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Don’t think of a white bear: Andrew Solomon on the hidden joy of gay parenting

People still ask my husband and me which of us is the mom – which, as one lesbian friend pointed out to me, is like asking which chopstick is the fork.

Gayness was for a long time so unsayable that it received an epithet to designate it so: the love that dare not speak its name. I grew up entrapped in the unsayable nature of what I was, hoping that if no one spoke of it, it wouldn’t be true. I inhabited a contrived yet fortified secrecy, and I defended and comforted myself with silence and euphemisms. A well-worn conundrum from an introductory logic class holds that if you say to someone, “Don’t think of a white bear,” that person will immediately think of a white bear. If you actually want the person not to think of a white bear, you should talk about butterflies instead. I turned my sexual orientation into a white bear and hoped everyone would think about something else, and the more I wished it, the less they did.

Nowadays, people often ask me when I came out, generalising from the experience of many young people who announce themselves to the world on a particular afternoon. But I did not divorce my reticence in a single sharp break. Rather, I seeped out like a spreading wine stain. I told someone; I told a few more people; I denied what I’d said; I said it again, to someone else; I wished it away; I told my family; I denied it to the people I was sleeping with; I admitted it to those people; I denied it to my family, and so on. I had been completely closeted for two decades and I took another decade to declare myself even to myself. I apologise now to the pretty women I couldn’t love enough and to the handsome men to whom I couldn’t commit; to the tolerant friends who met them all with equal faith and to the blinkered parents who did not.

Since then, coming out has been an almost daily exercise. I am forever weighing whether I have the wherewithal to mention my husband, John, to an elderly someone on a train, or a brusque someone in a shop, or a fundamentalist someone to my left at dinner. It crosses my mind; it is often relevant; I can choose not to mention it, but then I have to live with the feeling that I am perhaps hating myself, or deferring to other people’s tedious disapprobation. Then I have to wonder whether I am merely imagining such disapprobation. Would I have needed to mention a wife at this moment if I had one? Am I the one who is being aggressive when I deploy the word “husband” in a conversation with someone I think will be unnerved by it?

When I began writing about my experience of clinical depression, friends asked whether I wasn’t distressed by taking so public a stance about mental illness, and I had to explain repeatedly that I had done the closet once and wasn’t going to do it again. Overcompensating, I made an ostentation of my candour. I had become allergic to secrets, so much so, that I sometimes forgot that you can have privacy even when you don’t disguise your identity. I often supposed the choice was between circumlocution and broadcast. The problem is that even as you reveal the mysteries in your past, you are accumulating them in the present; complete honesty is the stuff of post-mortem, not autobiography. I found it easier to be honest about external events than about internal ones; I made my own life sound more lyrical than it was and expressed enthusiasm about identity challenges I mostly regretted: those entangled with my being American, Jewish, gay, depressed, unathletic, half a stone heavier than I’d have liked, not a morning person. I aspired to dignity but not pity and I found both. Children had laughed at me when I was a child and people were laughing at me again. I was lonely.

Oddly, I am nostalgic for that loneliness. A few months ago, I had to go through all of my photo albums, starting from early childhood, in conjunction with a film project with which I am involved. The photos taken before I turned 18 felt as though they were of someone I knew only vaguely; images of other people in those albums conjured more emotion than those of me. The photos taken between the time I left for university and the time I met John filled me with paralysing nostalgia for the exhilarating, difficult times in which I became myself. The ones from the past 15 years, since John and I found each other, felt so recent that it was hard to credit them with being documents of the past at all.

Though meeting John was the beginning of an authentic claim on happiness, our early years together found me still only an intermittent champion of gay pride. Then we had children. Children confiscate your mask, leaving you far more exposed than lovers can. You can manipulate the valences of your own concealment, but once you have children, you have to bear in mind how your point of view becomes theirs and you are morally obligated to become an exemplar of self-esteem. No one much wants to be belittled but we tolerate slurs surprisingly often for ourselves; for our lionised children, we demand freedom from insult. I’d had a facile answer when people asked me whether I had a wife but had to summon a more vigorous one when they now asked whether my son had a mother, because while the first question sometimes seemed patronising, the second often seemed accusatory.

Gay parents are habitually made to feel that we must somehow love our children twice as much as anyone else to prove we have the right to be parents at all. We are expected to be thankful for having obtained rights that most people have enjoyed since time immemorial. I am grateful for the husband and children I couldn’t have had before those rights were conferred, and indebted to the people who have made lives such as mine possible. For the rights themselves, however, I prefer not to be any more appreciative than I am for having a fire department, snow removal on public roads, internet access, freedom of religion, or any of the other benefits that accrue to the population at large.

In February, I spoke at a literary festival in Cartagena, Colombia, and at the end of one of my talks there, an elegantly dressed Colombian woman stood up to ask a question. She mentioned research indicating that children brought up in gay families were on average better adjusted, said she had wondered why that might be so and offered her own theory: men and women argue a lot. I was rather charmed by the ­notion that gay spouses would be strangers to quarrelling, that same-sex parents might see the world so similarly as to banish discord. Alas, I must offer in the interests of full disclosure that my husband and I occasionally have different points of view.

I was, however, taken with her proposition. For many years, the only model of family consisted of a mother, a father and a few biological children. That definition has gradually expanded to include step-parents, gay and lesbian families, open adoptions, increased foster care, single parents by choice and single parents by happenstance. Yet we still expect these evolving structures to replicate the old archetype, assume they have nothing better to give than imitation.

People still ask my husband and me which of us is the mom – which, as one lesbian friend pointed out to me, is like asking which chopstick is the fork. This pressure on us to embody normative traditions can be paralysing.

Our son doesn’t have a mother and a ­father. He has two fathers. A single mother I know is always attracting sympathy for how hard it must be to be “both Mom and Dad”. But she is not Mom and Dad; she is a single mother, which is its own rich phenomenon.

So, there you have the further misperception from which we must emerge. All men are created equal but not identical. New family structures are different from mainstream ones. We are not lesser but we are not the same, and to deny the nuance of that asymmetry is to keep us almost as ensnared as we were when our marriages and families were impossible. Acquiescence to ­historical standards is still commonly recognised as the essence of good parenting but I would emphasise the equal power of imaginative breaks with tradition. Modern families are different from Victorian ones; rich lives are different from poor ones; old parents are different from young parents; Asian mothers are different from British ones. The ways my family and I love one another are as radical as they are profound. Love is a general term; only by expanding the collection of specificities it encompasses can we continue to vitalise it.

Andrew Solomon is the author of “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times