Paige Schilt

Queer Family Romance

Filed By Paige Schilt | October 20, 2010 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: lesbian parent, lgbt parent, parenting, queer family, Queer Parenting

On Wednesdays, I pick Waylon up from school at 2:45. oedipal.bmpI have fifteen minutes to walk him to the car, feed him a snack, hydrate him, and deliver him to his occupational therapy appointment a mile away. If all goes exactly according to plan, we can just make it.

Last Wednesday, Waylon was in the backseat, munching a bagel. I had my right turn signal on and was waiting for an opening in the late afternoon traffic.

"Sometimes," he said, apropos of nothing, "I just wish I could kind of, you know, ditch you guys and live with some other family."

My first reaction was guilt. It's the clutter, I thought. We've finally driven him crazy with all of our books and papers. Now he wants to live in a family with tidy surfaces.

"Well," I said, grasping for equanimity, "Mommy and I would certainly miss you if you went away."

"I know," he said. "It's just, sometimes I really want to know how it feels to have a dad."

A car paused to let me in. I waved my thanks and went straight into fix-it mode. "Well, that's one reason why we wanted you to spend so much time with Adam and Flynn this summer. So you could know what it was like to be around a dad."

"I want to know what it feels like to have a dad at night," he insisted.

"You've had sleepovers," I countered. I knew I was grasping at straws. I couldn't stop myself.

"I just want to know how it feels to have a dad love me like a dad," Waylon said.

"Oh," I said. I was chastened by his persistence and clarity. "I can understand that."

Still searching for solutions, I did a quick mental inventory of Waylon's grandfathers: (1) 83-year-old retired coach who never leaves the bed. Great for watching football and collecting photos of Waylon on his bureau. (2) Younger, gay grandpa. Affectionate and sweet as long as he's not distracted with booze and boys. Prone to disappearing on mysterious "business" trips for weeks at a time.

"Waylon," I said, turning left at a green arrow. "I can really understand how you feel. I used to sometimes wish I had different parents too."

"You did?" he sounded excited, enlivened.

"Yes," I said. "I think every kid wants to know how it would feel to have different parents some times."

"They do?" he was suddenly chipper. "Mom?"

"Yes?"

"You know that part on Harry Potter Wii where Harry has to defeat the troll?"

We pulled into the parking lot of the occupational therapy center. Our journey was over, but I hoped that this conversation was not. I hoped I hadn't silenced Waylon's feelings with my knee-jerk problem solving. I wanted to do it all over, to ask Waylon what kind of dad he imagined, to let him know that his yearning was fine and wouldn't hurt me.

Freud coined the term "family romance" to describe the childhood fantasy that your parents are not your real parents. He hypothesized that such stories are a normal way of dealing with separation and Oedipal jealousy. But a romance is also just a type of story. As a queer family, we're making up our own story. I hope we can tell it in ways that make room for all kinds of feelings--even if it means we have to go back and tell it again and again.


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Paige Listerud | October 20, 2010 8:37 PM

I feel sorry for him. He'll never know what its like to worship your dad like a hero, only to become disillusioned by the discovery that he's only a fallible human being. He'll never know what it's like trying to live up to dad's expectations--which might not be dad's expectations after all. He'll never struggle with that weird thing dads and sons do when they try to best each other.

Actually, I'm being facetious. I envy him. He's got great moms.

"love me like a dad" And what exactly does that mean? What does it mean to love someone like a dad and how is that different than other sorts of family love? That's how I would counter. People who fantasize about things like this tend to have really bizarre notions about what such a relationship would be, like how only children who yearn for siblings tend to present a notion of sibling relationships that is almost never actually seen amoung those with siblings. "If I had a sister, we would do X, Y, Z and we would feel W way about it." "Oh, really, because none of the sisters that I know do those things together and feel that way about it." It is one of those grass is always greener things.

Hey Projectors,

After I had the idea for this post, I did a little research to see what had been written about LGBT families and the idea of family romance. I came across Ken Corbett's book, Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities and, in particular his chapter called "Nontraditional Family Reverie," which is based on a case study of his work with a lesbian couple and their son. Here's one of the parts I really liked:

"At the heart of my work with Ellen and RJ were our efforts to understand how Andy could find a way to contemplate his anxiety about their difference and endure his experiences of shame and hate. RJ, Ellen, and I spent a lot of time talking about how they could use their minds to 'hold' Andy: they could hold and contain Andy's emotional states, both good and bad; they could reflect on the feeling; they could contemplate and work to resist their urge to immediately protect or disavow the bad feelings. We strove to grasp how children can sometimes be ruthless in their pursuit of their feelings and needs, and how they need their parents to survive such onslaughts."

There are lots of kids of single Moms that have fantasized about having a Dad too. It's not just a queer family thing.

I didn't know my Dad when I was little. Even though I had uncles and a large extended family, I still wondered about having a Dad.

