Mothers Always Know

By Tom Pyun
December 5th, 2015

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Five days after adding my mother as a “friend” on Facebook, I “unfriended” her. I had “liked” my college friend Kim’s post promoting her new yoga teaching practice. I commented banally in the vein of “Great photo!” A heartbeat later, I saw my mom’s photo pop up under my comment. Although she was well into her seventies, her Facebook photo was a softly lit headshot that froze her into a glamorous state approaching middle age. She commented, “Did you date my son?  You’re so pretty.”

My jaw dropped, but no sound came out of my mouth. I fumbled with the mouse trying to delete her question, but realized I couldn’t. Kim responded,

Thank you for the compliment Mrs. Pyun. No, I never dated your son.

Too bad. How do you know him?

We know each other from Vassar many years ago.

Are you single or married?

I’m married. Tom Pyun, are you reading this? 

I slammed my laptop shut and furiously texted Kim. Beads of sweat formed in the crevices in my brow and my armpits were drenched with perspiration. I begged her to take down the post, to which she responded, “Really? But it’s so funny! OMG, can I leave it up for a few more minutes? Please.”

In the few minutes I was away from the computer, the comment chain had grown substantially with posts ranging from “Wow” and “LOL” to “Tom, you were right. Korean mothers are Jewish mothers times three.”  One mutual friend from college addressed Kim’s husband and warned him to “keep an eye on his wife and to beware of desperate matchmaking moms.”

This online interaction would’ve been incredibly embarrassing for any bachelor in his mid-thirties. What makes it worse is that I am gay. And I’m not just gay, I’m the kind of gay who knows almost every lyric sung by all the Disney princesses and who skips down the sidewalks of San Francisco’s Castro late at night after too many cranberry vodkas in skin-tight white jeans.

I’ve come out to my mother multiple times, twenty-two to be exact. The first time I told her when I was twenty-three, she threw her force field of Korean newspapers onto the dining room table and let out a primal scream that resembled the perfect blend of “no” and “why.” NOOO-WAOOO! She bolted into her bedroom, slammed the door, and slept for four hours in the middle of the day. After her hibernation, she came into the kitchen with eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick smeared across her face and started cooking. She faced me while beating eggs in a metal bowl, but didn’t look me in the eye when she muttered, “I don’t want to talk about it. Ever.”

For years afterward, my mom would nag me over the phone about getting married to a woman. I would yell back with a combination of glee and ferocity, “I’m gay!” No longer shocked into a primal scream, she would be stunned silent or change the subject. Once I hit my thirties, separated by a transcontinental flight between her home on Long Island and my new home in San Francisco, I gained both peace and perspective. On one visit home she asked if I had a girlfriend and I coined a new response. “Let’s not go there today. I’m only in town for a few days.”

Eventually, she stopped asking and we fell into a routine of periodic phone calls and bi-annual visits devoid of any substantial conversational topics about my personal life. Our truncated chatter centered on my job, her health, and whether I needed money. Occasionally, she would surprise me with a question or comment, but incidents such as her Facebook ambush were few and far between. After more than a decade of conflict, our relationship became comfortable – repressed and littered with denial and resentment – but stable. This would change when I was forced to tell my mom I had an “illegitimate” five-year old son with a lesbian couple.

****

I agreed to donate my sperm when I was twenty-six. At the time I was working part-time at a nonprofit and living in a small, rustic cabin in the back of my older sister Cathy’s house in Berkeley. One afternoon, after a half-day’s work, I was watering the plants in the garden next to my cabin when my sister popped her head out of the main house’s backdoor asking me to come inside and talk. Cathy’s friends, Gillian and Laura, wondered if I would be interested in donating my sperm.  “I think you should consider it. It’ll be fun, like having a nephew and niece but on the West Coast.”

Our sister Betty lived in the New York suburbs near my mother and already had two kids. I reminisced about my last visit over Christmas where I watched my nephew and niece’s patter around my sister’s kitchen releasing joyful shrieks of laughter and baby talk.

“I don’t think so. I’m not ready for that,” I said.

“You should talk to them and think about it. Think of it as giving a beautiful gift,” she said. “They’ll be willing to pay you.”

A conversation between Gillian, Laura, and me ensued on the phone and then in a café that served diesel-strong coffee in mason jars. Of the two, I knew Gillian better. She was an old friend of my sister’s and for a short stint was my manager at a franchise coffee shop in New York City. A successful corporate attorney, she and her partner Laura, a social worker, were ready to start a family. They built a clear and compelling case for my “gift.” They weren’t interested in sharing rights over the child, nor were they looking for a father figure. However, they did want a donor they knew already and wanted the child to have access to him. Ideally, their child would have a relationship with its father. Moreover, given that they‘re both white and I’m Korean-American, they thought it would be especially nice if my sister and I were active members of the child’s life in auntie and uncle-type roles. “This way, the child would be exposed to its cultural heritage,” they chanted in near unison.

