Inside Out-A Mother’s Journey of Acceptance
Inside Out-A Mother’s Journey of Acceptance
I got a text from my 22 year old son. It was a mass text, written to me, my husband (his stepfather), my ex-husband and his wife, plus his 3 big sisters. “I would like to call a family meeting: can everyone meet at Mom and Randy’s house at 1pm on Sunday?” We all replied to the affirmative, knowing that the kids rarely called family meetings, so it must be important.
I called my two best friends to contemplate the reason for the meeting in 5 days. In my mind I knew the answer: I was his mom and Moms always know.
“Maybe he is dropping out of college one offered”. “Perhaps he got a girl pregnant.” We all laughed, remembering the partying year Caleb had while away at college his first year. It was a miracle he didn’t get a girl pregnant then. No one made a joke about jail, because Caleb was such a gentle sensitive soul, it wasn’t even on the radar. And lastly, “maybe he eloped.”
My four kids were in the habit of having a sibling night on Monday nights in the recent past. I was sure my kids shared all their secrets with each other and I was fairly certain that Sunday’s meeting was serious and that my girls already knew what it was about. Respecting this, I did not query the girls, but let them guard the truth, whatever it was.
Sunday dawned bright and brilliant as it generally does in Arizona. Randy and I went to church because I needed to get some God on me as my sage friend would say. I needed fortification and that meant having my heart in the right place.
Church that day just happened to be at our best friend’s church, because there was a child baptism for their son. I felt calm and buffeted by the love of my friends. We were gathered to celebrate her son. During the dedication I was reminded about Caleb’s baby dedication, where his dad and I wrote him a letter about our hopes and dreams for him. How ironic to be in the same type of ceremony on the very day my son was going to give us a big announcement about his life as it was now.
The clock ticked on: time absolutely dragged. Why was I so worried? Where was the confidence in my son and his judgment thus far? He was a fantastic kid: it was all going to be okay.
My ex and his wife got to our house early. We all exchanged theories but nobody gave voice to what I was thinking. If I didn’t say it, then it wouldn’t be real.
At 1:00 pm a lone vehicle pulled into our driveway. The two sets of parents gaze out the window while all four kids climb out, one by one. I feel an impending sense of doom and say, “Obviously the girls know and are here for reinforcement: he must be really nervous to speak to us.”
They walk in a single line as if marching in time to a funeral dirge. Slowly, carefully, they file in; a wariness in their eyes. My stomach is starting to cramp, my breathing shallow, and I feel dizzy. We have a sunken living room just inside the entry door to the right. The steps are 10 feet wide, long, tiled, cold, and shallow. Caleb sits on the top step flanked by two of my daughters. The oldest one sits adjacent to me, perched on a footstool coffee table. She is the oldest and in character: clearly in charge. They are serious, all waiting for some agreed upon cue. Us parents are each equally quiet, taking in the scene set before us.
Caleb has his knees up, his long 6’4” frame awkward on the shallow steps. His forearms are resting on his upper thighs, but he is ill at ease. He is shaking on the outside just as I am on the inside. It’s heart breaking to see how nervous he is. The little voice within me whispers: here it is; your fear is about to be spoken. I glance at my husband, who appears to be nearly as unsettled as I am. My ex and his wife are open, without worry creasing their brows. They appear to be ready for whatever “it” is. The girls are all gazing at the parents, gauging our faces, waiting to give the cue. They feel like a wall: one false move and they’ll close in around Caleb. The siblings are united and I’m taking comfort in the fact that one strong desire I had for my kids came to fruition: they really truly love each other.
My first daughter speaks. She is the matriarch to be of this family and I can tell she’s going to rule fairly and well. The rules are given by her. We are to listen, not interrupt, and when Caleb is finished speaking, they are all going to leave so that we may filter and not say anything we’ll regret.
Somehow I get the feeling that missile was aimed for me. My kids know I can stick my foot in my mouth faster than anyone. We all nod our acquiescence as one. It is time.
My oldest gives Caleb a nod and he clears his throat. His voice is quiet, cracking, his face red, and he looks like he is about to vomit. The air is still as if no one is breathing. We are collectively waiting for “it” to drop.
He addresses the parents as a group: we are all lined up on the couch. He clears his throat. “I don’t know how to say this, so maybe the best way is to just get it out.” Tears form in his eyes and his stepmom, sisters, and I well up right along with him even though he hasn’t said what “it” is yet. Taking a deep calming breath, as sister #2 squeezes his arm encouragingly and sister #3 scootches a bit closer, he continues. “I am gay.”
I break the rules and say “I know.” Daughter #1 gives me the look, so I clamp down and bite my tongue. “I have been struggling with this for some time, but I need to be true to myself: I can’t hide it anymore. For the past 2 ½ years I quit trying to deny who I am. I really tried to not be gay. I thought maybe I should get married and have kids and that maybe I could make it go away. I’m still the same person I’ve always been. I’m just not living a lie anymore. That’s all I’m going to say for now.” He managed to spit it all out quickly, as if he had memorized his speech.
Matriarch Daughter #1 speaks up, as the other two girls are sticking to Caleb like glue. They are his fortress. “That’s all we’re going to say for now: we want you to filter this. So, we’re going to all leave now. We don’t want you saying anything you’ll regret.”
This got my ex and his wife on their feet closely followed by Randy and I. We were all appalled they’d think we’d say anything harmful. Love was first and foremost in all the parent’s minds. Stepmom gave the first embrace, closely followed by his dad. I get very misty-eyed seeing them express their love for the son we all know is so lovable. Randy and I also wrapped him in our arms while declaring undying love and we all say it didn’t matter.
I don’t even recall who said it, but the point was strongly made: the kids did not have to leave, we were not upset, and nothing had changed. He was still our son and we loved him: Period!
The girls share with us that when he told them on sibling night he had something to announce, they all tried to guess. Not one of them figured out he was gay. Perhaps I didn’t mention: Caleb is very masculine in appearance: not what people would expect a stereotypical gay man to look like. He dresses like a jock, speaks in a deep manly voice, he isn’t an administrative assistant, only cooks a few things, and does not have a green thumb. The stereotype we all had in our minds was nothing more than a preconceived notion.
The girls say that they fired questions at Caleb for over 3 hours when he told them. Now we were invited to ask away.
When I get nervous, I speak and make stupid one line jokes. My nerves were in high gear. I was ill at ease, devastated, and yet full of love and somehow at peace toward my son: all at once. My blabbering blathering side came out and the questions just rolled out: one after another. In fact, the other parents didn’t seem to have many questions, not that they could have gotten one in had they wanted to. I wanted to understand “it”, and since the floor was open to questions and I knew I was only full of love toward Caleb, I didn’t think the questions would be anything other than normal curiosity.
“Was your mother overbearing?” A spatter of giggles echo in the room. “Were you molested as a child?” Caleb immediately shook his head, smiling mildly at my feeble attempts, “No Mother, I was not molested.” I knew I was on shaky ground: he only called me “Mother” when he was annoyed with me.
“Have you had sex with girls?” He nodded to the affirmative. “At college your freshman year: is that when you lost your virginity?” Another nod, while everyone else in the room was looking at me aghast. I was feeling proud of myself at that point, because it proved I knew my son. “Was the sex okay with girls, or, well, did you have, ah, problems?” A collective three syllable “Mooommm” rang through the room from the girls while my ex was shaking his head in disbelief.
His dad said, “Are you asking him if he had performance problems?” Now it was my turn to nod. Caleb stated with an exasperated tone, “No, Mother I did not: I just happen to be attracted to males.”
“If you are coming out, then you must be in a relationship: do you mind telling us about him?” I swallowed hard wanting to appear open minded and cool. “I mean, how did you meet him or any guy for that matter? How?” The kids AND the other parents all laugh at my innocence. I literally had to call my best friend later and ask her, only to have her yell at me, “Jody!!!!! They can meet on line; gay bars; the grocery store; anywhere!” Boy did I feel dumb! I wanted to thump my palm against my forehead and childishly stomp my foot and say “Duh!”
“Have you dated other guys besides this one?” and a Motherly cautionary tale. “It is known to be a promiscuous lifestyle” (Little did I know that my son interpreted this as “Are you a slut?”) When I heard that later, I was mortified. It had never even entered my head, and I had neglected to realize that he was still nervous and probably very much on the defensive.
There were a few more questions from the others in the room. Daughter #2 said, “That’s it: that’s all you have to say? You’re not curious to know more?”
We all looked at each other and shook our heads to the negative. The mood in the room lightened and we all began to smile, joke, and laugh as was typical of our family gatherings. The girls teased Caleb saying he’d better not start dressing like a queen. He laughed and said that wasn’t going to happen and if he did, they had his permission to slap him silly.
I could feel myself going into emotional letdown: that period where the breathing regulates, the body cools off as the heart rate slows. My brain function was returning and with it my tongue slowed down. The introspection began even before the kids left. I was still anxious: anxious that Caleb wouldn’t understand how much we all cared, or feel that our love had changed somehow.
Right before they left, I remember saying to him and the room that I was relieved. Silently I thought I was relieved it was in the open, relieved we didn’t have to step around the elephant in the room, relieved to not fear offending him if I mentioned dating girls, relieved I wouldn’t offend him if I asked if he was gay. (I had asked before and received denials: it was before he gave up his fight). Relief and fear: an unhappy pairing and not a healthy one. I was relieved he didn’t come out until he was 22: well, 20 if you go by when he knew he was gay. The thought of him being a 14 year old boy in high school, bullied by hurtful people would have turned my mother’s heart inside out. Kids and adults can be cruel: I knew Caleb was going to experience this but I was thankful that he was old enough to face it for what it was: ignorance.
This might be the time where you want to judge me. For instance, you may be wondering why was I afraid? Why did I care if he was gay? Right or wrong, as a Mom I had plans: plans for my first and only boy, just as I had plans for each of my baby girls. At that point I was not gifted with hindsight, when life becomes oh so clear as we gaze upon it in our rear-view mirrors. Hindsight can heal, but it can also destroy, too. If we live in the what-ifs, then we are defeated.
I needed to process this information. I had to get past the “if-only’s”. I needed to curl up and be by myself and think: just be, think some more, pray, and puzzle it all out. For three days, I withdrew into myself and allowed myself to remember and to feel.
It was a planned caesarean-section. I was to be under conscious sedation. The drugs for the operation brought my motor mouth to life. The doctor told me to “chill”. (Probably his code to the anesthetist to snow me some more.) In my haze, I heard someone say “It’s a boy. You have an 8 lb 5 oz baby boy.” A myriad of thoughts danced through my mind with this announcement. First and foremost, though, the anesthetic drugs spoke. “It’s a boy? Let me see his testicles!”
For me, seeing was going to be believing. How many times in the past had I prided myself on knowing the child growing within my swollen belly? A woman could intuit these things: my firstborn was a boy, his name was Benjamin, and he was going to be the first of two children: a boy and a girl. Benjamin’s name was Amy, he was a petite little beautiful baby girl, and he was the first of four children. “How in the world?” I had wondered. I had carried low, out front, and ate protein. That meant boy: everyone said so!
The nurses obliged my request that on the surface may have seemed a little crude. The testicles were both accounted for, along with the ten fingers and toes. Satisfied, I handed the still slimy bundle back to the nurse so she could run his Apgar scores. He was an unbelievable 9 out of 10. With the Apgar scoring system, the nurses check for 5 major categories, scoring each from 0-2. Crying fell under the respiration category. He got a solid 2 on that one.
Once this wondrous baby was bathed and swaddled like a burrito with a blue cap, he was held up in pride by his dad while the family looked on in rapt joy. My mother-n-law wanted to verify I was correct and that all toes were present. Once the blanket was unwrapped, the still diaperless boy created a gasp from his second oldest sister, 8 years old. She exclaimed, “What are those circle things?” Proudly, I answered, “his testicles honey”. Satisfied, big sister #2 didn’t question any further. Big sister #1 turned a brilliant red and looked heavenward. Big sister #3 ran around the room and cried for her pacifier.
The anesthesia and morphine began to work its way out of my body and all those plans came rushing back. In the operating room it was as if his entire life had paraded before me. I knew exactly what his life would look like: it had worked that way for the girls in the past 13 years, so it would be easy to point my son to the path he would take as well.
First and foremost he needed a name. My husband and I did have a boy’s name selected even though we were not very confident about my ability to predict the sex by this time. We had refused the technology available to tell us the sex and enjoyed the anticipation of not knowing, not to mention the good natured ribbing at my expense, to predict the sex. Since our last name was common, we decided to find a unique name. We called him Caleb. It meant something strong and masculine, which is what he would be.
The golden child began to grow and quickly displayed he had a mind of his own. He was so unbelievably sensitive. (My nephew had been that way and my sister assured me this would pass).
We secretly called him the whiner when he was out of earshot. Sister #2 would promptly scoop Caleb up whenever he cried. I said, “Don’t pick him up every time he cries, or he’ll start doing it whenever he wants attention.” Plaintively, she argued, “But he’s so cute when he cries!”
One time the girls, ages 16, 12, and 5 were painting Caleb’s fingernails and putting barrettes in his hair. I was not pleased. “Stop that, girls: you don’t want to do that to him: he’s a boy and boys do not wear nail polish and barrettes in their hair.” “But Mom”, my oldest said, “It’s just clear polish!” They could not fathom why I was upset.
A few years later I called my sister; “He’s still whining! When did you say that cute nephew of mine quit?” She replied, “He was nine years old.”
“Nine years old: are you kidding?” I was dismayed. Caleb was seven years old and I thought that was a world breaker. I tried everything to tough the whiner out of my son. When he whined for no apparent reason, I would offer an ear just in case all was not well with his world and he needed to tell me something. But, the whining would go on: no apparent reason.
