Guest post: A tale of two families

by TopHat

TopHat blogs at With Your Mutual Approbation and the bee in your bonnet. She has 2 children who take up her knitting time, but she forgives them for that. This post was originally posted at the bee in your bonnet, and we’re glad she agreed to share it with us here.

It’s interesting being an adult child. All growing up, you only see one family and can’t imagine how a family might be run differently or behave differently. Then you meet people from different families and it’s kind of mind-blowing. Last month, after thinking a lot about Nature? Nurture? Neither? More? and what my goal is as a parent, I was looking up my friends’ Christmas photos on Facebook. I ran into a friend of mine who was in my stake during my youth. His parents had stake callings and sometimes chaperoned the youth dances, so I went through his pictures, curious to find out how the past decade had changed his family. They were happy, cheery, and surrounded by Christmas decorations: poinsettias and evergreens galore! But a couple of the pictures gave me pause.

I knew my friend, Dan, from stake dances and youth conferences and he graduated high school the same year I did. He went on a mission, graduated from BYU, met the love of his life there and moved to Massachusetts to marry that love, Michael, this past June. I don’t know all of his story, but I know that his journey as a gay Mormon has put some strain on his family. So when his Facebook status said that he was home for the holidays, I thought, Home? As in Illinois? No. He must mean he’s settled in his new apartment from that recent move. But I looked, and no, he meant home in Illinois.

So I was surprised that he was excited to go back to Illinois for Christmas (O’Hare? Really? At Christmastime?). The first picture that spoke to me was of Dan’s sister and Michael in a picture together with their arms around each other. Wow, I thought, that family must be doing something right. The second picture was of Dan’s entire family: parents and siblings and Michael, all together. Smiles.

Now, I have personal experience with Hmm. How do we look like we like each other without actually having to like each other pictures, and these are not those. You know when someone smiles, really smiles, their eyes smile? That’s what that picture is.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have a friend I met in Provo. She’s a church-going, calling-magnifying, married in the temple mom to a little girl and another on the way. Her husband just scored his dream job and they are living the dream. You might think her parents can die happy- after all, every one is temple-married and sealed and all that jazz. You’d think this, that is, if they knew they were grandparents. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the attitude of unconditional love was lost and so my friend, “Renee”, has not spoken to her parents in over 5 years. In fact, I use a made-up name because she does not want her family to find her through internet searches.

Renee doesn’t feel safe with her parents and doesn’t want her children to be exposed to the dynamics in her family, so she cut them off entirely. If you were to ask Renee’s parents if they love her, they would probably say, “Yes!” But to her, their actions haven’t said that and so for the time being, and perhaps for the rest of their lives, they cannot have a relationship with her.

Renee might represent an extreme case, but it’s not so far-fetched that it doesn’t exist. It does. And when I think of Dan and Renee’s families, I wonder what it was exactly that Dan’s family did to be able to assure Dan that he is loved and a welcome member of their family. I know that he had been open on some level about his journey surrounding his sexual orientation and that his parents were there for him even when he was a teen. And then, by the time Christmas 2010 came along, he was excited to come home, and the family there was loving and inclusive. This is a feat considering that Mormons and gays don’t really have the best track record for peace and acceptance. His parents did something right since he made it through his teen and early 20s years without giving up on them or himself.

And then I bring it back to my own family. I have a Margaret and an Isaac. I hope that as I parent, they feel assured that I really do love them unconditionally, and I hope they know they can come to me with all the messy details of their lives. I remember my teen years and the distress I went through that I didn’t think I could talk about to anyone- let alone my parents. And yet, out there, there are parents who are able to help their children make that jump into personhood. I want to be one of those parents.

And that is the issue I wrestle with most as a parent. How do I make sure that my children really feel loved and accepted? How do I make sure that they feel safe with me now and in the future? Every day I hope that the things I do translate into, “You are welcome here.”

Corktree

Corktree is exploring life and spirituality in new ways and new environments while studying midwifery, reiki, yoga, homeopathy, herbology and evolutionary nutrition. She has 3 daughters and one son, which add up to what now feels like an enormous family of 6.

