Without question, the hardest thing I ever had to do as a mother was to tell my son that his father and I were getting a divorce because I was a lesbian.
On the surface, we were a typical well-off middle-class suburban family. Josh's father and I had good careers; he was a marine draftsman, and I was a nurse. Josh was a typical boy for his time and place. He lived and breathed hockey, and sometimes it seemed little else interested him. We lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, my husband and I rarely fought, and in fact, we actually got along quite well -- on the surface. In reality, I had a secret.
I struggled through my teens and twenties with agonizing questions about my sexual identity. It wasn't made easier by the fact that I didn't fit the stereotypical lesbian image, nor did I feel anything but traditionally feminine. As I put it to myself in high school, I wasn't "that way." I was no more or less vulnerable to the stereotypes of the times than anyone else. I was successful in my attempts to sublimate my inner conflicts until I neared 30. At that point, I couldn't go on lying anymore.
There was no epiphany. I didn't have a passion-inspired sexual encounter with another woman, and suddenly realize, "Oh, I'm a lesbian! Just think, after all these years..." In fact, I never had sex with another woman until well after I came out to myself. Coming out was a process that played out over several years, starting with admitting that I couldn't lie to myself any longer, and culminating in the dreaded day I had to tell Josh.
In looking back, I think Josh would have been any mother's dream child. He was a boy's boy, enamored of all things connected to the outdoors and sports. His particular passion was hockey after his father started him in a five and six-year-old league. From there, passion became obsession, and he and his father had visions of him being the next Wayne Gretzky. By the time he was eight, he was involved in leagues that had him playing eight out of twelve months a year. It seemed at times my life was reduced to work and carting Josh around to dozens of rinks at all hours of the day for practices, tournaments, and individual games. I wasn't a fan of hockey, but I figured if I was going to have to sit there in cold arenas freezing my rear-end off, I had two options: learn to appreciate the game, or suffer. Appreciating the game was easier.
Josh wasn't especially fond of school, but he always did well. He knew playing hockey required good grades. He was never a boy to misbehave much in the first place, but if he gave me a hard time, all I had to say was, "You don't pick up your room, I don't bring you to hockey practice tomorrow." He pushed his luck on that only once. He found out I wasn't bluffing.
Unless he was on the ice, where he morphed into a beast I hardly recognized, he was very laid back and easy-going. Nothing seemed to faze him; he took everything in stride. He also had a wonderfully mature sense of humor (mature in the sense of dry, witty, and complex, as opposed to raunchy). He figured out the art of making me laugh at a young age.
There were times when he was growing up where it felt like, between Josh and his father, there was so much testosterone floating around I'd spontaneously grow a beard. He loved to do all the guy things his father liked to do: hunting, fishing, snowmobiles, ATVs and sports of all kinds. For all his love of the outdoors and hockey, he was really more Mummy's Boy than Daddy's Boy. If he took a particularly bad beating in a hockey game, he'd secretly come to me crying, unwilling to show a weakness to his father. I'd undress him, draw a tub, and help him into his pjs after his bath. He was particularly sensitive to my moods. If I was feeling especially down, he'd make me a cup of tea and bring it to me with a cookie. Or he'd climb on my lap and cuddle, knowing little affections like that always lifted my spirits.
The first steps in my coming out revolved around my inner struggle. I had to honestly admit it to myself, and then I had to come to grips with my own notions, prejudices, and expectations of what being a lesbian meant. That's not as simple and straightforward as it sounds; at least it wasn't for me.
None of this was helped by the fact that, without knowing it at the time, I was suffering with a deep and dark depression. Many nights, I could hear the Banshees wailing. During the darkest times, the only thing that kept me from killing myself was my son. He didn't know then, nor does he know now (I think) that he kept me going. How could I deprive him of a mother, and in the most painful way imaginable? I couldn't, so just by being he kept me alive.
An inevitable part of my coming out process was telling the people who needed to know. My "need to know" list was very small: My ex-husband, my parents, a few very close friends, and my son. My ex proved to be surprisingly easy. It was almost a relief for both of us. It freed us from an empty, sterile relationship that was doomed from the start. I felt tremendous guilt that I'd cost him perhaps the best years of his life, depriving him of all the things a spouse has every right to expect from a marriage. We ended up parting on excellent terms, and we remain very good friends to this day.
That left Josh. Whether my feelings and fears were rational is irrelevant. They were the fears and feelings I was dealing with, pure and simple. I was terrified he'd see my "confession" as a rejection of him, or that he'd reject me as his mother. He'd kept me alive for so long that the thought of losing him was beyond frightening – it almost certainly meant suicide.
Nevertheless, it had to be done.
It was one of those moments that's etched in my memory with stark clarity. It was a cool, sunny fall afternoon. I'd been laying on my bed in a state of emotional anguish, trying to work up the courage to do what I had to do. My stomach was churning to the point of nausea, and oh my! there were so many excuses I could dream up to put it off a little longer. However I knew he was downstairs doing homework, and I had to do it before he took off.
He was immersed in his homework when I came down. "Hey Ma," he said without looking up. "I brought my gear home. Can you wash it before tomorrow morning? It's in the laundry room."
"Jeez Josh, thanks for the heads-up. It's a good thing I'm not working tonight."
"Not a problem, Ma. Always happy to do my part."
I went to the kitchen and brewed myself a cup of tea, my mind racing in a blur. Cup of tea in hand, I went back to the dining room and sat at the table across from him. The Rubicon had been crossed. Would I faint or throw up first? I took a deep breath. "Josh, I need to talk to you about something."
He briefly looked up with his Oh-no-what-did-I-do-this-time expression. "OK, what's up?" he said, then went back to his homework.
"Josh, it's very important."
"I can tell, you don't look so good."
I sighed deeply and buried my face in my hands, and rubbed my eyes with the heels of my palms. Just do it, I screamed at myself. I looked up. "Umm, Josh. Your father and I are ... umm ... getting a divorce."
He looked up, his eyebrows raised, but looking otherwise unfazed. "Oh yeah? Why? You guys never fight."
"Well, it has nothing to do with whether or not we get along, or have issues with each other. In fact, it doesn't have anything at all to do with Dad. It's because..." My stomach hitched, and for a few seconds, I thought I'd throw up on the table. "Because, I realize after years of hiding it from myself, that I'm a lesbian ... that I'm gay. I can't keep pretending I'm not."
Josh looked at me for a minute or more, his face expressionless. Then I noticed the corners of his mouth curl ever so slightly into the merest hint of a smile. Most people wouldn't have picked up on it, but I knew it well. He was about to say something smart-ass. He scowled. "Jeez Mom, I hope that doesn't mean you're gonna get a crew-cut and tats, and start wearing wife-beaters and work boots. And it darned sure better not mean your gonna stop feeding me. The tournament starts next week, and I can't afford to starve."
Many people will find much that's offensive in his reaction, but I didn't and I don't. It was exactly what I needed to hear. It was his way of telling me, with his sly and dry sense of humor, that he was OK with it – as long as I kept him fed. I started to chuckle softly, shaking my head. "You little shit, how do you do that?" I got up and gave him a deep hug. I murmured, "No crew-cuts, tattoos, or work boots, I promise. That's not my style. And thank you, honey. I knew there was a reason I love you."
"Awww Mom, don't get all mooshy on me. Just don't stop being Mom."
He didn't talk about it much, or ask many questions after that. That was Josh. He did come up behind me when I was making dinner the next day, and say, "Uh Mom?"
"Uh, being, you know, a lesbian and stuff, that doesn't mean you aren't going like me anymore, does it?"
"Joshua!" I said, astonished. I turned to face him. "What kind of question is that? For god's sake! I love you with every ounce of my heart!"
"Oh. Well, I don't know anything about this kinda stuff," he mumbled.
He was blushing fiercely. I grabbed him in a tight embrace. "You are one of a kind," I laughed.
That nightmare over, life went about its appointed course. My ex and I got our divorce. It was, as they say, amicable. I got the house and mortgage, we each kept our retirement funds, Josh was on my health insurance, and my ex and I would split the costs of Josh's hockey expenses evenly. My ex moved to a place a few miles away, and I stayed in the house, worrying how I was going to pay the mortgage. Somehow, I'd manage.
In all of this, I didn't really consider a few things. I had some vague but unrealistic notion that once I was out and divorced, all my problems would be solved. Life would miraculously become wonderful and worry free. I didn't understand that I was simply trading one set of problems for another set I wasn't prepared to deal with. First, beyond the financial issues, was the simple fact that I didn't know how to be a lesbian. That sounds facetious on the surface, but it isn't. I didn't know how to go about meeting other gay women. I'd had one brief fling with a woman from another state at a nursing symposium a year or so before. That was the sum total of my experience "being a lesbian."
I did manage to get set up with a couple of women courtesy of sympathetic gay male co-workers. Those dates led to very brief affairs. Both would have ended up in disaster had they become serious. Ultimately, I decided to give up on meeting someone for while, and simply sit at home and feel sorry for myself. Josh took notice. One day we were driving back from an all day tournament played two hours away from home. Without looking up from his hand-held video game, he said, "Mom, you really need to get out and try to meet someone. All you do is work, haul me around, and sit around the house moping. There's more to life than that."
I tried to laugh it off. "Don't worry about me. I'm just not ready yet."
"Yeah, you're full of it. It isn't healthy is all I'm saying."
How many 14-year-old boys worry about their mothers like that? Not many, but mine did. I knew he was right, but I felt paralyzed. I still heard the Banshees call for me just about every day.