Moments and milestones in my daughter Abby’s senior year of high school flew by quickly, like scenes in one of those indie art films you don’t understand until after it’s all over, if you ever do. I wanted to push pause several times that year in order to process what was happening—cry, pray, journal, write a song, assume the fetal position, whatever it took—before moving on like the well-adjusted parent I wanted to be. I was lucky if I could catch my breath.
One big adjustment involved coming to terms with Abby being out in the public spaces where she was starting to become more open about being gay, like at school and on social media. I was only talking with immediate family and a small handful of close friends about it. I didn’t feel safe sharing it with anyone outside of my inner circle. Trying to work through the implications for Abby’s future, our family, and—even more daunting—my faith, was something I wanted to do privately, not in public.
Though I’m comfortable in front of large groups—the result of performing on stages for over half of my life—I’m mostly an introvert. Part of me feels the need to be seen and heard through the songs I write, but it’s a rehearsed candor, a guarded vulnerability. There’s another side to me that’s intensely private, much more comfortable under the radar than in the limelight. I’m constantly conflicted about how much of my personal life to put out there in public. On social media, I usually erred on the side of caution and kept quiet about anything sensitive. Abby’s coming out soared way off my sensitivity chart, and it was the last thing I wanted to discuss in public.
In that way, my daughter and I couldn’t have been more different. Abby, who entered the world imbued with an extra helping of moxie, was never one to avoid taking risks or rocking boats, and she had no problem being the center of attention. Even as a little girl she moved through the world with a passion and intensity of purpose that said watch me. Her self-confidence seemed to come from an unwavering belief that whatever she was doing at the moment—whether she had figured it out yet or not—was worth sharing with the world.
Like most ’90s-era parents, we had piles of videotapes showing our kids’ milestones: birthday parties, Easter egg hunts, Christmas mornings, and every sweet, tender, or funny moment in between. All of it captured with a Channel 2 News–size camera on one shoulder. One particular videotape labeled “Abby” was filled with footage of just her, and as a toddler, she constantly and obsessively begged us to watch “The Abby Movie,” as she called it. She would sit for hours hitting rewind and playing it over and over, mesmerized by the sight of herself on the TV screen, reveling in being the star of her own show.
At twelve, with just a couple of guitar lessons under her belt, Abby decided to perform a song for our family on Christmas Eve. Insisting we dim the lights and give her our undivided attention, she struggled through a rough rendition of “Silent Night”; the birth of Jesus had some competition that year if my daughter had anything to say about it.
Now as her senior year unfolded, Abby shed the heaviness of her junior year like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. She’d always been interested in music, playing in a band since she was in the eighth grade, but she launched out into drama and musical theater with gusto, landing lead roles in both productions she auditioned for, and even joined a small choral ensemble that performed around the area.
As she spread her creative wings, no holds barred, with none of the fragile trepidation I was feeling at the time, I wondered if people knew our secret and what they thought about it. So determined to keep quiet about what was going on in our home, I almost forgot this girl of mine rarely let other people’s opinions deter her from living her life out loud. In that regard, I felt proud of her but also anxious that her being openly gay wouldn’t always be met with understanding and acceptance.
In the spring, my fear got put to the test when Abby decided to ask a girl to the senior prom. If the idea of prom sends butterflies of excitement fluttering in the hearts of high school girls, for their moms, it can feel like the heavy flapping of dread, what with all of the unwanted extras it brings: extra drama, extra credit card swipes, and a long night of extra anxious hand-wringing. For me, it was all of this and more: I dreaded the extra attention it might bring on Abby and, by extension, me.
I wasn’t so much surprised that Abby had met someone new—like most young love, Abby and Valerie’s relationship faded out after Valerie moved away in the fall—but asking this new girl to the prom seemed so conventional, so normal, and so public. I didn’t yet know the particulars, but if I knew my daughter, it wasn’t going to play out like a quiet scene between two wallflowers. Announcements would be made. Pictures would be taken. Social media would be involved.
