How I Became A Modern Parenting Expert

NOTE: I’m in the middle of writing my Modern Parenting book, where I share my personal experience with the events that happened to make me a Modern Parenting Expert. While writing the intro to the book, I realized that I haven’t really shared my experience on the blog in a while. Now that my kids are older, I especially like to share my story so that Modern Families of all types can find inspiration in the fact that both traditional AND non-traditional families can raise great kids while finding fulfillment and enjoyment in their parenting. 

I became a Modern Parenting Expert out of necessity when my husband of 14 years came out to me as a gay man and I found myself suddenly raising a young son and a daughter within the context of a non-traditional family. There weren’t any parenting experts out there who could advise me on how to raise great kids in a non-traditional family. Pretty much all of the current experts were very traditional-family oriented, which isn’t a bad thing in general, but that wouldn’t work for me. And it wouldn’t work for millions of other non-traditional families either. So I had to become my own Modern Parenting Expert for the good of my family.

This all happened back in the early 2000s, when having a LGBTQ parent was still considered to be controversial. This was before Caitlyn Jenner, before the hit tv show Modern Family, and before many states changed their laws to include gay marriage. Back then, being a good parent meant being married to your children’s father and raising the kids together under one household. It didn’t mean being divorced or, worse yet, having to explain to young kids why their father is different from all of their friend’s fathers.

While my relationship with Jeff, my ex-husband, was long and spanned many years and many chapters in both of our lives, his coming out and our subsequent divorce happened pretty fast. To give you context, let me start at the beginning. Jeff and I had the quintessential boy next door/girl next door relationship. We grew up in a small town in Southern California and attended a small Christian private school starting in preschool and going all the way until 12th grade – we literally grew up tougher. As an example of how enmeshed our lives were from such as early age, to this day  when Jeff’s parents show old family videotapes, I often pop up in the background as one of many young kids running around their yard attending one of the many elementary school pool parties or birthday parties that they hosted over the years. If Jeff and I weren’t in the same class each year, we at least saw each other on the playground every day and had the same, small circle of friends.

We started to become super close when my childhood best friend left our private school for the local public school at the beginning of 8th grade. I was lost. Who did I hang out with, joke around with, and share my most intimate thoughts with now? It seemed so natural that Jeff became my new best friend, and he remained in this role all through junior high and high school. We finally started dating during our Senior year and became even closer in a new, romantic way. We remained dating our freshman year of college despite the fact that we went to different Southern California colleges, but this distance caused us to miss each there terribly and we got engaged by the end of the year. By our sophomore year, I had transferred to Jeff’s college and we married that summer.

I look back on our marriage warmly. I think Jeff does too. After college, Jeff went on to law school and I worked full time to support us. Even though we were often broke, these were fun years together. We had our first child, a son, in our 4th year of marriage and our daughter 3 years later. In case you’re wondering, our marriage seemed normal to me. Comfortable, even. I loved the security and the warmth that our marriage provided. People ask me all the time whether or not I knew deep down that Jeff was gay. No. I really didn’t. Maybe it was my small-town, protected childhood, but I didn’t even think the scenario that my husband might be secretly gay even existed. When I thought of gay people, it was of nameless people I didn’t know living in San Francisco or Palm Springs. I didn’t even know anyone who was gay at the time (or so I thought) and I believed that gay people wouldn’t even want to get married to someone of the opposite sex, so the fact that my husband could be gay never in a million years entered my mind.

It wasn’t until our 13th year of marriage that things started to change. By this time, Jeff had graduated from law school and had been working at a prominent Southern California law firm for about 7 years. After staying at home with the kids for the past 7 years, I just started graduate school to become a psychologist. Jeff was on the partner track at his law firm and he was being scrutinized for partner material pretty intensely at this point, which was very stressful. Many of Jeff’s clients were cities and other public entities, and this forced him to attend city council meetings and other similar meetings late into the night. Initially, these late night meetings occurred about once per week; now they were happening several times each week. He also started going to the gym a lot and staying there for up to 4 hours at a time. He just was suddenly never home.

Things had become strained between us. What was once such an easy and mutually supportive relationship, now had become distant, secretive, and poisoned. As you can probably imagine, I started to suspect that Jeff was having an affair – but with a woman, not a man. Maybe it was my very protective upbringing (remember I went to a teeny tiny Christian school with basically the same 30 kids my whole life) but I didn’t even think to consider the possibility that my husband might be gay.

But gay he was, and he finally admitted this to me. I was devastated, and I know it was hard on Jeff too. Even though Jeff and I have had many conversations about his coming out over the past decade, I still don’t pretend to fully know exactly what he went through on his difficult and emotional path to accepting his true self, and I want to be considerate of that. This is just an experience that I will never have to go through, so I don’t want to misrepresent what he went through.

