From blended family to out as a lesbian: "It is definitely worth coming out, being authentic, and living your life honestly."
Athena interviewed Sarah Hunter who is a mother, artist, and community leader with a fascinating journey about blended families and discovering her sexuality.
Athena: What is the path that led to your family?
Sarah: I married at 31 years of age to a man and he had two children, aged 5 and 7, at that time. We got pregnant and at 34 I gave birth to my daughter. I helped raise both his kids and mine so we were in a blended family. Then at 49 I came out as a lesbian, and left that marriage. The older kids were launched and out of the house by then, but my daughter was still 14 years old.
Athena: When you were younger, did you picture yourself getting married and having children?
Sarah: No, I always thought I would never get married, but have lovers and be a free spirit as an artist. So it was surprising to me that I ended up married to a man with two step kids and one child of my own.
Athena: When did you first suspect you might like women?
Sarah: I actually didn’t realize I was gay until I had done a lot of work with a therapist. Then one day I came out of a session and the pieces finally fit together. I realized I had had crushes on women in high school but didn’t know that was what they were. That was the beginning of owning who I was and coming out of the closet. The first step was coming out to myself and admitting it.
I come from a family where being a female means you grow up, get married to a man, and have children. My family background is pretty sexist so I got the message that being a woman, or a girl, means you are a second class citizen and there to serve men. I think this stood in the way of me being able to explore the natural feelings I had towards women, and being attracted to them.
Athena: Had you had any experiences with women before you married your husband?
Sarah: I did not.
Athena: What was it like when you started realizing, while married to a man, that you needed to pursue your same sex feelings?
Sarah: Once I realized it, I sat down and told my husband, and then my daughter, fairly quickly. My husband and I had been struggling and had gone to couples counselling for a few years, but we didn’t know what was wrong. Once I came out to myself, and then to him, we both knew this was what we had been in denial about. When I told him I was gay he said, “Oh, that makes a lot of sense.” He knew it was true!! At first we thought we might stay in the same house, date people separately and still raise our daughter together, but it became obvious that would not work for us. After a year we separated physically, and then eventually got a divorce.
Athena: What were the first years like after the physical separation?
Sarah: The first few years were very hard and stressful learning to be on my own, getting used to parenting a 14 year old daughter alone (my daughter eventually moved in full time with me), managing finances and my house etc. I was also adjusting to being “out”, and that took a lot of soul searching as to why I hadn’t come out earlier. I had a lot of shame about being gay.
Athena: What got you through the tough times?
Sarah: What got me through the most difficult days was knowing I had another chance the next day to do better.
Athena: Besides being a lesbian, were there other ways in which you felt your family was different?
Sarah: First of all to have two step kids and one of my own was a little different from the 1950’s or 60’s model of 2.5 kids. Then, when I came out I was more like a single mom because Eleanor (my daughter) ended up living with me most of the time. She went to her Dad’s for dinner and hanging out, but mostly lived with me until she left home.
Athena: How has being a mother made your life worse? How has it made it better? What has been the most surprising?
Sarah: I feel like being a mother and having children was one of the most amazing, and the most difficult things I have ever done in my life…partly because there is no real road map. You can read books and try to prepare, but nothing really prepares you for the adventure and challenge of being a parent. As a parent I went to places in myself, for my kid, I would never have gone to for a partner or family member, all in an effort to protect them and try to be the best parent I could be. The amount of love I feel for my child is indescribable....there is a deep, deep love that nothing will ever remove, and I feel more connected to my daughter in some ways than to anyone else on the planet. I was surprised by how I was a good mom even though I often doubted my ability to show up and be present. I wasn’t perfect, but I was as available and open as I could be, and sometimes was pushed to my limits to be able to do that.
The most surprising thing was how much love and devotion I felt for this little being, and how it made me a more compassionate, open, and understanding person. I also tried to be the best step-parent I could be. That required loving them like my own daughter but also knowing it was ultimately up to their parents to make a lot of the decisions. So I felt like I was more of a mentor/safe person for them; another person they could talk to about what was going on with them. I tell myself that what I do for my daughter, and for my step kids, I do for their wellbeing, and as an act of selfless service for future generations.
