#11) Telling the Kids
At some point, you are doing the only thing left to do
This week we’re going to take a break from the exes and their lessons, to discuss a topic so many of you have asked about: how to tell your kids. Let me start by stating up front that this is my story and experiences. I am not a relationship or licensed therapist; rather, think of this as advice from a friend over coffee or a glass of wine. Let’s sit down at a table together, and I will share the tales of what I have lived and learned along the way!
I am not going to be prescriptive and tell you what to do, or how to do it. We each have our own unique journey. One message though is super important: please be kind and gentle with yourself. I will keep reminding you, because in retrospect, I was way too hard on myself. If you are a type A person, and want to carefully map out a plan, feel free—that exercise might be satisfying, and even give you a sense of control. But, being real, I can count on a single hand the number of women I have encountered who had things go as planned. If you veer off the path, do not despair. Almost all of us, myself included, were subject to the messiness and unpredictability of life, but we managed it the best we could. My college buddy Lauren Myers has a saying that is apropos here: People plan, God laughs.
What turned out to be my actual coming out to my kids and their circles happened years after I had already been living as an out lesbian in the suburbs and at work. It was back in 2007, and I was home one afternoon on a conference call for work, when I noticed my cell phone buzzing. The calls were coming from my friend Debbie, who was repeatedly trying to call! That afternoon, I had the luxury of both my kids having playdates at friends’ houses, so I wasn’t at the 2:40 p.m. grade school pick up. I told my work colleagues that I needed to place them on hold, fearing it might be a kid emergency, and picked up Debbie, “Deb, is everything okay?”
Debbie’s two children had been friends with mine since they were two-year-olds in nursery school. We did a lot together as families. She warned, “Prepare for your phone to be ringing tonight!” Her daughter had gotten into the car after school, and proclaimed, “Amy is gay!” Debbie thought that was an odd observation six years later, so she asked what had happened. Her daughter reported that my daughter told the girls about Jenny at lunch, “My mom has a cool, new girlfriend.” Girlfriend? the other fourth grade girls asked? Amy has a girlfriend?Debbie laughed, relaying that her daughter’s biggest concern was, “Is Amy going to cut her hair short and start dressing badly now?” I know, the lesbian stereotypes of 15 years ago, long before popular culture made being LGBTQ zeitgeist with Generation Z.
Some perspective on the fourth grade girls’ epiphany that I was a lesbian: all of them had over years seen Lauren, my first, and I together a myriad of times. I hosted them for countless sleepovers, for many of which she and I slept together in the master bedroom. She wasn’t living with us, but she was around a fair amount. Debbie and her kids, and other families, had gone out to dinner, the movies, ice skating, and more with Lauren, my kids, and me. The girls didn’t bat an eyelash about Lauren being my adult partner, and apparently it did not register that we were gay. It took a word said out loud—the label, girlfriend—for them to see Lauren and me as anything more than just two grown-ups.
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I never did get other parent calls—maybe Debbie ran interference? My kids came home, and I asked about their day. My daughter was apparently completely nonplussed about the whole thing: she didn’t even mention it as part of her day, so I let it go. As opposed to three years later in middle school when a girl shouted the name of the boy she had a crush on during class—that felt to her like the world was ending! The drama of my being a lesbian had the shelf life of an afternoon, then poof!, the fourth graders moved on to more pressing matters like who had the newest Hannah Montana doll.
If you are planning to have a conversation with your children, meet them where they live. Speak plainly to them, in an age appropriate manner. Don’t tell them things they are too young to understand and process. Especially if they are younger, let them lead where the conversation goes by making simple statements, and allow them to determine by asking if there are other concerns and areas of curiosity. Less is more! Also remember, your children are not there to comfort or assure you as peers. That is the role of your friends, family, or psychotherapist. It was important that I opened the door to a conversation with my daughter after Debbie’s call, but she didn’t walk through it, so I let it be. The key is to leave the door open for future discussions.
My daughter’s declaration at lunch had important take-aways. It was Jenny, the ‘career lesbian’ from stories #4 and #5, comfortable in her own skin with her sexual identity, who gave my daughter the sense that this was all okay. That is a gift. Lauren was not ready to fully embrace being gay. She would vacillate from holding hands on vacation just the two of us, to wanting to remain hidden locally. One Sunday morning, after dropping the kids off at Hebrew School, we drove to the bagel store. My friend Michelle and her husband were on the same schedule, a minute ahead. I was ready to get out of the car and say hello, but Lauren grabbed my arm as I was about to open my car door, saying, “Let’s wait until they leave.” Apparently, Michelle had seen us, and when I ran into her at our Temple pick up a week later, she asked, “What was that about?” I found myself in a familiar pattern of fibbing to explain away the positions Lauren put me in, which not so gradually was also alienating me from many of my friends.
If you have a girlfriend or partner as you embark on coming out to your children, choose wisely. If they are ashamed of their sexuality, kids can sniff that right out—they will know! You are inadvertently signaling to them that being a lesbian is something to be hidden. Your shame, or your partner’s shame, becomes their hesitancy and discomfort. My best advice is for you, and any potential partner, to learn to be confident and comfortable with your sexual identify—not just for yourselves, but also for the kids’ sakes.
Fortunately, today the country is a much better place for LGBTQ people to be. The same fourth graders who were stunned by the idea of a girlfriend fifteen years ago are part of a generation that in the ensuing years would lead the way down the path to mainstreaming LGBTQ people. Generation Z normalized having classmates who identified as every letter in the acronym LGBTQIA2S+, the elongation of which itself signified the growing acceptance of a spectrum of sexual identities and gender fluidity. One in six Gen Zers identify as LGBT (Gallup polling’s term), the most of any generation by far. Granted, there are still pockets of homophobia and transphobia in this generation, but it is as if they are ushering our country around the corner to a new block, full of possibilities and acceptance.
Even as an out gay women, ahead in my generation, I was behind Generation Z. In 2015, much of the country watched Caitlyn Jenner open up to ABC News’ Diane Sawyer about transitioning in a series of interviews. We watched the series as a family, riveted and learning as progress was being made before our eyes. Days later, I had the local TV news on in the background while cooking dinner, as the kids were doing homework nearby. The news covered the story of Caitlyn transitioning, showing her as former Olympian Bruce Jenner. In between dicing, I commented, “He used to be on my cereal boxes growing up.” Without skipping a beat, both of my children corrected me, “SHE!” Mommy had a teachable moment care of her children!
By then, my sexual identity had blended in like the curtains in the den. My kids were comfortable enough to tease me, nicknaming my newly leased Subaru the “Lesbaru” (I marched right into that stereotype). But getting there was anything but joyous. Especially in the early years after coming out, the decision to leave my marriage and embrace my sexual identity brought me to my knees. Many nights I cried myself to sleep. I felt, and held deeply, a tremendous amount of guilt. Had I been selfish? Should I have stayed unhappily married to a man for the children’s sake? The Silent Generation stayed married no matter how miserable they were together, until the Boomers broke that mold. My generation followed that pattern, staying heterosexually married—feeling trapped within the walls of despair by the mores of our time. The Millennials, and more so Generation Z, will not make that mistake.
There is a moment of time—a night, an experience—where things started to shift for me. It was in 2006, on one of my first dates after things had ended with Lauren. Her name was Rebecca, and she was a slightly older, beautiful, Jewish psychotherapist with long, dirty blond, wavy hair and deep blue eyes. She had formerly been a dancer, and had a way of moving that I found incredibly sensual. We sat at a candle-lit table at a French bistro down the block from her office. We had instant chemistry, and were smiling at each other as we took turns telling the stories of our lives. When she asked about my coming out, it was still fresh enough after a bitter divorce that my kids had to endure, that as I relayed my story I got teary-eyed, and wiped away stray tears with my napkin. After I finished, she looked at me very seriously but tenderly, took my hand in hers, and calmly assured, “You didn’t leave him, you were gay.” I can still see us seated at that table. Her words transformed me, and paved a path for me to forgive myself. I can’t tell you the number of times I replayed that line in my head to give myself comfort, let alone assurance that I had made the right, and only, decision.
I still struggled with the guilt over the years, as I suspect a lot of divorcing parents do, for raising my children in something other than a conventional family. Was I selfishly putting them at a disadvantage? From the outside, their friends had what seemed to be the perfect, heterosexually and happily married parents, while my kids were stuck with being raised by a single lesbian parent, and the only one in town. How could I do this to them?
I wish I could connect with that Amy and tell her it would all turn out okay. That the guilt was just me telling stories to myself, not reality. It turned out, so many of those families that look ideal from the outside were unhappy places on the inside. I worked hard and sacrificed to be present and fill our home with laughter. The dogs helped—especially Arleen, my now 17 year-old mischievous co-parent, who rode in the backseat every day for school pick up, and when the kids got in the car, the first thing they asked was, “What did Arleen do today?” about her antics. We sat down to dinner together each night and shared one good thing that had happened to us that day, even on days when that one thing was hard to come by. I also made a conscious decision as I gradually became their only active parent to put them ahead of my dating life and career. It was a choice, my choice—not advising, rather sharing my journey.
It was only in recent years that I fully understood that love makes a family. Last summer, my son, who is not generally the most forthcoming with the compliments to Mom—I mean, he’s a guy—told me one of the nicest things ever, in passing. He joyously recounted a story from the night before, when he and his group of friends had hashed it out, and jointly decided that even though he was raised by a single lesbian and dogs that think they are human, that he grew up in the most normal home of all of them. It was perhaps the kindest, most affirming story of my choices. It all worked out.
The truism I have learned as a lesbian parent, is the most important thing you can do for your children is put yourself in a position to be happy. It is not what it looks like from the outside that matters, it’s what is happening inside the home. If you are miserable, your kids feel that intuitively, and it impacts you all. It takes a lot of courage to get to the other side, and live as your authentic self. It might be a journey you are ready to take now, or maybe not yet. You might find a catalyst girlfriend to help you along, or you might just reach a point where living a lie becomes intolerable. There is no right or wrong way, each journey is unique and filled with ups and downs, highs and lows—just as life is for everyone. Remember to be kind to yourself, and if and when you do make the leap, embrace it and know you are doing your best. At some point, you are doing the only thing left to do.
There can be a happy ending. You will know when it is time. Trust your inner voice, always. Be gentle and forgive yourself. As the great Mary Oliver expressed so eloquently,
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?