Before we left the house that night, I asked my mother a question that I knew would change things: “Now that I am an adult, what kind of relationship do you want to have with me?”
We had always been inseparable but our closeness had been a result of a carefully crafted façade that I began building when I was only a child. I aspired to perfection; to be the one who was praised for obedience, who sat quietly no matter what was said or done. For a long time, that meant saying what my mother wanted to hear and doing what my mother wanted me to do. I adopted her values and morals, the ones she received from our Southern Baptist church. For many years, I rarely formed an opinion that was my own, always striving for her approval. Anything that didn’t properly line up was forced into the recesses of my mind, never to surface for fear of being rejected by the woman I loved most in the world.
But I couldn’t be that person anymore. It was getting harder to stay silent when the things she said while judging others could have just as easily been directed at me.
I gave her two options and let her choose: continue in ignorance or build a new relationship centered on honesty, even if it changed things between us. She picked honesty.
I began the best way I knew how, by reading something I wrote to her. It seemed appropriate. After all, the entire reason for having this conversation was because of that something I wrote. Writing has always been my outlet. When I was growing up, my rogue opinions lived in the pages of composition books. But not anymore – now I share them with the world. Now it’s my career. That makes it harder to hide them from her.
She sat stone still while I read, staring ahead at nothing, unable to look at me. Her jaw tightened, the way it does when she’s trying not to cry. I forced myself to keep going, to read the hardest lines; the ones about casting aside my religion and the damage caused at the hands of the church she loved. Seeing her so upset made it difficult to finish. In twenty-five years, I’d never caused my mother pain, not like this. Every word and action had always been carefully calculated to garner her approval.
And here I was, undoing everything I’d worked for by choice.
We sat in heavy silence. A tightness settled over my chest, making it harder to breathe. Anxiety riddled my brain, telling me I’d just made a horrible mistake.
An uncomfortably long time passed before she said, “Let’s go get ice cream.”
“Okay,” I said and I relished in the moment, knowing it may be the last one like it for a long time.
“Is there anything else you need to tell me?” She asked as I pulled into Dairy Queen, a favorite spot of ours since I was a little girl. The neon lights cast a strange glow over my mother’s face. She looked older somehow, as if my confession had aged her. There was something else. The thought of saying it out loud turned my stomach sour. I knew after this, I would lose my best friend. We would be only mother and daughter. I had no idea what that meant for us.
I nodded and the pent-up tears finally started as the words danced around in my mouth, trying to form into a coherent thought. “I don’t want you to think this changes anything. But I like women too. Both men and women.”
Again, silence. God, I was sick of silence.
“Then why did you get married?”
“Because I was in love. We’re still in love.”
“Are you going to leave him?” She pressed.
“No.” I insisted.
“Does he know?” She asked.
“Yes. He’s known for a long time.”
“Well, whatever your bedroom fantasies are, they’re private. We don’t have to talk about them.”
It made me cry harder, knowing that she thought I was somehow incapable of love, that my marriage was a lie, that I was a horrible wife, that my sexuality was a fantasy that I could somehow turn on or off. It would have been easier if she had slapped me and told me to never speak to her again than to hear some of the bigoted things that came from her mouth that night.
But to her credit, after the shock wore off and her questions were done, my mother grabbed me into an embrace. I wept there on her shoulder. I babbled about how I’d known since I was a child, about how lonely I was, about how hard her and our church made me believe I’d go to hell if I didn’t suppress this part of myself. I’m sure she bit back retorts. Instead, she gave me that moment to cry and to hurt and to heal. And even if she didn’t believe me or refused to accept it, that hug alone told me she understood the gravity of that moment.
After a long time, we broke apart and she said, “I think we could both use some ice cream.”
I managed a ghost of smile as we both walked into Dairy Queen, red-nosed and teary-eyed. She didn’t bring it up again, not that night or any night after. And that’s okay because today I feel lighter for having told her. It would have been easier to stay comfortably hidden behind my marriage and to write behind a pen name to remove all fear that she’d find out. But that’s not what I wanted. When you love someone, you want them to accept you – the real you – not the one hidden behind pretenses for their benefit. My mother and I are still close but now there’s a comfortable distance between us. It’s enough space to let me have my own opinions and be my own person. Most importantly, in that space lies the knowledge that she accepts me for who I truly am, not the person she thought I was.