Monday, April 11, 2011

A Mother and Her Gay Son

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about my mother. She died a few years ago. I never told her I am gay. I never told her a lot of things. You see, my mother and I became estranged as I got older due to the abuse that I suffered as a child at her hand. It’s complicated, but about 15 years ago, I basically came to a point where I couldn’t go on pretending that what happened to me, didn’t happen. After confronting her about some things and experiencing a disappointing response, I finally came to realize that she had certain limitations that she would never get beyond, no matter how much I wished our relationship was different. So I (reluctantly) accepted that and moved on.

Because of the hurt, the pain and the realization that I will always carry the emotional scars of childhood abuse, I had not able to “forgive” my mother. (The platitudes about simply forgiving and “applying the atonement of Christ” simply do not apply here – as anyone who knows anything about the legacies of child abuse can understand – so if anyone is tempted to comment along those lines, please don’t go there.) Frankly, I was not able to feel much of any love for her. For a long time, I felt guilty about this; but I finally felt that I simply had to let it go and “give it to God.” That gave me a certain degree of peace.

Since coming out, however, I have “revisited” many periods of my life – including my childhood and youth - sifting, sorting, re-thinking. In fact, coming out has enabled me to look back on my entire life through a different lens. Before finally acknowledging and embracing my true sexuality, try as I might to be “broad-minded” about my past, I was handicapped in that I looked at this past through a “Mormon” lens. Particularly as a convert (comparing my experience to that of the Mormon ideal), I frankly (to my discredit) looked upon my family of origin with intolerance and shame and I viewed my dysfunctional childhood and youth as something to be ashamed of.  

This intolerance and shame were in turn overlain by an extremely thick and virtually impermeable coat of shame that covered everything - my entire self - as a result of my hidden homosexuality. I have been stripping away that coat of shame and working at exorcising the intolerance that has lived within me for so long. Doing so has enabled me to love myself more and, perhaps as a result, to have more compassion toward my mother and to re-examine my feelings toward her.

For example, I have recently been thinking about what my mother probably knew or surmised about me as a child. Examining the evidence, I find the following:

- My two older brothers were very athletic. I was not. Yet, I do not recall ever being forced by my mother (or my father, for that matter) to participate in sports. 

- I had apparently evinced an aptitude for interior decorating at a very young age: my mother used to like to tell the story about how I started rearranging the furniture at one of her friend’s house when I was only four.

- My mother also used to like to tell the story of how she and I would sit together and listen to classical music. I don’t have that recollection, but I supposed it was because I was probably very young. What has impressed me recently about this memory of hers, however, is that it stuck out in her memory as something that was special to her.

- I suppose I was probably always a sensitive child. I don’t remember much of anything from when I was very young, but I do recall as I got older that I loved art, music and church. I also liked school, once I was old enough to go, and I excelled at it – something my older brothers didn’t.

As I look back on all of this, I have realized that I don’t recall ever being “put down” by my mother, or being called a “sissy” – neither by her or by anyone else in my family (except my next oldest brother). I think, frankly, that my mother saw a lot of things in me that appealed to her, that she liked; and I wonder if she knew, even then, that I was a gay little boy.

Thinking about these things has helped me to have compassion on my mother, despite everything that she did to me.

I have also gained compassion for her as I look back on my own experience in my marriage and as a parent.  Coming out has helped me to see how getting married and denying my true self created a conflict in the very heart of me that generated not only unhappiness, but also a lot of anger and intolerance. This unhappiness, anger and intolerance seethed and bubbled deep inside of me, and as hard as I might try to control or even ignore these emotions, they nevertheless found their way to the surface at regular intervals, poisoning my marriage and adversely affecting my relationship with my children.

As I have thought about these things, I have reflected back on my mother (pictured above on the right, the earliest picture we have of her). She came from an abusive and dysfunctional background, too. At least I know her father was abusive. He and my grandmother divorced in the 30’s, and my mom grew up in various cities in the Midwest, moving fairly often as her mother scratched out a living then, later, as her step-father’s job took the family from place to place. We frankly don’t know much about my mother’s childhood because she never talked about it.  The only things I do know are what my grandmother told me years ago.

When I was a younger man, in my early married years, I excused my mother’s behavior toward me as a child on the basis that she herself had been abused as a child.  (This is a typical behavior pattern in an abused child; the child cannot blame the parent and so inevitably takes upon him or herself the “blame” for the abuse.) Later, I came to realize that this wasn’t a healthy behavior, and I placed responsibility where it belonged, i.e., with her.

I still view her as responsible for her behavior, but looking at my own life through the increased clarity and different perspective proffered by the process of coming out, I am able to have more compassion for her. I am able to look at the elements of her marriage and her life that perhaps made her feel trapped.

In this regard, as I have looked back recently at the pictures I have of my mother, I have noticed something: in almost all of the pictures taken before her marriage and in the early years of her marriage, she is smiling. She looks happy.

With each passing year, however, she seemed to appear less happy in her pictures. Frankly, by the time I came along, I think she was miserable.

Compassion literally means, “to suffer with.” Looking back on my own life, reflecting on the deep unhappiness that I experienced in my marriage caused in large part by the rejection of my true gay identity, and acknowledging the toll that my unhappiness took not only on me but upon my wife and my children – in doing these things, I am able to “suffer with” my mother in what she went through; to have compassion towards her; to accept her for who she was, faults and all. In so doing, I find myself able to do something I had not previously been able to do: extend forgiveness to her and, ultimately, to find a love for her that I thought was extinguished forever.


