Parents, children and acceptance

Why do we want better relationships?  What kind of a world do we want to live in, and have for our friends and family?

I’m out of town, working as an interpreter today, and one of the lawyers approaches me and tells me that we must have had shared experience.  My hair is red and his used to be.  He endured terrible bullying at school because of it.  I tell him that mine is red by choice and he still feels that kinship – that sense of belonging that we all seek.  He insists that we’ve met before and I haven’t been to this area in over ten years, but it’s possible that it happened before that.

Since I was very young, I’ve been attracted to people who are marginalized.  I had a father who usually cheered for the underdog and was before his time on women’s rights and abilities, equality, self-defence, other cultures, anti-colonization and education – at least philosophically.  He took every opportunity to teach us about injustice in this world.

…. and yet, I don’t remember hearing much about bullying, or unconditional acceptance.

I work as an American Sign Language Interpreter in the Deaf community and as a psychotherapist with deaf and hearing people.  I am privileged to be invited into private places in people’s lives.  I am continually bombarded with examples of bullying and non-acceptance by families because their child has a difference.  This is the very place where we should be safest and able to “be ourselves”.

Having raised two children of my own, and running group and foster homes for several years, I have realized that parents have an extremely difficult task: they are to love and support their child for who the child is, not in spite of their differences, but because of them.  We really struggle with this concept of embracing diversity, especially within our homes.  Many of us haven’t had our own opportunity to experience this level of acceptance, and are living out our dreams vicariously through our children, as our parents did with us – not what children were intended to do and be.

This is exacerbated when we discover a noticeable difference in our child that differentiates them from us.  For some parents, that will be a child who has different dreams and perspectives on life.  For others, that will be a child who has a different kind of ability.  For others, it will involve sexual orientation.  It may be something else entirely.  Our inability to release our own dreams for our children and embrace their dreams for themselves, is very damaging for them.  This work is, perhaps, our most significant contribution to their growth into whole, contented, loved and loving human beings.  Doing it well is a struggle.

It’s my personal experience that when you decide to bring another life into the world, there is a lot of imagining, excitement and promise in this act.  We make plans and prepare, and engage this new life, while our dreams and hopes take on a life of their own.  We believe in them too much.

When your child comes to you and says, “I’m gay” or “I want to be an artist” or the doctor says, “your child is deaf”, how you respond immediately and over the long-term will have a huge impact.  Grieving our lost dreams is work we should do as parents. For some children, who have been aware of their distinctiveness early in life, they have never felt like they “fit” their family.  They have lived on the outside, looking in.  Many have been provided for in practical ways, but have always felt the disconnect or the disappointment that plays in the background.

As I’m writing this, a lesbian friend is out of town at her mother’s funeral.  Her partner isn’t welcome there.  Her whole family is homophobic and although her mother died from cancer, she’s been told by family that she’s responsible for her mother’s death, because her disclosure of her sexual orientation was stressful.  You shouldn’t have to work out a safety plan to go to your mom’s funeral.

I have a dear friend, who’s been staying with me, who’s in a new relationship with someone who’s learned to be guarded with his family.  He’s sneaking him into the house while parents are out or away, and has finally worked up the courage to tell his mom about this new relationship.  Her response was tight-lipped, “Where did you meet?” and, “Be careful”.  I wonder if her other, straight son hears the same words from her when he chooses to share that he’s in love.  When your child tells you they’re in love, this should be a moment of joy for the family.  I feel he struggles with this lack of acceptance, and see how this ripples into my friend’s life, reactivating similar experiences of lost hope, while he strives to be present with his new partner in his situation.

I’m told of a couple, together over 20 years, who is struggling with an upcoming family reunion.  The son wants to go, but his partner is resistant.  They are told regularly that they are being prayed for, daily, to break them up.  The partner is blamed for “turning” the son gay.  They have the longest relationship of all the siblings.  You should not have to steel yourself to go and be with family.

In the late 1990s, I heard Jack Layton talk about the love he witnessed and experienced at funerals during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s.  He said that you couldn’t call that love and acceptance wrong.  It was a wonderful affirmation to hear this message.  We hear this all too seldom.

Life is full of challenges and obstacles.  If there weren’t any, we would never grow.  What would the world be like if we had a lot less people self-medicating for depression that stems from lack of acceptance, and the inability to find a place to belong?  Suppose we start doing our own work as parents, of healing our hurts so that we can be the kind of parents who embrace the differences in our children, allowing them to grow and be who they were intended to be, in all their glory.  How much richness we would gain!

That’s the kind of world where I want to live and that I dream of for my friends, children, family, clients, and in fact all of humanity.

Wendy Kirk is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit http://www.therapytoronto.ca/wendy_kirk.phtml.