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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Growing Up Different


My truckbuddy Frank has a blog post that mentions, among other things, this essay by Richard Lopez, "Growing Up with Two Moms: The Untold Children's View." In it, Lopez, who is now an English professor at Cal State-Northridge, attributes a great deal of unhappiness and maladjustment in his life to being raised by his now-deceased mom and her lesbian partner. Excerpt:
Between 1973 and 1990, when my beloved mother passed away, she and her female romantic partner raised me. They had separate houses but spent nearly all their weekends together, with me, in a trailer tucked discreetly in an RV park 50 minutes away from the town where we lived. As the youngest of my mother’s biological children, I was the only child who experienced childhood without my father being around.

After my mother’s partner’s children had left for college, she moved into our house in town. I lived with both of them for the brief time before my mother died at the age of 53. I was 19. In other words, I was the only child who experienced life under “gay parenting” as that term is understood today.

Quite simply, growing up with gay parents was very difficult, and not because of prejudice from neighbors. People in our community didn’t really know what was going on in the house. To most outside observers, I was a well-raised, high-achieving child, finishing high school with straight A’s.

Inside, however, I was confused. When your home life is so drastically different from everyone around you, in a fundamental way striking at basic physical relations, you grow up weird. I have no mental health disorders or biological conditions. I just grew up in a house so unusual that I was destined to exist as a social outcast.

You should go read the whole thing; it's not terribly long, but it is an important statement. Lopez, who identifies as bisexual, is now married and raising a family. He is also a conservative who concludes that homosexuality, whether the result of nature or nurture, is a destructive tendency that leads to . . . you know, all the terrible things conservatives say it does.

I realized while I was leaving a comment on Frank's blog that I really wanted to say a lot more than is polite to cram into somebody else's comment box, so here's my own post on this subject, for what it's worth.

As Frank observes, Lopez might have grown up with some problems even if he had been raised by two heterosexuals "in similar circumstances." And I agree: just cast your minds back to the 1970's and imagine growing up in a clandestine arrangement than involved spending every damn weekend 50 miles from home, stuck in some dinky RV park in a little trailer with your mom and her lover. Not only would you probably be pretty damned bored for lack of things to do, or just to have some personal space, but you'd also miss out on all the ordinary things kids do on weekends at home, and with their friends. Plus, it was something you could tell no one about, whether you were happy or unhappy with it.

Yeah, I can clearly see a big problem there. Lopez writes:
My home life was not traditional nor conventional. I suffered because of it, in ways that are difficult for sociologists to index. Both nervous and yet blunt, I would later seem strange even in the eyes of gay and bisexual adults who had little patience for someone like me. I was just as odd to them as I was to straight people.

Life is hard when you are strange. Even now, I have very few friends and often feel as though I do not understand people because of the unspoken gender cues that everyone around me, even gays raised in traditional homes, takes for granted. Though I am hard-working and a quick learner, I have trouble in professional settings because co-workers find me bizarre.

In terms of sexuality, gays who grew up in traditional households benefited from at least seeing some kind of functional courtship rituals around them. I had no clue how to make myself attractive to girls. When I stepped outside of my mothers’ trailer, I was immediately tagged as an outcast because of my girlish mannerisms, funny clothes, lisp, and outlandishness.

Well I can certainly relate to much of that. My own parents were hetero, but they had a tragically unhappy marriage, followed by a very bitter divorce, which meant a lot of moving around and shuttling back and forth for this only child. And then my dad died unexpectedly when I was 15, and for many years thereafter, like Lopez, I too felt very deeply the lack of a male role model. There are some things you just cannot fucking learn from your mom, no matter how wonderful and loving she may be - do you know what I mean, fellas?  Unfortunately, lots of women simply don't realize or understand this crucial point about their male children.

Continued after the jump . . .



Though at this late age, I have come to realize that there were some things my dad could have taught me or clued me in on much better while he was alive, but didn't; and my mom as well.  I never doubted then or now that I was the apple of both my parents' eyes; they were affectionate, demonstrative parents, who wanted only the best for their little man, and they certainly encouraged me to drink deeply of education and learning. But I think both of them spent so much time and energy fighting with each other that they simply didn't stop to consider some things that were important for me in the longer term.