But I will tell you that I was scared out of my mind about what this meant to me and our 2 kids. Would I be able to support myself? Would my kids find it hard to fit in with other kids, or, worse yet, would they be the objects of ridicule by their peers? Would they develop the stereotypical behavioral problems so many people blame on divorce? Will they be able to be emotionally close to their Dad? And more personally what did this mean about me that I didn’t see this coming?

I was scared out of my mind that this was the start of a whole new and scary chapter for me and the kids – and that’s where I decided to purposefully to do everything in my power to figure out a way to ensure that my kids felt normal, that we would all stay close as a family (including Jeff), and that we would create a family that supported all of our hopes and dreams for the future. I decided that I wasn’t going to rely on the world to come around and make this happen, or to hope that someone would do all this for me, but I knew I had the power to make this happen for my family if I put in the required effort and devotion.

Some people say that it was lucky that I was going through graduate school to become a psychologist at the time, and I will admit that my classes and training experiences provided me with an unexpected support system and a healthy way of looking at my new situation. I intended on specializing in child psychology when I first applied to graduate school, but now my focus became somewhat personal too. I searched out training experiences that would put me into contact with all different kinds of families in order to become an expert at understanding and helping kids and families with whatever modern challenges stood in their way.

* * *

So, Jeff and I were divorced almost exactly 9 months after we made the decision to divorce. Remember how I said everything moved fast? I didn’t even know what to tell people about our divorce at first. Initially, I just told people that Jeff and I had broken up and let them draw their own conclusions. Most people assumed it’s because Jeff had outgrown his stay-at-home, uninteresting high school sweetheart and found a younger and prettier model. I let them think this for the first couple of years because I felt like the alternative might mean that my kids would suddenly become outcasts or that Jeff might lose his high-profile job. I just couldn’t imagine that anyone would understand; I had never heard of this situation happening to anyone that I knew before.

But the funny part is that as I slowly felt more comfortable opening up to people (mostly people that I was close to) over the next couple of years, I began to hear stories of this same scenario happening to people I knew – or people that they knew – and I didn’t feel so alone. Over time, I became emboldened and I began to see that I set the tone of how people treated me: if I acted confident and secure about my little non-traditional family, then others treated me in kind, but if I adopted the persona of a victim, then that’s how I was treated. Again, it was a good lesson that I set the tone for my family, so I began to have an attitude that people could take us or leave us, but we would be fine either way.

Over time, I became more confident about letting people know about my Modern Family. I always let the parents of my kids’ friends know that while Jeff and I were divorced, we were still really good friends and he was at our house a lot. Oh, and that he now identified as gay. I wanted to be fair to others and let them decide whether or not to allow their kids to be friends with my kids or to let their kids come over to my house. I wanted to be respectful of the points of view of other families, but not one family ever had a problem with it.

I think the reason was because even though we were a non-traditional family, we functioned a lot like a traditional family. It was obvious that all four of us were close to each other. Jeff and I were friends (I’ve always felt that Jeff was my biggest supporter while I was in graduate school), and the kids knew that Jeff and I would attend all their school events together without any kind of weird awkwardness.

People began to look at my family as an example of good parenting. Even though we were a divorced, mixed-orientation family (a term for when one parent is gay and the other parent is straight), we had smart kids who did well in school, they were well adjusted and fun to be around, and our family did fun and interesting things together because we enjoyed each other’s company. The parents from my kid’s school began asking my advice a lot. How did I get my kids to be such good readers? What were my guidelines about video games, television viewing, social media use? How was I able to balance work and family? I kind of became this small town guru for practical parenting advice – no matter what the family looked like because the advice was pretty much the same for every family type.

In 2014 I even began this blog that initially was meant to help other mixed-orientation and non-traditional families, but as my kids got older and did not want their personal lives on the internet, it became less about my own family and more about general Modern Parenting advice. I started to see that all kinds of families needed guidance on topics that the current parenting experts just did not touch on. Topics such video games, social media, self-esteem, academic pressure, and mental health problems among others needed to be addressed not only by someone with a mental health background, but by someone with lived experience with tackling Modern Parenting topics.

Flash forward to today and my kids are practically grown up. My son is 2) years old now and is finishing up his studies at USC in the pre-law program where he hopes to become a lawyer just like his dad. He is a great young adult who still loves nerd things like Star Wars (he and I always attend Star Wars Celebration as a mother/son trip every year) and is involved in many activities on campus with his friends. As I write this manuscript, my daughter is a few weeks away from turning 18 and about to graduate from high school. Her Dad has been taking her on weekend trips all over California and Oregon to look at colleges. She’ll be making a decision on where she’ll go to college very soon. She is a sweet, kind, and smart young lady who volunteered at our local medical center in the summers and started her own feminist club at school. Jeff has been married to his husband, Keith, now for about a year and while this changed the dynamic of our little Modern Family a bit, we all still remain close as a family.

All in all, my little Modern Family made it. And this means the world to me. If my family can weather the storm of modern parent challenges, then I know yours can too.

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