Lynn & Lauren Zettler: Listening Over Reacting
Grace Lilly recently had the opportunity to chat with Lynn Zettler about her daughter’s coming out moment, in the third installment in a series of interviews with experts and parents of LGBTQ kids. This is an extension of that interview, complete with Lynn’s daughter Lauren’s responses.
How did Lauren come out to you?
Lynn: It was almost by accident. It was over the phone, which was unfortunate. We are very close and talk a lot. She lives in New York and I live in Indiana, so we talk a lot by telephone. I knew that something wasn’t quite right. She was probably 25 at the time, so I didn’t know if maybe we were just having a little bit of a pulling apart because she was entering a new stage in her life, but I could tell there was something different. I asked her a couple of pointed questions and she came out. And then it was a crying fiasco kind of thing.
Lauren: This is kind of a tricky question, because my coming out process felt long, terribly complicated, yet also like ripping off a terrible bandaid at the speed of light. Does that make sense? The moment my mom remembers was the most difficult night of my life, as I ended up “coming out” to both my parents and my then-husband in a mess of events that felt anything but calm or composed. My mom has always had a sixth sense when it comes to me being in distress in a moment, as perhaps many mothers do. So she called and all my secrets just came spilling out.
What was your initial reaction?
Lynn: Lauren’s situation is a little unique because she was actually married to a man at the time. We had always talked about her relationship with him and he was a great guy; we all loved him. We still do. But she could tell that something wasn’t quite right, and when she figured this out, it was just very emotional for all of us. I grew up Catholic and I think I was dealing with a lot of things at once. Number one was the sexual orientation, but the other was “Oh my gosh, you’re already married—does this mean that you’ve cheated?” I was struggling with that as well, because that’s a very emotionally charged topic. It was like I was dealing with all these things wondering “Oh my gosh what have you done? And why? And why didn’t I see this coming?”
Lauren: That night was really hard on everyone. It’s hard to talk about or describe, really – like my mom said, the situation was a little different because I was married. There was a whole other human involved who was feeling very hurt and confused as well. I know that my parents dealt with the information as best they could at the time. I also think that no one really wanted to believe I was gay, and I didn’t even feel comfortable yet saying it, so without that, I was a person that just wanted out of my marriage and was involved with another person – a female person – in the Catholic space. I was breaking so many rules. I know my mom and dad both kind of went there. Marriage was always very serious in my family (as it should be, I suppose), and getting divorced was just the ultimate last option. I think a lot of those beliefs clouded the actual situation and their immediate ability to understand.
Did you have any idea before that Lauren was gay?
Lynn: In the year before, she’d been hanging around with a lot of lesbians. But my daughter is an artist and a musician, so I didn’t find that odd. I thought that it was probably very normal and typical, because the artistic crowd tends to be more open to all kinds of things. Looking back now, though, I do remember seeing some signs and signals. Nothing strong. Lauren’s a very girly girl and she had several boyfriends and like I said, she married. But now, of course, I think she was doing that all because she thought that’s what was expected of her and it wasn’t really who she was. At the time I did not see that at all, so it was a complete shock.
It was very intense that evening. I give her then-husband a lot of credit because he took the phone and said, “Lynn, you just need to end this right now and she needs to talk later.” She was very emotional and I was very emotional, and we couldn’t solve anything at that point. We needed space. I needed some space to process it and she did, too. She didn’t intend to come out to us that way—it was just all of a sudden. I asked a very pointed question and she couldn’t lie. She had to fess up and be real.
Lauren: This is funny, because I have a very specific memory from the age of 12, overhearing my mom say to my dad: “What if Lauren is gay?!” I don’t exactly recall what made her say it, and I know she doesn’t remember saying it, but I had my headphones on at the time and was listening to Bette Midler and probably just finished talking about Rosie O’Donnell (I was obsessed with both of them…), and maybe that was strange for a 12-year-old girl, but I do remember feeling judged in that moment. I think I felt, subconsciously or consciously, that I was not supposed to be gay.
Other than that, I really didn’t give off many signs. I kept a lot of feelings to myself. I had two intense-feeling relationships with females in junior high and high school, but I never sexualized it, so it didn’t raise any flags for anyone, even myself. Before I started dating my first boyfriend, I literally said to myself “I guess I should probably have a boyfriend.” I was very good at following the rules and doing what I thought was expected of me. It took me so long to even look at being gay as a possibility, I don’t know how my mom would have known before me. We both kind of figured it out at the same time, I think.
When she came out to you, what was your biggest question or concern?
Lynn: Embarrassingly, we make it all about us. So for me, I thought, “Oh my gosh, we had this huge wedding and this huge celebration and it was fantastic and it was a great party.” Which was followed with, “Oh my gosh, what will everyone think? What will everyone think of her? What will everyone think of us?” And I think that’s a very normal kind of thing to think about. Yes, it’s embarrassing because it’s kind of self-serving or selfish, but it’s natural. And unfortunately, in our culture it’s all about acceptance and who’s going to accept and who’s not. Is our family going to? We have a very large, extended family. Those were my very first thoughts. And then you also ask yourself, as the mother, “What did I do? What did I do wrong? I must’ve done something wrong.” Especially because, “How did I miss this?” It wasn’t even that I was saying what she was doing was wrong, it was more about “How did I miss this – that she had to take this path to get there?”
