life: John Lyttle

I've settled for being a fairy godfather. I teach my proxy brood about tantrums and how to eat with their mouths open
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My desk at home is cluttered with photo frames and all of them contain children's faces. Nieces, nephews, godchildren in school uniform, looking strained in staged poses ("How long am I supposed to keep smiling?") or at their most casual, caught unawares at a party - birthday parties, usually. Or they're just messing about in the garden on a blazingly bright summer's day, being silly, being young, grinning confidently, as if tomorrow were simply a nasty rumour, cocooned in the knowledge thattoday is all that matters.

They are all faces I love, and every time I gaze up from my keyboard I can't help but smile back. Even though in the past couple of years I haven't been able to settle my gaze without realising that the things that you plan to do - say, have children - somewhere along the line become things you know you'll never do, that options you imagined would always be there have evaporated; and it apparently happened when your back was turned, when your eye wasn't on the ball, while you were out of the room.

Hearing a gay man complain about being childless might seem odd. Most gay men are childless, the safe, surface assumption being that childlessness is the "natural" male homosexual state; it goes with the territory, so no point crying over spilt seed.But, of course, the absence of the patter of tiny feet doesn't mean that the desire to sire children is lacking, as any heterosexual (or lesbian) couple undergoing IVFtreatment will tell you.

Single, childless, but broody heterosexual men would probably tell you the same. But they at least, plunging sperm count aside, operate from a (missionary) position of advantage. Not only do they begin the biological race wanting to be fathers, they also want to have sex with women, usually women who want, at some point, to be mothers. Gay men might share the single heterosexual male's first desire, but after that everything conspires against execution of that wish.

Obstacle one: gay men don't have sex with women. Not a lot, anyhow. Yes, the person at the back who mumbled "turkey baster" and "syringe" is right; there are various DIY ways around the actual act of procreation. But - obstacle two - as a gay man, you still have to find a woman to have your baby with. Someone who might either be lesbian or not, but must definitely be accommodating, who may want to raise the child with you as a couple or who might just hand the baby over with nary a blink, or who would be willing to let you be a single parent while maintaining visitation rights and voting shares in the big decisions (choice of name, school, place of residence).

Finding that special woman is not easy. I know because I looked for a very long time, whiling away my life making beelines for babies and damn near grabbing them from their mothers' arms, just so I could hold and smell them and look into their bright, blase eyes and feel their hysterically tiny hands curl around my fingers, each time this tight, impossibly hot sensation exploding in my rib cage.

And one day I stopped. For no reason that I recall. Certainly not because I thought - what's the thundering phrase? - "the transitory nature of homosexual relationships" disqualified me (except if I wanted to adopt). I'd been a loving couple for years, and besides, has anyone clocked the divorce figures? Four in 10 British marriages detonate, the highest rate in Europe. And what about the rising rate of single parenthood, multiple marriages and all the other socio-sexual arrangements that today abound? If "transitory" counted against child-rearing, most heterosexuals would have to be considered unfit. Perhaps doubly unfit. For gay men, through subcultural circumstance (the end of a sexual relationship need not mean the termination of respect or friendship), tend to maintain warm contact with ex-lovers, a practice many heterosexualsmight profitably adopt if concern for children's emotional welfare is to go beyond easy cant.

But the fact remains that I'm not the father I always wanted to be. The moment came and went. It's too late now. So I've settled for being a fairy godfather and the Man Who's Uncle, no raw deal. I teach my proxy brood life's truly important lessons. How to eat with their mouths open. When adults say no, they mean yes. That a tantrum is worth 1,000 words. And I spoil them rotten: power without responsibility, the perogative of the harlot through the ages - the ages of one to around 13.

It's the best recreation any grown-up male can have and it makes me as happy as I've ever been. And yet there are stillthese moments ... taking Jessica to the cinema and her asking for "hopcorn" and ice- cream and me blithely agreeing, with the rider "Don't tell your mother", and two old ladies at the kiosk smiling at me for being so obviously poleaxed by my daughter, and me suddenly wanting that to be true. In these moments I want to leave something behind that carries my image, that isn't just words on perishable paper. Then I remember that Jessica is the child, not me. I should know by now that, however hard I wish, these dreams will not come true.

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