Opinion: My Catholic mother-in-law didn’t rush to accept me as her gay son’s partner. But we surprised each other

Woman grins with her hand on her hip in a kitchen
Barbara Rose Killen, who died on June 3, built an unexpected relationship with her son’s partner.
(Courtesy of Douglas Braun-Harvey)

My mother-in-law died on June 3. We first met in her Wallingford, Conn., kitchen the day after Christmas in 1987. This was a few years after her son Al, my partner (now husband) of 36 years, first disclosed to her that she had a gay son. She was accepting but drew the line at “never wanting to meet a man Al was with.” A daughter of Irish-Catholic immigrant parents, she found it too much in the mid-’80s to convey approval by welcoming someone like me into her home.

And yet, six months after Al and I met that summer in San Diego, here I was at her Wallingford kitchen table, sharing a meal of Al’s favorite scallops. She was aloof, yet not rejecting or mean. Over the next few years, I would discover that meanness was not in her character. She was conflicted, but she was not the kind of person to deflect her moral conflict via hostility toward me or her son. She loved Al too much for such things.

I never imagined I would have a “mother-in-law.” Such a thing was inconceivable for a gay male couple in those days. We were busy just trying not to be rejected.


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Yet over time, she and I developed a mutual respect that eventually became a relationship with a son-in-law whom she never expected she could love.

Six months after our 1987 Christmas meeting, Al was diagnosed with a medical condition that required brain surgery. He came through the surgery beautifully. When Mr. and Mrs. Killen (this was what they asked me to call them) walked into the post-op hospital room after their emergency flight from Connecticut, Al said, without hesitation and in a strong post-anesthesia voice, “Doug’s in charge.”

Al’s parents could have protested. They had the legal rights, not me. But they didn’t. They loved Al too much for such things.

On our next trip to Wallingford, they had moved into the family home passed down across generations. Al’s sister told us they had prepared for our stay by moving the guest room’s double bed into the basement and setting up twin beds instead. Al said simply that this is not how we sleep. We would be fine with going to a hotel or returning the double bed to its previous location. The bed moved; we stayed. The room never changed again.

I noticed during later visits that Mrs. Killen made sure to stock her refrigerator with my favorite New England soda, birch beer (feel free to look it up). She knew how much I loved her baked macaroni and cheese and made it a tradition to serve it for us in Connecticut. I also became her VCR technician. She relied on me to program her video recorder to tape her beloved UConn women’s basketball games. One time she called our home — it was still the landline era — and Al answered. He heard the caller ask, “Is Doug home?” Al said, “Is this you, Mom?” To which she replied, “Yes, but I need Doug to help me with the VCR.”


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She spoke with her actions. Rather than flexing her parental authority by rejecting her son’s relationship, she prioritized her love for him. Simple gestures, such as offering food, conveyed her deep well of affection that now included me.

Before Al’s father died, the four of us took vacations together. On these trips, Mr. and Mrs. Killen could be free from their grandparent duties and fully enjoy our doting on them. Gathering as two couples, we created our own special memories in San Francisco, Puerto Vallarta, the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles and Al’s and my home during many dinners with our chosen San Diego family.

My mother-in-law died on the third day of Pride month this year. I thought it would be a fitting tribute to honor Mrs. Killen and her journey from just accepting me to eventually loving and including me as part of her family. I am proud of her, and proud of Al and myself. Over the past 36 years we each leaned into the love between mother, son and son-in-law.

Happy Pride to every mother-in-law who has chosen to enrich their life by expanding themselves and spreading their love to someone like me who never expected, and had to learn how, to embrace it.

Douglas Braun-Harvey is cofounder of the Harvey Institute, a sexual health author and trainer and a sex therapy supervisor.