In fact, with the clarity that age confers, there are some glaringly obvious omissions that even I, who have never raised a child, now look back on with a shock - "How could you not have thought about that?" I say to them in my mind. And yet - though I spent who knows how many hours sitting in the offices of one therapist or another, years later, who all did their damndest to get me to say I hated my parents - which seemed to be standard theraputic procedure back in the 70's and 80's - but I didn't, and I don't.

Rather, I saw and see ever more clearly with advancing years that my parents were only human, after all. As children, we all, I think, conceive of mommy and daddy as semi-divine creatures, endowed with omniscience, clairvoyance, x-ray-vision, and supernal wisdom. But of course, they weren't - that was just a fantasy we had as little kids. The reality is that mom and dad were living out their lives as best they could, with what they thought was good and right at the time, minute by minute and day by day, making mistakes, sometimes getting it right, and sometimes not. Just like you do - just like I do.

It's a mark of maturity to realize that your parents were in every way just as good and just as bad - which is to say, just as human - as you are. In fact, if they are your biological parents, they are you. You are them. In a very real, flesh and blood way. How many times have you opened your mouth to speak, and heard mom's words, or dad's opinions, come tumbling out? They were no better than you - and you are no better than they.

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. To understand all is to forgive all, Tolstoy wrote. Of course, you can never understand every single, minute thing about your parents - but probably you can learn enough, figure out enough, to get the drift of what's essential. And then you love them more for having loved you so much, and done what they could do, in spite of all difficulties and hurts and setbacks, at whatever cost to themselves. In the end, the only question that really matters is, How much did you love?

In his article, Lopez refers twice to his "beloved mother," so perhaps he feels much as I have described here, I suspect. Step-parents are another matter, however.

It is a matter of historical record, contrary to what hysterical rightwingers may say, that the proverbial "fifty-percent divorce rate" was already well underway long, long before "gay marriage" was even thought about. I well remember reading about it in the newspapers and magazines of the 1960's - some of my truckbuddies will remember movies like The Parent Trap, and Yours, Mine, and Ours, which were very topical at the time, dealing with the difficulties of divorce and remarriage. Though in the South, then as now, social change proceeded a bit more slowly than in other parts of the country. I remember vividly that when my parents broke the news to me that they were getting a divorce - I was in sixth grade at the time - one of my first thoughts was a certain sense of shame: what would other people say about my family?

But of course, by the time I finished high school, divorce had gotten to be such a commonplace thing, nobody really looked down on it in that way anymore; it was just one of those sad things that sometimes happen in families. Instead, the myth rose up that divorce was always followed by delightful remarriages, and happy, smiling "blended families."

Maybe it does for some people, somewhere. I never knew of any such happy endings among my friends. And in my own case, I am sorry to report that my parents both seemed to have either very bad luck or very poor judgment in second spouses. They each took up with people who were essentially unkind and self-centered, and in my view, quite unworthy of my parents. And though I was at the start inclined to want to like both of those people, they both developed a great dislike for me. Which, very naturally, I heartily returned, as much as was allowable for a kid in those days to display, which was not very much. But I did despise them in my heart - not merely because they were unkind to me, but because I could see they were being essentially cruel in their various ways to my parents. If I had been grown at the time, I would have told them off - or more - in no uncertain terms.

But you can only do so much when you're a kid; mainly, you just learn to keep your head down and suffer through it. But sometimes, when something outrageous is done, you feel you have to mouth off, and then that just exacerbates the whole situation. Lopez does not describe his mom's partner in his essay; I think the omission is very telling.

Good step-parents are not easy to find, in my experience and observation. Some, yes. But not many. And the reason is simple: have you not noticed, for example, how when you introduce your two best friends, they rarely become jolly friends with each other, they way they are with you? We like, or love, different people for different reasons; and the link with one is not the same with the other. Or to put it much more simply, personalities can and often do clash. And how much more so when talking about families and children - who are often resented, rather naturally, by a step-parent for being in the way. Which they are: a child has an older and stronger claim on a parent's time and affections than a new lover, and rightly so.

