By Lauren Apfel
I came out in The New York Times. Well, I didn’t come out so much as make public, very public, the direction in which my romantic life was going after I had separated from my husband of 19 years. We decided the marriage was over in January. I made my first forays into online dating in the months that followed and by May I’d had an experience—with a woman—that inspired an essay I promptly submitted to Modern Love.
Up until that point, I’d kept the nature of my romantic life largely to myself and a few close friends. There was nothing to tell, it felt. Nothing to tell yet, at any rate. I certainly wasn’t discussing it with my kids. In addition to having to deal, all of a sudden, with the realities of divorce—the emotional and logistical deconstruction of the only life they’ve ever known—what kid, especially what teen/tween, wants to newly confront their mother as a sexual being?
But when, much to my surprise, Modern Love accepted the essay, my hand was forced. Late the following January I received an email that led to the piece appearing online on the first of February. It was a quick turnaround, to say the least. And it was all happening a good chunk of time after the events that had originally prompted the writing.
In one sense, the lag was fortunate: I had become increasingly comfortable, over the course of the year, with myself as a single and/or dating entity. Writing in the flames of the moment can be wonderful for the vividness and intensity of what it forges. But it is usually less wonderful in terms of the emotional maelstrom that tends to accompany the story’s vernix-slicked entrance into the world.
In another sense, however, there were now many potentially hard conversations to be had—and to be had quickly. This wasn’t going to be the kind of essay, as so many of mine are, that would slip silently, softly under the radar. There were people who needed to hear about my sexuality—my children, my ex-husband, my mother!— and to hear about it from me…not from a major news outlet.
I told my kids first, all of them together, the week before the piece went live. In McDonald’s. Because when you’re about to drop that kind of bomb, really you want them to be happily shovelling salt-laced french fries into their mouths. McDonald’s, ironically (or maybe not so ironically), was what they were eating when my husband and I told them we were separating, so it has now forever and rather humorously become the meal associated with BIG NEWS. Grease and revelations, it seems, go hand in hand for our family.
My kids and I talk a lot about difficult stuff. Abortion, gender, race, sex (and its satellites). I am a pretty hard-core feminist and it’s been a mission for me to instill those values in my children. I am the mom who would always call out their little friends for coming over and describing a not-very-cool shirt as “gay.” Oh really, I would quip, the shirt prefers to have sex with other shirts of the same gender? Whichever kid’s friend it was would duly roll their eyes, but I liked to believe they were proud—and that the message was sinking in. I would have been disappointed, I have to admit, or maybe surprised if my kids responded badly to the fact that I was bisexual (however I would age-appropriately explain that term).
And they didn’t. First and foremost they were thrilled with my accomplishment. The New York Times! Did you win a contest, Mom? Will you be famous? The older ones wanted to know if they could read the piece and I said, of course you can, but I don’t necessarily recommend it. The essay invariably harboured intimate details they might best like to avoid. My first son, then 13, was more taken aback by the idea that I had been dating without his knowledge than by the fact that I had been dating women. My second son echoed this sentiment: if we didn’t know about who you were dating, did the person you were dating know about us? I assured him anybody I ever met in this regard would be fully aware I had four children.
I have a girlfriend now, and my kids have embraced her with arms wide open. I don’t take this for granted, not for one second. As somebody who has never bowed to convention for convention’s sake, having a woman as a partner feels incredibly natural to me. But I am still struck, every so often, by the fragility of acceptance. Of how we might appear. Of what embarrassment or dismay this might cause—amongst peers, amongst classmates—to a less forward-thinking set of children, living in a less forward-thinking environment. For all our progress, I’m guessing no kid would really choose to be the only one at the assembly with a mom and a new stepmom clapping in the audience.
At the beginning, I noticed my eight-year-old twins were both describing, in the context of school writing, my partner as my “friend.” As in, we went to Northern Ireland over the holiday to visit Mom’s friend. Her best friend even! I wondered if they understood the concept that two women can love each other the same way a man and woman can, that two women can love each other that way even after a lifetime spent loving men. Turns out they understood it just fine, in typical middle childhood fashion. We know you guys kiss!, they assured me, giggling, and yet somehow they were still balking a little at being seen as different in the wider world. Of course. It’s a process and, for some kids, it takes a slow and steady climb of confidence to be able to wear that difference comfortably.
My oldest son said to me recently, I can’t imagine you with a man at all anymore! He said it mirthfully and matter-of-factly and because, I suspect, he is already quite attached to my girlfriend and doesn’t want to imagine his life without her. But it warmed me just the same, the sentiment, because it could so easily be otherwise. It still feels lucky, that is, to be accepted by the most important people in your life for exactly who you are—even, or perhaps especially, at the tender age of 42.
Coming out in The New York Times, one of my friends likes to say, was the ultimate manifestation of go big or go home. In retrospect, even as an introvert, it felt strangely fitting. Writing has always been my way of engaging with the world, revealing my truths on a grand scale. And in the end, what better way to show my kids that I was ready—as a woman and as a mother—to own my story?
Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. Her Modern Love column was one of the most read Styles pieces of 2019. She is full of pride. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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