Why can't my mother accept my bisexuality?

Her intolerance breaks my heart.

Published February 3, 2006 11:07AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am 44 years old and female. My mother is 72. I have always been protective of her because when I was growing up my father was verbally and (sometimes) physically abusive. It always seemed to be my duty to protect her from anything that seemed threatening and upsetting, and to some extent I'm still doing it, which is where my quandary comes from.

Around the age of 5 or 6, I began to realize that I was bisexual. I remember being attracted to both boys and girls. I also learned around the same time that my parents did not approve of my attraction to girls, so I learned, like most queer kids, to keep silent. It was especially necessary because my father was and is deeply homophobic. After I finished college I came out to everyone, including most of my family -- except my parents. My relatives actually warned me not to tell them because they would be upset, and since I was living at home, I accepted the bargain. Eventually, however, my father searched my room (he didn't feel that I deserved any privacy in his house) and discovered my porn collection; he wanted to send me for therapy to be cured, whereas I found out the truth of my mother's feelings, which were that I didn't deserve to live or be around children (I was a schoolteacher).

Eventually after my parents separated I fell in love with a man, left home to be with him, and started life on my own. Since then I've been widowed, in love a few times with both men and women, and have had a reasonably happy life. However, because I was born Roman Catholic, the current rulings of the church have caused me to question my long-held silence.

I have worked as a schoolteacher and a college professor, and have been out to pretty much everyone, including students. I'm serially monogamous and I have a decent (though underpaid) life.

Over the years I have told my mother that I've been with women, but every time I've mentioned it, she's acted like it's a horrible secret and that I must be sick in the head or confused, or treated me as if I had undergone some kind of growing phase. Because of her lack of acceptance in the midst of my total support for her emotional needs, we have a rift between us. She says she doesn't understand why I don't invite her over to my home and why I don't tell her about my life, why I seem to be so angry at the Catholic Church. I know I cannot make her accept me, but I feel invisible.

When my best friend and sometime lover died earlier this year, five years after I lost my husband, she was the only person who didn't realize the nature of the bond, even though it was pretty obvious to the rest of my family. Right now I am with a man, but I have nightmares that I may one day meet a woman and fall in love, and that I won't be able to tell my mother and have a full relationship. This is important to me because I am an only child and will probably be caring for my mother as she gets older, and because I truly believe it is a sin to pretend to be what one is not. Because most of the bisexual women I know are in the closet or have completely broken family ties, I'm not sure where to turn for advice; one of my gay male friends called me closeted -- even though I've made far more sacrifices by being out at work than he has, and it really hurt. What should I do?

Bisexual and Not Accepted

Dear Bisexual,

What if someone told you that your mother will never approve of your bisexuality as long as she lives?

Would that be too crushing a blow? Could you accept that, if it were true? Could you accept the possibility of it, even if no one can ever really know for certain? Would that help you stop hoping for something that, however good and right and just and true it would be, may never happen?

On the off chance that it might, let me say it to you: Your mother is never going to accept your bisexuality.

What might that mean for you? Would it mean that your mother doesn't love you? No, not at all. Would it mean that you are no good? No, of course not. Would it mean that you and your mother are incompatible? No. She accepts you as her daughter; she accepts who she thinks you are, who she is capable of believing you are; she accepts the person she believes to be her daughter. She goes as far as she can go. That is all any of us can do: We can only accept what we can imagine and perceive -- what we can let into our heads.

But for some reason your mother cannot let this one fact into her head. She can't admit it to consciousness. It is beyond her ability to embrace this thought.

Accepting this will not, in itself, make everything better. The reason to accept it is so you can move on to a deeper, more profound issue.

We all want our parents' approval as children. This wish, if not granted, often persists into adulthood whether we want it to or not. You are 44 years old and you still ache for your mother's approval. I don't think you're going to get it, but neither do I think it is her acceptance today that is important. This is an old, old wish. It seems to be a remnant, in a way, of a broader and more existential childhood wish.

What I think it represents is the phenomenon of your own childhood trauma, a devastating and tragic denial of your personhood. Yes, this happened to you: Your parents, who were supposed to protect you, understand you, respond to you, help you grow, be there for you, instead attacked you for who you are. And that is a devastating thing for a child. Many people never get over it; they limp through life or they burn down buildings or they carry the abuse into their own careers. You didn't do that. You seem to have become a loving and unconventional person of exceptional strength.

I think you have the strength to fully know this. Unlike your mother, you have the ability to admit painful and disturbing knowledge. That is your task: to fully accept and mourn the failure to be fully accepted and loved as a child.

If you can do that, you need no longer be the powerless child asking for permission and approval from your mother -- permission to be bisexual, permission to doubt, to be true to yourself, permission, as I have said, that you may never receive. If you can do that, then you regain the power of choice. You. Not the church. Not your mother. Not your neighbors. You regain the choice of what to do. You do not have to support your mother in her old age. It would be a good thing to do but you don't have to do it. If you do so it will be because you choose to do it.

Please do not misunderstand me. When I say accept your mother the way she is, I am not saying things won't change. I have no way of knowing whether things will change or not. I have seen things change between children and parents. It happens. I simply suggest that you stop struggling with the relationship and let it be what it is, flawed and wounded, sad and incomplete, but still a powerful bond between mother and daughter.

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