What Do I Tell My Kids?
A middle-aged man, who’d just came out to his wife and requested that he not be identified in any way, asked how to come out to his children.
When I came out, I was in my early forties, and I had been married for eighteen years. My wife and I had two children under the age of thirteen. Having lost my father when I was three years old, my highest commitment was always to be the best father I could possibly be, and I felt so much sadness, shame, and guilt when even thinking about walking away from them.
What I later discovered was that I hadn’t really walked away as much as I thought I had, but our family dynamic definitely changed, and it took a while to feel that I hadn’t abandoned them.
I missed most those casual moments where I connected with them on an unexpected but intimate level. It would happen on the way to their dance classes or over a quick glass of orange juice just before school. Losing those moments was very difficult. After I left, my interactions were more like scheduled events, and of course they were stained with our grief. But those losses are no greater for someone who’s coming out than they would be for anyone who is divorcing.
What is different is that when you’re still in the middle of your epic crisis, you haven’t yet experienced the powerful sense of freedom that comes when the person you know yourself to be inside blends with the person you present to others. Even so, nothing balances out for that sense of loss you’re feeling.
A possible benefit from coming out to them is that presenting yourself as you are rather than as you previously have can create a new level of authenticity to them. We can get much closer to others when we make ourselves vulnerable and let people know us deeply. By telling them you hope that they will accept you as you are, you can also tell them that you will always accept them as they are.
I think delaying telling kids until after the school year is appropriate, but I think it can be delayed too long as well. Kids know their parents very well, and they know something is up. They may even have some ideas. My kids did, although I never knew how. Before my wife and I had even discussed divorce, my younger daughter went to school and told her second-grade classmates that we were getting divorced. Children are very perceptive. Their world is also much different than yours and mine when we were their ages, and they will have had some exposure to divorce before.
For my kids, the bigger problem was the divorce, not my sexual identity. Kids just don’t want their parents apart. It shatters the grand expectations we all have when we marry and have a family. Only when the family situation has been terrible will kids think their lives would be improved by the separation of their parents.
I think the message they need to hear is this: you married their mother for all the right reasons based on the information you had at the time. Tell them you still love her (assuming you do) but not in the way you once hoped and thought you would. Later you discovered things about yourself that you didn’t know when you married her, and that has changed your feelings. Emphasize that this was a change in you and not due to some concerns you may have had about your spouse.
I often use the myth of Santa Claus to explain how psychological denial of our sexual orientation works. Children at first believe that Santa Claus exists, without question. But as clues emerge, they desperately want to continue to believe in the myth; after all, they have a lot to gain by continuing to believe it. Sometimes they cling to the belief far too long; sometimes they only pretend to believe because they know their parents expect it. But then, there is a moment when their outlook shifts, and they just know they must give up and accept that it was all a myth.
As to what to tell them, I like the model of how to tell kids about sex: we tell them only what their level of maturity allows them to understand. Answer their questions but don’t tell them more than they are ready to hear. Your guilt will drive you to want to confess more than is necessary.
I think it is safe and appropriate to say to them, “I cheated on your mother with men and in the process, I discovered a connection with another human being that I never had with your mother through no fault of hers. I discovered that I am not the person I thought I was, the person I wanted so desperately to be. I wanted it so much that I blocked it out of my mind just like you did when your friends first told you there was no Santa Claus. Now that I have discovered it, I can’t pretend any longer.”
All the details of what happened, when and with whom, are unimportant. You only need to accept responsibility for cheating on their mother, admit your shame about it, and tell them that you hope that some time, if not now, they can forgive you. But their forgiveness is out of your control.
If a period of estrangement happens, continue to make efforts to tell them you love them and that you miss them. I like post cards for this. Just send them a note that says “I’m thinking about you and I miss you.” Avoid having expectations or sending messages that have a hook. All you need is a simple expression of your feelings. Do it regularly and often.
Try to remember that if you were a good parent before they discovered this new fact about you, they will still remember you as a loving parent. They may be confused, angry, and resentful; validate their feelings and accept responsibility.
Now, thirty-five years later, I find that I am still my kids’ dad, and they come to me, and I to them, as father and daughters.