My heart recoiled at the thought of the gossip, comments, and stares she might endure from other kids and even teachers. Granted, it had been a long time since I was in high school, and kids Abby’s age were more accepting of same-sex couples, but ours was a small town; surely not everyone would be on board with it. I envisioned a Carrie-like scene in which the two of them would be humiliated, laughed at, made fun of, in front of the entire student body.
Even more insidious was my fear that people in our small-town community would know our daughter was gay before I was ready for them to know. We had lived and gone to church there since our kids were babies. While I was by no stretch famous, I had sung at most of the conservative, evangelical churches in the area, including my own, and performed at several citywide events. I couldn’t go to the post office or grocery store without someone telling me they’d seen me sing somewhere. It never bothered me before, but once Abby came out, the thought of someone from church asking about her at the grocery store made me almost break out in hives.
Nevertheless, Abby’s plan to ask her date to the prom had a dramatic flair that not only invited attention; it drew a crowd and became the talk of the school for several days. Apparently, just before the last bell of the day, Abby had stood in the hall outside the classroom of her date-to-be, guitar in hand and a bouquet of flowers at her feet, sing-ing the song she wrote for the occasion. The sound echoed through the corridor, sending students spilling out of their classrooms, curious to investigate. While a circle of onlookers and friends pressed in, Abby got to the final chorus of the “promposal” just as her date walked out of her classroom. Taking in the song, the flowers, and Abby’s expectant grin, she bolted for Abby, and the two of them locked in a tight hug while the crowd clapped and cheered. That’s right, clapped and cheered like a scene from a Hollywood rom-com.
By the time I heard the story unfold from her lips later that day, it was already immortalized in the annals of social media. I was sure everyone with a Facebook account had seen it. My stomach flip-flopped. Sure, I was massively relieved that there wasn’t any trouble. Nothing thrown at them, nothing hateful shouted. But like most big, dramatic moments in her life, she’d felt compelled to do this in front of an audience, and I felt exposed, as though she’d megaphoned our family secret to the whole town.
A couple of days before the prom, I hosted a book club night in my home with a few loyal, longtime friends who’d walked with us through more than one family crisis. They knew Abby had come out and let me know they were there for me if I ever wanted to talk.
After a short book discussion, we spent the evening catching up on each other’s lives. I was distracted about the upcoming prom and had a hard time joining in the lighthearted banter. When my friend Christy started mildly complaining about how picky her daughter had been while shopping for a prom dress, I interrupted her with a look that made her stop midsentence, waiting for me to explain. I ran to the laundry room and came back with a plastic-wrapped prom dress in each hand—Abby’s and her date’s—then told them the whole saga of the dramatic song-proposal at school.
“So,” I said, “this is my current reality. While you’re all mildly annoyed with your kids, I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that my daughter and her date are both wearing dresses to the prom and the whole town probably knows about it.”
I waited for the outpouring of sympathy, the validation of my resentment, the echoes of my feelings of humiliation.
Instead, my therapist friend in the book group said, “I want to be like Abby when I grow up.”
Everyone laughed. Not at all what I wanted to hear, but in spite of myself, I reluctantly laughed too.
“She’s awesome,” I admitted, “when she’s not airing your family business out in public.” I felt overly dramatic myself at the moment, determined for them to understand my dilemma. “What if I wasn’t ready to talk about this with people? People who don’t know us like you all know us. How do I possibly explain all the conflict in my heart about this when I don’t even understand it myself?”
Like a good therapist, Jeff answered my question with a question: “Why do you feel like you have to say anything at all?”
I paused. “Well, because people will already know about it, from their kids, or Facebook.”
True to form, he parlayed with another question: “Okay. What makes you think you have to tell them anything?”
“Because . . .” I was losing steam. Why did I feel like I needed to talk about this?
Jeff said, “The way I see it, this is Abby’s story. Let her tell it the way she wants. That’s not on you.”
Such a simple piece of advice. I felt it go deep and speak to my combination of fear and skewed sense of obligation to “explain” our situation.
Long after my friends left, Jeff ’s comments stayed with me, bringing to the surface questions I hadn’t even considered: Why was I trying to take responsibility for the telling of this entire messy, complicated story? Who gave me that job? Certainly not Abby.
Some part of me believed that if I kept a tight hold on the reins of this narrative, I could control how the public saw our family, me. I could protect the image I wanted people to have of me as a responsible, godly parent. Letting Abby tell it her way felt too risky. My reputation felt at stake—both as a Christian artist with a platform that put me in front of hundreds of churches and as a parent raising my kids according to a standard I claimed to follow. Would other Christian parents think I was a good mom, standing by while Abby fell in love with her friend last year? While she asked a girl to the prom? Technically, she hadn’t sought out my permission to do either, but should I have put my foot down and said no to all of it?
In the end, I knew that what made me most uncomfortable with Abby living her new life “loud and proud” was the fear that it would reflect badly on me in some way. As if Abby’s story had become all about me. I felt ashamed at my small-mindedness, at the value I placed on my own self-protection. Yes, there were aspects to Abby being gay that I needed time to work through—in prayer, in conversations with trusted people in my life, in my study and research of Scripture. But for Abby’s sake and mine, I needed to make room for her story to be her own—whatever that looked like. Abby was capable and certainly willing to write her unfolding story, and as Jeff said, it was hers to tell.
My baby was growing up. Abby’s senior year was filled with one emotionally wrenching reminder after another that she was becoming her own person and getting ready to fly from the nest. The culminating events came so fast: senior pictures, prom, grad night, finals, last day of school, graduation—there was no time to let it all sink in. Suddenly, her life as a high school student was over.
I shared all of the usual heartbreak with every “senior parent” that year while also trying to readjust my dreams and expectations to fit this new reality that my daughter was gay. It was equal parts terror of the unknown and bittersweet relief that she had been at home with us for at least one last year. We got to do that whole eventful, wild year together. She got to spread her newly outed wings and soar through her senior year without having to hide her true self from us anymore.
When I revisit the pictures I saved from Abby’s prom day, it looks different from how I remember it. One of my favorites is a close-up of Abby and her date standing outside in the sunlight, all dressed up, smiling at the camera. Abby is wearing a fire-engine-red gown with her auburn hair swept into a side knot, and they both look so happy and radiant, I wonder how I could have ever doubted going to prom was a brilliant idea. Hard to imagine I had been gripped with anxiety leading up to that day, and here she was: smiling, carefree, innocent.
How had I missed that?
The second picture I saved—and framed—from Abby’s prom day is of my husband and me, also in the sunlight, also smiling at the camera. We were with the girls and a small group of their friends taking pictures in someone’s backyard. What I remember is trying to hold myself together and not weep uncontrollably at the sight of my baby girl all grown up, going to the last dance of her high school years. You’d never know it looking at the photo. My smile is especially big and happy and looks genuinely full of joy. Every time I see it I’m reminded that some moments are bathed in the kind of grace that allows us to rejoice and grieve at the same time.
I wonder if all parents, and especially mamas, see their kids’ lives as extensions of their own. When our kids make smart, responsible choices, we feel good about ourselves, not only because it means we did our job right, but because their hearts and brains and DNA reflect so much of us. When they take paths we don’t understand or agree with, whatever the reasons, we absorb the consequences—perceived or real—along with the shame of feeling like we failed them in some way.
Extricating ourselves from our children’s stories as they get older, allowing them to experience the world on their own terms and make their own choices, feels almost unnatural sometimes. But I have to trust that it’s the only way they grow into the people they need to become. The paradox of motherhood is that life is constantly forcing us to let go of the very things we want to hold most tightly—our child’s well-being, safety, happiness. I’ve thought a million times that if Abby could just not put herself out there so much, she’d be safe. I keep forgetting that being safe has never been Abby’s agenda.
I’m still learning when to lean in and when to step back and watch my daughter’s story unfold the way she wants it to. For every time I’ve wanted to say, “Here’s what I think you should do . . . ,” she’s surprised me with her maturity, her old-soul wisdom, and most of all, her fearlessness. When I’m able to put aside my misgivings and make room for her to grow into the woman God created her to be, I can see that my daughter has been teaching me all her life how to be brave.
This article is an excerpt from Love Makes Room, chapter 5: Whose Story Is It? Making Room for Perspective.