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The Kids Are All Right ... What About the Parents?

The Kids Are All Right ... What About the Parents?

Loving your adult children, even when they don’t do it your way

All of us have dreams for our children. Usually, we hope they’ll turn out a lot like us...only better. We spend years raising them, passing along our values, encouraging their independence, and crossing our fingers. Mostly, we hope they will make choices that bring us joy. When they do not, it can often be crushing.  

Where did I go wrong? “It’s the first thing parents say when a child makes a disappointing decision,” says Jane Adams, psychologist and author of When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us. “The answer is that you probably did nothing wrong. Many parents fail to understand how different their children’s world is—culturally, economically, technologically, socially. This leads them to make different choices. They choose their own brand of happiness, not ours. There isn’t anything a parent can do except learn to live with it.”

Such acceptance may be more difficult, of course, when children engage in activities that are illegal or harmful to themselves or others. But what if the differences that disturb us are genetic? 

Out of the Closet 

“The same movie plays in our heads as our kids are growing up—they’ll be straight, they’ll marry someone wonderful and live in a house with a white picket fence,” says Helaine Barth (all names of parents and children are pseudonyms), a divorced mother who works in the financial industry. “Then all of a sudden our kids are 18, 19 years old or sometimes older, and they give us this revelation, and it’s a huge change from what we were expecting.”

Here’s how the movie changed for this mother. “My son Jason was home on a break from college and I happened to ask him about a girl I thought he had a crush on. A very beautiful girl and talented dancer. He turned to me and said, ‘Mom, she and I are really good friends, but, actually, I’m gay.’ 

“I’ll remember that moment forever. The first thing I said was, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’m absolutely sure.’ So I just said ‘I love you and I’m glad you told me, and everything will be all right.’ But I was not all right. I really struggled with this. The first thoughts I had were: Will he be hurt? Will he get AIDS? Will he have a good life? I had no one to talk to. For a while, I had this ridiculous idea that I was the only mother in Manhattan who had a gay son.”

Accepting the news came about in stages. “The first was shock and disappointment,” says Helaine. “You know, having children is sometimes all about ourselves. We love our children’s achievements because they reflect well on us, and Jason was a wonderful kid. This was the first thing in his life that I did not consider wonderful.”

The second stage was acquiring knowledge. “One day, I came upon an article in the Times,” she recalls. “It mentioned an organization named PFLAG. (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). I started going to meetings where I met others who shared this common experience. The people were happy. They were acting normal. I began to believe that Jason could have a good life. The third stage was recognizing that Jason had no choice in his decision, but I did. My choice was to be part of his life. It was a tremendous learning experience about what it means to be a parent.”