Lots of Ways to be QueerMy son used to worry that I was a simpleton. He wasn’t consumed with worry over my intellectual capacity, but he often said things -- between ages three and six -- that led me to believe he doubted my common sense. Indeed, my sense was not common, and I foolishly thought that I could just impose my ideas on him. I could influence him as I chose because I was in charge of his socialization. Who better to steward his reality? Isn’t that what every parent thinks?
Most often, parents are not going too much against the cultural grain in their parenting -- (at least not without the righteous explanation of God’s will). My big arguments with mainstream culture don’t regard religious doctrine at all. I just don’t appreciate the consumer culture as much as some, nor many the rituals we follow for bonding kith and kin. Oh, and don’t get me started on the poor quality foodstuffs that dominate American menus.
But wow, start tinkering with what you eat and see if people don’t think you’re a freak really quickly. So, yes, my son noticed that some of our family habits weren’t “normal.” At least the ones I handed him. Though I never fed him meat, for example, other family members and friends did. And it’s not like I never took him out for junk food, it just wasn’t as usual an occurrence as for some of his friends. Rather than assigning me as a freak, or thinking I was maliciously ruining his access to a good Happy Meal, he started to believe that I just didn’t understand the ways of the world. He started to pity me a bit -- the mama is such a simpleton, his little face would say, as I handed him his vegetarian sandwich on organic whole wheat bread when everyone else was eating ham and cheese on Wonder bread. Once, when I sat at the table eating a piece of carob tofu pie on a couscous crust -- which looks mightily like something sweet and chocolaty -- he bounced up and enthusiastically said, “I want a bite!”
I put a forkful into his sweet five-year-old mouth and as he chewed and swallowed, his face dropped a bit.
Now, I’m not making this up.
Rather than shrieking at the surprise, he just looked dismayed and said, “That’s not good.” Then he shook his head and added patiently, “and poor thing… you don’t know.” Really, he wasn’t angry with me for withholding a more normal dessert, he seemed to pity my misunderstanding of the beautiful world around me.
Benevolent though he was, his patience was tested by my ways. And finally, he got mad. We parents never know what will send our kids to therapy when they’re thirty. I’ve realized over the years that some of my darker memories of bad parenting simply weren’t that memorable to him. But some of the things I did and said rather flippantly -- or even with good intentions -- really upset him. By the time he was in middle school, for example, he was seriously pissed off about our lack of “normal” Christmas celebrations. In particular, he longed for a proper Christmas tree.
And I thought I’d done so well in this department! But as it turns out, no. In seventh grade he was asked to write a school paper about a holiday tradition and his account of our family Christmases was scathing. As I read the paper and listened to him talk it through, I thought, holy moly! This is a biggie! I didn’t even know.
I just didn’t know how hard he was taking it until that seventh grade paper. At first I was surprised and argued, “But we always had a tree!”
He glared mercilessly and said, “That giant tumble weed you spray-painted gold and dusted with glitter for us to decorate was NOT a Christmas tree.”
Damn. I thought that was a really good one. Turns out, I was mistaken, at least according to him. And there’s no point in arguing. I could’ve done a better job at noticing that he wanted really badly to participate in a fairly harmless cultural ritual. I didn’t have to use the holiday as a platform for my own artistic expression. Let me just say it now. I’m sorry, son. I never should’ve made you decorate that white tree all in pink feather boas and little red apples either. I’m sorry. I just didn’t see your pain.
In a lot of other regards, I’m not sorry to have modeled difference, and a consideration of broader social issues. My son, now attending university, works part time at the food co-op and probably understands more about the inter-relationships between local food production, economy and environment than I do. And he’s not a mindless conformist when it comes to race and gender roles in our fair land either, because sometimes, things can be pretty unfair. He’s a thinker, and a participant -- a cultural creator. That’s what I want for all of us, really. I’m so happy for him.
So let your freak flags fly as parents. There are lots of ways to be queer. You really are in charge of how your kids see the world at first, and this is no time to slack off! At the same time, choose carefully where to stand your ground and where to gently surrender. Make sure there’s enough joy in your family endeavors to go around.
Kimberly Dark is a mother, professor and an award-winning writer and performer. Her favorite son is a senior at UC Berkeley and she’s grateful that traveling to perform allows her to spend time with him often. Visit www.kimberlydark.com.
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