And Then We Had Hamburgers
Readers of my blog now know that I came out last year. I told pretty much all the key players in my life that I'm gay, one person at a time. It was freakin' exhausting to have The Conversation so many times, but it was good. Everyone in my life was amazing and supportive. This includes the good-hearted roughnecks who write on this web site.
One of the last people I came out to was my 10-year-old daughter, about nine months into the process. Strange that the final person to hear the news was one of the people who needed to know the most.
I was incredibly nervous leading up to the big conversation with her. I had no idea how to script it. But every single instinct I had told me that it was important to have this talk with her earlier, not later, if I wanted to protect my relationship with her. Not everyone agreed with me about this – some people I talked to thought I should wait until she was older, the idea being that she’d be more mature, and better able to “handle” it. But I knew that no matter how hard it might be now, it was going to be harder later on. For one thing, I was already fighting a social context. When kids at her school want to insult each other on the playground, they call each other Gay. Don't kid yourself -- no matter how much we may think we're preaching openness and acceptance to our kids, that’s still one of the biggest insults 5th graders lob at each other.
But more importantly: if I wanted my kid to grow up and be a truthful and honest person, I had to set an example. If I waited until she was 13 or 15 to tell her, she’d be deeply angry with me for withholding something so important from her. And she'd be right.
I picked the day. I committed to it. When that day arrived, of course, I didn’t feel ready. I didn't have my script prepared. But I’ve always had decent improv skills, so I decided to stop thinking about how to have the conversation, and just have it, letting my instinct be my guide.
On a sunny, brisk Saturday morning last January, I took my daughter up to a local beach park in La Jolla that we like. We go there every few weeks to watch the surf and say hi to the seals sunning themselves on the rocks.
After we’d sat on the seawall and idly counted the waves for a while, I turned to my girl and said, “You know what? I was hoping I could share something with you while we're here.”
She turned instantly wary. Any time a conversation begins to sound remotely sincere, her guard goes up. It’s probably textbook for children of divorce. (What's going on? What's happening? Is my life about to change again? Aaaaaaaaagh!) I told her it was nothing bad, it wasn’t anything that was going to change her life or her living situation again. In fact, it wasn’t even about her, I explained. It was about me.
“Ok,” she said slowly, relaxing next to me again. “What is it?”
“Well,” I said, starting the slow ramp-up, “I was just thinking about last June when Mommy and I told you we were getting divorced.”
She tensed up a little. The D Word still had that affect on her.
“Remember what we told you back then, about the reason why?”
“Yea. You told me that when people are married they should have Special Romantic Love, and that you guys don’t have that anymore because you have Best Friend Love instead, and it’s not good to be married if you only have Best Friend Love and that’s why you guys said you were going to get a divorce.”
(That’s a pretty accurate version of what we told her. It was what we came up with. Therapist-approved.)
“Right,” I said. “Which was true. But I bet at the time, that probably all sounded pretty weird.”
“What did you think about that explanation back then?” I asked.
To which she replied matter-of-factly: “I thought you weren’t telling me the whole story.”
Wow. Of course she had. Kids aren't stupid.
I asked her about other couples she knew who shared Romantic Love. She named all the ones I predicted: my parents, Saucy’s parents, Saucy’s sister and brother-in-law, etc. Yes, I told her, you’re right. They all share that kind of love. And then I told her that there were other couples who also shared that kind of love, folks she might not think of right away.
“Well, remember our neighbors Scott and Ryan?”
“They’re a couple too. They have Romantic Love.”
Her little brow furrowed. “But they’re both men.”
“Yep. But they’re still a couple.”
I mentioned another couple she knew. She sat with that information, but I could see she had no idea where I was going with this.
“It’s probably sort of a weird idea to get used to, but its not unusual,” I said. “See, some people are meant to have romantic love with people of the opposite gender, and other people are meant to have that with people of their own gender.”
“That’s called being gay. I totally know that.”
Well ok then, Miss Smarty pants. I nodded, and things were quiet for a minute. We sat, the heels of our sneakers bumping against the seawall. The winter sun eked out its pale light, and the waves crashed on the rocks below, and the seals barked grumpily at each other. And that’s when I realized this was it. That was pretty much all the groundwork I could do. There was only one more thing to say.
I tried to keep my tone smooth and non-dramatic. “Here’s the interesting part that may be tricky to understand," I said. "It took me a long while to figure it out, but I recently realized that I’m one of those people who's meant to have those romantic feelings with another man.”
“WAIT." She turned to look right at me. "You’re GAY?” she asked.
Totally stealing my thunder.
“Yea," I said simply. There was no reason to elaborate.
"So the whole divorce is your fault?"
I should've seen that punch in the gut coming. But it still hit me hard. I said it was more complicated than that, and decided not to tug at that thread anymore.
She got quiet. I watched her while pretending not to watch her. Her face was a total mask. I started to panic. Clouds kept dragging themselves lazily across the sun and it was getting chilly, so I suggested we walk. She nodded. We got up, and began heading down the pavement.
After a bit, I asked her what she was thinking. More tentatively than I'd like to admit.
“I seriously don’t know what I’m thinking about it, Daddy,” she said, "I have absolutely no idea." My blunt and truthful girl. My stomach started to sink. The kid always knows what she’s thinking. I know this because she’s always telling me about every single thought that drops out of her gumball machine brain. When she doesn't know how to verbalize her feelings, it's worrisome.
“I think…” she said after a minute, “that I’m feeling sort of mad.” Even though she really didn’t sound mad at all. I’ve seen Mad on her. It’s not pretty. This didn’t look like that.
“Fair enough,” I said. “That's totally allowed. Do you think you can figure out why you’re mad?”
She didn’t say she was mad about the fact that I was gay. No.
She said, slowly and methodically, “I think I'm mad that you didn’t tell me sooner.”
That’s when I knew that telling her then and there, when she was ten years old and not a millisecond older, had absolutely been the right call. I felt myself exhaling, possibly for the first time since we’d arrived at the park.
“I understand,” I said. “It’s not cool to keep stuff from your kids.”
We walked on for a while, side by side. I let her hold onto her own thoughts. We weren't done. It would take a while for her to process this, let alone understand it and get comfortable with it. (I'll let you know when we've reached that destination.) But right then, we simply strolled, breathed in salt air, and looked out at more lazy seals basking in the winter sun, brown and glossy on the rocks below.
Then we decided to go up the hill to our favorite restaurant and have hamburgers.