A certain phrase from the 1990 movie Mermaids made an indelible impression the moment I heard it. The film itself is a tale concerning the immense power struggle between a single parent and her adolescent children as all confront the bending, occasionally rocky trek toward making choices independently. Plot aside, my treasured takeaway lay in a moment’s reaction that followed a rather frustrating altercation between mother and daughter. It was the second when Cher’s “Mrs. Flax” defensively blasted these words at her fifteen-year old daughter, a girl on whom she is quickly losing her grip:
“I gave birth to you, but you didn’t come with instructions!”
Sadly, unlike a plethora of possessions that can be debited to one’s banking account whether purchasing items from a local grocer or online behemoths like Amazon, offspring come with neither guides nor return policies. Once born, each must be raised using all of the child-rearing instincts that can be mustered. Patience, willingness to listen and empathize, guidance, love, discipline, and a host of other qualities are necessary to guide a child from the proverbial village in which s/he was raised, to a college of choice, and eventually to an environment that will become his (or her) own.
Still, what if a large stone that interrupts the family pathway is the sexual identity of one of the parents? Is there a way to maneuver a family around it without losing any along the way?
Recently, I spoke with a man who, like the fictional Mrs. Flax, was helping to raise his two sons while confronting these grown-up questions. Their cause? His growing attachment to a man he began to appreciate and to trust, someone with whom he started to sense that he was meant to spend a lifetime. Thus, compelled to explain the situation to his eldest son, an initial attempt was made.
“My two sons are five years apart,” Michael said proudly of his children. “The older was thirteen or fourteen when I shared the news that I was gay. It wasn’t long after T.J. and I met, and I remember saying that it was important that he knew that this was who I am, and that there was an important reason why his mother and I divorced.” Taking a moment to adjust in his chair, he continued to elaborate. “It was very uncomfortable for him and for me, but I didn’t want him to find out later in life that I was somebody that he didn’t think I was. And I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy, because it wasn’t easy. In fact, during his teenage years, he was pretty distant from me. Now,” Michael coughed, ” over time we got closer and closer and closer, and after college, things really improved dramatically. Since, things have improved to the point when he’s come to several of my concerts, in fact, both of my sons have. And they’ve loved them!”
But how does one approach a second son with the same information, especially when this child is younger and may not fathom the significance of the discussion? Again without guideline, precedent, or instruction booklet, the father needed to rely on instinct.
“At age 8, I didn’t know if I could handle it honestly,” the father professed, “not after the experience with my 13-year old! He wasn’t ready to hear it, I thought.” Here, he stopped and assessed quietly. “[But] it was a non-event. The subject was less uncomfortable with [him], which I think could be true of younger children who have seen older brothers and sisters going through this, y’know? Plus, our dog Mickey was a healing factor in this equation too, since both of my sons loved [him]. T.J. wasn’t living with me yet, but the dog was there, howling from beneath the dinner table. And I think that it was that comic relief that connected all of us!”
In the end, Michael remembered a priceless thought he shared with his elder son, a moment when his direction succeeded despite not having an instruction booklet beside him on a sofa cushion. Leaning in during a kind of moment only shared between men, he soberly stated to his son that he- the son- could possibly fall in love with someone who was somehow different someday. And historically, the son- now adult- has done so. Still, it is alright. For as all know, living itself is without guidelines. Our greatest need is to have a good Sherpa to navigate our ways, one who is intelligent and confident enough to lead us the right direction.
Photographer Unknown, “Mermaids” Production Poster, The Cinema.com Website. View Date: 4/14/2015 Link: http://cinema.com/film/4980/mermaids/gallery/
Providence Collection, “Father Talking to Son,” The Goodsalt.com Website. View Date: 4/14/15 Link: http://www.goodsalt.com/details/prcas6126.html