Today is my Mother’s 72nd birthday. (This photo is from about ten years ago) After a nice visit, where my niece, and then my nephew and his family stopped by, I was saying goodbye, when Mom said something that kind of stunned me.
“I’m just sorry I wasn’t a better mother for you. Maybe then you wouldn’t have been so… unhappy.”
I don’t recall her ever having mentioned anything to give me a hint that she might have felt inadequate as a parent, and that I might have suffered as a result.
As I was leaving, I told her, of course, that she was the best, and there was no doubt of that. Especially, I said, if she were to compare herself to some of the mothers of people I knew growing up. Some of them were real witches! I told her that if anyone ever thought of her as a witch, it could only have been as Glinda. (Interestingly, The Wizard of Oz came out in the same year Mom was born. Coincidence? I think not.)
As I was driving home, it occurred to me that she might have been carrying this burden of thinking herself inadequate for some time. As that thought process worked it’s way through my head, it collided with several baggage cars of my own personal freight train. In no particular order: I had never noticed that she might be feeling like a failure as a mother, that I come across as “unhappy” or at least seemed that way to her, now or in the past, and that she might be feeling responsible for my difficulties coming to terms with my homosexuality.
I think we’re going to have to have a talk.
I’m not sure how I’m going to convince her that she’s been a great mother. She was always a positive presence in my life growing up, and I think she did pretty good raising three kids in the situation she found herself in. She didn’t get much more than financial support from our father, even though he was in the home for our entire childhood, with the exception of when he was in Korea in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
It’s important to remember that she is a product of her upbringing, and the society in which she lived. She didn’t complete high school, married young, had three children in 6 years, and lived in a completely different age. Even if I had recognized early on, and I didn’t, that I was gay, and had come out as a teenager, there’s really no way to expect her to have been able to deal with that. There was no information available at the tip of her fingers, no organizations or clubs to attend, and no public personae of gay that wasn’t in some way evil or perverted. The prospect that her only son was a homo would have been, perhaps, too much, then, even for her.
If I had figured out that I was gay at the same time I realized I was an atheist, it would have been in the late 60’s and early 70’s. She’s a product of the central valley of the 50’s, and a young adult in the 60’s. There was nothing in her upbringing or education that would have prepared her for the news.
From the time I was about 12, until I came out to myself in my mid-30’s, I doubt anyone would have looked at me and thought I was “happy”. Being in denial robs you of the ability to grow and experience life as you should, since your primary concern is preventing any situation from arising that might force you to face the truth. This doesn’t even happen consciously, and I don’t recall ever seriously considering what my attraction to other boys meant. I knew I wasn’t interested in girls, but I assumed, and counted on, that attraction just hitting me later than everyone else. Well, THAT never happened! Living in denial like that twists your entire life, and stunts any normal growth. It’s why I’m now such an ardent supporter of the need to be out. You can’t be you, and perhaps in my case it seemed like I was unhappy in ways more pervasive than simple teenage angst, or young adult issues of setting off in life.
Parents, especially the good ones, worry beyond their means. Many no doubt think they’ll correct the errors their parents committed with them, but they simply go on to commit their own, which in turn their children will vow never to repeat. Nobody gave my Mother a manual when we kids came along, dealing with how to be a good parent. She only had the history of her own family, the community in which she lived growing up, and Hollywood’s version of what the perfect family was. None of that would have prepared her for raising a family in the 60’s and 70’s in central California. It certainly wouldn’t have prepared her to have a gay son.
So how do I tell her that whatever faults she finds in herself are unfair? No matter how I approach it, I doubt she’ll believe me. It’s not going to be easy, or perhaps even possible, to explain the concept of being closeted, not only to the outside world, but to yourself as well, and how that has much more effect on your state of mind than anything anyone else might say or do. How do you convince someone that they did the best anyone could expect of them, and that the people they’re concerned the most about don’t now, and never have, thought them inadequate?
I doubt another “Best Mom In The World” coffee mug will do the trick.