Thinking Outside of the Box


Thinking Outside of the Box

by Carmella Van Vleet

One of my favorite things about New Year’s Day is getting to open a new calendar. I’m very particular about the brand I use; it has large boxes and no pictures. It’s nothing but glorious space to fill up with notes, birthday reminders, and appointments. I tell you this because it’s important for you to know that I’m the kind of person who loves things organized—if sometimes only metaphorically—into neat, easily labeled boxes. This didn’t change when I found out that my daughter, Abbey, then 15, was gay.

Like many parents of gay kids, I had a lot of questions: “Why do you think you’re gay?” “How long have you felt this way?” “If you’re gay, then why have you dated boys up until now?” “But if you’ve never kissed a girl, how do you know you’d like it?” (Yes, I know. Stupid question. But I’m being honest here.)

Because Abbey was outed—another story for another day—she didn’t have the luxury of figuring things out ahead of time. To her immense credit, she did her best to address my questions and concerns on the fly. At the end of that first conversation, she settled on “I don’t know. I guess I’m bi.” And I settled on, I think she’s just curious. I smugly thought that she would discover the truth the first time she actually kissed a girl.I’m not proud of my “this is probably a phase” reaction. But, again, I’m trying to be honest here.

As the weeks went on, I had more questions: “Are you really gay?” “Is it possible you just want to be gay because a couple of your friends are?” But my most frequent query was, “Are you going to marry a man or a woman?”

I usually got, “I don’t know,” which really frustrated me. My love for Abbey was never in question, and as a long-time ally, I was fine with having a gay son or daughter. At least I was in theory—in real life, I was realizing that it was bit messier. There were no neat and tidy boxes.

One afternoon, on the drive home from school, I cornered my daughter yet again: “But you’re only 15—how can you possibly know you like girls?”

Abbey’s patience, already thread-bare, snapped. She folded her arms, looked out the window, and refused to speak.

It was then that I realized that my tireless questions and desire to know everything Right Now was closing down our lines of communication. I was trying to wrap my brain around this revelation—label it all up and put it in a box. Put her in a box. All because it was going to help me feel better.

In the silence of the car, I thought back to when I was 15. I was in love for the first time with a boy named Shawn. I’m sure my own parents thought I was too young to know about affairs of the heart, but they respected me and my feelings. I knew my own mind, so why shouldn’t I trust Abbey to know her own mind and heart, too?

From that moment on, I stopped asking so many questions, or at least tried to. Between you and me, I wasn’t always successful. As a writer, it’s in my nature to over-analyze, wonder, and be nosy. But that moment marked the beginning of my letting go of the need to have all the answers.

Abbey has been out for almost three years now. She currently identifies as gay and dates girls. When we talk about her getting married someday, we use the word “wife.” A few weeks ago, however, she told me she might consider being with a guy. I admit, this caught me completely off guard. “But you’re gay!” I said.

Then I remembered what happens when I try to compartmentalize her—and decided to keep quiet. She’s my child; she doesn’t go in a box or need a label. She’ll figure it out. And when she does, I’ll be there waiting to hear all about it.

Carmella Van Vleet is a wife, former teacher, and the mother of three young people (ages 22, 20 and 18) who she thinks are pretty cool despite the fact they insisted on growing up. Carmella is also a full-time children’s author who’s committed to including LGBTQ families in her work whenever possible. You can visit her at

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