The conversation had ebbed between me and my father, who I spoke with rarely but happened to be in town. I had been waiting for this moment all weekend, strategically timed for our last dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. My heart raced and I decided to jump:
“So… you know, the next time you see me, you unfortunately won’t be able to stay with me in my current crummy place!” I nervously chuckled over my scripted joke. “I’m actually moving….” I added mumbly, “…in with my boyfriend.”
Everyone had KNOWN I was gay, but… it had been a taboo topic for the last several years, and I hadn’t pushed it. I studied my father’s face for a reaction. His eyes seemed to well with tears, but that could have been me projecting. “…That’s good…. Where are you moving to?”
We made the obligatory follow up smalltalk, and I later diffused the situation by concocting a story about the neighboring table, about how the man felt like the only way he could woo his date was by showing off his extravagant tech and/or MD money, leading to ordering excessively and decadently—the salt and pepper crab, the abalone, the Peking duck. He ran off for a work emergency, but, twist!, the female ended up picking up the tab! The entire story had to be re-written! Probably funnier in person. My dad laughed a bit too hard and his eyes were visibly moist.
“When a man is married to a woman….,” my dad later began. I braced myself for whatever he was going to say. “…it can sometimes be difficult because males and females can have very different interests and hobbies. I really love golf.” He then proceeded to discuss why his marriage with my mother fell apart.
I considered the night a success.
People often discuss the transition from not having a kid to having a kid. I get it—going from a time when you can be pretty freaking selfish and living in the present to being totally selfless and constantly worrying about the future. It is difficult learning how to place the needs of another life over your own, being willing to sacrifice your life for another. Never underestimate the power of the maternal instinct.
Now that I am older, I wonder about the transition from parenting a child to parenting… a fully independent adult. How does a parent cope with going of a position of unparalleled power to a position where you are generally irrelevant? What happens with the source of so much of so much meaning in your life goes away? How do you go from, “I am the singular sustaining life force of a person who is totally dependent on me for their well-being,” to, “I better be nice to this person, because otherwise they might leave me on an ice floe.”
How could you possibly give up your maternal instinct and learn how to treat your child like an equal? Isn’t that transition just as difficult?
My sister had been texting me urgently. I gave her a call.
“Dad told his brother that you moved in with Daniel, and it got back to mom… She’s really furious that we’ve been keeping this secret from her….”
“She says that she doesn’t want to talk to you anymore, so…. you probably shouldn’t call. I don’t think that she realizes that this isn’t a punishment, haha…”
My mom is still not talking to me.
How do you create an environment where people feel safe enough to divulge secrets? Even in my own relationship, I struggle with this: when my boyfriend confesses deep-seated concerns about the relationship or information regarding a prior malfeasance, my first inclination is anger. But on the other hand, I also know that, get in enough fights, and my boyfriend will know better and start to be less honest about his feelings—an outcome potentially less preferable than biting my tongue or not going that extra mile in using him as my proverbial punching bag.
The follow-up question is, then, is honesty always the best policy? Ask any parent and they will tell you that they keep a litany of secrets from their children in the spirit of protecting them. It doesn’t necessarily make for bad parenting, but it does suggest that there is a notion of altruistic lying, a belief that sometimes it is the compassionate thing to do to lie to the people you care about.
A former camp co-counselor once told me that his biggest goal in being a parent was to be the kind of parent who his child would be open to sharing everything with, probably through being an understanding ally. Unfortunately, I think the conventional parenting philosophy is to punish them when they err and fess up, and punish them even more if they think they can get away with it and get caught.
This strategy can only work for so long.
At the end of the day, people are either incentivized to lie or incentivized to tell the truth, and you are partially responsible for determining the rewards and punishments for each.
My father visited again with his new wife, about half a year later. She was about as affable or demure as I would expect from a woman meeting her husband’s other child.
After initial pleasantries and appetizers, she sheepishly paused and asked, “I probably shouldn’t ask this, but… do you have a girlfriend?”
“You tell everyone about your gay son except your new wife?!” I thought, as I faced that same decision point that millions of gay people had faced before me. I ran through the mental calculus.
…And it wasn’t worth it. “No… not yet. I’m sure I’ll find the right person when the time is right.”
I heard a coworker in the elevator express heartbreak and offense that her daughter was being bullied on the playground.
I wonder what my mom would do if someone accosted me for dating a guy. Turn the other way? Defend me? Let her bitterness and anger overwhelm her maternal protective impulses?
Maybe it is easier to transition out of motherhood than I thought.