One weekday in June of last year, I invited my mother to lunch. This is not an unusual occurrence when she’s in town, but on this particular day I had something very important weighing on my mind that had to come out. It wasn’t going to be an easy conversation, I was sure, but for various reasons it had to happen and as far as I was concerned it had to happen right there and then, or it wasn’t going to.
Coming out to one’s family – whether as LGBT, as polyamorous, as atheist, or anything else – is rarely easy. And if coming out proves easy, for most people working up the courage to initiate such a discussion is exponentially more difficult. Understand that I was never one to use the expression “coming out” to describe disclosing my own personal identity. I may be non-monogamous, I may be an atheist, but I am still a cisgender heterosexual white male, and a self-employed one at that. I was barely even in a closet to begin with. And if I came out, the repercussions wouldn’t prove as severe as they would for someone coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in 2000s America, much less in less enlightened times.
The previous December, I had announced to most of my Facebook friends that I was non-monogamous, polyamorous, and an atheist. Though I think I expected more severe repercussions, it went well. It certainly went better than I had expected, though at the time we were rarely practicing any sort of non-monogamy and certainly didn’t consider ourselves poly. We had the occasional threesome and once in a great while we’d have sex with someone else. Well, mostly I did, anyway.
This time, however, things were different. My emotional investment in W had grown, and while Jill was very into H, she was dating others locally as well. I wasn’t ready to label what we were – I wouldn’t even have called us poly – but things had developed considerably since the day I outed myself on Facebook. Non-monogamy wasn’t an abstract concept, nor just a means of identifying myself for my own peace of mind. For all intents and purposes, Jill and I had a completely open relationship now.
Still, I wasn’t looking to unburden myself to my mom. She’s long known that I do not believe in monogamy, though I have spent much of my life practicing it. Still, I’ve never made her privy to why I feel this way, how I’ve coped with being monogamous, the negotiations in which Jill and I engaged as we navigated non-monogamy, nor any specifics of what we’d actually done. The last thing I’d ever want to do is share details of my sex life or my romantic life with my parents; this is as much to protect them as it is to protect me.
I had two very pressing reasons for inviting my mother to this discussion over lunch. The relatively least-pressing reason was because, a couple weeks earlier, we’d been at my parents’ house for Memorial Day Weekend. On Sunday we barbecued, drank, and laid out by my parents’ pool. Jill’s sister and a couple of her kids came to swim and play with our daughter. Throughout, while grilling meat, resting in a lounge chair, and supervising the little swimmers, I was sending W all manner of sexy messages. Standard long-distance relationship stuff, I guess.
My father was present, frequently walking behind me; while I didn’t notice him reading my phone over my shoulder or anything, it occurred to me that he might. He’s not the sort who’d understand non-monogamy; to a person like him, stuck in a four-decade-long marriage without much excitement, enthusiasm, or hope, it’s all cheating. At least, that’s how I assume he views things, and had he noticed the name of a woman that isn’t my wife at the top of a messenger window, he might have jumped to the conclusion that I was having an affair. Doesn’t matter that I could have just been innocently messaging a friend; after all, most of my close friends are women. At any rate, my wife is identified in the same messaging app by a fake name, so had I been messaging her he could conceivably have jumped to the wrong conclusion.
I don’t really care if my father thinks I’m having an affair, or if he confronted me with that knowledge. I just couldn’t have him doing so when my wife’s sister was present. We couldn’t have any of that potentially getting back to Jill’s family. And while the sister in question is one of the few members of my wife’s extended family who we believe wouldn’t judge us or even care about our open relationship, that information is something from which Jill would like her family (and her friends, and her coworkers) insulated. And with good reason, because those who would judge us would probably do so harshly. Ultimately it didn’t matter; my father probably didn’t have a clue what I was doing on my phone that day. If he’d seen anything he didn’t mention it, though I must state for the record that he’s probably not the sort to snoop on someone’s phone. (Okay, maybe my mom’s.)
