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.