My Birth Defect

I’ve always had an excellent memory.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  Some of my earliest memories are feelings of frustration, inferiority, and wanting to be someone different that I was.  I learned very young that I didn’t fit in to my family.  There are seven people in my family – dad, mom, 3 brothers, 1 sister, and me.  I was the only one with a birth defect.  I am left-handed.  To many, this is no big deal.  To my dad, it was a HUGE deal.  He was bound and determined to change me, make me normal, to conform and fit in like I was supposed to.  Like all my other siblings did.  In his eyes, it was a weakness he saw in me and he demanded perfection from his children.  But I was born left-handed.  It wasn’t something I chose, nor could I change it.

So at the ages of 3, 4, and 5 – as I was starting to color, draw and learn to write – it became obvious to my parents that I was favoring my left hand.  It seemed rational to my dad that if he stopped it early enough, he could change my “handedness”.  He was insistent that I become right-handed.  He said if I just worked hard enough, I could change.  I doubt it ever crossed his mind that it couldn’t be changed.

 

left-handed

 

As I started school, I came to realize that the world as a whole was made for right-handed people.  And if you’re left-handed . . . well, you just had to make do the best you could.  And pretend that simple, daily activities weren’t a struggle for you.  The school desks were made for right-handed people.  Spiral bound pads of paper and 3-ring binders were nearly impossible to write in since the rings were in the way of your hand.  There were rarely any left-handed scissors to use.  To use a computer mouse, you use your right hand.  There are countless more examples I could give you.  Convenience is taken for granted if you are right-handed.  If you’re left-handed, it’s much tougher.  These new realizations seemed to echo my dad’s feelings and validate his desire for me to be normal and fit in – by being right-handed.

So I went through about a decade of being forced to do everything right-handed.  Throughout these years low self-esteem, deep frustration, and a perceived loss of love and acceptance became deeply instilled in me.  More damaging still is that these feelings came from my dad, who I completely idolized and wanted to please.

My dad would show me old dictionaries that defined left-handed as “evil, conniving and sinister”.  I remember thinking, “Is this true?  Is this how my dad sees me?”  Often, my dad and I used to read scriptures together.  One night, he read me every verse in all four standard works that says the righteous are on the right hand of God and the wicked are on the left hand of God.  Then he said, “Try harder, Wendy.  We want you with us on the right hand of God.”  This hurt the deepest.  Not only had my dad led me to believe I was evil, sinister, and conniving; but I was also wicked, unworthy of God’s love and wouldn’t be with my family in Heaven.  All because one hand worked better than another.  I always wore a sock on my left hand when I did homework so I wouldn’t be tempted to use it.  But then I would get poor grades for sloppy penmanship.  So frustrating, so disheartening.  I remember having feelings of guilt and shame when I would sneak and use my left hand because it was so much faster and easier for me.  But when I did that, I felt like I was sinning.

I remember very clearly one particular dinner.  I was five years old.  We were eating spaghetti (a hard thing for a kid to eat anyway).  My dad would take the fork out of my left hand and put it in my right hand, making me eat right-handed.   Inevitably, I would spill spaghetti all over myself.  Frustrated, I would put the fork back in my left hand so I could eat.  He would change it back.  Over and over this happened.  I was trying SO hard, but still making a huge mess.  Tears of frustration came to my eyes.  I just couldn’t make my right hand work right!  I distinctly remember looking around the dinner table at all the other members of my family and thinking, “How come their right hands work and mine is broken?”  I kept hoping someone would come to my defense, help me, or tell my dad to leave me alone.  No one did.  Maybe they thought my dad was right in forcing me to be right handed?  I don’t know.  At the end of this awful meal, I made a promise to myself that I was going to MAKE my right hand work and I would be PERFECT with it so that my dad would love me and be proud of me.  I was a very determined child and had no doubt that I could do this.  That decision, made as a five year old, still impacts me today.  More on that later.

From kindergarten to about my sophomore year in high school, I would do my regular homework – all right-handed, of course.  Then I would practice my writing some more.  I would write three pages of each letter in the alphabet every day; and every week I would show them to my dad so he could see my improvement.  I would say things like, “Look how much better my “S” is!  The “M” still needs some work, but I’ll get there.”  I was so anxious for his approval of me.  I wanted to feel like he was proud of me and I wasn’t an embarrassment to him anymore.