That's so true--wishing for a dad isn't just a queer family thing. However, I imagine that there's a particular set of feelings common to same-gender-loving parents when their kid wishes for an opposite gender parent--especially because we get so many hateful messages from people like James Dobson, who assert (again and again, despite all the research to the contrary) that children need a man and a woman to be healthy and whole. Of course, people who spread misinformation about queer families are usually also spreading misinformation about other families that don't fit their white, heterosexual, patriarchal, middle class norm.

beachcomberT | October 21, 2010 6:32 AM

Having a dad present and involved in a household does make a difference. It was one way I was able to endure a bipolar mom as a kid, although seeing my father constantly henpecked and go into silent mode probably screwed up my head, anyway. My ex-wife had her own set of problems: a biological dad who divorced the mother early and never stayed in touch with his kids, and a stepfather who focused more on gambling than the family. Her need for lots of male nurturing, plus my latent streak of misogyny, helped break apart our marriage. (Strange how these things become so much clearer after the fact, with or without therapy). Your strategy of having male friends serve as surrogate uncles for your son sounds like a good plan to me. But if his biological father is missing, there is going to be some emotional scar tissue nonetheless.

"I want to know what it feels like to have a dad at night," he insisted.

and...

"I just want to know how it feels to have a dad love me like a dad," Waylon said.

While I empathize with the intent of the story, I gotta tell you, this reads like a work of fiction. What kid talks like that? What kid says, "I just want to know how it feels to have a dad love me like a dad"? It sounds like a mediocre screenwriter.

Edward
California

In my experience, adults tend to underestimate children's emotional complexity and their ability to articulate what they are feeling given the chance. I don't know what else to tell you: those lines are exactly what Waylon said. I felt like it was seared on my memory, because it was like having a conversation I always dreaded and surviving it.

Edward, I've actually had the privilege of meeting Waylon and I can tell you that he does indeed talk like that and articulate those kind of thoughts and emotions clearly. I remember once visiting and then going straight to my sister's house to visit my nephew who was the same age. The differences in the two were astounding. I think that Waylon is definitely a product of his amazing parents who take his emotional IQ as seriously as mental IQ.

Great article, Paige. You model what it's like to be a wonderful mother, as well as just a wonderful person to know. I find it rare sometimes to find someone who will just let you express what you're feeling without trying to counteract it or fix it.

I'd agree. I've met Waylon and he's a very intelligent little boy. He does talk like that. :)

We had a similar situation with Paige. Instead of wanting a dad, she really craved the love of a mom. While we surrounded her with female role models, her mom was available and just willingly checked out of her life. At least Waymon doesn't have to deal with the outright rejection Paige went through.

I agree with A down thread - Waylon will never be able to say, "I wish I had a mom who cared about how I felt." :)

Knowing this family, I'm pretty certain most, if not all, of the words written are as close as possible to exactly what came out of their mouths.

Paige, I think you did great. We all yearn for what's not there--whether it's a father, or a sibling, or the ubiquitous "someone who understands me." Good for you for creating a world where Waylon feels safe enough to tell you what he's feeling, even if it's "I wish I could ditch you."

I wish you could be MY mom!!!

Paige,

We're a 2-Dad family with a 4 1/2 year old (son) - Jules.

Recently Jules asked if he had a mom (we've talked about this several times thruout his young life, but apparently he's somewhat interested now.)

I think your delayed response - 'I used to imagine having different parents too' - was a good one.

As you mentioned, just listening and letting your son express himself would have been even better.

I hope my husband and I are as steady in our response as you became in yours.

We do tend to forget that all kids, no matter the family structure, experience similar feelings about their parents and themselves.

Children share these same emotions, even in a more traditional family format.

Thanks for sharing on a topic very close to my heart and my family.

Wonderful piece, Paige. I couldn't agree more--it's so important to acknowledge such feelings from our children. I think it's something that many (most?) children of LGBT parents explore at some point. It doesn't mean they will reject the parents who are raising them; I think part of it is natural curiosity and a way of figuring out who they are in the world.

We as LGBT parents can get defensive when all our children are doing is exploring and wondering, without any sense of the long struggle needed for us even to be able to have families.

I agree with Aubrey, though--I think your first response was good, even if there are followup conversations to be had.

FWIW, we're big on Harry Potter Wii over at our house right now too....

i wish my mom didnt neglect me, I wish my Dad had been there. I wonder what it would have been like to have my extended family nearby, Yeah, we all do wonder about how things would be different. Perfectly normal. Not "wrong" and i think you validated his feelings...

you are a great mom - to do that

he will never have to say- I wish i had a mom who cared about how i felt

I also wondered a lot what it would be like to have a different family when I was a kid, and my parents were great. I didn't think it had much to do with an oedipal complex at the time, though....

I think your response (while negotiating traffic and a deadline!) was great. We're two moms with a daughter, but have not run into this yet as she's still tiny. I sometimes wonder though, whether kids crave the image they've created of the person they perceive is missing (versus missing the reality). My younger sister didn't get to know our father - who was in general, a lousy human being and even worse father. And she spent many years (ages 6 to around 14ish) saying she missed her father and wanted to be with him...her image of him was a fairy-tale image of the perfect dad. She was missing Cliff Huxtable, not her actual father or even just "a dad".