I was in Chicago for a week visiting family, which is always a startling reminder of the existence of children. As a single, gay, 30-something transplant in Midtown, I rarely have opportunities to share company with young people.

Back home, little people are everywhere, and my lack of dealing with children on a regular basis helps me be the cool uncle when I return. I have a tolerance for the chaos and misbehavior that quickly triggers parental discipline, so I’m known to plead for forgiveness on the disruptive child’s behalf.

“They’re just being kids,” says the man who a few sentences ago confessed to occasionally forgetting that kids are part of this world.

I also enjoy younger people because I am not burnt out on their never-ending stories, so I easily surrender to their winding, aimless narratives. It’s obvious that some of them appreciate having a discussion with an adult without being told to shoo or shut up, and I’m genuinely awed by the manifestation of their thought process, and their interpretation of our world.

Sometimes the kids put me on edge. I usually can scroll through profiles and private pictures on Jack’d without having my cell phone snatched out of my hand by a (literally) sticky-fingered four-year-old. And there’s that one toddler who stared at me like she was auditioning for the possessed lead in a straight-to-streaming horror film.

After suffering under her unwavering gaze for what felt like hours, relief came when she was distracted by a bowl of French fries. The anonymous little girl, who belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend—I told you, all sorts of children become part of my circle in Chicago—drowned her fries in ranch dressing until the Kraft bottle farted, then took the gum she was chewing out of her mouth and placed it on the rim of the bowl to save for dessert.

Midway through the meal, the piece of gum fell into the bowl and the little girl looked around to make sure no one noticed her wiping it off on her shirt, and caught me staring at her with the same dumbfounded expression that she had showered upon me.

But childhood in Chicago is not always adorable, and some of the children in my family prompt sobering concern and painful conversations. More precisely, the ways some of the children are being raised, and the environment that they are being asked to develop within, are infuriating. 
Sitting on the hard floor of an unlit, furniture-less living room on the South Side, I listen to my dearest relative praise the youngest of the six children living in the apartment, and her hope that they avoid the dropout, tattoo-faced fate of the two oldest sons who are now 19 and 20.

“It’s going to take more than hope for that to happen,” I say with much delicacy, but no equivocation.

“I remember when the oldest two were as sweet and promising as the younger ones are now, and anyone who was paying attention knows that they have turned out just as you would expect given this,” I continue, sweeping my arms to take in the barren, hopeless living room.

“And I see nothing that has changed here that would give any hope that the younger ones are on a different course.”

It devastates me to suggest such a thing about my youngest loved ones, and it crushes my spirit to hear the most important person in my life start to cry, her shame preventing her from offering any counterargument to my denunciation of her guardianship. I try not to let her tears silence my observations; until I hear myself having the same conversation we’ve had a dozen times before.

I didn’t come to Chicago to parent parents, nor am I in any position to do so.

Everything I said was from someone who has never had responsibility for another person’s life. It’s terrifying to think about a young person being profoundly impacted by my flaws and poor decisions, and I again realize what a privilege being gay can be.

Ryan Lee is an Atlanta writer.


2 Responses

  1. Daniel English

    If you are going to complain about the way someone’s children turn out then you should do something about it. My own sister gave up her children while strung out. Gave them up to their natural fathers (yes plural). My family tried very hard to be there for my sister and help her get her act together. Yet, the people who didn’t have a choice in the matter were her kids.

    They didn’t have a choice in their mother, their home life, or even really their futures considering they come from a background to be stats. What bothers me most if that as a young educated gay man I tried my best to be there for her and her children. No one knows what it is like to live in a situation that is stacked against you from jump.

    I sometimes regret calling the Department of Family & Children Services about my sister. I never expected her to react blindly and basically sign over her children to their fathers. Some people are not great parents. But there are many people out there who try. Many people who get judged harshly because they aren’t doing what is best by someone’s standards. The truth of the matter is that if you are going to judge someone’s parenting then help them. Don’t sit there and pass judgment about someone’s child when you don’t help. I can’t even see my niece or nephew due to the amount of drama my sister caused. And part of me wants to give them a chance at some “normal” life. But when I was there and able to help I tried to do so. So Ryan Lee if you are going to talk about how badly someone is parenting then get your proverbial shit together and help them.

  2. ChristopherATL

    I know this feeling. I often feel some of my decisions in life could have easily led to children if that were biologically possible. I’d like to think I would successfully raise a child with little resources and the likely destruction of any career plans…at least the altercation of them.

    But as I have just left my 30’s, I’m also noticing that being gay has many gifts through life that we rarely discuss. It’s such a unique viewpoint that has worth to everyone. It truly is a gift.


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