“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m an older man who came out much later in life. My ex-wife and I divorced several years ago, and it devastated our children who were 19, 24 and 29 at the time. Now I’m 65-years-old, and have found the love of my life. I’m so happy. My wife is happy for us too!
However, my children still seem resentful—they say I broke up our family. While they’ve never said anything about me being gay, they seem disgusted by me showing even the slightest bit of affection to my partner. It feels like they don’t ever want to see me or come over for family dinner with my partner and I. If they do, they sit in silence or make passive aggressive comments. I don’t feel like I can scold them, as they are adults, and I also feel very guilty about having disrupted their lives. I’ve tried to show them that I’m still their father and I still love them, but it’s like they don’t even want me in their life. I’m hurt and torn—I love my kids with all my heart, but I want to be happy. I feel that I’ve hurt them by coming out and that thought keeps me awake at night. Should I try harder to mend our relationship, or should I just accept that it will never be the same? — The Older Man and His Three (Unhappy) Children
Dear Older Man,
Congratulations on finding the love of your life! Queer love is something to celebrate, even—or perhaps especially—when not everyone around you thinks so. In a heteronormative culture obsessed with youth, the emotional needs, sexuality and love of older queer people are too often ignored or outright demeaned. While some parts of our society have finally begun to celebrate queer youth and young adults finding and loving one another, older LGBTQ2 folks (and, to a lesser degree, older people in general) remain largely sidelined when it comes to conversations about sex positivity and romance.
So perhaps let’s begin there: You have a right to pursue your sexuality, your romantic interests and your happiness. Even with all the complexities that having a family, being a parent and coming out later in life can bring, there is nothing wrong with who and what you are.
In regards to your children’s feelings, it sounds like you have certainly tried to mend fences and show them you love them. Something isn’t landing with them, however, and it’s difficult to know exactly what based on the description you’ve given here. Before we start thinking about new strategies or potential solutions, it’s important to note that you can only do so much: As the parent of adult children, it’s your role to reach out and try to make a connection. It is not your responsibility, however, to resolve whatever struggles your children are having with accepting your sexuality and your relationship. They will have to do that in their own way, in their own time.
According to most theories of human development, children of any age tend to understand themselves as at least partly made of their parents. In two-parent families, children usually grow-up feeling that one-half of them comes from each parent. While the process of becoming an adolescent and young adult involves developing an identity separate from one’s family, the people who gave birth to us and raise us always remain a part of who we are (whether we like it or not!).
This is a large part of why parental conflict and separation is hard on children, even when they are grown-ups.It feels like an internal war:If our parents are rejecting each other, then they must also be rejecting the part of us that comes from the other. Even though you’ve told your children that you love them, it may be difficult for them to shake the feeling of rejection, or worry that they would be “betraying” their mother by being close with you. While you’ve mentioned that your ex-wife is happy for you and your partner, your kids may still feel protective of her.
Whatever your children are grappling with, it’s impossible to know for sure if they won’t talk to you about it. If you haven’t already done this, I might suggest inviting each of them to spend some one-on-one time with you—perhaps in a coffee shop or some other place that is more neutral than your home (especially if you are living with your partner). Depending on what feels right, you could try just hanging out without talking about the “elephant in the room” for a while to establish a stronger connection, or you could try clearing the air by jumping right into things. I would make sure that they know the invitation to talk more deeply about things is on the table, even if they don’t want to accept it just yet (this is assuming you feel ready for this conversation as well).
Either way, spending time one-on-one with each of your kids will give them an opportunity to tell you how they really feel without having to worry about the others’ opinions, or the pressure of having your new partner present. This honours their individual processes and the individual relationships they have with you. It could be that they just don’t feel ready to see you with your partner—that everyone getting together like a “new happy family” is an erasure of the family they already had. While this isn’t necessarily true or fair, making space for those feelings may help your children get to a place where they’re willing to get to know you anew.
It’s also important to remember that conversations like this can be painful and bring up old feelings and traumas for all involved. Up to a certain extent, these are conversations we can manage on our own as adults, but if you ever start to feel like things are getting really hurtful or out of control I would strongly advise getting a trained mediator or family counsellor involved, one who is familiar with queer issues and queer families. A trained professional may be able to help guide conversations that are “stuck” in old patterns, and create safe boundaries in which to hold the process.
One boundary I think that is particularly important to emphasize is that you don’t need to put up with behaviour from your children that is homophobic or abusive. Your kids are allowed to feel however they feel, and some anger, confusion and even grief is perhaps to be expected on their part (though I am always cautious about “grief” narratives around queerness and coming out—remember, you aren’t dead! You’re still very much alive and seeking relationships with your children). However, you do not deserve to feel ashamed or attacked for coming out or starting a new relationship. Indeed, I would argue that by doing so, you are teaching your kids the important lesson that it is not necessary to sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of others.
At the end of the day, it may be that your kids (some or all of them) are just not yet ready to embark on this relationship work with you. While I hope that this is not the case, the hard truth of raising children is that they grow up and move away, and make their own decisions—some of which are painful. It is possible to accept this reality while also continuing to make sure that your children know you are always open to reconnect should they desire it. In this way, you are sending them the message that you love them unconditionally—which is, of course, the greatest gift a parent can give to a child.