By Amy Kaufman Burke
“My son is gay.”
Over the years, friends have spoken those words.
“My daughter is gay.”
Some spoke so low I could barely hear. Some cried. These are loving parents, LGBT allies. One couple— shaken and tearful—is same-sex. They turned to me for a safe place to react.
My children and I are straight, but my background is a bit unusual. I was born in 1958, to heterosexual parents who were entirely comfortable with LGBT+. There was no Great Divide between homosexuals and heterosexuals. From the cradle, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, straight have been my spectrum of normal.
When we meet our children at birth or adoption, we bring a book’s worth of unconscious parents expectations. Sooner or later, our kids tend to kick those assumptions to the ground. Two super- athletes produce a poet; two physicists sire a basketball player.
I grew up in the film industry, which was a spectacular mismatch. I hated performing, spoke quietly, refused to wear make-up. Worse, my favorite activity was reading. To complicate matters, I had “The Look”— thin, blonde, boobs; everyone knew I’d become an actress… except I was a committed nerd. I knew the feeling of carrying a core identity that didn’t match expectations.
As moms and dads, different issues derail us. One musician is fine with a gay son, but horrified when he shelves his violin to become a surgeon. A Republican mom brags about her surgeon daughter, but is appalled that she’s a Democrat. An English professor is proud of his Ph.D.-pursuing son, but ashamed when he leaves the program to become a chef.
When our children catch us by surprise, we lose our balance, and a complex journey begins. As parents, we need to give ourselves a bit of empathy.
Our initial reactions may clash against our own values—not because we’re bad people, but because we’re irrevocably human.
The problem is not when adjustments are challenging, even excruciating; the problem is when parents refuse to adjust, stuck in a mindset, causing a rupture in their relationship to their child. The problem worsens when they shove the responsibility onto their children—try to force their son to squelch down his identity, their daughter to recreate herself to conform to parents expectations.
We’re all emotionally imperfect. We can be decent to the bone, and still ambush ourselves with “wrong” feelings. However, once we recognize our feelings, we can change. Owning those feelings—even the feelings that are ugly—is a crucial part of human decency, and of parental love. My friends all rebuilt their views of their daughters and sons, to match their children’s true selves.
Forgiveness is an essential piece of this process, as is apologizing for the hurt we cause those we love. There’s no shame in apologizing to your daughters and sons; in fact, there’s tremendous integrity. Sometimes, we need to stretch to forgive ourselves for our wrongness, our parents for their mistakes, our children for knocking us to our knees.
Development is a lifelong process. We help our children grow, and they help us do the same. At some point in the future, a friend will have a daughter or son come out, and they’ll turn to you.
Further into the future, they’ll turn to your kids. From this experience now, you’ll know how to create a safe place for them.
So turn to each other, call a friend, talk to a professional. If you’re stuck, don’t give up. Even if you’re a work-in progress letting go of parents expectations you have long had, place your arms around each other’s shoulders—poet, lesbian, surgeon, straight, chef, Republican, scientist, professor, gay, athlete, Democrat, actress, nerd.
Daughter, Father, Son, Mother.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a blogger, novelist and mother of three grown children. Before writing fiction, she was a therapist for 25 years. Her first novel, “Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable”, is about the teen experience, and addresses high school bullying. Her second novel, “Tightwire,” is about a rookie therapist who grew up in the film industry, treating her first patient, who grew up in the circus.