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Carolyn Hax: Mom’s reaction to gay son carries weight years later

By Carolyn Hax Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: My mom spent a decade telling me that if various family members found out I’m gay, it would make them depressed/have heart attacks/die. Finally, I said enough, I’m telling my dad. Classic mom reaction: She gasped, put her hands over her eyes, winced and then insisted she wasn’t trying to tell me what to do.

One result of so many years of this, for me, is that I’m scared of expressing my feelings and desires, of any kind, to anyone, for fear something awful will happen.

Another is that, on some base and childish level, it hurts that my mom puts everyone else’s well-being ahead of my own.

But now that I’m finally, totally out (no heart attacks ensued), my mom seems to think everything is peachy. It’s not! Even as I write this, I’m shaking, with anger and sadness both.

As I learn to better honor my own feelings, how do I move forward with my mom? Sometimes I’m so angry about her wild lack of support, I want to scream. Instead, I pick up the phone when she calls and have cheerful conversations. Is this just what being an adult is? Or am I still skipping over my feelings to appease my mom? – Grown-up or Sad Child?

Dutiful conversation with your problematic mother is something a grown-up does, yes – but so does a sad child.

Grown-ups pick up the phone (when they’re not indisposed) because they’ve decided doing so is an important part of their own good health. Their varied reasons generally involve some level of forgiveness, though sometimes it is just a basic sense of obligation – or an inoculation against future regrets.

Sad children pick up the phone because they’re still afraid of the consequences of not calling – upsetting Mother, losing her love, being bad-mouthed to the rest of the family, bringing on a gasping, wincing, eye-shielding string of histrionics that call up old feelings of shame.

The difference between the latter and the former is simple: choosing from a position of strength vs. weakness.

Building that strength of course isn’t simple, though I think a skilled therapist could make the climb feel a little less steep.

I also suspect the fundamental shift you need to make in your thinking is from seeing your mother’s choices as a reflection on you to seeing them as a reflection on her.

What you see, for example, as her putting “everyone else’s well-being ahead of my own” could well have been her own fear taking control: She saw her child as an extension of herself (her first mistake) and tried to micromanage your choices (second mistake) to ensure they projected the public image she wanted to project (third mistake). This says nothing of who you are, what you need(ed) and what you could offer.

Which I’m sure infuriates you, rightly. If true though, it also means your mother’s fussing wasn’t personal; I’m guessing she meddled before even you knew you were gay, micromanaging whatever fell outside her “supposed to” walls. Because she was so fearful.

You’ve challenged this hard legacy once already; your courage is there. Please consider getting help to guide you the rest of the way – and sharing your feelings with people kind enough to prove that awful things won’t come to pass.

Email Carolyn at, follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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