Coming Out Later in Life - Letting Go of Fear - "How Are the Kids?"

It was February and two months before I had left the home I shared with my husband of 27 years.  I had made arrangements to house-sit to save some money and to have a place that I could call my own for a couple of months before I would make a decision about my future.  Yes, I finally left my marital home, but I still thought, somehow, that I could “put the gay away."   

I lived in a lovely section of the world.  It is a beautiful place filled with rolling hills, copious flora and fauna, woodland creatures, and easily attainable solitude.  A sculptor’s home became my place of refuge for those five months.  It was a unique place filled with bronze statues of naked women (yeah me!) , a well supplied art room that I was allowed to use,  a steam room shower for those frigid winter months, and a breathtaking view of a protected nature preserve.  It was my sanctuary during this difficult time.  I had met Hope (see Part V) and I was in the midst of a burgeoning love story.  After four months of messaging and phone calls Hope and I met in person and I could finally confirm that, my suspicions were correct, and I am definitely a lesbian.  My first weekend with her was the most romantic weekend of my life.  

The home had two bedrooms because I planned that my youngest son, Jack, was going to stay with me intermittently while staying with his father in our home.  Unfortunately, and to my dismay, my son refused to stay with me.  He was filled with anger and hurt because he could not believe that his father and I were divorcing and my coming out was secondary in his pain.   I understood this, guilt stricken, and desperate not to cause him any more, I acquiesced.  After the first few weeks he no longer stayed with me overnight although we continued to see each other every day.   It broke my heart. I missed him and the everydayness of being together.  It birthed a deepening awareness within me that this process was going to be far more difficult then I ever imagined.  If I was going to be true to who I am, I would have to see the children I love in pain as they began to integrate this new reality into their life.   

My other children began to distance themselves from me and I pushed away as well.    In hindsight I believe that we all were reeling because of the many changes that were occurring in out family unit and all of us were grieving.   My children were aware that my ex and I had struggled for years and they witnessed our arguments and the typical spats of a long-married couple.  Conversely they also witnessed my ex and I working hard on our marriage for 10 years and we had reached a detente.  We rarely argued anymore, but we did lead very separate lives, except for family events and gatherings.  After a long time of chaos we were peaceful as a couple.   Personally I was still restless and would look upon my future with a feeling of "is this all there is?"   I didn't leave my marriage all those years because I was so afraid to upset this life my ex-husband and I worked so hard to create, but more importantly I did not want to cause any pain to my children.  Instead I harbored this ever present feeling of loneliness amid a crowd and struggled to find wholeness in many different ways including ministry.  I would look longingly at the gay women and men I knew and want to desperately be with my people.   Letting go of fear allowed this to happen.  

I have been asked many times how did my children react to the news of my coming out and the divorce.  There is no short answer to these questions and I have since realized that each reacted fairly typical to their personality.  Originally I was touched by people's concern for my children and for some it was a genuine concern because they knew both my family and me well.  However as I went along in this process I realized some ask this question because they do not see me, or any women, as a separate individual from their children.  It was almost always the first question when they found out what was occurring.   My coming out as a lesbian did not have anything to do with my children, it had to with me as an individual.   

Like many women I bought into this societal norm and helped cultivate this image of highly involved super caring mother.  It did fulfill several parts of me, but not every part of me.   I struggled with the fact that by wanting this divorce and coming out people would judge me and perhaps not see me in this light anymore.  In the uptight New England community in which I lived heteronormative motherhood, couplehood, and "intact families" is seen as a very high virtue.  What do I mean by intact families?  The scenario of a married father, mother and children as ideal and every deviation from this is secondary.  This societal norm is antiquated, but still holds a very firm place in our collective consciousness.    Ironically, my UCC church where I attended and ministered, knew me as an individual before they ever knew me as a Mom, and they were so accepting and supportive of my coming out.  It was my non-religious community (i.e. mommy friends and couple friends) that greeted me with a wall of silence and judgement.  This was more about my divorce and people's fear of a well respected couple divorcing in a homogenous community.  If this could happen to John and Anne-Marie, maybe this could happen to us?  On an another level for some there was also a questioning of their own sexuality.  My ex husband outed me to our entire community on a mission to ensure everyone would know that the divorce was "not his fault."  Not one person in my circle called me to ask me any questions or to offer any support or to offer condolences on the divorce including most of my family.    It was the outliers of the antiquated societal norm, the divorced and the LGBTQ community who became my loving support system.  

I am the Mom of four and each of my children handled the last couple of years unique to their individual coping styles.  My daughter Marie knew the most about my unhappiness with my marriage and about my sexuality and was supportive, but initially distant.  I believe she understood at a brain level all that was going on, but her heart was broken.   She loves being in this brood and although she would frequently roll her eyes at my ex and I , she got us as parents, but also understood that the relationship between my ex and I was patched-up dysfunctional.  She was born an old soul.  It has been a gift to watch her navigate this difficult time, including personal decisions she recently made, with thoughtfulness and genuine caring for both of her parents.  Half-jokingly I call her Switzerland.  

