TikTok Star José Rolón Opens Up About Parenting as a Single Gay Dad
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about so many new things—the elbow bump, the hand sanitizer obsession, Tiger King and the funny, sassy videos of José Rolón, known on TikTok and Instagram as @nycgaydad. The social media star has captured the hearts of hundreds of thousands with hilarious clips of him and his three kids telling jokes, pulling pranks and sharing a bit of everyday life as an LGBTQ, Latinx family.
Rolón may be known for his humor, but he’s not afraid to get real about the stresses of parenthood, challenge homophobic assumptions and open up about the pain of his past, including his childhood and the loss of his husband, Tim Merrell. When their son Avery was 9 months old and their surrogate was 11 weeks pregnant with their twin daughters, Merrell suddenly died of a heart attack while on a business trip. With an outpouring of support from family and friends, Rolón pushed through, and “here we are, nine years later, thriving and being a crazy family,” he says. We caught up with him to talk about life as a single gay dad of three and how he’s using his social media platforms to spread positivity and effect change.
The Bump: You’ve become quite the TikTok sensation. What inspired you to start your @nycgaydad account, and what are you hoping your followers take away from your videos?
José Rolón: I think many of us parents were stuck with three things during the pandemic: It was triple-duty of parenting, homeschooling and trying to make our businesses survive (if you weren’t in that classic 9 to 5 paycheck job.) And it was stressful for a lot of us. Personally, I needed a way to have my own outlet. … Also, I realized early on in the pandemic that it was less about what my kids were learning and more about making sure that their mental wellbeing was intact. And so what better way than to just dance and make some silly videos? Even though a lot of our content was surrounding being Latinx and LGBTQ, it seemed to not matter that other people viewing our videos may not have fit in those molds—they ended up finding our content relatable.
I realized, through a couple posts that had gone viral, that there was something bigger happening. And I felt a sense of responsibility to not just entertain, but to also have moments of being vulnerable and have moments of sharing struggles and successes. Because I think what we really needed during that time was to just see positive content and be uplifted. And what a beautiful thing that people felt that from our family.
TB: Let’s travel back in time for a minute. You had all of three of your children via surrogacy. What was the surrogacy experience like for you and your husband Tim? Any lessons learned you can share for those embarking on a similar journey?
JR: We were really fortunate to have an incredible surrogate. …The way Tim and I did it was we transferred two embryos that were [each genetically related to one of us]. Nine months later, our son was born, and he came out as white as can be. So it was clear that he was not biologically mine. For anybody that’s going through the surrogacy journey or the adoption journey, there is this element that I think a lot of people don’t talk about. I know that when my son was born, I got depressed for a bit, because I knew that he wasn’t biologically mine.
At that time, we were only going to have one child, and I felt like that was my shot. …And so I was really sad. The question became, “Can I truly love this baby like it’s my own?” I wasn’t sure, and that’s what got me depressed. One thing I’ll share with parents is that you just have to wait and be patient, because you’re going to realize it really doesn’t matter. It might be immediate love for you right away. It might be two weeks, two months, two years. But there will be a moment where you make a connection, where it will just hit you like a wave and you will get to that place where it really, absolutely doesn’t matter.
TB: Fast forward again to your journey as a parent. As a gay dad, what are some of the stigmas or hurtful questions you’ve encountered, and how do you address them?
JR: For the most part, we’ve been fortunate and haven’t received too much virtual hate mail. But there was this one post where there was this assumption that I was raising my son to be gay. And I actually responded back with a video of my son answering a bunch of gay questions. So, you know, “Who’s our president?” And he said, “Beyonce!” “What’s your favorite milk?” He said, “Harvey Milk!” That video ended up going viral. It was fun.
Look, I think people are going to feel what they feel. And I think the only way to continue to change minds is to continue showing examples that, although we might be more colorful, we really aren’t that different from all other families. I yell like other families, I celebrate the holidays in the way other families do, I get frustrated the way people do, I certainly don’t cook any differently. I’m a single parent who is trying to just make it through like everybody else.
TB: Being a solo parent no doubt comes with its fair share of challenges, as well as joys. What are the best and hardest parts?
JR: As a solo parent, I think the hardest part is that I don’t have anyone to share the small and big successes with. I will get moms sometimes who will say to me, “I feel like I’m a single mom too, because my husband’s never around.” And, to be honest, I get a little irritated with that comment, because it’s not the same. At the end of the night, you still have someone next to you to bitch with or to vent to. If they’re not there emotionally, maybe they’re taking care of the bills, or whatever it is. As a solo parent, everything is on me. An element of all of my children’s successes sometimes comes with a little bit of bitter sweetness to it, because I’m kind of experiencing these on my own, and I don’t have somebody on my right to have those moments with. Of course, I have a really big support system. But it’s not quite the same. I would say that’s the biggest challenge. The best part about it is that I get to call all the shots. There’s no one to negotiate with; it’s my rules only.
TB: As difficult as I’m sure it is not to be able to share those wins and successes with someone, you also probably feel an immense amount of pride around your kids’ success, because it’s stemming from you as the only parent. Does that ring true?
JR: Yes, I’m proud. I’m proud of the humans they’ve become. One of the things I’ve allowed them to be is to truly be themselves. It’s not something I was able to be growing up. I was always boxed in. I grew up in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in the projects, and there was a certain way you had to be, and machismo was attached to that—and that’s not who I was and certainly not who I am today. Now I get to teach my kids and show my kids how to be empathetic and thoughtful and really be able to talk about their feelings.
TB: You mentioned your childhood. Can you talk more about how your own upbringing has influenced your parenting style and what you’re hoping to impart onto your children?
JR: I just posted on social media about cycles we’ve been able to break, and cycles we’ve not been able to break. A cycle that I was able to break is physical punishment. I was physically abused like crazy. And I think part of it was cultural—that’s just the way things were back then. But I’ve been able to break that cycle. A cycle that I have not been able to break is that I’m a yeller. I yell all the time. And I’ve noticed that I swear now when I’m yelling, and I’m like, oh, you know, my mom was a big yeller. So that’s something that I personally need to work on.
Culturally, growing up, a boy had to act a certain way. [There was this idea that] you have to raise a man who, in a very stereotypical way, has to have all the traits of what a man is supposed to be—they’re supposed to be strong and stoic and not talk about their feelings, and protect, and walk and talk a certain way. I saw the effects of that growing up and how it affected me. I always knew that if I were to have children, I would definitely want them to express themselves fully. And I think my kids are compassionate human beings as a result.
TB: Final question: What would you go back and tell yourself during those first three months with Avery as a newborn?
JR: I wouldn’t share something I wish I’d done differently. But what I would share with other parents is to do what I did, which was say yes to everything. I think that when we become parents, we get prideful, and we don’t want to let people in. We don’t want people to see our crazy, we don’t want people to see us yelling or that our house is a mess. But I didn’t care about any of that. I let people in—and I ended up having a larger support system than most two-parent households because of that. So I always tell people, whether you’re a solo parent, whether you’re a two-parent family, when somebody asks you if you need anything, you pull out your to-do list and hand it to them with a smile and say thank you. We want to minimize the burnout, and that’s really the way to do it.