I Thought I’d Left My Shame In The Closet. Then I Became A Father.
“I’ll go out on a limb and say that no parent wants their child to inherit fear, doubt, anger, or resentment.”
I’ll go out on a limb and say that no parent wants their child to inherit fear, doubt, anger, or resentment. And we absolutely don't want our children to inherit anything that could lead to self-sabotage. We want our kids to shine and thrive, to confidently express exactly who they are.
As a gay dad, I thought I had this parenting philosophy on lock. My coming-out-of-the-closet journey was a decades-long game of whack-a-mole with my own personal demons. But I was determined to be my authentic self to everyone, everywhere, especially to the man in the mirror. And all of this work I put into myself would leave me an even better parent, right?
As a young man, I navigated the self-loathing and shame with suitcases of self-help books, a few good friends, and some therapy. Once I emerged on the other side, I attempted to make amends to the people I hadn’t been honest with about my sexual orientation. I had layers of facades to dismantle. I’d cut a lot of good people out of my life for the simple reason that I was afraid they wouldn’t love me if they knew the real me. And my duplicity had hurt a number of loved ones. Thankfully, those closest to me always knew, and loved me unconditionally. And I did my best to remain focused on gratitude for the education I received while going through the labor of trying to right my wrong turns.
So, by the time my husband and I were preparing to adopt our first child, I assumed all of my toxic baggage was in the distant past. I certainly never thought I was perfect. But I did think I had evolved enough that I didn’t need to worry about my old ways of thinking tripping up my parenting game.
I was wrong.
As parents, we are prone to worry. We want the best for our kids. And many of us tend to be self-critical. Especially if we subscribe to the belief our children are referendums on our own self-worth. We know this isn’t logical or healthy, but we all live in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society; we all wrestle with the worry-gremlins (and the creep of narcissism) that comes with the territory.
Still, I was shocked to discover myself back to square one in terms of self-acceptance not long after our daughter was born. I was in the middle of an afternoon feeding when I was suddenly seized with terror. I was terrified that our daughter might end up being gay. That our daughter might end up being like her two gay dads.
Holding our precious bundle of love, I felt completely frozen. And not a little sad. My head was swirling, fixated on potential and perceived slights. In that moment, I was able to realize how ridiculous this feeling was — I was out and proud in every area of my life. I held a leadership position in my employer’s LGBTQ group. But I couldn’t shake the dread. I worried about bullying. I worried about ridicule. I worried about opportunities. I even worried about having grandchildren!
But what I was really worried about was that she might have to struggle with the same personal demons and self-doubt I had been dancing with for 30 years. I didn’t want that for my child. I don’t want that for any child!
I absolutely wasn’t going to allow myself to feel shameful about this shameful feeling.
Thankfully, some of the stuff in those self-help books had stuck with me. I recognized right away that I didn’t need to let this fear strangle me. And I definitely didn’t need any of this toxic shame to take root in my daughter’s life. I knew that this was a reflection of my own unresolved junk and had nothing to do with my baby. I had come too far to allow this junk to cloud my judgment. And what do you do with junk?
Throw. It. Away.
Before the end of that afternoon feeding, I made a list in my head of what I needed to do to kick this terror to the curb. This was an opportunity for me to “leave behind the inauthenticity of the past,” as Alan Downs writes in The Velvet Rage.
So, instead of holding onto this fear, as was my habit, I started airing these feelings out. I started writing in my journal after a hiatus of five years. I meditated. I prayed. I talked to my husband. I talked to my sister. I talked to a lesbian friend. I visualized saying thank you and goodbye to the scared and self-loathing person I used to be. I visualized the loving father I knew I was capable of being. I absolutely wasn’t going to allow myself to feel shameful about this shameful feeling. I knew that if I held onto any of this, then I ran the risk of inadvertently transferring at least some of that shame onto my daughter. And that wasn’t going to happen.
It took a few weeks for this practice to yield results. I waded through waves of forgotten memories that had served to plant seeds of doubt in myself. I worked to rip those weeds out by the root.
In a month, I could laugh at myself about it all. But this episode set me on a course of meaningful change. Because I realized that my work wasn’t done. Maybe I had gotten myself out of the closet. But I still needed to shut that closet door and walk away.
I believe all parents want their children to feel loved and whole and seen. But not all parents recognize what is holding them back from providing this for their kids. All of us have something to work on. Whether it’s dwelling on a disappointment, a legacy of abuse, or a poverty mindset, we don’t want to pass these things onto our kids. For me, this one knee-jerk episode of emotional terror reminded me that being the best parent I can be is an ongoing process. A daily practice just like brushing your teeth.
No one wants their child to have less than the most abundant love. All children deserve unconditional love. And that moment in the nursery, I realized this unconditional love started inside of me, her parent. If I didn’t truly love and accept myself — all of myself — I realized that not only would I make decisions for her out of fear, but that she would eventually sense my own shame and internalize it.
I know that moment won’t be the last time something like this comes up in my parenting journey; my kids will grow older, interact with peers, teachers, the world. How can I be sure that I will guide them with love, and not from fear, or shame? The poet Rumi has been a guiding light for me for a long time. And a line from one of his poems reaches out to me as I process this moment from the past, and think about the moments that will come: “If I love myself, I love you. If I love you, I love myself.”
Isaac Webster and his husband Ryan Brockington are the co-authors of Daddy and Dada, a new children’s book available now.