I have always wanted to be a dad. I was inspired by my own parents, who created a life in New Orleans (with my two younger sisters) that was as warm and sweet as the beignets at Café du Monde. My sisters and our parents and I did everything together. We went to movies, we talked, we hung out. We enjoyed one another’s company, and we still do.
At 32, I married Ellen. Like me, she was a writer. We met on the train platform while commuting to our jobs in New York. When we had children, we set out to make extraordinary people. Today our sons, Jeremy and Ian, are intelligent, kind, generous young men, quick to defend those who cannot defend themselves, and even quicker to find good in our hard-edged world. Frankly, I don’t know how we did it. We pretty much made up parenting every day — and our constants were dedication and love and a fierce sense of family.
At the age of 48, I began to evaluate my life in a new way, grappling with the idea of family and thoughts about marriage and parenting.
The cause for all this questioning? In 2010 I began to feel that my sexuality was shifting. After a course of events that forced me to ask hard questions about myself and my life, I realized I was interested in men. My love for Ellen didn’t vanish, but now there was this curiosity. And more than curiosity, real interest. This was not something I’d felt before and hidden out of some sense of fear or shame. No. These were entirely new feelings, and even though I was curious about them, I was also terrified of how they would affect my family.
You can see my dilemma. I had a wife I adored. Kids I was wild about. I’d grown up expecting to be a husband and father forever. That was my personal standard. But what if I really were gay? We always talk about coming out. But in this case, it wasn’t about my coming out. It was about feelings that were suddenly coming out of me. If I let them out, would I lose my family? Would Ellen take everything from me, even my children?
My choice was this: I could try to bury these intensifying feelings and somehow power through a growing depression, day by day, for the rest of my life. Or I could have a series of affairs, dalliances that might satisfy these new feelings. Of course, that would mean lying to Ellen, to everyone. I would not be living a lie; I would be a living lie.
Well, neither of those was me. I had faith in my wife. Long before, we had agreed that real commitment wasn’t about being committed to who we were at that moment, but to the people we would become. I hoped that still held true.
When I told Ellen the truth, she was as worried as I was. What did this mean for our family? With her support — and even though I don’t drink or use drugs—I went into rehab for five days in an effort to unplug, reboot and gain some perspective. For two years afterward, we saw therapists together, focused on finding a solution.
Finally, on a stormy night in 2012, we admitted that the solution was to separate. It wasn’t what we wanted, but it seemed all we could do. Watching Ellen’s anger and sadness, I was desperate to make it all go away — but how? The next day, weeping as we raked damp twigs and dead, crackling leaves, I told her I didn’t want to be divorced. I told her I loved her. “I know you love me,” she said, “and I love you. But it’s not just about love. It’s also about desire.”
Our family spent time together, real time, quality time. We truly, deeply enjoyed one another’s company—and Ellen and I didn’t want to destroy that. So we decided to go in stages. We would separate but stay in our house, at least for the time being. I would live in the guest room, but first we had to tell the boys. What would they say? By then I knew that Ellen wouldn’t take them from me — but would they take themselves?
So on a Sunday afternoon, we told our sons we were separating. We told them we were not angry, that we still loved each other, but that I had come to realize that I was gay. We told them how important it was for us to be true to ourselves and courageous enough to live authentic lives, no matter what.
Jeremy, at the time 16, spoke first. “Can you and mom just promise me you won’t date the same guys?”
Ian, 12 then, said he was afraid everything would change. I told him I was the same man, the same dad, that I’d always been. He asked if he could spend some time thinking in his room. Later that afternoon we took a drive, and I asked him how we were doing. “I’m really proud of you for telling me the truth,” he said, then added, “And I’m really proud of myself that you were able to tell me the truth.” And that, really, was that.
Soon enough, life calmed down, and we all tried to get used to what was happening. I made some mistakes — this was all new to me, to all of us — but my sexuality was accepted and quickly became something we could all laugh about. In short, we did what we always do: we talked, we listened, and we cared.
Two years later, in December of 2014, Ellen and I divorced. It was collaborative. Both our lawyers noticed that we cared more for the other than we cared for ourselves, and I was happy that my love for her was obvious even to strangers. My “crime” was seeing my own sexuality change, like a rug pulled out from under me. From the start, Ellen understood that this was no one’s fault. For that I will always be grateful to her.
Nine months later, we sold our house. That was very hard, especially at the end, because it was the last thing Ellen and I owned together. It was our home, the only one Ian had ever known. The last morning, there was a lot of crying in those empty rooms.
Where are we now?
Jeremy is away at college, and Ian’s in high school. I see Ian and speak with Ellen almost every day. We’re both dating. We share a great deal of love and respect, and we’ve become the best friends we started as, riding the commuter trains to New York.
People tell me how brave I’ve been. But I don’t know. My own changes pulled the rug out from under me, and then I pulled the rug out from under Ellen. Shewas the brave one. I was just…authentic. I told the truth. I couldn’t show my kids that hiding one’s true self was the way to go. I had to show them that being authentic matters deeply, even when it causes pain.
Thanks to those same constants — dedication and love and a fierce sense of family — as well as respect and empathy, my family has not come to an end. It’s only changed. What was wonderful has become, well, a wonder.
There’s no training for momhood and dadhood. It really is do-it-yourself, and we really do just make it up as we go. I think, though, that we start with what we know. My parents were my example. They showed my sisters and me that parenting is both a journey and a partnership. And they showed me that family isn’t just where you go when there’s nowhere else to go. It’s where you begin.