Same specs, new model

When you first try your hand at it, you realize that parenting is a mystery. How are you supposed to know what works and what doesn't? How do you navigate through all the choices and all the conflicting advice? How do you just not screw it up?

People always say that children need good role models, but parents need them, too. You need to witness someone actually succeeding at this crazy job. You need to reassure yourself that human beings can do this – and do it well. To unlock the secrets of "the Force," a young Jedi needs an Obi-Wan or a Yoda to show them the way.

I met two of my best parenting role models many years ago, beside a little pond on a hot summer day. Their daughter was 5 at the time and mine was 3, and despite the age difference they seemed to hit it off. We sat and watched the kids climb over logs and poke at the mud with sticks, and we talked about sun block, and tadpoles, and life.

Something about this couple struck me right away. First of all, they seemed so relaxed. While I anxiously eyed the slippery log, the muddy water, and the waving sticks, they looked on with such a sense of calm – and it was contagious. After all, the water was shallow, the sticks weren't sharp, and the girls were being careful and having fun. I stopped worrying and lay back on the grass to soak up the afternoon sun.

I marveled at how this couple found the perfect balance between engagement and distance. They let the girls explore and venture out on their own, but offered just enough contact to keep them safe and connected. And there was a balance between them, too. They took turns keeping tabs on the girls, each of them moving back and forth from adult conversation to kid-wrangling with effortless grace.

But the real proof of the chef is in the pudding, and the daughter they were raising was remarkable. She was smart, and fun, and bursting with imagination. But more important, she was completely comfortable in her own skin. She seemed equally at ease with me and with my shy little daughter, and she met us both with curiosity, kindness, and an open heart.

From that very first day, I knew I wanted to get closer to that family and keep them in my life. It's one of the smartest things I've ever done. Over the years they've become dear friends, and I've watched their daughter and their son (whom they had a few years later) grow into two of the most inquisitive, creative, extraordinary young people I've ever known. Their parents have continued to serve as role models for me, and knowing them has helped me become a better father at every turn.

Which is interesting, since that's something neither of them will ever be. A father, I mean.

When I think of how these friends parent, it rarely occurs to me that both of them are women. But last year, when the Supreme Court struck down the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act," I had no choice. That's because half the politicians and commentators on cable news were decrying gay marriage as a desecration of family, and an assault on our nation's children. The attack continues as Utah and Oklahoma appeal court decisions that found their laws banning such nuptials unconstitutional.

"The homosexual lifestyle," said one talking head, "is not the kind of model we want to hold up for America's families to emulate."

Well, just speaking as one parent, I'll take all the role models I can get. Parenting is hard. To do it well, you need to draw on every resource you can muster: patience, intelligence, compassion, endurance, a sense of humor, a sense of balance, and much, much more. But as far as I can tell, you don't need a specific combination of chromosomes or genitalia.

Last fall, my friends finally got married. I couldn't imagine not being there to help them celebrate. It was a party of epic merry-making that all of their friends agree was long overdue.

There are all kinds of us out here trying to find our way as parents. We're gay, straight, rich, poor, partnered, single, and everything in between. Sometimes we fall flat on our faces, and other times, by some miracle, we succeed. But more often than not, no matter how it turns out, it's still a mystery. That's what makes it so cool.

Still, there's one thing I am certain about. In the end, our success or failure as parents doesn't depend on who we love.

It depends on how we love.