It is no wonder, then, that step-parents and boyfriends/girlfriends living in the home are the cause of the majority of child abuse cases. I was once in a position to have access to detailed statistics on this subject, so I know whereof I speak; and of course, you can look it up on the Internet if you are so inclined. Not that all step-parents are abusers, certainly not; nor was I ever so abused, though I was certainly disrespected and discounted, plenty of times.

Lopez doesn't go into the details of his upbringing, so I'm not suggesting he was abused, either. I'm just saying that it's entirely conceivable that he felt stuck with a step-parent who was perhaps not nearly as loving or considerate as she might have been. Which I can now at this late age understand that side of the coin, too: unless you are an exceptionally warm and empathetic person, someone else's child is just . . . someone else's child. Not yours, and not something you ever foresaw being in the picture of your life.

You might enjoy, or at least put up with, that dog or cat your best friend is so crazy about when you go visiting. But suppose your best friend moves in with you, and brings the wretched dog or cat along - now it's your problem, your responsibility in some degree, shedding hair on your sofa, spilling the water bowl on the floor, chewing up your favorite sneakers, and making a godawful noise just when you want peace and quiet. Well, that's not going to make the atmosphere at your house very happy, is it? Of course, if it were your own little animal doing those things, you'd still be pissed - but in a rather different way.  Isn't that so, fellas?

I hate the phrase "studies show" because it is used by so many unthinking people in this benighted era with the same blind fervor that "God's will" was used by our ancestors - and there is, somewhere, a study to prove anything and everything your little heart desires to prove. But I do think that it's been fairly well established that as a group, kids of divorced parents tend to do less well on major indicators than kids from intact homes; and if so, it's very easy to understand why. With divorced parents, you are more likely to be hit with stresses and difficulties that other kids never have to deal with or think about; and some of us handle those things better or worse than others.

There are happy exceptions, of course, but the whole tone of Lopez's essay makes me think that, like me, he also was sometimes stressed to the maximum. And if not abused, perhaps neglected in some important ways. I don't mean in the ordinary sense that the word "neglect" conjures up: both before the divorce and after, my parents whether together or apart continued to provide all the usual necessities and decencies: I never missed a meal or wanted for a tasty snack after school, there were baths and toothbrushes, visits to the doctor or the dentist, new clothes as often as I grew out of the old, and lunch money and spending money for Cokes and comic books and movies, and plenty of toys and goodies at Christmas and Easter and on my birthday.

Indeed, I remember for some years before permanent-press came in, my mom - who was first a teacher, later a businesswoman, and had a job to get to every morning - would not only cook breakfast for herself and me (and I mean actually cooking bacon and eggs and toast, for example, not just throwing something in a microwave, which was unknown), but she would also iron me a shirt to wear to school each day - and somehow in addition, also got herself dressed and combed and made up with all those girly potions and powders, ready for work.

Amazing, now that I look back on it. How she managed to do all that every day in, let's say, a mere hour and a half between rising and being ready to get in the car and go, I have no idea. (Myself, at this late age, I'm just barely coherent an hour and a half after waking, and not at all sociable.) But parents often find a way to make the impossible possible - a fact for which we should all feel a debt of gratitude.

Mama had a sort of magic touch about setting up a house - whenever we moved to a new apartment or house, in just a couple of days she would have it looking like home, with just the right curtains, pictures, and all the little touches that make a place pretty and comfortable and homey. But being a working mom, even long before the divorce, she always had a maid come in two or three times a week to keep the place in good order. My dad eventually moved back into his parents' house, in an apartment they had built along one side, and my tireless little grandmother ran her house like clockwork; you could eat off her floors, and meals were usually served at nearly the same exact time, morning, noon, and night, every day of the year. So there was no "neglect" in the usual sense of the word with me, no matter which parent I lived with.

And yet, as I've said, some things were neglected, and I don't know why exactly - obvious things, as I said above, even though I know with certainty that my parents had nothing but the best intentions. Sometimes you just can't do everything, you know? Even though you would if you could - sometimes you just can't. Your parents are entitled to the benefit of the same excuses you make for your own damn self, you know?  And in my twenties, I did harbor a certain grudge on that account - not the therapist-approved hatred I was "supposed" to feel - but a resentment of things left undone and overlooked. Which I suppose is what Lopez feels too, from the way he describes his upbringing.

What I do know for certain is that nobody - nobody at all - in my day and time had the slightest fucking clue about bringing up a little gay boy (or bisexual, in Lopez's case). And I know this both from reflecting on my own family, and from discussing the subject with friends, whose experience was similar. Homosexuals were both real and unreal in those days: on the one hand, the worst possible kind of monster, lurking in dark alleys ready to do something unspeakable to an innocent victim; and yet, with the strange, twisted logic so common to human reasoning, at the very same time, they simply did not exist in the light of day. Nobody ever saw a homosexual on the street, or in school or church or at work. Everybody you ever met was heterosexual - of course.

But - and you may be relieved to know, Gentle Reader, that I am at last getting to my thesis here - there are certain crucial differences in LGBT kids that require different methods and different handling from the ordinary hetero model of child development. Which certainly no one had any idea about back in the 60's and 70's. And because this knowledge is so crucial to happiness in later life, it's important that there be very serious, in-depth, ongoing research done by the experts in child development.

I can't speak for all the other letters of the rainbow alphabet, but I can tell you that it really is crucial for little gay boys to have strong bonds with male role models. No matter how girly and sissy little gay boy may be. Because all that girly stuff - well, most of it, anyway - may wear off by the time he gets grown, as happened with me and with any number of other gay friends I've had over the years. I think Lopez is exactly right when he says,
Even if my peers’ parents were divorced, and many of them were, they still grew up seeing male and female social models. They learned, typically, how to be bold and unflinching from male figures and how to write thank-you cards and be sensitive from female figures. These are stereotypes, of course, but stereotypes come in handy when you inevitably leave the safety of your lesbian mom’s trailer and have to work and survive in a world where everybody thinks in stereotypical terms, even gays.

I had no male figure at all to follow, and my mother and her partner were both unlike traditional fathers or traditional mothers. As a result, I had very few recognizable social cues to offer potential male or female friends, since I was neither confident nor sensitive to others. Thus I befriended people rarely and alienated others easily. Gay people who grew up in straight parents’ households may have struggled with their sexual orientation; but when it came to the vast social universe of adaptations not dealing with sexuality—how to act, how to speak, how to behave—they had the advantage of learning at home. Many gays don’t realize what a blessing it was to be reared in a traditional home.

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players on it. Aye, and what the Bard said is as true now as the day he wrote it. The world runs upon certain very definite but unwritten scripts. It is a certainty that you will be a huge flop if you don't even know what the script is. Now if you don't like the script, and want to go write a new one and get it adopted, well, good luck with that. But in the meantime, it's a cruelty not to help a child understand where he is in the scheme of things, and how to act and react with others successfully. When he's grown up, he can decide for himself when to ad lib, and when to keep silence. But don't send him onstage with no fucking clue what to do with himself. You follow me, boys?

But how to provide those role models for your little gay boy, or girl? Much easier said than done, I suspect. You can't just stop strangers on the street, or in line at the post office, and ask them to volunteer for the job. Nor is it likely that all of your adult friends have the time or the patience or the inclination to want to be a father-figure; remember what I said earlier about your best friend's dog.

In an ideal world, of course, every kid, straight or gay, would grow up surrounded by a big, loving, close-knit __________ family (insert name of your favorite regional, national, or ethnic group), with plenty of uncles, cousins, and older brothers to relate to and model after. But alas, that's not the way we live nowadays - and your Head Trucker says it's a damn shame. For the last 30 years or more, there's been a very wrongheaded chic-ness about being a "single parent" - which, I recognize, is sometimes simply unavoidable - but which is always regrettable. One parent is just not enough, not without huge amounts of help from loving family or friends - if you can get it.

