"Hey, look," I say, pointing to the HRC sticker on the bumper of a red Toyota Camry driving in the lane next to us. "There's a gay car."
In our suburban hometown, spotting a gay car is not exactly a daily event. So when I see one, I point it out to my kids, as a way of reminding them that, despite the fact that we appear to be the only queer family at their elementary school, we're not out here alone.
B-man, my second grader, and K-bird, my kindergartener, sit rod-straight in their car seats and peer out the window to spot the symbol.
"Mom, what's 'gay'?" K-bird asks.
What?! Where've you been for the past six years? Sarcastic-Me wants to know. We've gone over this like a thousand times.
But Sarcastic-Me is not allowed to speak to my kids. So Mom-Me intervenes: "Remember? Gay people are people who love someone of the same gender, like a boy who loves a boy, or a girl who loves a girl."
"Oh, yeaaaah," K-bird says, as if rediscovering a long-lost fact from his earlier years.
Big brother helps out: "You know, like Mommy and Mama love each other, so they're called 'gay' or 'lesbian.'"
"Right," says K-bird to his brother, "and I'm gay because I love you."
Welcome to the world of parenting as improv, in which your pint-sized scene partner tosses you a line, and you scroll, high-speed, through a list of possible responses. In this case:
- Laugh out loud. (Rarely a good idea.)
- Make a Bert and Ernie joke. (No matter how thoroughly my Irish ancestry predisposes me to drop a perfect one liner, this is also rarely a good idea.)
- Stall. (Helpful, but not a final solution.)
- Employ the "yes, and..." tactic. (Works well in improv and parenting.)
This time I go for option 4: "Yes, you do love your brother very much. And that's a different kind of love." Crap. The minute the words fall out of my mouth, I know I've set myself up for the next question.
"What do you mean?"
I cannot tell you how many times in any given week I end up in exactly this place: stuck between a grownup concept and a kid who wants an explanation that he can understand.
How do you explain the difference between family love and romantic love to a kindergartener? Aren't they kind of too young to get it? Or is that just the ghost of my repressed Catholic past coming back to haunt me? Maybe there's a parenting book about this somewhere? But these improv moments don't allow time for research, and those books tend not to be written from a homo-inclusive perspective, if you know what I mean.
To further complicate things, when these big questions come up, I want to answer in a truthful way that both satisfies the kid's quest for information and leaves room for him to develop his own ideas, all while speaking in non-scarring, child-appropriate language.
So, you know, how do you do that?
"Well, there are different kinds of love," I begin, "like the way you guys love each other is called 'sibling love,' and the way I love you guys is 'parent love,' and the way I love your mama is called 'romantic love.'" I wait a beat, and there it is again:
"What do you mean?"
Here's where I hit the real trouble zone. All the possible responses I can think of sound both ridiculous and reductive, like I'm some updated version of a 1950s dad chucking his son on the chin, saying, "Well, son, when a man and a man love each other..."
So instead of concocting some lame speech that K-bird can ridicule me for when he's a teenager, I go for the truth: "I don't really know how to explain romantic love to you in a way that you can understand." And then I go for the stall: "I don't think we really know yet if you're gay or straight. If you end up falling in love with men, you'll be gay, and if you end up falling in love with women, you'll be straight, and if you end up falling in love with men and women, you'll be bisexual. But no matter what, the most important thing is that you feel loved."
To be honest, I can't say that that was a satisfying answer for either one of us, and someday teenage K-bird could well ridicule me for having said it, but if he does, I'll remind him what he said back:
"Well, Mommy, I know I'm straight, because I'm in love with you."
An earlier version of this post appeared on lesbianfamily.com.