I thought maybe he had too many sisters and was getting influenced by all things girls, although I soothed myself with the thought that he hated girl toys. He only liked balls: basketballs, volleyballs, anything cylindrical. Hmmm, I wonder if it had to do with my obsession of his testicles when he was born.
In the meantime, his dad and I had divorced, but remained committed to our family and to maintaining a solid friendship between us. We loved our children and wanted them to know that. Our pact was never to speak ill of each other and to co-parent.
My ex thought getting Caleb into sports would help toughen him up. We started with ice hockey for Caleb and figure skating for our youngest daughter. The other two girls were in college and high school. Daughter #3 loved the figure skating and soon began skating circles around Caleb. On the hockey team, Caleb was always the last across the line: no fighter instinct.
Next we tried t-ball, then flag football. Caleb got confused in t-ball, and lacked the fighter instinct in football. He was tall for his age; 9 years old by this time. His whining magically disappeared just as my sister predicted, but his competitive streak remained absent.
Several years before I had given my ex physical joint custody of my son thinking I was somehow ruining him. Maybe his dad would do better than me at navigating his way through boydom.
My flawed thinking also justified that my youngest daughter, a true Daddy’s girl, would also benefit. And he and his new wife were good parents; just what he needed; stern, and holding him accountable. I worked at being a united front in the parenting world and we moved forward.
We did what many parents did, each year we tried something new. At age 11, Caleb joined the basketball team at his middle school. He was the second tallest boy. Each time up and down the court, Caleb would continuously yank at the uniform tank shirt to pull it back up. He was distracted, uninterested, and became a bench warmer on the B Team more than a fulltime player. My heart hurt for him, but mercifully he didn’t appear to notice that he wasn’t as good as the other kids. His sisters were there cheering him on at all of his endeavors and I expanded with love for how wonderful they were.
Band was something else. In the Arizona school system, band instruction in the public schools began in the fifth grade. Band was something Caleb enjoyed. He was competing against himself rather than another team. He played trumpet (oh the joys of those first practice sessions), and then alto saxophone.
In the meantime, Caleb’s dad took him golfing. Another win: Caleb loved it. We finally had the key to Caleb’s competitiveness and finding his passion. Caleb was an anxious boy and if we removed anxiety from the mix and let him compete in an activity where he could improve by doing his personal best, then he could relax and enjoy himself.
Wonder of wonders, he excelled at golf, tennis, and then volleyball. It was as if a savant was born.
Ultimately volleyball became this kid’s world. He ended up leading his high school team to two championships, won the athlete of the year for the State of Arizona, and took a trophy for all of the Southwestern United States for best setter in a tournament. What a guy!
By then the girls were gaga for him. I still remember when he was in the 8th grade and we were attending a science fair at his school. The girls were overt in their sexuality, hanging on Caleb from that point forward. It had bugged me because these girls looked like they were 16 rather than 12 and 13. Now I had to have “the talk” with him again to remind him that if he had sex there could be consequences such as unexpected pregnancies. And yeah, that didn’t go so good: he informed me he knew all about that and didn’t need to hear it again. But I had to try, right? I mean, the first time I brought up the talk, he told me he was too young to hear about that. I couldn’t win!
I still had my plans for my son. Originally, we had hoped he’d change the world by becoming a minister, or make our backs feel better in our old age by going to school to be a Chiropractor, or maybe use his amazing mathematical mind to design rockets. (This kid memorized Pi to the 125th power in one night when he was 11 years old, just because it was a contest presented by his teacher.)
But here is the moral to the story. Kids are only our kids for a time. They become their own person and no amount of hovering, smothering, wishing, planning, and plotting will change their DNA.
I was flawed and because of it my world turned inside out when my son admitted that he was gay.
Why? Because I always knew he was gay in my heart of hearts, yet I spent his entire childhood trying to form him into something else. Caleb says he was born that way. It wasn’t an event or an attitude that made him gay. He simply was.
During the 3 days I had hunkered down at home to absorb my emotions, I put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Yes, Caleb was gay. Yes, he had new battles to fight: equal rights for gays, gay marriage, rights of gays to adopt, equal custodial rights as same sex parents, and for people to see him as a person and not for what happens behind closed doors in the privacy of his bedroom.
He was a boy, but on the day he called our family meeting, he became a man.
The man is sensitive and full of compassion for any human being who has ever been wronged. He is not afraid to cry. He is kind to animals. He is a respectful son. He is a loyal friend. He has an amazing amount of love for each of his sisters. He understands their emotions because he experiences emotions, too, and knows how to be empathetic.
If that is what being gay is, then I’m happy to shout it from the rooftops: I have a son, his name is Caleb, and he is gay: I will not change him!