And I'll say this too: it really and truly sucks to be an only child. It should not be allowed. Ever. And I really mean that.

But back to the subject: Lopez concludes his essay by sticking up for the flawed study that recently was published by one Regnerus, which purports to show that gays are bad parents, always and everywhere. Which, as another researcher reviewing the study put it - is pure and simple bullshit.  I have known, and known of, any number of gay parents, two guys or two gals, who are just marvelous with kids and do a great job, as good as any two heteros could do. And as I'm sure you fellas know, many of those gay parents are raising kids who were born with AIDS or were orphaned at birth, or have some cruel disability - whose lives would otherwise be spent in institutions, if they survived at all. And yet, those gay parents have made all the difference for those children, and for "ordinary" kids too. Parenting is a skill, and an art - it does not depend upon sexuality.

So from the evidence I have seen with my own eyes - and the testimony of other children of gay parents, such as Zach Wahls, who seems a very "together" young man, and has even written a book about My Two Moms - I disagree with Lopez's conclusions, though I can understand how his own unhappy childhood led him to reach them.

The point is this: parenting is a tough job, a dicey business, yet a crucially important work, not to be undertaken carelessly. Even when you do everything right, you can't be sure of the results. I have known kids who were raised by upstanding, God-fearing, heterosexual, small-town, family-values parents who were firm, fair, and steady as a rock - and yet the kid turned out to be a wild-eyed druggie and dope dealer, totally uncontrollable, and in and out of jail. I've also known a guy who grew up in a home with his mom and dad and his mom's male lover all living together - whose mom essentially had no use for him or his brother except as little slaves to run her paper route for her, tossing newspapers out the back of her pickup truck in the pre-dawn darkness, rain or shine, snow or sleet. Yet he grew up to be a fairly responsible grocery-store manager - albeit totally clueless with relationships, but who could blame him for that; the fault lies elsewhere.

So if even hetero parents vary widely in their skills and knowledge - and their results - it stands to reason that gay parents must, also. And Lopez's story deserves to be heard sympathetically, with a willingness to understand. What we want here is truth, not ideology.

As Lopez says, "Growing up different from other people is difficult, and the difficulties raise the risk that children will develop maladjustments or self-medicate with alcohol and other dangerous behaviors." That is most certainly true, and always has been in every age, in every clime and country. Whether the difference is internal, inside yourself - say, as a little gay boy or girl - or whether it is external, in your family set-up or circumstances. And we should be examining how best to deal with those differences.

We don't all need to be cookie-cutter, alike, however; unlike in Lopez's case, sometimes the differences are delightful, not harmful.  (Cf.  Auntie Mame.)  Your Head Trucker is all in favor of gay parenting as a general concept; but the truth is, it is yet an experiment in progress. What we might call traditional parenting, with two at least nominally heterosexual partners raising nominally heterosexual children, has been going on since time began, and everybody knows the script for that - or they should, if they have any goddamn sense. But how is it working out, in this society that is hard enough to navigate for kids from Ozzie-and-Harriet homes? We need to listen to stories like Lopez's, and examine carefully the whys and wherefores - not just assume that all is well, and nothing can be improved upon.

I remember vividly when the first big wave of lesbian parenting started at the end of the 70's, just at the time when I was cautiously coming out in college. There was article about it one day in the campus newspaper, which included an interview with two local lesbian moms who had started a family. I was struck by what one of them said to the reporter, which was something to this effect: "And of course, we are promoting the cause of gay rights by raising a child together. Because the child will never turn against the mother."

And I thought at the time: Bullshit! How stupid and short-sighted. Because of course we had all just been through the rebellious 60's and the doped-up 70's, the whole generation-gap era - when millions of kids had turned against their parents and their parents' values, in every conceivable way.

Those kids are just now reaching 30, and just beginning to have a mature, adult-sized view of their parents and their raising. And their stories deserve to be heard, and we owe it to them to listen, and learn what they tell us, good, bad, or indifferent. And then use that knowledge gained to help other gay parents do the best job of parenting they can.

To be a parent is the most important job in the world, bar none. If you don't believe that, you have no business being one. I close here with something Lopez said about his marriage to the mother of this children, and with which I fully agree:
I chose that commitment in order to protect my children from dealing with harmful drama, even as they grow up to be adults. When you are a parent, ethical questions revolve around your children and you put away your self-interest . . . forever.

7 comments:

Theaterdog said...

Russ, have I told you I think you are brilliant.
Thankyou
Tim

Tim said...

There's yet another tragic example in the UK currently where a grandmother and her 'boyfriend' seem to be guilty of a childs murder. That final statement of commitment from Lopez should be mandatory learning for all parents. A thoughtful post Russ, thanks.

Frank said...

Russ, that was quite the commentary.

It made me think about college philosophy class. We are all "thrown" into existence (Heidegger"s "Geworfenheit" or "throwness") and into environments and circumstances (families, cultures) which we have no control over. It is one of life's mysteries and despite the American vision, we are not all quite "equal" in this life.

My family was far from the ideal: mom spent years in a TB sanatarium, my sister lived with my aunt and uncle while dad and I lived with my grandparents.

I once wrote "Although I could not put it into words at the time, I sensed the unfairness of life’s circumstances. ... I experienced, as if for the first time, a profound difference in the quality and quantity of love that others and I might enjoy depending on the fact of our birth into a particular family.

After some experience with therapy and studying and practicing counseling I eventually came to the over-simplification, based on what I called "The Roseanne Barr" school of therapy: "Get Over It".

Somehow we either "get over it" to a sufficient degree or we are forever enslaved to our imperfect upbringing and genetics. Therapy, blogging, writing, friendships, education, work, help in that process.

But to demonize gay or Lesbian parents as the "kidnap commenter" did is totally without merit. Child rearing environments can not be reduced to: "Heterosexual parents=perfection and love" and "same gender parents=evil and sick".

Continue to be a voice for logic and reason.

Tim said...

Frank, that was quite a comment too.

Russ Manley said...

Tim in France - Not brilliant, just rambling, but glad you like.

Tim in Spain - Yes, sad things like that happen here too. It's a much, much bigger problem than most people realize.

Frank - I agree with all you said, especially the last paragraph. But of course as you and I know, even having two heterosexual parents doesn't guarantee a happy childhood or a Norman Rockwell home life.

Once I was chit-chatting with a friend, a social worker, about "dysfunctional families," and we both agreed that our own families were such. Then I said, but have you ever known of any families anywhere that aren't disfunctional? Neither of us could think of a single one.

So we all have to make the best of what we are born with and the family we are born to. Which isn't always easy, and sometimes we have baggage for a lifetime from all that. But then - so does everybody else, only some of them are better at hiding it than others, you know what I mean?

Grandmère Mimi said...

What eloquent writing about your family life, Russ.

Lopez - well I'm sure it was difficult with his mom and her partner back in the day when acceptance of same-sex relationships was close to non-existent.

Still, I'd like to tell him the story of my wretched childhood with badly mismatched heterosexual parents who stayed together until my sisters and I were grown. We wished they would separate and divorce, so we could be away from our verbally abusive, alcoholic father.

I tried hard to be a good parent, but I know I made a good many mistakes, even as I thought I was doing the right thing.

What Lopez says about putting away self-interest when you become a parent is spot on, but I doubt that it's possible to protect children from all harmful drama.

Russ Manley said...

I think the truth is, everyone's family is a mess, some more so than others. And as I said, some people are better at hiding the fact.

I really do empathize with Lopez, I'm sure in the 70's as the lone child in that clandestine scenario, it was very, very difficult to adjust.

And yet as you and I and millions of others know all too well, even with two thoroughly heterosexual parents, there can still be plenty of "harmful drama" to contend with.

And all parents screw up somewhere along the line. As someone once said to me, it's not about being perfect, it's about being good-enough. Which most people can do if they really want to; though some people are just not cut out for the job.

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