  1. What is it about gay boys and their mothers?
    What is it about women and their mothers?
    What is it about humans and their mothers?

    Maybe it is because it is/should be the most natural of relationships yet it gets thwarted by life itself and our human imperfections all around, I don't know. I have lots of my own mommy issues, God knows they may or may never resolve, but at least we're in cordial speaking terms up to the point where I mention my relationship with the babe, then she suddenly has to get off the phone... I hope writing about your mom was cathartic, it usually is for me!

  2. I watched 4 of my cousins grow up with persistent abuse. Their mother was an abused child, and her inner demons were strong. I admire you for writing something so deeply personal and painful.

  3. @Miguel - Thanks for your comments on your own relationship with your mother. I'd like to invite anyone else to share, if they're so inclined, about their own relationship with their mother.

    @Miguel and Joe - It was cathartic to write, yes, and deeply personal. This is something I have dealt with my whole life, in one form or another, from one perspective or another - either as a child, an adolescent or as an adult man. It is something I always carry with me, almost like me being gay. It's part of who I am; it's part of what made me.

    I wrote about it for two reasons. First, I felt I owed it to my mother; not in a negative, unhealthy way, but in what I believe to be a healthy way. I found my thoughts turning to her as I have attended mass the past several weeks (as she was Catholic) and, as I have written in the post, as I have recently contemplated my life. I feel like I have been blessed with grace (def: a virtue coming from God, i.e., not from one's self) to understand and forgive her. After all that I have gone through and all the years that such grace eluded me, it has been profoundly moving for me to now receive it. The fact that I received it after coming out and thinking of my mother in terms of coming out has not escaped my notice.

    Secondly, I felt I should write about this because I know very well that there are many who have had experiences similar to mine. Abuse, like homosexuality, is one of those topics that tends to not be discussed in the Church/Mormon culture in an open and healthy way.

  4. I admire you. I don't know if I'll ever get to this place with my own mother.

  5. What a hauntingly beautiful post. You appear to have come full circle. I had a bad relationship with a mother who was aloof and ignored me, even when I was hurt, even ignoring my first humiliating years as a young girl menstruating, coming home with bloody clothing. I never understood her, but you've given me pause to think about my own mother's life and perhaps forgive. I hope your wife has come full circle as well. I can only imagine the hate and blame she put on you when you could no longer hide who you really were. Kudos.

  6. @Pollypinks - Thank you for your comments. I don't know about "full circle", but I've definitely moved forward in the labyrinth.

    I must tenderly thank you for your comments about my wife. This is a subject I have not yet dared approach. It is too raw. As it is, we gay men in mixed-orientation marriages are already stigmatized by some women for not being "more honest" with our wives up front, when we weren't even honest with ourselves about our sexuality. To allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel the pain of hatred and blame ... I don't know if I am "allowed" to do that.

  7. Wow.

    There are many pieces here coming together. Good things are happening in your life.

  8. I truly find it amazing how your ability to love and be tolerant of others seems to increase with your acceptance of love of yourself.

    This is a very touching story that brought tears to my eyes, for the echoes with my own personal experience.

    I think that parents of this generation didn't know what we know now. They didn't have blogs to discuss their inner feelings and have support groups. They probably didn't even know their inner feelings because they never identified it by putting a word on it; thus, their silence about their past. I think they lived in shame of their past, which is something I guess that you are letting go of, but perhaps your mother wasn't able to let release. It seems, I can't know obviously, that she suffered from depression and it came out on you, and perhaps your other siblings.

    It is so sad that you had to deal with this and to feel such shame about it. However, it seems that now that you are letting up the pressure to be perfect that you are able to not expect your mother to have been perfect and that you are able to see your mother for the human she was.

    Also, how insightful of you to recognize the difference in her appearance in pictures. I wonder who took them? Though whose "lens" was she being seen?

    I am certain that she loves and accepts you, wherever she is now and is so glad that you can finally begin to forgive her and understand her.

    Bravo et courage!

  9. Thank you for writing about your mother and for giving me permission to write about and try to sort through my mixed feelings for the woman who, along with my father, gave me life.

    The woman who fed, loved, clothed, protected, suffocated, enraged, humiliated, funded, manipulated, nurtured, plotted, prodded, pleaded, hushed, screamed, sulked, drank, drugged, smoked, lied, laughed, washed, ironed, taught, shopped, sewed, painted, baked, sliced, fried, welcomed, whispered, invested, persisted, pleased, delighted, dazzled, entertained, enabled, soothed, comforted, calmed, reassured, remembered, forgot, refined, accepted, congratulated and within the past year showed me one way to die with relative dignity and self-efficacy.

    In my birth and in her death we were close. There were bleak and dark times in our shared decades, but much illumination too. Well that's about all I can handle now, but it is a start. Thank you for the prompt to remember one of the women I have loved and will always love.

  10. This has given me reason to pause even more since I wrote last. The most significant relationship a child has is with his/her same sex parent. You don't mention your father. And, you are allowed to feel whatever it is you feel towards your wife. Have you thought of writing her a letter? Your writing is poignant and sad, and even though she may harbor thoughts of anger for years to come, were it me, I would want to read it in black and white from my husband. Even this blog on your mother. It's very enlightening. I hope you are allowed to spend time with your children. That can be very healing for them.