When Parents Disown Their Children

March 17, 2006

My post about mothers who continuously bear children to have a daughter — or, even medically select their child’s gender —  made me sympathetic to this woman featured in Cary Tenis’ column in Salon today. Basically, this lesbian was “disowned” by her fundamentalist Christian family and she wanted Tenis’ input as to whether she should reestablish ties — 10 years later. Read on:

So now that my parents are in their 70s, they’re having health problems. My father recently had a pacemaker installed, and left a message for me (after not a word for 10 years!) letting me know. I ignored the message, and now I feel guilty. I’m struggling with what I should do as they age. Should I visit them when they’re ill? Should I make sure they’re getting the proper medical care? Should I attend their funerals? My brother and sister-in-law live in the same city as my parents and I, so they have been the ones handling all of this so far. What are my obligations not only as a daughter but as a moral human being?

While I come from the Oprah school of thought that you should forgive — especially your parents — I understand Tenis’ outtake. Disowning your child for being gay is morally repugnant:

If your father or mother were to approach you and say they feel they had made a dreadful, stupid mistake and are sorry and want you in their lives — if they were to, as I presume they are familiar with the concept, repent, then you would then be facing the question of how to respond to them.

But they haven’t made any moves in that direction. Or, again, if they were simply neglectful and by nature bumbling and indirect, incapable of formal, declarative speech, and had never made anything like a declaration of disownment, then you might interpret this business about the pacemaker as their roundabout way of communicating. But they have already demonstrated that they’re capable of clear speech. So again I think you are under no obligation whatsoever until they can bring themselves to be as clear in their repentance as they were in their disowning.

When I hear of parents who are fundamentalist about anything like my friend and writer Julia Scheeres who is also estranged from her fundamentalist Christian family or parents who try to impart certain “traits” onto their babies in the doctor’s office, I worry about what will happen to these children when they fail to meet certain expectations. I come from the “everyone is an individual” perspective in that all children are clean slates. And while we can guide them, ultimately, they write in the rest.  

I would never disown my son for being true to himself, even if it offends my own senses. (Hey, I wouldn’t vote Republican, but I wouldn’t stop loving him if he did!)

Of course, if he becomes a serial killer, then that would put a damper on our relationship. But disowning him for a difference in opinion? No way!