How I Learned To Talk To My Parents

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slide1Illustrated By Sydney Hass.
My parents aren’t big talkers. For most of my life, it’s been that way. Our family dinners were laughably silent, joyless affairs straight out of the most painfully awkward Wes Anderson movie. Any attempt at anything other than perfunctory, “How was your day, honey?” interactions from my parents was sure to be met with one or two words at the most, if not outright irritation.

At the time, I liked it that way. Like many teenagers, I found the thought of my parents having any sort of consequential knowledge of my business to be utterly horrifying. As I look back now, I see that I played a big part in the way our relationship developed. In truth, at the time, I loved the silence. I hid inside it, hoping against hope that tonight would not be the night when they would ask me the questions I didn’t want to answer.

See, at the time, I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that I was gay. Even after I came out to my friends and started dating, I didn’t tell my parents. It wasn’t that I was afraid of how they’d react — I grew up in Northern California in a liberal household, after all. But, I told myself that they didn’t need to know or didn’t deserve to know something so personal and so clearly none of their business (logic isn’t something teenagers do very well). Maybe it was that I didn’t want this to be a big deal. Deep down inside, I wished so badly to live in a world where I didn’t have to sit my parents down and tell them something that wasn’t important to my character, that didn’t make me less of a person — but which I was sure would make them cry anyway.

When I finally did it, after my first year in college, it was because it was really important to my boyfriend at the time. For months, he had been pressuring me to take the plunge, and as much as the idea made my stomach turn, I couldn’t come up with any good reasons not to. Especially when I thought of my boyfriend’s own coming-out saga — his parents kicked him out of the house and refused to pay for college — I felt a sort of obligation to swallow whatever silly stubbornness I had and just do it.

So, I told my parents everything they didn’t know about me, in great detail — from my struggles with depression and alcohol to my high school trysts and my year-long relationship with my then-boyfriend. Most importantly, I told them why I didn’t tell them sooner. I knew at the time that, while I really didn’t have any sort of real relationship with them, I wanted to find a way to build one, to be able to talk to them about the things that really mattered in my life.

The strange thing was, while they were indeed incredibly supportive and sweet — and welcoming to my boyfriend — nothing really changed between us. And, while on some level, this was what I had been hoping for, I was no longer content with the status quo. Yes, I was the same person I had always been, and I appreciated the fact that they acknowledged that. But, I wanted more from my parents. I wanted to be able to talk to them about anything. Looking back, what I really wanted was to be able to relate to my parents as the adult that I felt I was growing into. I wanted to be the kind of person they would consider a friend.
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Over the next few years, during increasingly drunken holidays and summer vacations and weekly phone calls, I got to know my parents a little better. Silence is no longer the default, and as I’ve gone through the ups and downs of adulthood, they’ve been there for me in ways that only parents can possibly be expected to be, supporting me as I moved across the country and as my relationship of five years crumbled. But, now, more than four years later, as I’ve grown to be more or less independent, financially and emotionally, my relationship with them retains the same parent-child dynamics that it always has.

For one thing, we still don’t really talk about my love life or my friendships. Admittedly, this may be due, at least in part, to the fact that I’m still not 100% comfortable talking about my many romantic trials with the people who gave me life (and, after all, they know better than to pry). But, it’s not a one-way street, either — we almost never discuss who they are as human beings. In truth, I’m almost ashamed to say that the idea of changing the game in any meaningful way has proven too overwhelming for me up ‘til now. How can I start to build a new relationship on top of one that has existed, essentially unchanged, for my entire life — especially when I can’t even picture what it is I really want?

In the last few months, I’ve been forced to think about that question with new urgency. Two deaths in our family, as well as a serious health scare for my father, have made me acutely aware of how little time we really have to say what we want to say. I’ve realized that I have something that a lot of people don’t: I have two people in my life who love me unconditionally. What I choose to do with that gift is entirely up to me.

As I gear up to go home for Christmas this year, I’ve made a promise to myself: Just take a deep breath and talk. I know they’ll listen — and I’m deeply grateful for that. The rest, I hope, will make itself clear as the words start flowing.