintances and strangers. (For instance, Robin knew before today, but Matt didn’t. At least, I don’t think he did. After all, he is a reporter.)
Before I told my parents and brothers and sister, my son’s adoptive moms compared it to coming out. You’re not ashamed. You know you have to affirm who you are. That doesn’t mean you have to fork it over to people when you first meet them or hand them your business card. It’s driving you crazy when you don’t tell the people close to you. At a certain point, the most crazy-making issue is addressing why you haven’t said something before now. But ultimately, it’s because you can’t ever be certain how people will react.
For those reasons, I’ve still been reluctant to say too much, especially on the open web. There are plenty of privacy issues that go way beyond myself — I’ve really never wanted anybody in my family to be Googleable. Still, I gave a talk about it at the MLA a few years ago. If you were really determined to find out, it’s been findable. That’s a different thing, however, from stating it for everyone to see.
But since so much of my life now, so many of my friendships, happen online, and since I’m determined to not let fear or anxiety about what I do or don’t say control how I feel about the world, this seems like as good a time as any to tell a whole lot more people all at once.
As Jeff Mangum put it in Neutral Milk Hotel’s song “Ghost,” I’m resolved to “never be afraid / to watch the morning paper blow / into a hole / where no one can escape.” Or as xkcd put it in the comic “dreams” (This is actually the very last part of my talk), Fuck. That. Shit.
It’s an experience — one that’s always ongoing — that broke my heart and changed my life, irrevocably, for the better. Orders of magnitude better. It taught me who I was and is teaching me who I am. I can’t explain it any better than that.