Care and Feeding

We Walked In on My Husband With a Man. Now Our Son Is Acting Homophobic.

Being upset is OK; being hateful is not.

A boy in a white collared shirt looks backward over his shoulder.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A few weeks ago, I was supposed to take my sons to an outdoor activity that ended up getting canceled due to weather. We found out about the cancellation when we were halfway there. Before I turned around, I texted my husband that we would be heading home and never got a text back. This wasn’t unusual, as he usually puts his phone on “do not disturb” while he’s working. When we got home, I opened the door to find my husband and his best friend, “Ryan,” completely naked, and having fairly rough sex on our dining room table. They had music blaring, so they didn’t hear us come in, and my sons and I were all in shock and just stood there for a good 30 to 60 seconds before I was able to shut the music off, and they realized what was going on and could cover up. Obviously, this is a bit of a chaotic situation.

Ryan is like an uncle to my kids, has dinner at our house several times a week, has occasionally lived with us, and he and my husband actually work together. My husband and I are planning on staying together and are still trying to figure a lot of things out. Here’s the problem: My younger son (6) is pretty oblivious and thought Uncle Ryan was wrestling with his dad. My middle son (9) is very confused about the mechanics of what we saw (we’ve had the sex talk with him, but in hindsight, we made the mistake of only talking about heterosexual sex). My older son (12) is having a very difficult time. My middle son has a lot of questions that I’m not really sure how to answer, and I’m not sure how much detail I should be going into, and who should be leading this conversation (me? my husband? a doctor?). I’ve been getting phone calls home from my older son’s school. Ever since the incident, he has apparently been making derogatory remarks about gay people, using slurs, and is also refusing to speak to his father (they were previously pretty close). The school is threatening to expel him. We’re on the waitlist for individual and family therapy, but I was wondering if you guys had any advice about what to do with my two older sons?

—What Now?

Dear WN,

You didn’t mention how you are processing all of this, but I hope that you are taking care to tend to your own emotional needs during this very trying time, and I’m sorry that you had to experience something like that—especially in front of your children. However you all may choose to work things out, I do hope your husband has acknowledged how selfish and unkind his actions were; even if you had an arrangement prior to this incident, for him and Ryan to choose your dining room as the location for their romp is just cruel, irresponsible, and wrong.

Hopefully, you all will move up those therapy waiting lists quickly. But in the meantime, you are going to have to talk to all of your boys about the complicated nature of sexuality and love. I don’t know if your husband identifies as bi- or pansexual and/or as polyamorous, but you both will need to settle on a (ideally truthful) way to explain that someone can have a wife and children whom he loves, and also be attracted to men. His behavior that day reflected poor judgment and selfishness, but it’s not necessarily a referendum on how he feels about his family.

Make it clear that you understand that all of this may be confusing and painful, but that there is no excuse for being hateful toward gay people as a whole. Homosexuality didn’t cause this problem. Two people who should have known better made a selfish choice that put everyone in an uncomfortable situation. That is not to say that the kids should give Dad the silent treatment or hate Ryan (I think you have a right to feel differently on that one), but that homophobia is absolutely the wrong response here.

Therapy for every single one of you is critical. This is a lot to process, and if you are committed to making things work with your husband, you all need some support to help you process what has happened and adjust to a new normal, if you all have chosen to adjust the terms of your romantic relationship and to guide the kids through this in a way that doesn’t inspire bigotry or anger. I wish you every bit of peace and good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a white woman. My husband and I have one child and two full-time, middle-class jobs in nonprofits. It is a constant struggle to keep our home even a little bit clean. I have depression and ADD, and my husband has severe depression. It would be really, really helpful to be able to hire someone to clean every week or two. But I have seen so many incisive criticisms of white women being able to advance their own careers at the expense of the poor or working-class women of color who they hire as household help. Is it inherently exploitative for people who are physically able to clean their own homes to hire someone to do it, given the history of structural racism in our society? Or is it ethical as long as we pay a good wage and treat the cleaner with the respect that all people should get from their employers?

—Trying to Do the Right Thing

Dear Trying,

The issues that lead to WOC over-indexing in service roles for privileged White folks will not be solved by individuals deciding that they will simply do their housework themselves. The women who work as housekeepers and nannies need better-paying jobs that treat them well, with opportunities for advancement and increased earning potential. These are highly skilled positions that should be respected and compensated as such.

If you need the help, hire someone. Pay her a living wage and then some. Treat her with respect—she shouldn’t be “Maria” or “Susan” if you’re “Mrs. Johnson,” for example. Make sure that she is comfortable in your home; ensure she gets adequate time for breaks and rest; keep her favorite snacks on hand; talk to her like she is your equal and not “the help,” because she is your equal. Remember that she has a birthday, celebrates holidays, gets tired, and likely has a family of her own. Think about her work-life balance like you’d want your own employer to consider your needs, and do your best to create a happy, healthy workplace for anyone you hire to make your life easier.

• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 16 and currently doing school from home because of the pandemic. I don’t think this has been so much of a problem for me as it has been for some of my friends since I was actually home-schooled full time between ages 7 to 12. I already have things like study areas and plenty of practice working at home, and it’s actually much easier with more resources than I had back then as now there are teachers and a class on Zoom as well. The problem is that this seems to have brought up a lot of bitterness for my mom.

She raised me on her own since my dad left (I barely remember him). I got myself in a stupid accident and permanently damaged my hearing; I’m totally deaf in one ear now and for a while was almost completely deaf right after the accident, so I had to be pulled out of school until my hearing improved (after a few operations). My mom was amazing, getting me a speech therapist and helping me stay up to speed and even ahead of where I would be in school. We had a great time for a lot of it, and I’m so grateful for all she sacrificed for my education. She is very bitter about those sacrifices, though. Before my accident, she was a college professor and a well-published academic author and was on the brink of a massive promotion. She had to scale her job back to part time and take loads of time off to look after and educate me, never got back in a position to get her promotion, and didn’t have time to get anything published for years. She said it destroyed her career.

Now we’re spending a lot of time doing my school stuff together again. She keeps getting upset and telling me I’d better not have kids until I’ve got my own career sorted out, and she takes it very personally when I’m not academically motivated because she hopes she didn’t sacrifice her career so I could flunk out on mine. I know she’s upset, but these comments are really upsetting me too. I’ve started avoiding her completely about school matters, but then she thinks I’m not doing work because she never sees me working anymore and makes more hurtful comments. I feel deeply guilty about essentially messing up her career, and I don’t know what to say when she starts crying about never making it in her field because of having a disabled daughter. The ironic part is that her attitude towards this is actually making me too stressed to work sometimes, and I’m worried it’s going to affect my grades trying to work in secret in my room and having panic attacks about how disappointed my mom will be if my grades are less than perfect. Please, can you advise on anything I should do to handle this better? Is there a nice way to ask my mom to apply less pressure or to explain that daily reminders of how I’ve messed up her life are actually making it a lot harder for me to work well and not disappoint her? I’m permanently tired and guilty.

—So, SO Stressed

Dear SSS,

Oh, Pumpkin. First, you are not to blame for your hearing loss, no matter what you were doing when the accident occurred, and you are not to blame for the derailment of your mother’s career. If the workforce was designed to accommodate family care and had your father not abdicated his responsibilities as a parent, things might be different for her—and she has every right to feel some bitterness about those factors, but certainly not toward you. I wish that I could erase any guilt you feel for what happened, because you don’t deserve any of it.

Your mother is a human being, and humans are deeply complicated, imperfect creatures. There is the side of her that knew that great sacrifice was appropriate, that cared for you and ensured you had everything you needed when you were unable to attend school. And then there’s the side of her that is struggling to handle her fair disappointment over the trajectory of her career. What she, as an adult woman, has failed to do that she should have done, that she must do now, is to learn how to cope with this disappointment in healthy ways that do not include shaming a disabled child for becoming disabled.

You have eloquently articulated your compassion for your mother and your concern for yourself in this letter in a way that makes me think you have the language to talk to her about how she is making you feel. Explain that she is hurting you, that you know that she knows that your accident was not your fault, but that you can’t help but feel otherwise at times. Ask her if she’d be willing to talk to a family therapist together so that you all can figure out how to navigate this thing as a team (I’d hope that a professional would see that your mom also needs to talk to someone on her own and would make this recommendation to her).

Whether or not your mother ever changes her tune, I want you to do your best to remember that you are not to blame for any of this. What happened to your mother is sad, and it’s a sad thing that a lot of parents (particularly mothers) endure because the world around us rarely makes accommodations that allow folks to both serve as primary caregivers and maintain/pursue challenging careers at once. You should honor your mother’s sacrifices by doing your best in school, but you do not deserve to be guilted or shamed when you fall short. You did not cause any of this, you are still a kid, and you’ve had to endure a lot at a very young age. I hope that your mom comes around to see this soon. Wishing you all the best.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 16-year-old daughter is obsessed with fashion, especially major fashion houses and high-end brands. She’d like to go into fashion merchandising and get a degree in that field. We live in Manhattan, which is great for that, but I’m wondering if I should try to get her to set her sights elsewhere.

She’s about 40 pounds overweight due to an endocrine condition. Unfortunately, she can’t just “lose weight,” even with all the dieting in the world. I’ve worked hard to instill body positivity in her and my other daughters. But the high-fashion world isn’t so forgiving.

Last year, she made a second round of “interviews” to volunteer at a fashion event but was cut. The coordinator kindly let her know she was cut because of her weight and to slim down and apply next year. My daughter was crushed but is very optimistic about her future.

I don’t want to crush her dreams, but I don’t want her to get a degree in a field she can’t go into. How do I help her?

—Don’t Wanna Crush Dreams

Dear DWCD,

That coordinator was an asshole, and I hope you told your daughter that! What the hell?

The fashion world can be ugly and unkind to people who do not fit a certain aesthetic. That doesn’t mean that your daughter won’t be able to find work, though it may make things more challenging. You can be honest with her about that without encouraging her to move on to a new dream, or to obsess over contorting into some clown’s image of what a fashion merchandiser “should” look like. Do not try and encourage her to move on from fashion. Help her to find role models, like Gabi Fresh, who are making strides despite not fitting antiquated norms, and encourage her to be the change she wants to see in the fashion world.

Also, be intentional about encouraging your daughter to love her body as it looks in this very moment. You want her to be active and to make thoughtful dietary choices as much as possible because she is living with this condition, but you also want her to enjoy what she sees when she looks in the mirror and to know that she is beautiful and stylish and special, no matter what some little volunteer coordinator has to say.


More Advice From Slate

My boyfriend and I fell in love at first sight. By the time I stood up and realized he was 4 inches shorter, we were too in love to care. I never in a million years thought I would be in this situation, but when you find the right person, you just know. My question for you is: Should I prepare other people for the height difference? I find myself trying to drop it into conversation when people haven’t met him yet. Sometimes I try to mention celebrity couples as examples, to give people an idea, but that only seems to make things worse. What I really want to say is, “I have trouble noticing the height difference because he’s a god in bed.” What’s your advice? And why does this stigma still exist?