UC Berkeley had always been my dream school.
As the No. 1 public university in the world, with the No. 1 English program in the country, I knew that the application process would be a competitive one.
I was half-asleep on the couch at my parents’ house watching “Jerry Maguire” with my dad when I opened the email stating that I had been accepted to the campus and offered a private academic scholarship from the Cal Alumni Association.
“I fucking got into Berkeley!” I screamed at a decibel that only dogs could hear.
“Really?” my dad exclaimed. “Congratulations!”
We began to talk about moving plans and start dates when I watched concern quickly replace the pride in his eyes.
“Are you sure you want to be raising your son in the Bay Area? The culture there is very different than it is here in SoCal, Mia … not the most child-friendly atmosphere.”
Talk about a buzzkill.
I had been to the Bay Area a handful of times growing up while on my way to visit cousins in Sacramento. We took several trips into San Francisco, the memories of which were very hazy in my consciousness. Nothing I did remember, however, was flagged as “not kid-friendly” in my mind.
With a firm belief in the cliché “the things that scare us are the ones most worth doing” and the burning desire to get out of the Inland Empire for good, I took a blind leap of faith and made the move.
My dad was right; the culture in the Bay Area was very different from SoCal.
Our usual route home from my son’s daycare was down Telegraph Avenue, which runs parallel to the campus. On almost all of our drives down this street, my son would ask me questions about the passersby.
“Why are they screaming?” he’d ask about religious extremists picketing at the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph.
“Why is all his stuff in a cart?” he’d inquire about the homeless man sitting on a corner begging for money.
I would always try to answer his questions informatively but in a way that would spare his innocence.
“His stuff is in a cart because he doesn’t have a home, baby. That is why we have to be so grateful everyday that we have a roof over our head,” I said.
Had we chosen to stay in SoCal, the homelessness and number of protests my son would see would have been reduced by a factor of 10, but the lessons on empathy he’d learn would be, as well. Plus, thus far, I always had an answer to his questions.
That is, until one day, I walked into his classroom to pick him up and found him sitting with one of his classmates and her parents, both of whom were women.
I began engaging in the usual parent after-school small-talk when Liam’s blunt question cut our conversation short like a knife: “Why do you have two mommies?” he asked his classmate.
A part of me was shocked that he had even made the connection that both women at the table were his classmate’s parents. Had him and his classmate been talking about it? Was this the first time he was seeing a same-sex family?
Not only did I not know how to answer his question, but I felt pressured to answer it in a way that was perfect and politically correct. The answer I would give my son would be his first, and most lasting, impression about same-sex families. To top it all off, the subjects of his question were staring at me, waiting to judge the type of parent I was by the next words that left my lips.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally answered him: “Every family is different,” I said to my son. “Her parents are gay, so she has two mommies.”
I could not believe it. I just called my son’s classmate’s parents gay right in front of him, right in front of them and right in front of their child.
I broke eye contact with my son, expecting to meet the gaze of two angry moms and a distraught child, while simultaneously waiting for my son’s follow-up question of “what’s ‘gay?’ ”
To my surprise, I was met with smiles of approval from both parents and an unfazed “oh” from my son.
That was it. “Oh.”
During our drive home down Telegraph Avenue that day, I thought about my dad and his comment on how “different” the Bay area culture was from SoCal and how glad I was that it is.
My son was bound to see a gay family eventually, regardless of where he was brought up. My dad’s initial fear of my son being raised in the Bay Area wasn’t centered on him being exposed to more openly gay couples, but about exposing him to ways of life that were different from what he was familiar with. Kids, however, only begin to fear what is different when we, as their parents, attach value or judgement to it.
When our kids come to us with questions about something or someone that is different from their current perception of society, it is crucial that as their parents we are honest and compassionate in our responses. Don’t change the subject, don’t tell them “they’re too young to understand,” and most importantly, do not lie. Otherwise, we send them the message that there is something wrong, or something uncomfortable, with being different.
I am so grateful to be able to raise my son in the Bay Area, where I have so many opportunities to teach him to be accepting of differences, and, in a broader sense, teach him to be accepting of himself.
Mia Villanueva writes the Thursday column on her experience as a student-parent at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected].