He Said, He Said: Gay Dads Have a Conversation About Divorce and Parenting

What has been your experience around maintaining and strengthening your relationship with your children beyond the waiting game? By that I mean, what can you do other than waiting for them to get over the hurt and come back around to loving and respecting you?

Inquisitive Dad, Question 1

What kind of “crucial conversations” have you had with them and when did it or didn’t it make a difference?

Dad 1:

Our separation left my son as the only male in a household with his mother, two sisters, and a dog. Shortly after I left, I pulled him aside and told him that I was so sorry to have left him as the only male in that household and emphasized that I was his father and available for him on request at any time he wanted me around. He stepped up early and I’d meet him often after school for an early dinner and to talk, then I attended his games and scouting award ceremonies whether invited or not.

Dad 2

I came out very early to them. My oldest was 8 and my youngest was 1. I didn’t ever require them to talk about it or “come out” to their friends and family about me. I used the opportunity when it arose, like when a movie or TV show had a gay character, or when they posed a question but I didn’t force conversations about it. I let them do that on their own time. In other words, I didn’t preach nor did I hide.

Humor is very healing and we make a lot of jokes about having a gay dad and how I’m different from other dads. They have given me gag gifts that reflect who I really am and I love them for it. I try to be as gracious with gifts, jokes and thoughtful actions that reflect their personalities and beliefs.

Dad 3

After I came out to my wife, I was still struggling internally how to identify because of stigma. She was struggling with the perceived shame associated with me being gay. She wouldn’t even let me say the word gay when I would talk with her. We were together for over a year and a half in the same house trying to figure things out after I came out to her.

We chose not to tell the kids what was happening. Even when we separated we didn’t tell the kids why. I wanted to because we had teens who needed to know why this was happening. She didn’t want that because she thought it would harm them. She threatened to turn the kids against me if I told them. And since I was having a hard time getting my kids out of her house to be with me anyway , this was a real threat.

I visited a child psychologist and voiced my concerns about not wanting to harm my kids with knowing I was gay,  and the real possibility my wife would withhold the kids from me once I told them.

She had some great advice:

“You have teens in the house that are wondering what the hell is going on and if you don’t tell, they will resent you and your wife possibly for years and years for not being upfront about what is happening in their family. ”

“No, it won’t harm them to know. No, you do not need your wife’s permission to tell any of your kids, and although it would be nice if she were present for it and affirming, she does not need to be there when you do… especially if she will sabotage you during you telling them. You need to get temporary parenting orders in place in case she tries to hold the kids hostage because of you sharing that info.”

I personally don’t recommend telling all your kids together as a group. Do it individually to cater to an age appropriate discussion. Be prepared because religious teens are going to turn it into a worthiness interview and want to know details of your sex life. Uncouple being gay as an identity vs. being gay as a behavior well, well, well beforehand in your thought process to steer that discussion out of a slut-fest train-wreck . Help them see the difference between identity and behavior.

You are there to discuss your sexual identity, not the details of your sexual behavior. Sexual identity questions are where you want to spend all your time. Unless you have special reasons, don’t let your teens drag you all over your personal gay sex behavior details because it’s creepy, it’s damaging to a  teen, especially a religious teen, because they have no experience with human sexuality beyond what they learn in at church so they are prone to slut-shame you.

If you want to be more open, conversations about behavior can happen after they recover from the divorce and gain more life experience.

The sooner they know, the less time they will have to build up bad feelings.

The younger they know the easier it is to recover.

Crucial conversation topics:

  • Why you are divorcing or separated?
  • Where you are at with their church?
  • What are their personal thoughts/ biases about their dad being gay?
  • Are they being treated differently or do they perceive people are treating them differently because their dad is gay or their parents take are divorcing?
  • How are they doing?