They were clear that I could have just about any kind of relationship I wanted with the child, as long as I wasn’t interested in co-parenting. They were eager to have a child, and at that time of my life, I was eager to please. I also needed and wanted the money they were offering for the service, which was more than the cost of a good suit, but less than a new car. Still not entirely convinced, I agreed to consider their proposition and have a decision for them in two weeks.

I surveyed all of my close friends and family about what I should do. One friend told me that I would regret being a donor and sent me a New York Times article profiling a co-parenting arrangement gone awry. It featured a gay man and his former close female friend who had a child together and were in the midst of an ugly custody battle. When I told him that this wasn’t a co-parenting situation, he retorted, “What happens when the kid shows up on your doorstep when he’s grown and asks you why you never loved him enough to be his father?”

Another friend told me it was the chance of a lifetime to see how my genes expressed themselves without the financial, emotional, and time-intensive burden of actually raising a child. She warned, “Let’s face it. Opportunities like this only show up once, maybe twice.”

I wavered between thinking it was like winning the lottery and my worst-case scenario – knowing there was a grown child in the future world who not only resented me, but also despised me. Countless questions jumped through my brain, including what this would mean for my future child if I decided to have my own one-day. Although I knew I didn’t want a child anytime soon, I didn’t know if and when I might want one sometime in the distant future.

I obsessed so much about the dilemma that I told my mom about it during one of our bi-annual phone calls. “No, absolutely not! Whatever they’re paying you, I will give you double!” she blurted.

She pleaded with me for the next few minutes, mentioning “my future” and the smudging of our family name and lineage. To assuage her, I rattled “ok ok ok” in a gunfire splatter of words. Before hanging up, I told her I wasn’t going to do it. Immediately after pressing the “end” button on my phone, I dialed Gillian. “It’s Tom,” I greeted her. “I think I want to do it.”

****

After signing what felt like hundreds of pages of papers with lawyers, ten trips to the sperm bank to make deposits, two years of graduate school, and a cross country move to New York City and back to San Francisco, a baby boy was born. Finding out about your biological son’s birth over text definitely raised my curiosity and anxiety. I studied the photo of Garrett from the day of his birth. His tiny pink face was scrunched up and his eyes were sealed tight. I couldn’t see any resemblance to me, but don’t all newborn babies look alike? Two short sentences circled in my head. This is real. This is happening. Given the two and a half-year gap between agreeing to be a donor to Garrett’s birth, I started to believe that this child would never appear. Although it was completely irrational, I’d convinced myself the sperm bank got their counts wrong and that in fact, I was sterile. My misbelief was shattered. He was here. He was “mine.”

The next few years with Garrett were surprisingly easy, at least for me. Although he lived with his moms only fifteen minutes away in Oakland, I had no parental responsibilities, scarcely changed a diaper, and never lost a night of sleep for midnight feedings. Instead, I attended monthly dinners, along with my sister Cathy at their tastefully-decorated home, where we brought take out, chatted with Gillian and Laura, held baby Garrett and played games of peek-a-boo. I already had nieces and a nephew so I was comfortable with babies. They were half-Asian as well and had similar coloring as Garrett. It was unchartered territory, yet the day-to-day felt comfortable and normal. I joyfully received mailed Christmas cards of Garrett posing on a rocking horse and opened email attachments containing candid photos of him clapping and videos of him crawling and walking.

When Garrett learned to talk, my sister became “Auntie Cathy.” While I refused the name “Uncle Tom,” for obvious reasons, he named me “Auntie Tom.” As Garrett grew older, it seemed he was the most comfortable with our arrangement. According to one of his moms, when a boy in his swim class asked him about his dad, he responded, “I don’t have a father. I have two moms instead. Well, there’s Tom. He’s our friend; he gave his stuff and that’s how I was born.”

Gillian and Laura asked for more of “my stuff” two years after Garrett was born.  They wanted my permission to use the leftover vials of sperm in storage to have a second child. After dodging their phone calls for a month, I broke my news to them while we strolled along the piers of the San Francisco Bay on an unseasonably hot night. The sunset was a swirled palette of warm colors. I grabbed the rusty railing separating me from the water and told them I couldn’t do it. I explained that my life and career were in flux and I was planning a move abroad. “One offspring is enough for me,” I added. They were discouraged, but understood and opted for a donor in the Boston area. Gordon was born three years after Garrett.

Two weeks after Garrett’s fourth birthday on a warm Northern Californian November evening, I was hanging out with Laura, Garrett, and Gordon and eating take-out with a glass of spicy Malbec in Gillian and Laura’s kitchen nook. While I was chewing a particular large mouthful of vegetarian Pad Thai, Laura asked, “Tom, don’t you think it’s time you introduced Garrett to your mom?”

A sliver of noodle lodged itself the back of my throat and I coughed my bite of food into a linen napkin. After a few sips of water, I mumbled that it wasn’t a good idea. I yammered the following litany of excuses in no particular order: she’s old, she’s from another generation, she wouldn’t approve, and it’s a cultural thing. “Give her the benefit of the doubt, let her decide for herself. Don’t you think once she sees him, she’ll feel differently?”

I looked over at Garrett sitting on the floor and scanned his cherubic face and silently agreed. I knew I wanted to at least give my mom the option to meet her biological grandson.

The Christmas holiday was a month later, which provided an opportunity to tell my mother in person about Garrett’s existence. I sat on a stool at the breakfast bar a few feet away from the dining table where my mother sat almost fifteen years earlier during my coming out speech. My palms were moist, my throat was dry, and I could feel my upper torso vibrating with anxiety. “You remember those two women who wanted to have the baby with me…” my quivering voice trailed off as I waited for her reaction.

When I knew I got her attention, I dove into the story spanning from donation to birth and ended it with an invitation to meet Garrett.  “I don’t ever want to talk about this ever again. Now, let’s go see a nice movie,” mom announced.

She gazed up at me, pleading to cease discussion of the topic. She started aggressively chopping yellow peppers into fine, julienned-strips and tossed them into a metal bowl. After eating our dinner in silence, I sat through a bad Christmas-themed romantic comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey. My mom chomped on dry popcorn – no butter, no salt – (she has high blood pressure) as if she’d never heard my news a few hours earlier. After she excused herself to her bedroom, I flopped down on the couch and rang my best friend on my cell.

“Did you tell her? How did it go?” Pause.

“Not good,” I replied after which I burst into tears.

****

I’d lived in the Bay Area for almost ten years and my mother had only visited once. “Three of my four children live so far away in California,” she bemoaned on the phone referring to Cathy and me in the Bay Area and our oldest sister, Jeanie who’d recently relocated from Manhattan to Los Angeles for her job. My mom and our third sister, Betty, and her thirteen-year-old son, Caleb, who all live on Long Island, decided they were going to come out West for a few days. They were to visit the weekend after July 4th, more than a year and a half since my mother’s order to never talk of Garrett. When this visit was originally set in motion, I hadn’t planned on introducing my mother to Laura and the boys. However, at the end of one of Laura’s monthly dinners, I casually mentioned my mom was coming to town. “Oh, we have to meet her!”

I was cornered. My sister Betty wanted to meet Garrett; but my mother was explicit about her feelings. It was one thing for my mom to reject me, a fully-grown adult with ample access to therapy and a deep understanding of her limitations and idiosyncrasies. But, I was wary about exposing a young, innocent child to her willful ignorance. Could she scar him indelibly and permanently harm my relationship with him?

Keeping these risks in mind, I decided to organize a way for my mother to meet Garrett in a casual group setting without telling her the whole story. “She’s going to figure it out when she meets him,” Laura declared while angling her body toward Garrett who was sitting in the other room. “And after she sees him, she’s going to change her mind.” I nodded and wanted to believe her.

On the day after my mom, Betty, and Caleb arrived, we met at a taquería near my apartment. Although the large seating area was nearly empty, it was loud. The sounds of clanking pots and voices yelling in Spanish distracted me from my circuitous thoughts and racing heartbeat. After a few minutes, Laura showed up with Garrett and Gordon. As Cathy introduced her and the boys to the family as her close friends, I inspected my mother’s face for a reaction, but it didn’t appear she suspected anything. When my mother is around strangers, especially non-Koreans, she stays quiet, whether it’s just shyness or a lack of confidence about her English-speaking skills. Throughout lunch she didn’t say much and when she did, she only talked to one of my sisters. When we finished eating, I was relieved. There was no yelling, crying, or dramatic outbursts at our long wooden dining table as I’d imagined.

