“The love of most parents for their children gets as close to God's love as you can get. But it is not a natural feeling. I think about all the homeless gay kids who have been thrown out of their homes because they weren't meeting expectations of one or both parents. It's just sad.”
It is sad, for all kinds of reasons. But I’m not sure I agree with the statement that the instinct for parental love and protection isn’t natural. I believe there are irresistibly strong evolutionary forces at work to cause parents to love their children and thus ensure the continuation of the species. This article provides evidence that “pup exposure” caused the brain chemistry to change in “adult, virgin female” rats – meaning that simply being around and taking care of newborns caused biological changes in mice that had never been pregnant. Ever notice the behaviors and traits newborns come programmed with that pull adults to care for them? Even when they’re ugly, they’re so cute you just want to squeeze them! And what adult doesn’t hear a baby cry and desire greatly to do something – feed them, change them, sing to them, anything – to get them to stop crying. In short, babies are tiny whirlpools of love that suck every passing adult ship down into their depths, the captain singing lullabies on the deck while signaling for help by waving baby wipes.
But this doesn’t explain kids kicked out of their house for being gay. Or getting pregnant. Or dropping out of school, or joining the military, or forming a rock band, or any of the other hundreds of reasons that parents kick their kids out of the house. Because, as Tracy’s comment explains, “they weren’t meeting expectations,” whatever the expectations in that household might be. So I contend that evolutionary biology is an irresistibly strong force on parents, but that social conventions are an equally irresistibly strong force.
Social conventions, of course, are not natural. They feel natural because they surround us and we are unaware of them as such, but they are socially constructed by culture. Is it a biological imperative that men can’t express feelings? Of course not. All you parents with little boys weigh in and tell me if you think your baby cries less than little girls. But are there decades of social programming that suggest that boys shouldn’t cry? Sure. And that social convention is so strong that by the time boys reach their teens some of them may really be unable to express emotions (other than anger, of course). I could pick all day on the social convention of boys being emotionally stoic and “strong,” but we’re talking here about kids thrown out of their families – literally starved and deprived of love – because of social convention.
Let’s take our example of homeless gay kids. (I’ll have to admit that currently I don’t know of any, but I did encounter a few in my time as chaplain of the adolescent behavioral health unit.) We might, for the sake of this discussion, assume that these kids were loved and accepted until they came out to their parents. Obviously, this is a gross oversimplification – there are thousands of variables at work in any family dynamic and it would be highly unlikely that a family who throws out a child does so for only one reason. But let’s suspend disbelief for this argument. Child is loved by parents, because child seems to be meeting the parents’ expectations of heterosexuality, based upon social conventions that state homosexuality is wrong. (In Transactional Analysis, this is sometimes called the “script.”) The child then comes out to his parents, knowing by this time that he is violating the parents’ script. This violation is so strong as to trump any predispositions to love and care for the child, and the parents throw their gay son out into the streets. Social convention and constructed narrative has the power to override natural instincts for parents to love their children.
Let me state as clearly and emphatically as I can that if my beautiful daughter was gay I would not for a second love her any less. (In fact, I’d be kind of thrilled that she wouldn’t be dating boys.) My beliefs about homosexuality are progressive and accepting. What I want for my beautiful daughter is for her to be her best self and to live that self comfortably and confidently. If that means she’s a lesbian, then I will support her because my script has room for that. So it’s easy for me to pass judgment on parents who would throw their gay children out onto the streets because I have a much different script.
But I do have my script. And that’s where all this reflection has led me. What are the things I expect of my child? What script do I have for her? There are the obvious things any decent parent wants for their children: I want her to be happy. I want her to be kind and compassionate towards others. I want her to succeed at her endeavors and to find passion in her work. I want her to be able to make decisions that are healthy and life-giving. I want her to be and have friends. I want her to discover the divine and show love to the world. But these things are all generalities, blessings that I want for her because I want good things for my loved ones. But I, too, live in a society filled with norms and customs and expectations. Already I dress my beautiful daughter in pink (my princess resistance notwithstanding). And already we’ve bought her lots of things. My script for her is getting written in ways I won’t even know until she deviates from it. Will I throw her out onto the streets? No way in hell. But I’d be foolish to think that she won’t challenge my expectations, that she won’t disappoint me or shock me or differentiate herself in a way that wounds me. What if she becomes a porn star? Or a Scientologist? Or a Nickelback fan?
And so I return to love, the love that feels as natural and intrinsic to me as the air I breathe. Social conventions may be constructed, but they’re probably just as tightly a part of me. But I will not allow my love to be trumped by social convention. That’s easy to say now, I know. And it’s easy for me to swear I’ll never throw my daughter out on the street. But I’ll bet there are some parents of homeless gay teens who held their precious little babies in their arms and swore the same thing. It challenges me to be open to the infinite possibilities that lay ahead for my beautiful daughter and to let go of my need for her to want the same things I do. Because that openness, that ability to relinquish one’s claim over another’s life… that’s what love is.