Why I wish I would have come out to my kids sooner than I did

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For most of us, coming out is not an easy feat. We worry about what our families might think about us, how it will affect our employment, or how we’ll be treated if we show affection to our partner in public. Then there are the small percentage of us who have to come out to a different group of people, bringing on an additional set of worries: our children. I am not referring to those who have children with their partners and have raised their kids in a same-sex household from day one, but those mothers who realized they were gay after they had their children as part of a heterosexual relationship.

I am one of those mothers.

One of my biggest regrets in life is not being truthful with my kids from the beginning. I thought I was somehow protecting them. I had built up in my head that they would be bullied at their Catholic school, or that parents wouldn’t let their kids play with mine, or that they would be even more hurt than they were already living in a broken home. We lived in a state that was far from accepting the LGBT community at that time, and I was simply afraid. Although I never tried to hide what “being gay” meant and they were very accepting of the idea, they didn’t know it included their mother.

The day I chose to finally tell my kids, they were ages eight and 11. I’d left their father five years before, after realizing my sexuality, so I let five years go by without telling them the truth. I let five years pass with them thinking my partner was just my friend; just my roommate. I headed to the local library in hopes of finding children’s books written on the topic—maybe the books could reach them on a level that I couldn’t. I found a total of three relevant books in the entire library. I am sure today there are more to chose from, but I felt defeated. See? No one wants to talk about this with their kids.

As I sat down with my partner and my sons, I tried to find the words that would make sense to a child. I was so nervous and scared that this was going to change my relationship with them forever. Once I finished explaining my relationship, my oldest son looked at me and said, “I already knew this—Dad told me. But its OK, mom. I love you.”

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Two things happened inside me at that moment. One was the feeling of regret. I wasn’t the one who told them; someone had beaten me to the punch. Whether it was right for their dad to do that or not was besides the point—I felt like I failed them. The second thing I was feeling was pride. My children both looked at me and said they loved me. They weren’t ashamed, and they didn’t care what people thought. I was so proud of them and felt so loved in that moment. Of course, there were many other words, hugs and tears involved, but there was finally a sense of relief in our home. 

If you are a mother, you can relate to the feeling of wanting to protect your child in any way you can. This tiny human is counting on you to make all the right decisions, and it can be scary thinking that maybe your coming out to them could somehow have a negative impact on their lives.

Other lesbian moms I spoke with had similar concerns. For Carol Cleaver, these fears kept her from coming out to her kids until much later in life.

“I waited until I was serious about a woman, whom later became my wife, before I opened up to them,” Carol said. “I also waited until I was certain that custody of the children wouldn’t be an issue with my ex-husband. I definitely went through a period of time where I was concerned that he might use my homosexuality against me to get custody of the children.” 

At the time, Carol’s children were 16, 14 and 10 and they sensed their mother was gay even before she could come out to them.

“They all claimed to have already known,” she said “They were all very happy for me. Basically, the biggest comment was, ‘I knew it!’ They were instantly protective of me, too.”

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The story is similar for Sarah Ilich. Although her kids were only two and four when she came out to them, she was scared they would reject her in some way.

“I was terrified to tell them,” Sarah said. “After being with a guy for 16 years, my new relationship was not well-received by my family, so I was very nervous—scared to death, actually. Everyone else who didn’t agree didn’t matter to me. But my kids, that’s a different story. I would have died. It felt that way, anyway.”

Sarah, like most of us, had built up in her head that this news was going to hurt. Their reactions were actually the opposite.

“Their response, to be honest, was like they could care less,” Sarah said. “I was so worked up and so worried that they would hate me and they were just like ‘OK, mama, whatever.’”

Coming out to anyone can feel like such a scary experience, so it seems only natural that coming out to your kids can feel even more overwhelming. After having a chance to talk with other mothers who have been in similar situations, I realize that it was OK to have some fears about how my relationship would affect them, because that’s what mothers do. We analyze every situation on how it will have an impact on them. Although I wish I would have been up front with my sons sooner, I do not blame myself for wanting to give them protection, even if they didn’t need it.

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Follow Erin Faith Wilson on Twitter: @erinfaithwilson