Dear Captain Awkward,
My mom died suddenly and unexpectedly 2 months ago. My parents had been married almost 40 years. A month after her passing, I accidentally discovered that my dad has been sleeping with multiple men he meets on the internet, at the gym, etc., and that he is also having sex in public restrooms. I don’t believe that my mom knew that this was going on, but I realize that that is a possibility.
It was not a complete shock to me that my dad is gay or bisexual, as the thought had crossed my mind before, and after my mom died I had even considered that he might bring home a boyfriend in a couple of years. I imagined myself being very supportive and understanding in that scenario, but this sudden discovery at such an emotional time has really thrown me for a loop. The high-risk behavior is freaking me out and making me angry, if I’m honest. I just lost one parent, and I don’t want to lose another! Furthermore, the thought that he was likely putting my mom at risk, too, really upsets me.
I cannot stop worrying about how this might play out. I’m worried that he is putting himself in harm’s way and risking arrest, etc. I’m worried that the community that has been supporting him through the loss of my mom would disappear if this came out in the wrong way. Similarly, I worry about how my mom’s extended family, to whom we are very close, would react if this were suddenly revealed. I feel like I’m not able to progress through the normal grieving process for my mom because I am so wrapped up in the stress of this situation and keeping this secret. So, here are my questions:
1) Should I tell him that I know? Should I tell him how much I know?
2) If I do tell him, how do I do it and what do I say? Is it even appropriate for me to share my concerns for his health and well-being considering his sex life is not really any of my business?
Daughter with a Dilemma
A little time has gone by since you first sent this in. I am so, so sorry for your loss and cannot even imagine the shock and grief that goes with losing your mom so suddenly.
While I realize that this may not make you feel any better, if at all possible, I think the best course is for you to let the stuff with your dad go, and not do or say anything to him about it until or unless he tells you what’s going on.
Even if it’s risky.
Even if it’s uncharacteristic.
Even if you don’t understand it.
Even if you have worries and fears and anger about it.
His extended family and community might not be happy with his behavior if they found out, but that is his issue to manage.
He owns his own body and his own sexuality, including any risks that come with his behavior.
And he owns his own grief and grieving process.
Thinking the words “my dad” and “fuck the pain away” in the same sentence is not a whole bunch of fun for you, and I’m sorry – I wish he were being more discreet and that you didn’t know. But unless he does something in a way that makes it 100% obvious that you know, put up that Plausible Deniability Screen, the one your parents probably used for you when you became sexually active and the one that all roommates everywhere use to pretend that sound doesn’t carry inside a shared house.
Imagine for a moment that you are a kinky person, and that your kink is to tie eggplants to your feet and rub them against the feet of people who have mushrooms tied to their feet. Wracked by grief, you’ve been having more vegetable-on-vegetable action of late and have been a little less than discreet about where you find your ratatouille. Your dad finds out what you’re up to, and he confronts you about your safety, the way people might see you in the family and community, and heaps a whole bunch of shame and worry upon your private business, etc. How would you feel? Would you feel loved and cared for? Would it be a wakeup call for you? Would that conversation leave either of you feeling better? I know you are genuinely very concerned about him, but any time “safety issues” + “what will people think?” + “behavior I don’t like or agree with/moral upset” get combined together you risk falling into concern-trolling. I think many of us have done sexual things that our family members would not approve of and find risky, and I think at those times we had our reasons, and I don’t think anyone could have talked us out of them or made things better with their disapproval.
I’m deliberately trying to choose a ridiculous kink as an example so I don’t inadvertently stumble into anyone’s actual kinks, and I don’t want to dodge the very real safety issues that might be at play here, but all nearly all sexual contact carries some risk. You’re not psyched about the string of anonymous partners, but you also wouldn’t be psyched if they were women, and you also probably wouldn’t be happy if he found a new girlfriend or long-term boyfriend and started to look serious about settling down with someone right now. It’s all too much, too soon.
So the axioms at play are:
- His sexual choices are his to make.
- Adults should give each other a wide berth when it comes to privacy.
- People come out when it’s right for them, not necessarily when it’s right for you.
It’s good that you’ve considered the possibility that he is gay. When the time is right, and some more time has passed, you can have the sweet talk that my Godmother had with me when it had been a long time since I’d mentioned a dude or brought one home:
“Jennifer, I just want you to know that…anyone you loved, we would also love. So if you ever wanted to bring …someone home, we would welcome…that person.”
I wasn’t gay, I was just single (and we don’t fly Socially Unacceptable Brief Slutty Encounters home to Massachusetts for the holidays, or, at least I don’t), but it was good to know, right?
Your dad will need you to be that cool daughter someday. But he also needs you to be that cool daughter now, and give him some time and space about private stuff, and to reach out to him (spend time with him, recommend that he see a counselor, check in on him, tell him you love him) about the common ground you share.
I think you should talk to someone about this. Grief, anger, worry, the pressure of keeping a secret all mixed up together is a powerful and messy combo, and some counseling for yourself where you can get as angry as you need and lay out all your concerns and figure out how to tackle them might be a very helpful step. A counselor will let you talk through worst-case scenarios but will also remind you that the worst case scenarios are not always so. Maybe he wasn’t putting your mom at risk. Maybe he really did wait until she died to seek this kind of contact, and this is something that has been pent up for years. Maybe they did have an understanding. That is 100% between them; you are not the guardian of your parents’ marital fidelity.
If word is getting out, and people bring concerns up to you, an all-purpose mantra is “Grief is unpredictable. You should probably talk to my dad directly about that.” You don’t have to manage your dad’s image for him. That can be a hard thing to let go of, but I think it is good for you if you learn (maybe slowly, with help of a counselor) that you don’t have to control how other people see your dad.
Hopefully you can find a way to put this down under some kind of Year of Grieving seal and forgive your dad for not managing his grief the way you want him to. Maybe there is an honest talk in your future where he tells you what’s up and you can say “Yeah, I knew when you did x, and I was really worried about you, but I wanted to give you your privacy. Can we talk about that?“
Finally, if you do end up talking about it, just freaking talk about it. Don’t drop hints about “discretion.” Don’t drop hints, period. “Dad, I wish I didn’t know this, but I do. I heard/saw/unavoidably have to know that you did x, and it’s making me concerned about you. I want to respect your privacy, and you don’t have to talk to me about what’s going on, but I wish you would talk to someone about it, and I really want you to be safe and okay.“
I don’t envy you, or your dad. The Year(s)of Grieving stretch out in front of you no matter what you choose, so I wish you kindness, strength, patience, and love.