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Jill Smokler, creator of the popular parenting website Scary Mommy, recently decided with her husband, Jeff, to end their 17-year marriage. Their reason: Jeff had come to the realization that he is gay.
With all the emotions and stress that comes with divorce, perhaps the most frightening and daunting for Smokler was the thought of breaking the news to their three children, ages 9, 11 and 13.
Smokler, 39 and a New York Times best-selling author, told TODAY Parents the months after they made the decision to divorce but before they told their children "felt like a sort of honeymoon period of waiting for the news to blow up the kids' lives." She and Jeff, also 39, worried their teenage daughter would be "angry and mortified" and that their younger boys would be "devastated."
So the couple took steps to try to go about dismantling their marriage as thoughtfully as possible, enlisting the help of a practice near their home in Baltimore, Maryland, that specializes in divorce using attorneys, mediators, and therapists. They developed a plan for telling the kids, though no specific script.
Then, last week, they took their 13-year-old daughter aside and broke the news to her alone.
"Jeff did most of the talking," Smokler said. They decided to take the approach of complete but simple honesty with the children. After he told their daughter the news, Smokler said her daughter's first reaction was to hug and comfort her dad, a show of empathy the couple had not dared to expect. "She told him, 'I still love you the same,'" she said.
Afterward, their daughter wanted to ask her mother questions alone, including "Are you angry?" and "Did you know?" Smokler said she tried to answer her questions straightforwardly.
Telling their sons went less smoothly at first. Youngest child Evan thought it was a joke. "You're kidding," Smokler said he replied. He was confused because, as he went on to point out, his parents "never fight" and are often very affectionate. Eleven-year-old Ben buried his face in his hands and asked if they were done yet and if he could be alone in his room.
But by later that evening, the kids were ready to visit Target with their father to pick out new bedsheets for their beds at his new house and to see Jeff's new place nearby. Since then, Smokler said they have had ups and downs and "weepy moments," but said overall they have been "incredibly mature" about the situation.
"They have definitely had a lot of questions," she said, "and we have had a ton of conversations about it" — including one to explain to their 9-year-old why it wouldn't be a good solution for Jill to just "become transgender," as he suggested to her — but overall, the kids are all right. Evan's teacher even emailed Jill a note to tell her how he was handling it in class, which she posted on Facebook:
Smokler and her husband each made public announcements on Facebook last week about their divorce, and Jeff even wrote a piece for Scary Mommy and its 19 million monthly readers about "divorcing his soulmate."
"Once I came to terms with the fact that I was gay, I figured I had two options," Jeff Smokler wrote. "I could die — either from my intentional neglect of my health and well-being, or perhaps from something even more tragic — leaving my children fatherless, or I could come out and hope that I remained surrounded by the love of my friends, family, wife and children."
"For many years, I chose option one; letting myself slip into unhealthy habits and depression," he continued. "So how then do Jill and I now find ourselves in this moment? What changed? The truth is, nothing changed. We were simply ready."
The Smoklers also sent a letter addressed to "Those Who Know and Love Lily, Ben, and Evan" asking their friends for help making things as easy as possible for their children, both logistically and emotionally.
"While this is an incredibly difficult time, we both know with absolute certainty that we're all going to ultimately be OK. Your friendship and love is what makes us so sure," they wrote.
Together, the Smoklers also told their children they hoped they would not "lose sight of the good that can come from pain." In their email to friends, they said they hope their challenges will translate into raising "more empathetic, caring, and open-minded children who learn to embrace their differences — and respect and appreciate that which makes others different, too."
Smokler said she and her husband emphasized that "divorce is not one-size fits-all," and they will be working to find their own version that makes sense for their family, including future vacations that will include all five of them.
Smokler said she wouldn't have done anything differently in breaking the news to her children and the public. "When you boil it down to kid terms, even though it's really complicated, it's simple at the core," she said. "Being honest with them was definitely the best approach." She said she let Lily read the comments on her and Jeff's Facebook posts, and the positive feedback was helpful for her too.
Being open about their situation has helped Smokler process the changes as well. "I have had probably 70 people message me or email me privately who are in the same situation," she said.
"This has been really good for me. For as many nasty comments as we get on the internet, every time I have put something out there that has made me feel super vulnerable or that was painfully honest, the response has always been amazing."
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