Dear Family Whisperer,
I have no children of my own, but I've always been close to my niece, who is now married and has a 5-year-old son, Nicholas. He asked me recently, "Do you have a husband?" I said, "No," but it bothered me later. I have a life partner whom I've been with for over 20 years, a woman Nicholas calls "Aunt Barbara." A few weeks later, he asked if Barbara was my "best friend" and did we live together. We are married, but my niece won't let me explain anything further. She's afraid of my nephew-in-law's reaction. They welcome us into their home. We stay with them a lot. But our lifestyle is never acknowledged. And by the way, my sister -- her mother and Nicholas's grandma -- is also gay. I love Nicholas and feel like I'm lying to him. What do can I do?
Dear Confused Aunt,
By asking questions about your relationship, Nicholas has dropped a pebble into your family's pool, and the ripples affect everyone. Also, he's right on time. Typically, between 4 and 5, children start to notice difference at school. They might realize that one kid doesn't have a father, another is always picked up by his grandmother and a third has two daddies. Their teacher might talk about "all kinds of families." They become curious and want answers.
In this case, you and his grandmother are gay, and living with partners. How can he not notice?! The adults need to think this through, together. Here's how to engage the whole family:
1. Work up the courage to approach your niece and nephew-in-law.
Say something like, "I love Nicholas and consider it a privilege and a joy to be in his life and to watch him grow up. I always feel welcome here. But I'm afraid that someday my not being honest with him will come between us. I don't want my relationship to be a secret." (Ideally, bring your sister into this conversation as well.)
2. If they resist, empathize with their plight. You don't need children of your own to see how hard it is to be a modern parent. Many moms and dads are strung out on stress. If you can listen without judgment and let them know you love and support their family, they're likely to be more forthcoming. The goal is to talk, not argue.
3. Admit what you are afraid of.
The truth never hurts children; secrets and lies (even by omission) do. If you acknowledge how difficult this is for you and that you fear their rejection, it might help the parents open up. Keep bringing the focus back to their son. Nicholas will spend a lifetime asking questions. If members of his family are honest, he'll trust that they can be counted on to answer them. (If not, he'll stop asking.) This is also the time to start teaching tolerance.
4. Consider what you each bring to the table.
It's tempting to paint your nephew-in-law as the homophobe whose prejudice has caused this uncomfortable family drama. But the "play" is co-created by the entire cast of characters.
Your niece, in reinforcing her husband's don't-tell policy might be placating him. Or, she might agree with him. She might have unresolved feelings about growing up with a gay mother and aunt. Maybe she thinks she's "protecting" her son from hurts she suffered as a child.
You (and your sister/her mother) are also contributing to the script. It can't feel good to be "hidden" in your own family, as if your relationship is something to be ashamed of. Why have you waited until now? Have you ever talked with your sister about this issue? Where does she stand?
And instead of making assumptions about your nephew-in-law's attitude, ask questions. Why is he afraid of telling the truth to his son?
5. Together, decide what kind of family you want to create.
It sounds like there's a lot of love and a strong sense of connection among you. Regardless of your insecurities or ideologies, you all want what most of us want: to be loved and supported by one another; to be good role models for the next generation; to raise children who become caring, kind, and thoughtful.
Keeping those common goals in mind will remind you to talk to Nicholas and answer his future questions more honestly. You might read him books such as Who's In My Family?, Heather Has Two Mommies, or One Dad, Two Dad, Brown Dad, Blue Dad. Also look for guidance on line. Learn how other parents handle sexual orientation and explain LGBT relationships. Knowing you're not alone in this struggle and having a "script" will help ease your anxiety.
Nicholas is growing up in a world where a variety of family forms, including LGBT households, are increasingly taken for granted and, for the most part, accepted. You and your family members might never agree about some things, but acknowledging difference is not a political statement. It's about helping Nicholas understand that although all families are different, they are also the same. Love is love, and everyone deserves respect.
Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Real names will not be used, and no topics are off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more on this and many other topics in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau on Twitter: