Opinion: Love The Child You Have
The following column appeared in WBUR’s Cognoscenti on April 19, 2023. It is reposted here with permission.
Nearly 30 years ago when I casually asked my mom how she’d feel if one of my sisters or I was gay — hypothetically, that is — she said she’d experience a great sense of loss. Five years later, at 25, I married a man. I wanted to be a wife and a mother. I wanted the life we embarked on creating together. Like my mom before me, I didn’t have models for that life without a husband, so I conveniently forgot our conversation, along with the private ones I’d had with myself in my journal.
I don’t blame my mother for my having stayed closeted — even to myself — until I was 36. She was working with what she knew, which is what happens in every generation, including mine. However, that conversation implanted and grew in my psyche until it was choking my spirit, and I felt I had no choice but to sever it with an ax-like swiftness, wreaking a different kind of havoc. Nor do I play the regret game; I love my kids madly and they would not be here had I come out earlier in life.
Still, I am tired of narratives by parents of queer, trans, nonbinary and gender-fluid kids that tell a story of loss, even if acceptance comes eventually, and of stories about grieving the child parents imagined having rather than focusing on loving the one they have. Our kids deserve better. One thing my experience has helped me see is that we need to shift this “loss” narrative if we truly want to contribute to our kids’ wellbeing, and perhaps breathe new life into some of our own narrow internal spaces.
As parents, we have lots and lots (and LOTS) of feelings about our kids — their struggles, their talents, their trajectories, their blind spots, their potential. But our commentary on these can slide into projection. Our most important role lies in providing essential guardrails, while giving our children ample space in which to discover their own strengths and truths.
While that is an oversimplification of the emotional complexity of parenting, we need to consider the implications of the word “loss” when talking about our children’s sexual orientation and gender identities.
Like many Gen X parents, I grew up on “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show.” A successful, happy life meant having a middle-class family with a mom and a dad, siblings who bicker just the right amount and probably a dog. Throw in a grill, a deck and a quiet sunlit suburban neighborhood and you’re really living the dream — that is, as long as everyone sticks to their assigned roles, including their assigned gender roles. This false bill of goods conveys that any deviation from the “norm” is hard, and sad.
What’s sad — and what’s making life for some children and families truly more hard — is that a generation of kids is growing up in a country that has made transness the political weapon du jour. Will life be harder for someone who isn’t straight and cisgender? Maybe. But this perspective fails to acknowledge the toll of conforming, performing, pretending and lying to be loved and accepted. It fails to recognize what is exhausting, confusing, and sometimes consuming for someone who simply wants to live with ease and freedom inside their own body and being — without having to prove themselves, and without apology.
What if we focused more on the beauty of believing your child when they tell you who they are?
We parents are responsible for our kids’ safety, practically and emotionally. When I read pieces by parents who are having trouble letting their kids be who they are, mostly I hear fear. The world is not kind to those who reject dominant paradigms; that is nothing new.
But what if we focused more on the beauty of believing your child when they tell you who they are? What if we shifted our lens and saw that what is even scarier is being at war with yourself, all while knowing your parents are grieving who you are not?
My struggle didn’t end when I came out, as I thought it would. Internalized heteronormativity has taken a dozen more years to expunge, and I still have episodes of fearing I failed my kids by being queer and rearranging our family reality so dramatically. I forget to focus on the fact that I never for a minute stopped loving them, providing for them and creating a stable home and family from which they may launch into their own lives.
If you are a parent of a child who is telling you something about who they are, be curious. Listen to them. Believe them. Of course, we should be compassionate with ourselves and allow ourselves time to process, too. There is no shame in feeling loss or grief, but work through these privately, with a friend, therapist or support group.
Further, one of the most powerful and radical things we can do is to look at this reaction critically. What assumptions and biases might it reflect? How much of that is genuinely ours, and how much of it have we internalized from our own families of origin, upbringings and cultural messages? Are we protecting our kids, or our own expectations?
As a parent, where is the loss, when your child is standing right there in front of you?
There is nothing easy about concealing one’s truth. And there is nothing easy about knowing that your parents are grappling, quietly or overtly, with fully accepting who you are. Kids will do enough of that on their own, without our help.
We can and must do everything possible to protect our children from the relentless attack on LGBTQIA+ rights. My hope is that we will also do the quieter inner work of examining our own stories of what constitutes an “easier” life. Homophobia and transphobia are so dangerous and damaging; the least we can do is not feed them sideways by indulging this story of loss.
If you want to make life easier for your child, no matter their sexual or gender identities, stop grieving the child you imagined and focus on loving the one you have.
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Jena Schwartz is a writing coach, editor, and author of three books. Her poetry and essays have been widely published, and she has served as Poet in Residence at the Jewish Community of Amherst in Amherst, MA.