Athena: How are your kids now with your coming out, and LGBT issues in general?
Sarah: My daughter came out a few years after me so she is totally ok with it, and we have had some great conversations about those early days when I was coming out and she was still exploring who she was. My brothers and step daughters were very accepting when I came out to them.
Athena: What have you learned from your life experiences and/or how have you grown?
Sarah: I learned that I am way more resilient and stronger than I ever thought I could be. I can show up for another human being, try to be present for them, and put their needs first. It has connected me to everyone on the planet who has ever been a parent, or a mother, and that’s a lot of people. It is something I have in common with so many other women out there. I think it forced me to grow up, and try to be an adult and do the right thing. In so many situations with my daughter I could have chosen the easy way out and done what was done to me. I do remember when my daughter was born I said to myself, “I’m not having the kind of relationship with her that I had with my mother.” I wanted us to be closer and I wanted be more there for her.
Athena: What else did you not want to repeat from your family?
Sarah: I wanted to make sure my daughter got the love, acceptance, and attention I craved as a child but did not get from my family. I also think being my authentic self, and not just bowing to society’s conventions, was important for me. My parents were much more motivated to do what they thought society wanted them to do, and for that they paid a heavy price. They had to conform to norms that did not necessarily fit their personalities.
Athena: If you could go back in time, what would you say to your future self?
Sarah: You will do a good job as a mother. This experience will transform your life.
Athena: Now, looking back, do you feel similar or different from other families?
I think we’re like a lot of families. I know many women who have kind of raised their kids themselves, and I know what that feels like. I have had both experiences of being in a parenting partnership and doing it on my own. I also have now met many gay women who ended up splitting from their same sex partners and are in a similar situation as me.
Athena: Do you have any wisdom for anyone out there who is in a heterosexual marriage with children, and grappling with these same issues?
Sarah: Get help, go to a counsellor and seek out “coming out” groups where you can talk about what you are going through. When I first came out I went to some coming out groups at the 519 Community Centre and it really helped me. In 2012, I helped start a coming out group for women which is still active. Many women who go through those doors are in a marriage with a man, and question their sexuality and same sex attraction.
Also, the solutions and decisions around coming out when married are as varied as there are people. Give yourself time to explore what is right for you and have honest conversations with your partner about it.
It is definitely worth coming out, being authentic, and living your life honestly. Despite some of the challenges I can say I have never felt better. My health improved a lot once I came out, and I now am living the life I am supposed to be living. It’s worth it!!
About Sarah Hunter
Sarah Hunter knew she wanted to be an artist by the age of 10 years old. She studied art through high school and completed her grade 12 at Woodstock International school in Mussoorie, Uttar Pradesh, India, where she received a special visual arts award.
She then went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Sarah Lawrence College in the Bronxville NY, just outside of New York City, where she studied Painting, Sculpture, Photography and Ceramics. Sarah returned to Toronto to do a post-graduate degree in Arts Education at the University of Toronto, and continued her studies in visual arts at The Toronto School of Art.
Sarah has always worked in an expressionistic style and combines images of animals, humans and the natural world in her work. She is currently exploring imagery drawn from sketches she makes while watching films. She then takes these images and re-imagines and reconstructs them through a collage process onto wooden boards.
In 2013 Sarah Hunter became President of the K.M. Hunter Charitable Foundation which provides grants to cultural, environmental, and social service agencies and institutions in Ontario. She oversees the running of the Foundation and is in charge of the Cultural Portfolio.
Most recently Sarah has also been involved in design work, creating t-shirts, tattoos, brochures and teaching collage workshops at the Gardiner Museum and Esther Myers Yoga studio.
Sarah Hunter lives in Toronto and divides her time between working in her studio and administrating the K.M. Hunter Charitable Foundation.