After we said our good-byes to Laura and the boys, my family and I walked toward the car. Within a minute, I heard someone calling my name from behind. I turned around and saw Laura running with Garrett and Gordon and a bulky children’s car seat. The short, bright red bangs of her pixie-cut flapped up and down with the wind. “Tom! Stop! Wait a minute! At lunch, you mentioned you might be heading to the California Academy of Sciences and Garrett has never been. Could you take him with you, while I bring Gordon to a doctor’s appointment?”

My brain searched for excuses, but I couldn’t find a valid reason to say no. To hide my reluctance, I pasted a synthetic smile on my face and cheered, “This will be fun!”

When we arrived at the museum, a machine requested $25 for an under-five ticket. My mom’s eyes widened. “Who is this kid? Why are we paying for him?” she whispered audibly in my sister Cathy’s ear as she nudged her chin in Garrett’s direction.

Cathy shushed her before feeding a twenty-dollar bill into the hungry mouth of the machine. Although I was horrified by her rudeness, I wasn’t surprised by her reaction. Whenever my mom asked my sisters or me the price of something, we told her the “mom price,” which was 50% of the actual cost. In her mind, inflation didn’t exist and prices remained fixed in 1980.

At the end of our tour, I dropped Garrett off with his mom. Laura asked if my mom had figured out my relationship with Garrett. “She has no idea,” I responded before telling her what happened at the ticket machine.

Laura’s face crumpled in disbelief. “How could she not know? You guys look exactly alike. You have to tell her,” she ordered. I shrugged my shoulders and looked down at the ground.

Over the next forty-eight hours, my family and I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, had lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf, and toured Sausalito’s piers. Throughout, Laura sent texts incessantly, which was uncharacteristic of her.

Garrett is begging to spend more time with you guys. You know how he likes hanging out with older boys and he’s crazy about Caleb. Can he hang out with you guys more?   

At first, I ignored her texts. I was exhausted from participating in touristy activities that I would never do otherwise. Moreover, harboring this open secret was becoming more difficult now that my worlds were colliding. The thought of coordinating more activities with Laura’s family and mine was overwhelming. Guilt eventually won out, though. Who was I to deprive my progeny of contact with his extended family?

We agreed to meet at a Chinese restaurant in Oakland on the last night my family was in town. Immediately after being seated, I ordered a vodka martini. After two quick sips, I grabbed the waiter’s wrist as he was leaving our table and asked him to bring another one. Throughout dinner, I was giddy the visit was almost over. My mom was sitting with Laura and the boys at the opposite end of the table. I could see she was interacting with them both, shining her Cheshire-wide smile at them and rubbing their heads. My sister Betty asked me in a low-voice if I was going to tell mom the truth about Garrett after dinner. I waved my hand and slurred that I didn’t want to spoil such a beautiful evening and would wait until mom got back to New York. After dinner, the boys wanted dessert, so we started walking a few blocks toward an ice cream parlor. A few steps in front of me, my mother walked hand-in-hand with Garrett and Gordon on each side of her. It was a warm night and the evening sun was beginning to set. The brazen orange glow of the low-hanging sun framed my mother and the boys as they slowly rambled on the sidewalk. I stopped walking and shielded my dry, alcohol-laden eyes from the sun with my hand so I could carefully observe her and the boys. When they reached the back of the ice cream line, my mom bent down and faced little Gordon. She looked into his chubby alabaster baby face, touched the tip of his button nose with her pointer finger, and tousled his glossy flaxen hair. Next, she pivoted her body 180 degrees and leaned over toward Garrett and looked into his almond-shaped eyes. She squinted, inspecting his face longer and more carefully, as if she were a jeweler assessing the quality of a precious stone. She placed her right hand against his smooth tan cheek. Her manicured thumb slowly caressed his skin until she grabbed him by the shoulder and firmly hugged his small body into her hip. In that moment, I knew she’d figured it out. She just didn’t want to talk about it. Ever.

After parting ways with Laura and the boys, I had many opportunities to confront my mother before she returned home. I could’ve said out loud that I knew she knew. I could’ve offered her a second chance to have a relationship with Garrett. I could’ve ordered her to accept this little boy into her life. I could’ve threatened to cut her out of my life if she didn’t cooperate. Yet, our relationship had become the film, Groundhog’s Day. A single scenario played out the same way over and over, while I mooned over my disappointment that the outcome never changed.

Since coming out to my mother almost fifteen years earlier, I’d wanted to be acknowledged for who I was; I’d wanted her to see me. Neither was going to happen during this trip. The only thing left to do was to give her what she was unable to offer me. I decided to truly see her – all of her limitations, beauty, narcissism, strength, and stubbornness – and bestow her the gift of zero expectations.