Lauren: My mom and I have both come such a long way when it comes to worrying about what other people think. If I had any advice for a parent or a child, it would be to try your hardest in the moment not to worry about that. I know it’s virtually impossible. But I just wish it wasn’t the first place we all go, because if you take all of that away, everything feels that much easier to process.
Who was the first person that you told and what was that conversation like?
Lynn: The exact first person would have been my husband, because we were at home and he overheard me getting emotional, although he wasn’t part of the conversation. So I told him and I think he was just in shock. He was more worried about taking care of me at that time, because he could see how emotional and upset I was. I think he couldn’t even get his head around it at first, and it took him quite a while. I think he denied it for quite some time, thinking, “No, I think she has an intimacy problem. She needs to look at some other things. Has she really thought about all that?” And I just remember saying to him, “Honey, this is so painful, I don’t think she would have come out having not already thought about those possibilities.” Also, I’m very close to my mother and my sister and I don’t remember which one I called first. My sister had a very interesting reaction when I told her. I didn’t even have to say it. I said, “Something’s going on with Lauren that I need to tell you about.” And she said, “Is Lauren gay?” And I said, “Thank you for not making me say that.” Because it was still very emotional at the time. And she said, “Lynn, I’ve been looking at everything she’s been doing. She’s hanging out with all these lesbians. I see it all over the place. It just kind of seems like that fits for her.” So it made it easier to have a family member who was supportive and very understanding.
Lauren: My dad actually called me after I got off the phone with my mom, because she was so upset and not ready to talk about it. I don’t remember what I said to him, to be honest. My dad is a very practical guy – he is non-emotional when it comes to problem solving, and sometimes that can be great! Other times it misses the mark. From what I remember, he went into problem-solving mode immediately and tried to look at the situation from a “this is going to be okay” perspective, and for that I am grateful.
When my mom eventually told me about what my aunt said, I felt relief. I think it’s really interesting how people a little bit removed react, because most often they are more objective, less judgmental, and able to offer needed perspective to the people who are just so close to it. I also thought to myself, “Wait. So, my aunt basically knew before I did?! Why didn’t anyone TELL ME?!”
How did you find support when you were going through all of this?
Lynn: Support was really interesting, because I’m very research-oriented. I’m a scientist by nature. So of course I jumped on the internet. I felt like, “I have to educate myself about this” all of a sudden. The LGBT community was always something that was in someone else’s yard and I didn’t really have strong opinions about it. I just felt previously, “I don’t have to deal with it personally, so it’s really not an issue” and then all of a sudden it was my issue. I was just looking for anything I could find. There’s not a lot out there. That’s why I love so much what Dannielle and Kristin are doing. I did find one website that told a mother/son story and it was very helpful because it talked about her perspective and her husband’s perspective. It made me feel better because it gave me permission to have all the feelings I was having. One of the things I realized from that website is that you grieve. You go through a grieving process and it’s because you had this picture in your mind of who your child is and who your child will be and that goes away and you have to form a new picture. And so you’re just grieving something that you thought was going forward. But the other side of that is you get to create a new future expectation. But it’s an adjustment. So there wasn’t a whole lot of support.
Lauren: My mom and I are so similar in this way, because I looked for support online too, and had a hard time finding a community or information that I connected with. I started going to therapy immediately, and sometimes I think perhaps this would have been good for both of my parents as well. I’m a huge advocate for therapy, but I recognize it’s not for everyone. My parents came around very, very quickly. My mom got involved with her PFLAG group at work, and my dad made an effort to talk to me and try to understand it all. I’m grateful that they had each other.
Do you feel differently about it now than you did initially?
Lynn: I feel tremendously different about the situation. It’s been four years, and I’m so proud of her. I’m much more open about support. I tell people my story whenever I can because I don’t care anymore if they have a judgment about it. I want them to know who I am and what I stand for regardless. It’s still a journey because who she is, is someone I’m still learning about. She still has so much depth to her that I never really knew or understood. So I’m still learning from her on a regular basis. And I love that, because she exposes me to things I never would have thought to be exposed to or to embrace. But I’m very open to that and I enjoy it tremendously. It makes me learn a lot about myself. It’s been a journey, but a very positive one. And for the most part, we have been very fortunate that most of our extended family has been very supportive and very accepting. You always have a few, and some people I know have a lot of pushback, but fortunately we haven’t had a lot. We’ve had small incidents, but I haven’t let that ruin anything. She is who she is, and I love who she is.
Lauren: I feel extremely lucky to have the parents that I have. That’s really all I can say. I am so fortunate, and I’m very happy my mom is willing to share whatever she can in an effort to help some other parent out there.
How do you think you were able to change your mindset about it all?
Lynn: I think it was a step-by-step process, because I cannot imagine what it must be like to come out as anything other than straight. It must be petrifying. And there’s fear for a parent, too, because you’re always thinking, “If I tell them about my child, will they change their opinion? And do I care? Or do I want to deal with that right now?” So there were some judgments I would make like, “I’m not going to say anything to that person. I have no interest in their opinion so I’ll stay away from that.” Whereas people who I really cared about and were part of her life—I wanted them to accept her. So I think that every time I told someone and got positive reinforcement it made me stronger. And it made me take that next step to just be more transparent. And I would push my boundaries a little bit.
One year she came home and we walked in the gay pride parade for a company that I used to work for. So that was one step. It takes courage, but every step that you take makes you grow. It’s just like public speaking: the more you do it, the easier it is. It’s kind of like the more you let people know who you are, you will keep the relationships that matter and for the people who don’t agree, then maybe they aren’t the right relationships for you right now. And that’s okay. People have their own journey to take and their own understandings that they need to work through. We all have these things based on how we were raised about what’s right and what’s wrong. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught to be very black and white rather than to realize that there’s a full spectrum of things in this world that make a huge difference to a lot of people. And the spectrum is what we should be looking at. Not the black and white and clear lines of definition—because one size never fits all. It just never does.
Lauren: This is an example of how far my mom has come in worrying about what other people think. That was such a big initial fear, and now she’s just like, I don’t even care if you disagree. It’s so great. I’m grateful to the powers that be that she was able to be so self-aware and that she was so willing to accept and grow and change. So many adults find it so hard to do that. I even do sometimes, in other areas. I know she thinks I’ve opened her eyes to so many new things and ideas, but she really needs to give herself credit, as well.
If you could do it over again, would there be anything you would change about how you responded to her?
Lynn: Looking back, if I could do it all over again, that particular night I think is a really kind of horrific memory for both of us, even though it lead to a lot of positive for us. If I could have been less emotional and just asked her what she needed, that might be one thing that I would change. And also, if I could wave a magic wand, I was looking for a book—any kind of book for parents of someone who’s come out. I found out from a friend, that some other local parents who were dealing with the same issue. But I have to be honest—when I called them, they were handling it much worse than I was. They weren’t accepting of it, and they were shielding their family from it. They were dealing with it from a totally different perspective. And that didn’t make it easier, which comes back to the support question. There’s not a lot of support. A lot of parents are afraid to talk about it. Of course now I think it’s becoming more and more accepted. The whole marriage thing was the additional layer I needed to deal with, but the important thing was just saying, “No matter what, I love you and we’ll figure this out.” That’s probably the only other thing I would change—just to make sure she knew, because I know she had to have been petrified that we would react in a really bad way and that we wouldn’t be there for her.
Lauren: I agree, that night definitely could have gone better. I wish I had been more prepared or more able to explain, or had a better understanding of the situation, myself. But who knows how much longer it would have taken me to have the conversation at all, and then how much longer it would have taken to get the support I needed. We all learned a lot from that moment, and so ultimately I suppose I’m grateful.
What advice would you give to a parent who is experiencing something similar to what you experienced with Lauren?
Lynn: My advice would be to do a lot of listening and not reacting. Save your reactions for your spouse or for someone else. But with your child, just do a lot of listening and reassuring them that you still love them. I think that’s the best thing you can do. If we have a problem with not accepting, that’s our problem. It’s not our child’s problem. They’ve got their whole other, you know, everything they need to deal with. It’s our problem, so deal with that in a different way. And just give your child the support that they need. I think it’s good to ask lots of questions; I needed to educate myself. “Tell me more about this. What does this mean? What does that mean?” There were certain terms I didn’t know. I also have a cousin who came out probably 15 or even 20 years ago now. I called her as well just to say, “Explain to me what Lauren is going to be looking for and needing.” And she reassured me, “We want the same things you do. We want the same things straight couples want. We want families and we want to spend life with a loved one. That’s what we want.”
So ask a lot of questions, do a lot of listening, and look for that support system you can do your processing with. Process it out. It’s fine. Don’t try to hide the feelings you’re having, because it’s okay. It’s normal. You’re going to have conflicting feelings, you’re going to have feelings of embarrassment, you’re going to have feelings of…you may even have feelings of shame. You may have feelings of, “What did I do wrong?” You’re just working your way through something, because we’ve been conditioned to look at it a certain way. And your paradigm just got blown up. So we need to just work through it and create something new for ourselves. And if you can do it successfully, it’s fabulous on the other side. The new paradigm is so much more free and open and just interesting and you learn so much. And that just adds to your life.
Lauren: This is really great advice. I know it’s easier said than done – reacting is always the most natural thing to do in a challenging moment – but asking questions is really important. Maybe your child won’t be able to answer them, but your willingness to learn is a comfort in itself. And as simple as it sounds, just reminding your child that you love them and you want to support them is the most important. Even if you don’t know how, letting them know that you want to can make all of the difference.
Lynn Zettler is the mother of two and has been married to her partner, Mark for over 30 years. Lynn is a proud ally of the LGBTQ community and is a strong advocate for supporting LGBTQ youth. Lynn is the President of Core Impact Coaching and serves as an Executive and Business Coach in Carmel Indiana.