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Father Knows Best--Sometimes It Just Takes Him Awhile

To his embarrassment, a dad realizes it's not his gay son who has a problem.

June 14, 2002|JEFF ELLIS | Jeff Ellis, along with his wife, Patti, are co-creators of the Web site www.familyacceptance.com, a nonprofit resource for parents struggling to accept their gay children. E-mail: Jeff@family acceptance.com.

For a few years after my son, Adam, came out to me, Father's Day became a day of mourning, the day when I was reminded of what I lost.

What I lost was every dream I ever had for my 21-year-old first-born child. He was going to be the captain of the football team. He was going to be the stud I bragged about to my co-workers. He was going to be the husband I'd be proud of, the father of children I would cherish. I grieved that he would become none of these people.

Eventually, as I looked back at the person he did become, I thought about my own role in developing his character, and I wasn't sure I liked what I saw. Even as we do things for our children, we fathers have an underlying selfishness. We unconsciously place unwarranted expectations on them.

For instance, I spent hours showing Adam how to throw a baseball.

I told myself it was because I wanted him to enjoy the camaraderie of team sports, but really it was because I was embarrassed by his lack of athleticism. I work in construction. The type of people I hang out with, well, when they saw Adam out in the field, I knew what they were thinking: He throws like a girl.

That stung me like a mad bee. And it kept stinging me for years. I was profoundly embarrassed by him, the depth of which now embarrasses me. I'm still working on forgiving myself.

For Adam, as a young boy, to witness my disappointment in him was possibly my greatest failure as a father. Unfortunately, my failure continued throughout his growing-up years, especially when I found myself living a dad's nightmare: I had fathered a gay son.

I tried to be stoic, but I'm sure my face betrayed the emotions I was trying to hide. I didn't want anyone to know that Adam was gay, and I made sure they didn't. Peer pressure is just as strong at my age as it is at Adam's.

For four years I chose my public image over my love for my son. Homosexuality makes cowards out of most of us.

The conflict between the genuine love for my son and the endless disappointments he seemingly foisted on me eventually came to a head. Was I going to be a stooped old man, burdened by the disappointments of his first-born, or was I going to be something bigger than that?

After a lot of prayer and counseling, I realized that, contrary to my perception of being a self-sacrificing father, I was actually a selfish one. On the field or off, I wanted him to want what I wanted for him. As a child, he disappointed me because he wasn't interested in rough-and-tumble play. As a teen, he disappointed me because he wasn't interested in sports. And now, as a young man, he disappointed me because he wasn't interested in women.

I had a right to be disappointed by his homosexuality. But how long was I going to sacrifice love for self-righteous discontent?

One day, as a Little League coach, I realized I had become what I hated in other fathers. They too had a long list of disappointments that their sons had "burdened" them with, and they did nothing to hide their displeasure. It dawned on me that I was doing the same thing to my son that they were doing to theirs: Convincing him that he would always be a failure in my eyes.

Today, my son and I are closer than we've ever been. I even give him advice on his boyfriends. He still annoys me now and then (he could party less and study harder in college) but he doesn't disappoint me anymore. That's because I now realize that all those dreams I had weren't really for Adam. They were for me.

Adam can't disappoint me anymore because I've committed myself to supporting his dreams, not mine. Father's Day has changed for me. It isn't any longer about what I lost, but what I gained: the ability to love my son unconditionally.

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