Not unlike the experience of many children, the first discovery of my mother’s active sex life completely freaked me out. I remember the day I witnessed her having sex like it was yesterday. I was 8, and my parents had been divorced for two years, separated for three. I was unaware that my mom was seeing anyone romantically, so that made the discovery even more shocking. I had awakened from my sleep to go to the bathroom, but before I left the room, I heard what sounded like moans. We had a set of mirrors on the wall that I could look into and see into the living room. My eyes widened and I gasped, audibly, as I gazed upon my mom, naked in all of her glory and in an intimate position… with another woman.
My mother and her lover jumped apart and grabbed their clothes. My mom ran towards me, grabbed my hand, and took me into the bedroom to talk. While she was flustered, she was able to succinctly explain what I’d just witnessed, without sugarcoating anything.
Processing and accepting that a parent is romantically involved with someone who isn’t the other parent can be difficult enough for a child, especially if the child experienced living with both parents and witnessed their affection at some earlier point. Introducing a new partner requires an approach that best suits the needs and maturity of the child, as well as the comfort level of the parent and partner. If the child has had little to no exposure to same-sex couples or people who identify as LGBTQ, it might be a bit trickier to explain what’s still often regarded as an “alternative lifestyle.”
In the 1980s, there weren’t as many images of same-sex couples on TV and in the movies as there are today. There was little education about same-sex couples in schools or even during after-school specials. Times have changed though, and we see more broad representations of families and sexual situations. We’re also experiencing the expansion of marriage equality rights across the nation. The progress that’s been made in 16 states (plus the District of Columbia) may inspire and encourage more single, queer parents to be more open about their sexuality and possibly pursue intimate partners of the same sex.
I want to offer some tips on how to have that conversation with your child(ren).
Timing Is Everything
With any relationship, deciding the best time to tell your children and eventually make introductions is important. Some parents have specific rules about the number of dates or months they must share with a partner before introducing them. Whether or not your interaction with your lover is just for casual sex or you’re actually building something more serious and long-term, you should think about how you’ll introduce the idea that you’re involved with someone new (who happens to be of the same sex).
I have a personal rule that I need to be involved with someone for a year before that person meets my child, but I acknowledge that’s lengthy compared to some of my peers. Establish some conditions and adjust as needed. If you have no intention of making an introduction, I’d advise you not bring the person to your home when your child has any chance of being there. Leave the booty calls for your lover’s spot or a hotel.
Honesty Is the Best Policy
Don’t lie. Kids have total recall and will remember every lie you tell for the next eight years. If your child senses something’s up, he or she will ask you rather directly. Your best bet is to go with age-appropriate honesty and keep it real. In a recent New York Times article, one woman reflected on her experience telling her inquisitive son about her relationship with a woman who he’d only known to be a good friend of hers. Like her son, I’d only known my mother’s lover to be a close friend. So I didn’t think much of her being around a lot or our visits to her home. Had my mom explained who she was and the nature of their connection, I might not have been as shocked to catch them entangled in each other’s arms.
Point out some popular same-sex couples (either fictional or real), and share positive images of happy couples exchanging hugs and kisses. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics affirmed support of same-sex marriages, citing that two-parent homes are good for children. Reassure your child that people fall in love with each other, oftentimes when they are of different races, religions and genders.
Keep It Simple and Plain
Your child may have questions about the mechanics of sex, which comes with having a partner of any gender. Most likely your child has had exposure to more heterosexual images of romantic affection or even sex, or has maybe learned about how sex happens in school, so he or she might already have a sense of that. Explaining the mechanics of same-sex interactions doesn’t have to be more difficult.
If you believe your child is old enough and mature enough to discuss heterosexual sex, you can introduce same-sex options too. For women, you can talk about mutual vaginal stimulation, oral sex, kissing and breast play. For men, you can explain anal sex, with caveats that it is sometimes more difficult (for men or women), and that not all male couples engage in anal sex. Make sure to include a discussion about safe sex practices and techniques, and reassure your child you’re taking precautions and protecting yourself against sexually transmitted diseases.
Young people today are more likely to be casual about same-sex relationships, which is actually a great thing. There are an estimated two million children being raised by same-sex couples. Sometimes we want to shield our children from things we think are too difficult for them to handle, but we’re projecting our own fears and insecurities onto them. Our children just want straight talk from us before they go back to playing their video games.
If religious beliefs lead you to feel conflicted, it’s best to work on reconciling those within yourself before addressing the issue with your child, because you want to keep the conversations as simple as possible. The thing to remember is that you will be the one who primarily shapes your child’s views on sex and relationships. So being honest is definitely the best policy here, and respecting your child’s intelligence and maturity is key. I have a hunch it won’t be hard as you think.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.