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21 Responses

  1. jks says:

    This is interesting. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether my four children will feel loved and accepted. I just assume they will. I spend more time thinking about how can I teach them to work hard, or how can I teach them to be kinder to each other, how can I teach them to be honest, etc.
    I guess I figure that if I teach them how to be good people they will feel like good people and have self-esteem and then won’t worry about feeling accepted.
    However, I tell them I love them daily. I don’t overly compliment them so they don’t think that my love is based on their beauty or intelligence. I do try to compliment their hard work/being responsible to reinforce that.
    I also try to pay attention to them. Spend time with them. Laugh with them. Work with them. Help them. Discipline them. Give them space. Let them make their own decisions.
    I try to actually like them and understand them.
    I can’t promise they will feel loved and accepted, but if they don’t I think it will be their own hangups, not what I have done. You can’t control how other people feel, they have a right to their own feelings. I try to remember my children are individuals and they will go their own way and be their own person.

    • TopHat says:

      Thanks for your comment! My kids are still really small (almost 3 and 7 months) so things like work ethic haven’t really started becoming a focus yet. Yes, we all pick up our toys together and help carry the folded laundry to our drawers, but I don’t think it’s the same. I’m sure my focus will shift throughout the years.

      And I agree we sometimes just have to do what we can and let be.

  2. Caroline says:

    Wonderful post, TopHat.

    I know that if one of my kids is gay, I too hope that I will have created the kind of welcoming and loving environment that they will know that they are loved and accepted. I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to go about creating that environment, but I would consider reading books, watching TV program, etc. that feature same sex couples and talking about it with my kids like it’s not a big deal. (I think there are picture books out there like that – maybe something called “My Two Mommies”?)

    I couldn’t help but wonder whether your friend Renee experienced some kind of serious abuse to have retreated from her family like that. It’s tragic that she feels that unsafe with her family of origin, but on the other hand, if full retreat is what she needs to heal and move on with life, then that’s what she should do.

    • TopHat says:

      I also hope that if I have a gay child, s/he would feel like that’s something they could tell me without worrying that I might treat them differently. Ah life! We’ll see how this parent thing is going in 10 years or so. 🙂

      Yeah, I don’t know Renee’s whole story, but there were something things at least emotionally that were very damaging. I don’t know about physically or in other ways.

  3. Corktree says:

    I really love this. It just makes me so happy to hear of good outcomes in families like Dan’s.

    As I find myself dealing with a daughter that interprets disapproval of certain actions to mean that we don’t like her, I’ve given a lot of thought as to how I can both show and tell her better that she is loved and accepted for who she is, while simultaneously helping her to see which behaviors are and are NOT acceptable in our society (as in how we treat others and such). She has such good intentions and I just want her to figure out how to line up her actions with how she feels, but it’s often hard to do that without communicating disappointment that is damaging. I’m trying to figure it out and trying to help her be her best self without determining who that self is.

    It’s so scary to give children wings when you know the boundaries and obstacles that they will have to risk to fly high. But I believe it’s worth it.
    Great post TopHat!

    • TopHat says:

      Thanks for (strongly) suggesting I submit it!

      My daughter sounds like yours- she’s very sensitive. Today I was fixing our kitchen sink and she was playing a little too close for my comfort (and I was kind of stressing about the disposal and the possibility of having to remove it) and I didn’t use my kindest voice in asking her to back away. She went around the corner and cried. I followed her and apologized for not being more gentle with her. It’s a hard balance because any kind of upset does get interpreted as disapproval.

    • Amy says:

      I can so relate with your experience with your daughter. I feel like my relationship with my daughter is similar. So tricky on how to make sure that they are being their best selves, but not offended by how we try to get them to do better. And that just because I feel she is capable of better doesn’t mean she isn’t great already!

  4. Hydrangea says:

    Most parents find it very easy to love their small children regardless of how they behave. But then as kids grow into adults and their”bad choices” become more serious and consequential it is hard for some to provide that same unconditional, unwavering love and support.
    As a parent you want to be a safe haven for your children and accept them however flawed, yet you still want to urge them to make good choices. It’s tricky.

    • TopHat says:

      Yeah my kids are young. I look at this easy-to-love-them time as practice for the future. If I can be patient and accepting now, maybe I’ll grow into it as they grow into individuals? I hope so.

    • Ziff says:

      I think that’s a great point, Hydrangea. My oldest is almost 11, just on the verge of being a teen and, I fear, starting to be able to make choices that could be really painful.

  5. Azucar says:

    We are dealing with a similar dynamic in our marriage. My family is open, accepting, and while certainly not perfect, they’re a wonderful example of what happens when you love your children, try to make “good” choices by example, and encourage your children to be their best selves. In contrast, DH has barely any contact with his family at all. I can now see the tidal wave of decisions that left his family at this point, and we do our best not to propagate their examples. It’s always on my mind since I hope we’re close to our children, loving them and accepting them no matter what.

  6. Whoa-man says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I really needed this post tonight. I need hope and faith that this church can in fact produce the kind of loving family that Dan (and Michael) are a part of.

    Bravo!

  7. Naismith says:

    The thing is, the two might actually be the same family. And people do change in their opinions of things.

    I went through a very rough time some years ago, when my returned missionary child sent me a letter saying that s/he “neither liked nor loved me” and was embarrassed by me and didn’t want me in their life.

    I wrote back thanking them for their honesty and assuring him/her that I would try to stay out of his/her life whenever possible. So I have left instructions that when I die, I will not have a funeral, so that s/he wasn’t put in the awkward position of feeling they had to attend and pretend that s/he cared. My mothering was a free gift, and I don’t think we can expect to be invited into their lives if our style is not a good fit. I was thrilled that I was even invited to the temple wedding.

    A few years later, this person’s spouse confronted me about why I was so cold and distant and never attended performances, etc. I brought out the letter and explained that I thought I was doing what they wanted. So very much damned if you do, while simultaneously damned if you don’t!!!!

    Well, come to find out that my child didn’t even remember writing the letter, and had since decided that I wasn’t all that stupid after all. So now we were suddenly supposed to be all lovey and best friends again. Excuse me? After 5+ years of thinking that I was an unwelcome embarrassment? I mean, I am really glad and all, but it does take a huge mental shift and will take some time to warm up to it all.

    A good lesson on not actually putting that venting letter into the mail, as well as how things can look so very different from different points of view.

    • TopHat says:

      I think this is important to remember as well. I was sort of “estranged” from my parents when my daughter was born and the while afterwards because I was trying to navigate how to be an adult- and I was making choices that they didn’t approve of (homebirth, for example). I really needed a supported space and at the time their worry and such weren’t helpful to me. But recently, I’ve been re-warming up to the relationship- actually the Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices conference at Claremont a couple of weeks ago made me think that perhaps doing a little oral history thing with my mom might be a good catalyst for the relationship. ANYWAY, yes. It definitely can be the same family. Relationships can be hard.

  8. jks says:

    Naismith, how heartbreaking! I’m glad you are on the road to a better relationship.
    It is difficult because kids expect the parents to be the solid, mature ones. So we’re supposed to love them no matter what even if there are teenage (or older) years of immaturity and difficult behavior.

  9. Conifer says:

    This reminds me of my three main parenting goals:

    My goals are for my kids to:

    1. Be happy.
    2. Be good, kind people who make the world around them a little better for their presence in it.
    3. Not hate me and their dad.

    Everything else is icing, in my opinion.

  10. MB says:

    The book “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish proved very helpful when we were raising our children and hoping to create the kind of family environment you’re talking about.

    That, and getting our egos way out of the way and focusing on treating our children like real people.

    Faber and Mazlish have also written one for parents of teens.

  11. mmiles says:

    I think actually the first story is par for the course in the way gay children are treated by their families in the Church. Are some gay children treated terribly? Absolutely. And so we hear about it.
    Most families with gay children don’t treat them badly, they are fully accepted-but you don’t hear about it, because it’s a non-issue.

    • TopHat says:

      That would be great to hear! I just know I have some really orthodox LDS relatives that balk so much at the idea (more than balk, but we won’t go there) that I associate myself with feminism, I can’t imagine what they’d do if they found out they had a gay relative, so I think my experiences is tainted by that.

      But I’d love to learn my relatives are the tiny minority!

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