Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Straight Stepmom

Posted By on August 17, 2010

Dear Ari:

I am dating now a wonderful man who has custody of his 14 year old son. I am straight, he is straight, his ex-wife is gay and she has a partner. The mother left because she is gay and they have been divorced for seven years now. She did not tell her family or her son. His father finally told him why they divorced, because he was asking a lot of questions.

The boy has huge anxiety issues every time he visits his mother and her family. He has trouble sleeping, pacing, interrupting our conversations continually, not respecting boundaries, etc. This behavior occurs mostly after he has had visitation with his mom. Basically he is a great kid, but really has attachment issues and possibly an anxiety disorder. I have suggested that someone needs to talk to this child, be it his dad or the mother. I also suggested some counseling for the child. How might I help in this situation or be supportive to his father, whom I plan to marry?
—DK in the Midwest

Dear DK:

I am always glad when I receive questions from straight people, because it shows that “gay” family issues are never limited to just gay people. LGBT people are always somebody’s child, somebody’s sister, or somebody’s parent. It is an important point to remember while the pundits argue about whether or families have a “right” to exist, as if we don’t already exist within larger family systems. The issues impacting gay people affect concentric circles of people within our extended families.

Your email also reiterates how vital coming out is to all members of the extended family. I am not sure why your partner’s ex (may I call her Doris for the sake of clarity?) has chosen to not talk about her sexual orientation to her family or her son. A quick overview of the questions Dear Ari is asked will show that the most frequently questions involve coming out. Many parents struggle with how to talk to their children about sexuality in general, and during their own coming out process this can be increasingly difficult. I have addressed in my other responses some ideas on coming out, but your question raises a different issue. What if the gay parent resists or refuses to come out? What is the role of the other parent in sharing this information?

Ideally, people should always have the right to come out for themselves. However, there are situations where this may not be possible. I think your partner did the right thing in telling his son about his mother being gay. I am, of course, not sure exactly how he did this, and this does concern me a bit. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he is comfortable with Doris being a lesbian, and did not say anything disparaging about homosexuality, or his child’s mother. Divorces rarely happen without bitterness, and divorce caused by a parent’s coming out can be fraught with issues of confusion and inadequacy for the spouse who is left behind. It is important to separate out the issues of divorce in general, sadness at the ending of a relationship, and anger at all the complications divorce can imply from the reality of coming out and gay identity. This is almost always a learning curve for the adults; it can be a hellish time for children.

Your brief description of your partner’s son makes me concur that he is exhibiting anxious behavior, and may indeed have some attachment issues. It is essential that you family seek out counseling to address these issues. As a family therapist, my recommendation is that therapy involves the whole family, which would include Doris and her partner, as well as you and your partner, in addition to whatever services the child receives. It is essential you find a therapist who is knowledgeable and supportive of the dynamics of stepfamilies, as well as educated about coming out issues and gay parenting. The first order of business, in my opinion, would be to find out whey Doris has not been more honest with her son, and to repair the damage caused by withholding this information. The second order of business is to establish a secure family for this adolescent child in both of his homes, with both of his parents and their new partners. It sounds like your partner picked a caring and devoted person with whom to share his life and child.