“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
My mom told me that one of her friends from her retirement community keeps asking her about my kids. He’s 98 years-old, never married and has no kids, and he asks repeatedly about how I conceived them as a single mom and what I tell them about their parentage. As she was telling me this, I thought “Given that they didn’t even invent invitro-fertilization until he was in his 60’s, I can’t imagine what he thinks.” But in this most recent conversation they had, he started telling her about the traumatic childhood he had — his father’s abuse of his sisters, his mother’s nervous breakdown when she discovered the abuse and his mother’s instruction to him to make sure he never left his younger sister alone with his dad. At the end of relating the story he simply said to my mom, “I would have been a lot better off without a dad.”
This makes me so sad. First of all because I had a great dad. Nothing about what I’ve done is a commentary on dads in general. It was simply a matter of not having the right one for my kids and running out of time.
Secondly because of the shame he still seems to carry. The answer to his question about what I tell my kids is that I tell them whatever they ask but I don’t complicate it with more than they want to know at the time. The first time my daughter asked she said, “Did I have a dad when I was born?” and I said “no” and then she followed up with “Did I have a dog when I was born?” and I thought “that’s where you’re going with this?” and answered “yes”. We’ve had more in-depth conversations since then about me going to the doctor to become pregnant and a little about sperm donors but she’s not all that interested yet. I have no way of knowing how she or her brother will come to feel about this (and it’ll probably be many things) but whatever it is, I will do my best to make sure it isn’t shame. My primary tool to combat that is not to have any secrets about their origins.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a Tolstoy quote I recently came across, “Happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Given that Tolstoy lived long before invitro fertilization and also gay marriage, I’d say maybe in his time happy families were all alike. But they can look pretty different these days.
But I think Tolstoy was right that unhappy families have many possible reasons that can echo for a long time. I hope that we see my mom’s friend again soon and somewhere in the telling of his story and the grace of being interested in my happy children since he never had any of his own, he finds peace for his inner child.