Over the years, I became ashamed of being left-handed, and tried to hide it from people.  I didn’t want them to think I was broken, too.  I got pretty good at doing things right-handed – eating, writing, brushing my hair and teeth, playing sports, etc.  But even after all these years of trying, I hadn’t really changed.  My comfort zone and where I longed to be everyday was using my left hand – free from criticism and disapproval.  Through the years of forced practice and an untold number of tears, I became ambidextrous.  I play sports right-handed now.  I have never even used a pair of left-handed scissors.

This decision made 32 years ago as a wounded, but determined five year old still affects me to this day.  Because I thought my dad expected a PERFECT daughter, I became a perfectionist, and not just in areas related to my “handedness”, but in all areas of my life.  Sometimes this is a good thing.  But so often I give myself undue stress trying to be perfect.  In some ways, I’m still seeking his approval and wanting to feel “good enough” for him.

I worried a great deal over writing this story.  I wasn’t sure how detailed I should be over how this experience made me feel because I didn’t want to hurt my dad.  Please do not get the wrong idea about him.  He was (and still is) a loving, wonderful father.  He honestly felt like my life would be harder as a left-handed person.  He was trying to help me.  He thought I might be teased.  He worried how school would be for me – never any left-handed scissors, the desks were made for right-handed people, and no one would want to eat lunch next to me because we would bump elbows.  He said left-handed people have awful, slanted handwriting.  Baseball mitts and racquetball gloves were twice as expensive for a left-hander than for a right-hander, etc.

 

My dad did all the wrong things for the right reasons.

 

The reason I share this experience with you (and in such detail) is to illustrate the impossibility of changing core parts of who you are.  I am 5’5”.  I have hazel eyes.  I’m a brunette.  I am left-handed.  None of these attributes did I choose for myself, nor can I change them.  I have felt first-hand the pain, frustration, and alienation that come when you try to change the unchangeable in yourself.  Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to grow up feeling completely loved, accepted, and maybe even celebrated, for my differences.  Would I still be a perfectionist?  Would I still feel the need to prove I’m “good enough”?  I can’t answer these questions, but I am genuinely grateful for this experience.  I am grateful because even though this example is so small compared to what a gay child may go through, I understand some of their feelings.  I have an extra level of empathy and compassion for my son, as well as other gay men and women.  I won’t EVER try to make him something he is not.  In fact, some of my most favorite things about my son are probably characteristics he has BECAUSE he is gay!  If he changed his sexual orientation, then HE would change.  And I love him EXACTLY the way he is!

 

My challenge to you:

Spend an hour (or a whole day if you’re really brave!) only using your off hand.  How does that feel?  What can’t you do as well, or as fast?  What can’t you do at all?  How comfortable is it?  Now imagine a decade of that.  That was me.

Now multiply that by a thousand and imagine a LIFETIME of that.  Welcome to the life of a gay man or woman.

Be compassionate.  Be kind.  Be accepting.  Love as the Savior loved.  That’s it.  He asks nothing more of us.

 

 

19 comments for “My Birth Defect

  1. David
    January 20, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Thank you for sharing your similar experience with marginalization. The experience of being an outlier or marginal person within society’s norm is a common one. Certainly attitudes and perspectives can shift and change and allow one to embrace someone on the “outside.” You are the best kind of mother to a gay child, one who not only “accepts” and “tolerates” but even better, recognizes that being Gay IS WHO her child is and that changing him would mean he wouldn’t be the person she loves. Kuddo’s to you and your lucky son!

  2. Jack
    January 20, 2013 at 11:10 am

    As a transman who grew up in the Church as a someone who thought of himself as a same-sex attracted woman, this hurt my heart in a very personal way. The most poignant part of this for me was that they did “all the wrong things for all the right reasons.” Reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend. Decades ago, men were told that if they showed too much love to their children, they could emotionally damage them. So, *because they loved their children*, they would be emotionally distant and damage their children. There are many instances, in my personal life and in the lives of my loved-ones, that LDS members and family have called LGBT members/former-members to repentance, or emotionally distanced themselves, or reinforced that they believed they were destined for lesser lives. They do this because they honestly feel that this is the best thing they can do for their loved ones, and they do love them. But these actions damage their loved ones, sometimes irreparably. I still have a severe amount of pain in my heart because of the “loving” actions of family and community. I don’t know what the answer is other than to take pause and consider how to better stretch our hearts and minds to encompass each other. To ask ourselves, are my loving actions helping or harming? Thank you for writing this, Wendy.

  3. January 20, 2013 at 11:39 am

    So good. Thank you Wendy.

  4. January 20, 2013 at 11:47 am

    It’s more than a little shocking to me that your father treated you this way for being left-handed… I thought horror stories like that were from a bygone era. But then, some people feel the same way about negative attitudes toward homosexuality today. In some parts of the country homophobic attitudes are antiquated and bygone. In other parts of the country they’re very much alive!