Children need to know that spending time with one parent or doing something special with one parent doesn’t mean they don’t like the other parent. They do not need to feel guilty about having a good time with one parent. It’s not their job to “be equal.” We as parents have already worked out time details and what they do in that time with one parent doesn’t mean the other parent is being left out. Have as much fun and do as much fun stuff as possible with the other parent! Tell the kids you won’t be mad or jealous! You will be happy they are having fun!

Dad 2

An interesting point about that is that kids later won’t even remember who they did what fun thing with. They don’t put life events in a Mom bucket and a Dad bucket like we do. I can’t tell you how many times my kids have talked about a past beach trip or a Disneyland trip to me as if it had been me that took them, then we figured out that that particular trip was with Mom. I’m sure the reverse has happened too.
I once stood in line at the post office with my ex to sign so the kids could get passports for an international trip. I was secretly jealous I wasn’t taking them but it was a wonderful trip for them.
Be positive about good life experiences for your kids whether its with you or not. 
Inquisitive Dad, Question 2

Certainly, ex-wives can complicate things, but have you had success in reducing the impact of her negativity and gate-keeping powers by dealing directly with your kids?

Dad 1

When my ex found out I was gay her first question was “Are MY children safe around you?” A telling comment of her bias, homophobia and perspective on homosexuals. So, I had to be very clear with my son that being homosexual didn’t mean I was a threat to him or attracted to him in any way. My son and I were always very affectionate towards each other and thankfully, he trusted me and that has never ceased.

Dad 2

I don’t have the best relationship with my ex but from what I can tell she doesn’t bad-mouth me or my homosexuality to the kids (taking them to church does it for her, but that’s another story). I firmly believe a counselor early on told my ex to behave this way because it’s very out of character for her.

On the flip side, and this is HARD, I don’t talk bad about their mother to my kids …. even when it would be justified. I don’t try to argue my case against her and I don’t outwardly show what I’m feeling inside when she comes up in conversation. I encourage my kids to have a good relationship with her like I expect her to do for me.

Dad 3

The number one way to reduce the ex-wife negativity and gatekeeping is to always be there for your kids!

Show up!

Show up on your parenting time, every time, to pick up your kids. Even if they refuse to come out to the car to come with you. Even if they ask you to leave an event. I don’t care if you drive up with an empty car and drive away with an empty car for months on end. Teens and tweens log in their little brains every time you show up, even if they don’t come with you. Years later they realize the pattern of you showing up and not abandoning them.

They have their own stuff to work out. Tween/teen brains are not fully developed. Even though they want to be treated like adults they physically haven’t developed adult thinking yet. This means you have to be the adult, show up, put up with teen development stages, and not take it personally. Them not wanting to come with you may seem “Game of Thrones” harsh and personal… But it’s not.

Be there for every function. Film their choir concerts like it’s a $1000 dollar a ticket Madonna concert. Go to homecomings, farewells and other important life events even if you are surrounded by hostile ex extended family…smile and be gracious. Smile in every picture. Smile even if you are not in any pictures!

Tuck them in bed, read them a story. Put as much effort into them as you do a first date. Your kids just aren’t going to come to you to offer you aid and opportunity. That comes from support groups, therapists, boyfriends, or a new spouse.

Be there for your kids.

Live your life so your kids can’t possibly believe anything negative an ex says about you.

Hold your ground with the parenting time agreement in the divorce decree. You need your time with the kids for the kids to form their own opinion about you.

Just because parenting time is on paper in a court ordered divorce decree, it doesn’t mean the ex respects its direction.

I make a calendar twice a year spelling out what days are whose and where holidays are spent. Kids need to plan and they aren’t going to consult the mumbo-jumbo of a long and boring divorce decree in legalese. This way there is no question on whose time it is. In the beginning when my ex was not honoring the decree, I had to remind her that “parental interference” is a thing and the decree is law enforceable. Luckily we moved past that conflict.

(My 2 cents, avoid having your ex wife arrested for parental interference of the divorce decree. Head things off at the pass way before it gets to that decision. Even if you are justified, it makes you look bad in front of the kids to see their mom being arrested.)