Elizabeth took both the divorce and coming out the hardest.  A quick caveat she was struggling with her own mental health issues through this period so the whole situation quickly dissolved into turmoil because both of us were separately struggling deeply.  She has been very public on the internet about these struggles as a way to help others.  Elizabeth is also my child who feels her emotions intensely and she has used this ability to perform brilliantly in the creative arts.   She was furious that her father and I were divorcing.   Elizabeth has a large group of friends that are part of the LGBTQ+ community.  She also could not understand how I could have remained in the closet for so long and I don’t think she believed that I was gay.  This stunned me because she was such an ally to the community and I though she was going to be an ally to me.  She was not and I felt betrayed.  I believe she feels betrayed because she was at a very difficult time in her own life and I was unable to help her at all. The anger, sadness and grief that existed between the two us, during this period, was insurmountable.  Neither of us, both loss in our own suffering, could navigate a path though this dark woods to find each other.   It was like a brutal breakup of two people who loved each other intensely, but could just not understand each other anymore.    We are now in the midst of repairing this relationship, not returning to the way it was, but creating something new.   I am proud that Elizabeth worked very hard to find help, guidance, support and some healing with her mental health issues.   The Mom piece of me really wishes I could have been there for her, and I have since apologized, but I could not because my world was literally crumbling around me as I was diagnosed with severe depression.   

Jason, twenty at the time and in the midst of his junior year of college and he had just fallen in love.  For Jason, everything was out of sight, therefore it was out of mind.  I really don’t blame him, if I had just met someone, and my divorcing-parents-coming-out-mom were 2,000 miles away, I would ignore everything as well.  He reminds me of his father who also is brilliant at compartmentalizing.   Unfortunately every time Jason was confronted that this was actually happening, he would shut down.  When he came home for a visit, Christmas, even as late as his college graduation in May, after his Dad and I were divorced, he was stunned into sadness by the reality of the situation.  His young male bravado would come down and that sweet sensitive soul would finally shine through.  I hope Jason will realize someday that this vulnerable piece of him, that he hides so relentlessly from the world, is really one of the most beautiful things about him.  My coming out helped me to see this about my beautiful son, his vulnerability, because in the past I only saw his bravado, which was like oil to my water.  

My fourth, Jack, is my wonder child.  Out of my four children, his world was turned upside down the most.   He was 13 when all of this began and although he knew that his Dad and I struggled he truly was unaware of my sexuality as was his older brother.  I had to come out to both of my sons.   As I wrote earlier when I left the home I hoped Jack would come with me as well.  I realized the change was great and I did not expect him to live with me full time,  but I rationalized he would spend 1/2 his time with me at my sanctuary home.  It was too much for him and he did not stay with me those four months.  For a period, although we saw each other every, day we were distant with stunted conversations.  Then something magical happened, with the support of Jason who went to dinner with us, he finally met Hope about eight months after I did.  He realized that she was not some horrible person, but a funny, kind, non-threatening woman who loved his Mom.  Suddenly he stopped being distant, slightly hostile and became an ally to Hope and I.  He really liked her and I am thankful for Jack, because with his acceptance he broke down the barrier for the others to accept this very new relationship as well.  I believe Jack is a peacemaker and he wanted for everyone just to get along.  I also believe after so much change he realized that he had to accept some of it so that he could feel more peaceful inside.  

I write this experience through the lens of hindsight and my insights might not reflect how my children view the situation.  Most of the turmoil of this time has finished although it will still occasionally crop up.  My coming out changed the dynamics of my family and I would be liar if I did not say that I miss “us” and how we were.  Not all the time, but occasionally, I miss being the matriarch of this large, rowdy group.  I also know this is part and parcel of grief, and it is very normal to miss things from your past. I do not miss when the family would all tease or “gang-up” on me like families often do with each other.  I do not miss refereeing these times for my children.   You see the problem with being the matriarch is that we always exist within the context of the patriarch and all of us have preordained and assigned roles.  Our children never got to see my ex and I as true individuals, because they only related to us as a couple.  Kids often don’t have clue that their parents are very separate individuals outside their couple-hood.

Our children never got to see my ex and I as true individuals because they only related to us as a couple.

Our children never got to see my ex and I as true individuals because they only related to us as a couple.

 One of the other unexpected gifts of coming out of the closet and stepping into the light is that the light also exposed some of the darker parts of our family life together and there are parts of our familial relationship that I am very content to leave behind. Nothing horrible, just the usual dysfunction that exists within most family units.   I have had the opportunity to know each one of my children separately and truly understand them without being hindered by the family dynamics of being together in one place.  Invariably when four kids get together childhood rivalry and sibling spats almost always kick in.    I spent one-on-one time with each child individually these past couple of years and they have been forced to relate to me as an individual without their Dad around.  It makes the dynamics very different between us and for me, most of the time,  it is better.  I will never be the "matriarch" as I was in this family again, but I will always be their mom who loves each of these precious beings with a fierce, spilling-over love for each of them as individuals.  Acknowledging my authentic God-created individual self has helped me see these four beautiful unique persons in a whole new light.  I am now blessed with hindsight and I working toward gratefulness for this experience, because it raised my consciousness on what it means to be a mom and a family. 

Anne-Marie Zanzal