Co-parenting and Coming Out
By: Beth McDonough
As stepfamilies are formed and begin to create new branches along our family trees, the roots of which usually belong to our stepkids, these branches sometimes take on unexpected forms. We all might feel like we’ve seen it all. Like we are equipped for any new situations. Or, that we are simply so good at going with the flow that nothing could sink us, something happens. I talk to a lot of families where this “something” is a new relationship in the co-parenting dynamic where the partner comes in the form of an unexpected gender.
Yes, I’m talking about parents coming out of the closet! So many of us come out later in life. Sometimes it’s because we didn’t feel comfortable enough in our own skin growing up. Or simply, we didn’t realize our place on the sexuality spectrum until adulthood. Sometimes when parents split, the next partner they choose might not be the same gender you’re used to co-parenting with. Maybe this is the reason for the split, or maybe the ex is queer, bisexual, or pansexual and simply fell for a different gender this time.
No matter the reason, and no matter how supportive, how progressive, or how big of an ally you are, this change in co-parenting dynamic can really shake things up in that giant blender your stepfamily blends their lives together in. Maybe you and your partner are used to co-parenting with the ex and her boyfriend. Now she suddenly has a female partner. Might feel kind of weird, right? How does this change your interactions, how does it make you feel, and how do the kids feel?
Sometimes even if you’ve raised your kids in an inclusive home, a change like this can still make them — along with you and your partner —feel uncertain. And that’s okay! Sit with the discomfort. Ask yourself why, ask your partner why, and ask the kids how they feel about seeing their parent with this new person. If it’s new to them to be parented by a couple of the same gender, ask them what feels different. Ask your partner what feels different about communicating with this new person.
Safe spaces and queer faces
Create a space for your family where you feel like all questions are safe questions and no answers are dumb answers. Open up the lines of communication with the ex and see if you can all come together to make the transition as healthy as possible for all of you. Sometimes people confuse growing pains with rejection, and they’re not the same. As much as we all hope for a future where no one has to come out and gender doesn’t mean a thing, it’s still an adjustment for a lot of families. Stigmas are already placed on LGBTQ families alone as well as stepfamilies. So when you combine the two, sometimes there’s an even steeper uphill battle to climb.
Even if your relationship with the ex isn’t all sunshine, roses, and joint birthday parties, put on a united front. She (or he) and their new partner might be facing some backlash and judgment. The more supportive you can be to them, and in turn, your stepkids, the healthier the stepfamily will be. Show the outside community that you support them and their relationship, because people might be looking at you to figure out how they should react., and if you’re isolating them, your also isolating the kids.
As with every new change, it might take a bit to find your flow with this adjustment, but there’s always a new normal. Part of making sure your kids always feel like things are normal is showing them other families like theirs. Make an effort to befriend other LGBTQ parents if you don’t already have queer pals. Find books and TV shows that showcase all kinds of different family structures (yay for The Family Book and Modern Family!). Kids feel validated when they see themselves in the world around them.
New stepfamilies are born every day. LGBTQ people come out of the closet every day. It’s only natural that these two events are going to intersect more often as time goes on. As stepmoms, we already know the only love, not blood (or gender) define a family. We already know how to love beyond binary boundaries, so the key is helping everyone else love as openly and freely as we do.