Dad 2

Yes! fight for that time with them. Also, exes like to try to paint things as her and the kids vs me, Dad. I had to continually remind her that it was instead…

Her and the kids vs me AND the kids.

The kids are on both ends and her dark desire to punish me was also punishing the kids.

Inquisitive Dad, Question 3

Do you ever feel like your children are trying to manipulate your parental relationship? If so, how have you dealt with that?

Dad 1

In the case of my daughters – our discussions have been emotional, tearful and they tend to attack me as modeled by their mother. When it happens I now bite my tongue; I don’t debate. I hear them out. I let them vent. I listen thoughtfully. I validate. I thank them for talking with me. I repeat back what I understood and only then do I attempt to share my own position or desires. It has considerably calmed the relationships.

I have learned that anger is an expression of passion. In a weird way, they are saying they care enough to be angry and to engage. I fear apathy a lot more than anger. I’m just glad they care and after they dump the anger, what’s left? Then they start looking for something else to contribute and things get better.

Dad 2

I fought for and demanded my legal parental rights. I didn’t just sit by and let her hostility drive my actions towards her or my kids. She won a very painful move-away case, but out of that I also won more time with my kids and today I have them 50% and am paying less child support due to the state she moved to. It’s a long story but I’ve since moved to be near them and now I live 1 mile from my ex. When she tried to lessen my influence on the kids, I increased my efforts.

I’ve driven more miles in the past 12 years to spend just a few hours with my kids than any sane person would. I never said no to more time with the kids.

Dad 3

Yes!

I have found that a little text message to the ex sent in front of the child does wonders to clear up the child trying to play one side vs another.

Second, my kids like it when I am Disneyland Dad. It’s a mentality that “you divorced and so now you owe me.” Mom’s house is home base… The place where the real “family” is centered. Dad’s house is trips, Xbox, serving the kids Taco Bell, and movies, burping at the table, and frat house shenanigans.

I shut that down… Somewhat.

My kids have a chore list. Garbage, dishes, sweeping, cleaning. They have a homework schedule. We have at least one meal we sit down at the table together to eat without the TV on. They get grounded for boneheaded decisions.

Initially they tried to manipulate the divorce to get out of contributing to a household. But I held firm. Along with trips, Xbox marathons, and burping at the table comes responsibilities that earn those priviledges.

Basically I don’t let guilt of divorce manipulate my parenting behavior. It was hard at first because I feared I would drive the kids away from me by expecting them to be responsible and the conflict that happens because of that.

Dad 2

On the other side, don’t be afraid to play to your strengths. Parent with your own personality and with the cards you’ve been dealt. In a lot of cases (like mine), while we were married we let our wives determine our parenting style, but divorce frees you up to re-evaluate rules and discipline.  After my ex won our move-away case, I spent several years with the kids just on weekends, holidays and summers. That meant that I wasn’t around for chores, discipline and daily homework. That decision by my ex-wife made her into bad cop and I became the good cop by default. It meant I could be more relaxed about bed times and chores. I had more time for water parks, the beach and Disneyland and I took advantage of it. I had a lot of fun times with my kids.

That said, you do also have to be careful that you’re not undermining her parenting. Just make sure you’re doing things to benefit the children and not to out-fun Mom. Sometimes they should just have time to just  hang out and experience daily boredom with you too.

My ex and I have a very different demeanor and parenting personalities, but I have had to emphasize to my kids that at Dad’s house we obey Dad’s rules and at Mom’s house we obey Mom’s rules.

Let them know that you expect that of them.

Inquisitive Dad, Question 4

The long-term waiting game may be unavoidable, but in the meantime what are the here-and-now parenting principles and strategies that every divorced gay father should consider?

Dad 2

I’ve joked about this with other gay dads but this is probably the one thing that’s had the most positive impact on reducing my ex’s hostility and improving my relationship with my kids. And this magical thing is when my ex got remarried! Suddenly her angst and immediate bitterness vanished or was redirected. Suddenly she was more amenable to me taking the kids more. Perhaps her new husband’s added perspective being a divorced father with kids helped. I don’t know, but I highly recommend it.

GET YOUR EX-WIFE REMARRIED!

I was initially worried about another man trying to be their Dad and whether he was a decent human being or not, but the sum total effect has been positive. We’re not friends and we’re never going to share holidays but my ex’s husband is courteous to me and far more respectful than any of my ex’s family is.

Dad 1

My ex remarried two years ago. Best thing that ever happened! I agree, it’s gotten much better. When I see her husband, we just smile at each other and silently acknowledge our connection, like we’re part of a fraternity or something. I know he gets it. I’ll leave it at this and be nice.

Dad 3

Time with your kids is the number one key here. Fight tooth and nail for as much time as you can get. Time with kids allows the kids to get to know you without an exes infuence. Kids need a dad in their life. Doesn’t matter one bit if you are gay.

Once you have that time, whatever it is, use it to it’s fullest extent. Show up every time for your time…. Even if your kids reject you. Show up. If you have them for summer only… Make it the best summer you possibly can.

Consistency is the key. That’s the very best thing to do right now. Don’t let shame, stigma, a bossy ex, or a run away social life take any time away from your kids.

Time is the great healer

Dad 2

Our kids can’t have too many people who love them in this life, so make it easy for additional people to have access to your kids when those are loving relationships from the kids’ point of view. That could be extended family, a step parent or even church leaders.

I haven’t ever been accused of fondness for religion, but when my kids’ church leaders want to invite my kids to something or show kindness to my kids during my parenting time I get out of the way and let it happen.

Likewise, I loath my ex-in-laws. But they love my kids, and my kids have no sense of my loathing for them. If they are in town during my parenting time and want to arrange to see the kids I allow it.

Love isn’t a scarce commodity. When the kids love someone who you can’t stand, it usually has zero effect on their love for you. The capacity to love increases the more it’s exercised regardless of who it is. That includes step parents.

Dad 1

When my ex decided to remarry I did an immediate background check on the guy and vetted him from whatever I could find. I wasn’t bashful about telling the kids that I wanted to be sure that the person to be involved in their lives was safe and a good man. When his background checked out I committed to be supportive and to encourage the kids to welcome this new man into their lives. I frequently asked the kids how he was treating them, if there was any weirdness or creepy factor or not. They reported that he treated them well so, once again I was supportive.

I’ve been very clear with the kids that his extended family, his children, his grandchildren will be extended family and add to the circle of love they have in their lives. I try to always acknowledge the good he does for my children and have thanked him personally for being good to my children. Though the ex remains pretty cold towards me, the new husband and I have been pretty cordial and have developed some mutual respect. I had to swallow some pride, but it pays off with the kids that I haven’t shown resentment toward their mother moving on and finding her own happiness. As a result they are more open to allowing me the same grace.

Dad 3

I love this, last weekend it was my parenting weekend, but one of my son’s cousins from my ex’s side of the family was down visiting.

My son asked if he could spend Friday night at this mom’s and spend Saturday morning with his cousin.

Now, I had just spent two years getting my kids comfortable spending the night at my house because my ex wife told them the Spirit of God wasn’t at my house since I was gay and not doing what I was supposed to be doing. Ugh.

So, flashback to my hangups about the kids spending overnights at mom’s during my parenting time.

I had to re frame my thinking. Re-frame it like how Dad 2 so perfectly described.

Let in love. Let love happen.

The more you try to restrict love the smaller you become as a person and the harder it is on the kids to grow into loving accepting adults.

So, I let it happen without one word of negativity. It seems counter-intuitive that letting go strengthens the love.

You have parenting time. Don’t become a time Nazi.

It’s not about the time. It’s about the parenting.