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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 appears in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable