Our 306th Dad in the Limelight is T.J. Sullivan. I want to thank T.J. for being a part of this series. It has been great getting connected with him and now sharing him with all of you.
1) Tell me about yourself, (as well as how you are in the limelight for my readers knowledge)
I have been speaking professionally on college campuses since 1992, and have inflicted myself on approximately 2-million college students since then. In the 90s, I had the great fortune of educating a generation of college students on HIV and AIDS awareness. It was tons of fun talking about sex every night on the nation’s campuses. In 1999, I founded a company called CAMPUSPEAK which has become the nation’s largest college speaker’s agency, representing other folks who do what I do. I run that company, and I still speak on about 50 campuses annually. Last year, I published a book called “Motivating the Middle,” about fighting apathy in college student organizations. Basically, I’ve spent my career working with college students, which is a pretty terrific way to spend your life.
2) Tell me about your family
I always thought I would have children, although as a gay man coming out in the Eighties, I wasn’t quite sure how that would happen. In 1999, when I scaled back my travel and started my company, the time seemed right. My partner at the time and I began the process of qualifying to foster/adopt. I became very passionate about the immense number of older children languishing in the foster care system, waiting for forever families. In 2002, my son Isaiah came into my life at age 8. My current partner, Dr. Scott, and I adopted my youngest son, Tim, in 2009 when he was 5. We are a house full of boys.
3) What has been the largest challenge you have had in being a father?
People always assume that the challenges I’ve had as a parent would surround my sexual orientation. People always assume that it must be hard for gay people to adopt (I don’t think it is, at least not where I live). People think that we must be constantly saddles with weird looks or discrimination, which we are not. Yes, there are occasional annoyances with forms and schools (“Hey Scott, you get to the mother on this form”), but those are small. Our kids are proud of their family. My challenges are pretty typical. I get impatient a lot. My travel stresses me out, and that sometimes translates to being less than fully emotionally available for my boys. I worry that the comfortable life my boys have translates to taking lots of things for granted. But, on the positive side, my partner and I don’t coddle our boys, and they learn how to do things for themselves. If you can raise a confident, competent child, you’ve accomplished something.
4) What advice would you give to other fathers?
Your kids are smart and resilient. Children all over the world survive the most appalling circumstances and emerge happy. So, stop worrying about whether they are involved in the right sports, the right schools, the right everything. I’ve operated with faith that loving your kids and engaging them in a real, authentic life is the best path. I don’t make my kids the center of everything – I think that leads to problems and a warped sense of the world revolving around them. My weekends are not spent entertaining my kids. We lead a life that is shared. I don’t serve their lives, I live a life with them. That’s worked pretty well for us. When I see those parents (mostly overwhelmed mothers) treating parenthood like an Olympic training program, I feel relieved that my kids don’t have that stress in their daily lives.
5) Seeing that you (or your position) are in the limelight, how have you come to balance parenthood and outside life? If you are currently not in the limelight per se, please still answer this in regards to how you balance parenthood and outside life.
My kids have seen me speak in front of full auditoriums and are not impressed. They are more impressed that I get to stay in hotels with room service and indoor pools in the winter, and that’s healthy. I’ve been so lucky to have a partner who runs the show solo when I’m on the road. I’d be a mess without him. My mom, who lives a mile away from me, has also been a big help. So many parents with careers wonder, “What if I had more time and energy to focus on my kids.” I am no different.
6) What have you learned from the fathers that you have interacted with?
The best advice I have ever received came from a long-time mentor. I was struggling with my oldest son’s deteriorating attitude in middle school, and my travel was making it even more frustrating. I felt like I was losing control over him. My mentor said to me, “From this point forward, you need to give a lot more love than you will ever receive in return.” BAM! That advice saved me. By giving more than I expected back, I got my expectations in perspective and stopped seeking validation from my kid. When he acted stupid, I just kept loving him. When he fell short of my expectations, I remembered it wasn’t a reflection of me as a parent or his love for me. “Give more than you expect to get.” They turn into selfish little beasts, in many ways, but you have to keep loving them unconditionally. That advice set me free.
7) What else would you share regarding your experiences as a father thus far?
If I could point to one thing that has been “unique” for me as a parent, it would be the role modeling I’ve been able to do for other young gay men. I cannot tell you how many young fraternity men and Higher Education professionals have reached out to me to say that I inspired them to pursue parenthood. I never felt like what I was doing was special, but I suppose that I was on the front edge of the gay parenting boom. Parenting seems like the most normal thing in the world to me. But, a gay college man struggling with the life implications of his sexual orientation searches for role models who might offer hope of a “normal” life. I think I’ve been able to do that for many, many young men because of my visibility in the college world. I’m gay, I’m a dad, and who cares? I’m just a dad like any other, struggling to do the best job I can. It’s not a political statement. It’s just me, leading the life I wanted to lead. Providing that example is probably been my most significant accidental accomplishment.
8) What have been the most memorable experiences that you have had thus far as a parent?
Getting my oldest son through high school and admitted to college was a big one. It felt like such a finish line for me. I got this kid, made some big promises to him when I adopted him, and got him to that place. In that moment, I knew I had changed his life and made great things possible for him. He’s since dropped out of college and is now living with three friends in a one-bedroom apartment, delivering pizzas. But, still. He’s a smart, handsome, good person who has a strong base of values and life experiences, and I have faith he will lead a good life. And, I’m looking forward to grandchildren. I want all grand-daughters.
If you have any questions for T.J., please leave a comment here and I will make sure that he gets them so that he may be able to respond!