    Great analogy! The scriptural passages about right-handedness ought to give us all pause… I don’t think any serious Christian would interpret those passages to condemn left-handed people. I found your father’s use of these scriptures to shame you as quite shocking! It just seems natural to me that thinking Christians would point out to a left-handed child that those are purely metaphorical. It would be a great opportunity to talk about how scripture might be biased by the experiences and perspectives of those who recorded it.

    Anyway, amazing story! Thanks for sharing it!

  5. January 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    BTW… In the school system I grew up in in Rochester, NY, we had left-handed desks. Teachers told us about the antiquated bias against left-handedness, and forcing a left-handed kid to write with their right hand would have been considered abuse!

    Again it should give us pause that our culture identifies a biological/neurological majority trait with righteousness…

  6. Tabitha
    January 20, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Thank you Wendy for this wonderful and insightful post. Your story made me reflect on how sometimes it’s the very pain that we experience in life that has the capacity to allow us to open our hearts and be more compassionate, more empathetic and to love others in a deeper, more Christ-like way. Knowing you, you would have handled your son’s homosexuality with love and total acceptance no matter what, but I wonder if the experience you had as a child just magnified your capacity to understand and know your son’s pain in a more personal way. You are amazing!

  7. Tabitha
    January 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    …and your experience helped you to not allow your son to feel what you felt as a child. It’s almost like your son is the beneficiary of the hard experience you had – you stand like a wall between that experience and him. You simply won’t let that happen to him :)

  8. Mark
    January 20, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Thank you! I’m the only one in my family that is left handed. Even though I was born in 1951, I never experienced that anti-left bias. It was a source of pride and uniqueness. A very apt metaphor.

  9. January 20, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Wendy, so beautifully written and well told. I was also switched from left to right. I do believe that I became more sensitive to other’s experiences and differences. Thank you.

  10. Gretta
    January 20, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    What a lovely metaphor. Thank you.

  11. Diane Oviatt
    January 20, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Carlos,
    Clearly you are missing the whole point of Wendy’s essay. Handedness is no more a disability than skin color or sexual orientation. It is people’s intolerance of differences and misguided attempts at changing them (including literal, or misinterpretation of scripture) that is at the heart of this story. The author’s use of metaphor is useful in the context of helping us to bring more understanding to the table.
    Something that increases awareness and empathy can only be beneficial to everyone. Great writing and insight Wendy!

  12. Adrienne
    January 20, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    This is a brilliant metaphor. I am sorry that being a lefty caused you so much pain. I think that the bias towards “handedness” is a thing of the past. I am quite proud to say that 3 of my 6 kids are lefties. I love that the odds are against that and it is just a symbol for me of the odds of our family ever coming together at all. I am thankful for a world that is changing to celebrate the unique in people.

  13. Jen
    January 20, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Thanks Wendy <3

  14. January 21, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Thanks so much, Wendy! Although my parents didn’t know quite what to do with a gay son, my sister and I understood from them that our left-handedness was something special, a signal of creativity and blessing.

    What arbitrary and hurtful distinctions we humans make! On behalf of gay sons everywhere, thank you SO MUCH for working to create a world where our differences are not feared but valued.

  15. January 21, 2013 at 7:44 am

    FWIW… Edward reminded me that gay folks are more likely than the general population to be left-handed. I myself am right-handed, but the left-handed data is a clue about the genetic etiology of homosexuality…

  16. spiderlady
    January 21, 2013 at 8:46 am

    I too, am a lefty. The only way I was forced to change was by a teacher that didn’t want me to curl my hand over my writing, and would hold my wrist under my writing. To this day, I write left-handed the way right-handers do. When I was in college, my English 101 teacher saw me hunched over a right-handed teardrop desk, and said “Miss Shields, what on earth are you doing?” I explained the problem, and the next class period, where I sat, there were THREE left-handed teardrop desks. He said he found every one in the English building. I’ve never forgotten that kindness.

  17. spiderlady
    January 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Oh, I understood what she was getting at. I was just sharing my experience.

  18. Emily
    January 23, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Wendy, this brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for this beautiful piece. It hit really close to home and I am definitely sharing this with my family.

  19. Gina
    August 4, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    My husband is left-handed and recently wrote an editorial in The American Fork Citizen about it, except he didn’t reveal right away that he was talking about being a lefty. His article really made it sound like he was talking about being gay because of the “gotta-change-him” experiences he had growing up in France.

    Great article, Wendy.

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