The more pressing reason was that by this point Rye’s visit to California had been scheduled. It was happening. We’d already talked to my mom about coming to watch our daughter; this is nothing new or unusual. But because we were planning to host Rye in our home (as opposed to at a hotel), it was imperative that she and our daughter stay elsewhere. Our house lacks anything remotely resembling a guest room; it’s rare that sexy guests sleep over, while non-sexy ones crash on the couch or an air mattress in the living room. It’s too small a house to disguise the sleeping arrangements, and while my mother might not be traumatized to know someone is sleeping in our bedroom with us, we’d rather not force our daughter to be okay with knowing it.
Which begs the question: How do you ask your mom to get a hotel room for a couple days because you and your wife are going to be engaging in noisy sex with another woman, likely in various parts of the house? I mean, how do you even begin to bring that up? My mother isn’t conservative – far from it, actually – but sex and relationships were never discussed by any of us as I was growing up. Actually, my mother probably was a bit more conservative back then. Perhaps not these days, but that doesn’t mean I take pleasure in dangling this aspect of myself in front of her face. Or dangling anything, for that matter.
To say nothing of the financial issue. We couldn’t afford to drop cash on a hotel room, and if we could, wouldn’t it behoove us to just use the room ourselves? In other words, leave my mom and my daughter to stay in the house none the wiser? The little one would assume we’d just gone on vacation for a couple days, we’d call to say good night every night before we went to bed as we usually did, and her routine wouldn’t be disrupted at all. I didn’t wish to compound my stress, and I figured I’d tackle the logistics of who’s going to stay where and how we’d afford secondary lodgings once I’d gotten the actual discussion out of the way.
We went to my mother’s favorite taqueria, ordered our lunch, and sat down. The place wasn’t packed; it never was. By November, it would go out of business. We ate chips and salsa as we waited for our food; my mother probably had no idea, but the tension I felt as I waited was palpable.
Finally I spoke: “I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.” The look on my mother’s face – “aghast” is the only word to describe it – betrayed a fear as tangible as the tension I’d felt, and even as I looked at her widened eyes I felt my own anxiety slowly ebbing. She would later tell me that she was terrified I was going to tell her I had cancer; to assuage her consternation I immediately told her that the three of us were all fine, all physically healthy and in a good place. I wonder now if the relief provided by this information colored her response at all.
I continued: “You know we’re…” I searched for the right word to use here, eventually settling on “non-monogamous.” My mother indicated that she remembered seeing my Facebook post, so I went on: “Well, we both are. And we’ve got other people in our lives.” I offered no elaboration here, and none was needed. My mother didn’t gasp, didn’t shriek, didn’t make the sign of the cross. She looked surprised, certainly, but it was the kind of pleasant surprise one might exhibit when they learn their offspring is on the road to self-actualization.
As I mentioned above, my mother was aware that I sought non-monogamy, though given the deeply Catholic environment in which Jill was raised, and the high expectations her family – her parents especially – had for her as the eldest daughter of a large family she never expected it to happen. At times, neither did I. I explained why I was telling her this, that we needed her to watch our daughter in October, and to do so off-site. She immediately offered to get a hotel room, and argued when I said we would pay for it. They ultimately spent the days in question staying with my dad’s sister, who is local, thereby saving my mother as well as Jill and I any expenditure.
Even better, my revelation opened up a dialogue that, while certainly not something I ever hoped to experience with my mom, wasn’t that bad and honestly probably improved our relationship. She mentioned that she’d once tested the waters by asking my father how he’d react if he ever found out she’d had an affair. His reaction was typical, disappointing though not surprising: The complete lack of forgiveness he suggested completely shut down the conversation. My father has always been the sort to subscribe to traditional views of relationships and such. I couldn’t detach myself from that sort of thing quickly enough.
Thoughts of my mother’s aborted attempt at such a discussion called to mind the time Jill’s mother told us – not just Jill and I but Jill’s siblings and their significant others who happened to be present – that someone who has an affair and then confesses isn’t doing so in the name of disclosure, but to ease his or her guilt. I’ve got no idea what prompted this; it seemingly came out of nowhere and has since been the subject of much speculation amongst the siblings. Sometimes I imagine how it would have turned out if we needed to disclose our relationship not to my mother but to one of Jill’s parents – or more likely both. While we know there are members of my wife’s family who would be supportive, or at the very least who wouldn’t judge us openly, the fallout from those who would prove less open-minded isn’t something Jill wants to weather. Ever.
I’m relieved that the conversation went as well as it did.