Hard work has been ingrained in freshman Brock Freeman from a young age. When they were married, both his parents held jobs to provide for the five children in their family. His father often held two jobs while his mother worked 50 hours a week.
Now, Freeman has a job at McDonald’s in Mexico, Mo., where he can visit his dad.
“There’s really nothing you can get done without having to work with somebody else to do it,” Freeman said.
In 2013 Freeman and his mother moved to Columbia, Mo. so she could be closer to her work. He and his father only see each other on weekends when he is in Mexico, and they make sure to use the time they do have to go to the movies and hang out.
However, once Freeman told his father he is gay, Freeman said their relationship’s dynamic shifted. He believes his father’s perception of him has changed. Freeman said they don’t have the best relationship, and most of their interactions have an expiration date.
“I guess we can stand each other for two days. I guess that’s it, or barely,” Freeman said. “We’re always getting into arguments about something. It’s always stupid. I guess it’s rocky here and there.”
Freeman said he feels as if he must live up to his father’s rigid expectations.
“He likes me for who he hopes I will be,” Freeman said.
While no parent-child relationship is without flaws, family psychotherapist Dr. Bob Pelley said children act like sponges and will absorb and recreate what they witness from the interactions their parents have with one another in their homes.
“When there’s not harmony in the marriage,” Dr. Pelley said, “children, even though they may not intellectually understand it, they emotionally get wrapped up in it and triggered by it.”
Though he and his mother, Elley Freeman, sometimes argue, Brock Freeman said she is a loving person who does not particularly enjoy conflict. Elley Freeman works as an area director for a child care center, overseeing two nationally accredited child care centers in town, and supervises 70 employees and more than 200 children. Because of this, she said her family frequently complains that she works too much and has a tendency to prioritize her job over her children and spouse.
“My day starts at six in the morning with whomever’s not going to come to work that day. My phone rings at night. I work on the weekends,” Elley Freeman said. “So the biggest sacrifice is my day doesn’t end when I get home, and that has had a negative impact, I think, on my family.”
While Elley Freeman acknowledges her family’s concerns, she said she does not necessarily agree because her job is what supports them. Elley Freeman said it is important she be fully committed to her profession.
“I’d like my day to start at six o’clock with coffee,” Elley Freeman said. “It’s terrible to be so stressed out about the day before you’re even supposed to be at work.”
Although Elley Freeman has experienced divorce two times, her parents have been married for more than 60 years. Elley Freeman said her childhood was fairly stable. So much so that some people in her life even refer to it as “growing up in Mary Poppinsville.” When she was still living at home, she said she was involved in church, sports, youth group and Girl Scouts. Her family went on vacation every year, and her mom did not work outside of the home until Elley Freeman was in school.
While it was never outlined for her, Elley Freeman said she always felt expected to follow a linear path in her life, both personally and professionally. Growing up, she said her mother had strict rules for her in school and at home. Because of these experiences during her youth, Elley Freeman said she wanted to be a different type of parent when she had children.
“When I grew up, I decided that I would not be as strict with my children, and I went [to] the complete opposite end of the spectrum and decided that I would be more of an understanding parent,” Elley Freeman said. “I never felt like I could talk to my mom. I didn’t want that [for my children].”
To afford the move to Columbia, Elley Freeman and Brock Freeman began living with her then-partner and now wife, Tiffanie Tipton. Brock Freeman also shared their home with his niece, sister and older brother.
Elley Freeman said she does not think she provides Brock Freeman with enough discipline and that he gets the “old version” of her as a parent as she approaches 50 years of age. She believes her other kids had a “better” mom when she was in her early 20s.
Because both she and Tipton had years of separate experience raising children, they have different approaches to parenting that compliment each other. Elley Freeman said while she is “nice and sweet” to everybody, Tipton is more selective about who she will go out of her way to help.
“If Brock says, ‘Can I go to McDonalds?’ — and we talk about this often — the answer’s always going to be yes. Like, there’s no [hesitation]. I want to make everybody happy,” Elley Freeman said. “Tiffanie would say, ‘No, I don’t have time to take you,’ and she wouldn’t care that that upsets the other person.”
Though they still faced the challenge of blending two complex families, an aspect of Freeman and Tipton’s marriage that is different from ones they have experienced with previous partners is that they were both seeking a mature relationship.
Dr. Pelley said divorce often adversely affects children because of the negative behaviors they observe from their parents, such as poor conflict resolution skills, and can cause complications with their emotional development later in life.
“[Divorce] can affect [children] in terms of trusting intimate relationships, knowing how, through the role modeling of their parents, to be in an intimate relationship, knowing how to manage their emotions, knowing how to communicate directly,” Dr. Pelley said. “There’s a lot of things that kids get from parents.”
When two broken families come together, Dr. Pelley advised that the spouses should attend relationship classes either through a therapist or church. If they don’t, he said they run the risk of “unconsciously find[ing] themselves in [a] relationship with someone who triggers them in the same ways that their previous relationship had.”
No matter how perfect a family appears, parents often worry about their children drinking alcohol, having sex or doing drugs, and the Freemans were no exception.
When one of Brock Freemans’ sisters was 15 or 16 years old, she started experimenting with drugs. He said her “drug of choice” was prescription pills, though she also used marijuana, cocaine and heroin. And although she is now more than two years sober, her addiction lasted seven years.
On her road to recovery, she checked herself into a treatment center and eventually signed her parental rights to her daughter away to Elley Freeman.
“When I had a daughter, I thought my biggest concern was teenage pregnancy,” Elley Freeman said. “The drug use was not even anywhere in my mindset at all.”
Because Brock Freeman witnessed what drug use did to his sister, he said he has more insight into the effects of substance abuse than most other teenagers.
“I think what I’ve seen my sister go through is why I make the choices that I do,” Brock Freeman said. “I try to encourage my friends if I ever see anybody or hear of them [involved with drugs]. I try to do my best because I know what it does to people, and, you know, I just don’t want to see what happened to my sister happening to anybody else. It just seems like not a nice way to live your life.”
Brock Freeman said his mom used a “tough love” approach to help her daughter realize that what she was doing was dangerous, and she encouraged her to make better life choices.
“I was unhappy with how strict my mom was when I was younger, and I went way too far to the other side of the spectrum, and, I don’t know, I probably tried to be [his sister’s] friend more than I did her parent, make sure that she was happy with me,” Elley Freeman said. “I specifically moved to a small town to raise my children in a small town, and it just baffles me that [drug use] is so rampant.”
Though Elley Freeman regrets the struggles her daughter has faced, she is thankful for the relationships she has developed with all of her children, relationships that helped her raise her son. Brock Freeman feels confident enough in his mother’s and Tipton’s love and acceptance of him that he was able to come out without fearing their rejection. Perhaps because of this close bond, he gave little thought to his mother’s sexual orientation.
Since he can only remember living in a family with Elley Freeman and Tipton, Brock Freeman said there was never a specific point when his mother came out to him as bisexual.
“Not many people that I am friends with know about my mom, anyway,” Brock Freeman said. “I don’t know why that is. I just don’t make it a priority. You know, it would be like, ‘Hey, guys, my mom is married to another woman.’”
For Elley Freeman, living with and loving another person was less about her partner’s gender and more about who she believed would be a positive influence for both her and her children.
“I firmly believe that God put Tiffanie in my life for a reason. Part of [that reason] was the understanding of [my daughter’s] drug use,” Elley Freeman said. “I really do believe things like that happen for a reason.”
In Dr. Pelley’s opinion, a healthy relationship between parents, regardless of their sexualities, is necessary for a child’s growth and development, along with having male and female figures to look up to. He said allowing children to watch parents cooperate, support and argue with one another in a healthy way is vital during a person’s developmental years.
“I think a parent’s sexual orientation really has little bearing on a child’s emotional development. It’s a parent’s ability to be wise, to be loving, to be empathic, to have good boundaries with their children, to not let their personal lives bleed into their children’s lives, complaining about their partner or their spouse,” Dr. Pelley said. “These same problems occur with both gay relationships as well as straight relationships.”
Most parent-child connections are far from perfect, but their foundations of trust, love and order provide a structure kids can rely on throughout their lives. From youth to adulthood, the examples guardians set show children how to live and love during the good times and the bad, no matter who their partner happens to be.
“[My mom and I] don’t agree on everything. We’re always butting heads over everything, anything you could think of,” Brock Freeman said. “But at the end of the day, I’m glad that I have her because she just has helped me so much throughout my life.”