05/01/2015

The secret lives of our parents

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In light of Bruce Jenner’s realization of his true self, we are all reexamining how we see our parents. A young writer talks about how Mom and Dad are more than just mom and dad.

When Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender to much flourish and fanfare, his family’s reaction was the picture of tolerance. And love. For a clan whose excesses and astounding superficiality embody the allure and decline of American reality TV, the Jenner-Kardashian dynasty could not have been more progressive.

A quick Google search on Jenner reveals almost as many articles on his revelation as his family’s various messages of support. Kim Kardashian, to whom Jenner had first confided, waxed poetic on courage and being a better version of yourself. Kylie Jenner, his youngest child, tweeted on acceptance, taking it in stride, and her dad being a hero.

It’s no mean feat, airing your “dirty” laundry at the ripe age of 65. Which is not to say that standing behind American’s now most famously open transgender, didn’t take some courage from the Kardashians as well.

Art by Maine Manalansan.
Art by Maine Manalansan.

And as though on some sterilized, sci-fi version of their hit reality show, what Kim and her famous brood of misfits ironically and unblinkingly teach us is that parents are people, too.

I’m thinking of Charles Darwin’s iconic caricature of apes evolving into humans, with our parents taking the place of said primates.

Unlike the apes who gradually change form, however, our parents stay the same — authoritative, larger than life, and very much human. It’s our perception of them that evolves, really.

The progression works something like this: at age five, my mom and dad were the bee’s knees. At age 11, they were stage parents who would fuss a bit too much, but make up for it with a Pavlovian system of rewards and treats. At age 16, they were insufferable, threatening to overtake every aspect of my blisteringly important social life, poking their noses where it didn’t belong, imposing standards I never aspired for, recalling dreams that I never wanted.

At age 20-plus, the years when real life suddenly kicks in, when the generational turnover truly begins, when people you love start dying, start procreating, start leaving — you see your parents in a different light.

They become strange, beautiful, empty beings. And all too human. At that age, they were already married with kids. They walked the tightrope of raising a family while trying to stay in tune with their wonder years. More often than not, the demands of family life would win out. They worked, and they either built the luxury you now enjoy, or watched their fortunes decline. They made choices, and for our sakes, they would justify these choices, ad nauseam.

Parents are queer beings who constantly shove themselves to one side, more often than not living vicariously through their kids. Which is why they’re unbearable. Which is why they can be so vulnerable.

The little we know of Bruce Jenner is just the tip of a huge, deep iceberg. It’s not as isolated a scenario as one day waking up to discover you have an LGBTQ mom or dad, but rather, a universal truth best encapsulated by Carl Jung: “Nothing has a stronger influence on children …than the unlived life of a parent.”

This “unlived life” can be as simple as giving up a music career for the more financially-secure prospect of corporation life. Conversely, it can be as earth-shattering as shifting genders, or falling victim to a desperate cycle of human and drug trafficking, all to feed the family.

At this high point in our lives, fresh from graduation and eager to experience the world at large, we millennials can get a little overwhelmed with all the newfound freedom. We discover that most of the time, these freedoms hardly bring our folks into the picture. In an age when parting from our parents’ embrace is the most natural thing, we are given the chance to see them as an entity apart from ourselves.

But while we set out with that anchorless millennials’ mantra, settling on no long-term plans (yet), we remember how our parents chose the other road, committing to one of the bravest things a human being can do: saying “yes” to parenthood. And instead of living out their own truths, mushiness aside, they made us the truest things in their lives.

Mom and Dad weren’t always mom and dad. They were also 20-somethings for a time. We can laugh at their #tbt pictures, but we can also just imagine what they had running through their minds, knowing what they had to, and did, sacrifice.

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