In an effort to remind ourselves why we got married in the first place, my husband and I make it a point to regularly leave the children at home with a sitter and get out of the house. We typically will have dinner and catch a show in Boston, and last night, we enjoyed a production of Nina Raine’s play Tribes at Speakeasy Stage Company. The show isn’t a musical, so I feel it brings no shame to our showmo cred to say that we didn’t know anything about the show when we set foot in the theater.
Here’s what we didn’t know going in:
Born deaf into an argumentative academic family, Billy was pushed to assimilate into the hearing world as best he could by reading lips and staying out of the way. But when a young woman introduces him to the Deaf community, Billy decides it is time his family learns to communicate with him on his terms.
(That’s from the Speakeasy website.)
We really enjoyed the show, although it wasn’t without its flaws, particularly the way some of the peripheral characters are drawn. Still, the play’s exploration of how affinity groups (aka “tribes”) can provide both comfort and strength in ways that friends and family external to those groups ever can gave us a lot to think and talk about.
In the play, Billy’s parents chose to raise him without sign language, teaching him to read lips and speak an passable version of English instead. At one point, his father tells him, “Look, the reason we didn’t learn sign wasn’t because we couldn’t be bothered, it was out of principle. Out of principle, we didn’t want to make you part of a minority world.” What the characters come to learn of course is that membership in a minority world is rarely a matter of choice or good parenting.
I’m reminding of a good friend who asked me years ago if I wanted my kids to be gay. I told her that I wanted them to be whatever they are. She said, “It’s just such a hard life. I’m not sure I would want my kids to be gay.” This is surely a common sentiment from parents about their children, and who can argue that being a member of any minority isn’t more difficult than being part of the dominant group? What parents really fear I think is their children being a part of a minority group of which they themselves do not belong.
I know there will come a time when my children will think that their parents just don’t understand–and we won’t. We can do little more than empathize with our kids when it comes to their racial identities, and the same is true of our daughter’s gender. In those times of need, only friends who share that same aspect of their identity can offer them the support they need. As one character in Tribes says, “It’s a scary universe out there. If you’re part of a group it’s easier.” All we can do as parents is provide our children with the safe space to find those groups, and then stand back and let them explore. (This is actually a healthy part of the racial identity development models I mentioned in an earlier post.)
With sexuality though, we can’t presume our children’s membership to any one group until they are much older, and because of that, I feel it is a parent’s duty to leave that door open by establishing acceptance of the minorities.
I believe it’s in Dan Savage’s book The Commitment that he details his response to his young son about who he might want to marry when he grows up. He basically tells him that he will probably grow up and want to marry a woman, but there’s a chance he might want to marry a man. And while either one is okay, he stresses that he won’t really know until he’s older.
We’ve tried a similar route with our own kids. As anyone with little kids knows, their brains can’t get much beyond the idea that being married to someone means that they get to live with them forever. Our kids were constantly telling us they wanted to marry us, and we explained that when they got older, they would find someone that they loved so much that they will want to make them a part of their family. Since we are already in a family together, we can’t marry one another. This made sense to them, and they shifted their sights onto playground pals who might enjoy eating ice cream for every meal, which is their current idealized version of adulthood.
Nothing can truly alleviate the trauma of adolescence, but by accepting our kids for who they are, even if that means their lives will be harder, we might cushion the blow a little bit. Believe me, I’d like nothing more than for my daughter to use her perfect pitch to become the next Audra McDonald, but if she decides she wants to do nothing more than hum along to her iPod while she makes a living sitting behind a desk, I’ll do my best to shut away my inner-Mama Rose and support her as best I can.
Of course, that won’t stop me from expecting she and her brother to perfectly harmonize “If Momma Was Married” from the backseat of the car before I belt out “Rose’s Turn.” (Read up on Gypsy you non-showmos!)