After learning I had HIV at age 45, I had to make the decision of who to tell. When it came to sharing my diagnosis with my kids, I knew I only had one option.
At the time, my kids were 15, 12, and 8, and it was truly a knee-jerk reaction to tell them I had HIV. I had been sick on the couch for weeks and we were all anxious to know the cause behind my illness.
Within 30 minutes of the call that changed my life, my 15-year-old was on her phone searching the internet for answers. I remember her saying, “Mom, you aren’t going to die from this.” I thought I knew about HIV, but unexpectedly finding out it’s in your body changes your perspective drastically.
Ironically, it was my teenager’s calm demeanor that I clung to for comfort in those initial moments of learning I was HIV-positive.
Here’s how I talked to my kids about my diagnosis, and what to know about having kids when you have HIV.
To my 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, HIV was nothing but three letters. Educating them without the association of stigma was an unforeseen, but fortunate opportunity.
I explained that HIV is a virus that was attacking the good cells in my body, and that I would start taking medication soon to reverse that process. Instinctively, I used a Pac-Man analogy to help them visualize the role of the medication versus the virus. Being open gave me relief knowing I was creating a new normal when speaking about HIV.
The tricky part was explaining how mom got this in her body.
Ever since I could remember, I knew I’d be super open with my future children about sex. But then I had kids and that went straight out the window.
Talking about sex with your kids is awkward. It’s the part of yourself that you keep hidden as a mother. When it comes to their bodies, you sort of hope they figure it out on their own. Now, I was faced with explaining how I contracted HIV.
For my girls, I shared that I got HIV through sex with a former boyfriend and left it at that. My son was aware that it came from that partner, but I chose to keep the “how” vague. Over the last four years, he’s heard the gamut about HIV transmission because of my advocacy and has certainly put two and two together.
If I kept my status a secret and didn’t have the support of my children, I don’t think I’d be public like I am today.
Many people living with HIV have to resist the urge to share their knowledge and reduce stigma with their friends, family, co-workers, or on social media. This may be because their children don’t know or they’re old enough to understand stigma and ask that their parents stay silent for their well-being. Parents may also choose to stay private to protect their children from the adverse effects of stigma.
I’m fortunate that my children have known from a young age that HIV isn’t what it was in the 80s and 90s. We aren’t dealing with a death sentence today. HIV is a chronic manageable condition.
Through my interactions with teens at the school where I work, I’ve observed that many of them have no idea what HIV is. Conversely, many young people who seek advice through my social media worry that they’ll “catch” HIV from kissing and could die. Obviously, this isn’t true.
Thirty-five years of stigma is hard to shake, and the internet isn’t always doing HIV any favors. Kids should learn through their schools about what HIV is today.
Our children deserve current information to change the conversation about HIV. This can move us into a direction of prevention and maintenance as a means to eradicate this virus.
Saying you have chickenpox, the flu, or the common cold carries no stigma. We can easily share this information without worrying about what others will think or say.
On the other hand, HIV is one of the viruses that carries the most stigma — mainly because of the fact that it can be transmitted through sexual contact or sharing needles. But with today’s medication, the correlation is unfounded, damaging, and quite possibly dangerous.
My kids see HIV as a pill I take and nothing else. They’re able to correct their friends when parents of those friends have passed down wrong or harmful information.
In our house, we keep it light and joke about it. My son will say I can’t have a lick of his ice cream because he doesn’t want to get HIV from me. Then we laugh, and I grab his ice cream anyway.
Making light of the absurdity of that experience is our way of mocking the virus that can no longer mock me.
What most people don’t know is that it can be very safe to have children when you’re HIV-positive. While this wasn’t my experience, I know many HIV-positive women who’ve had successful pregnancies without any issues.
When on treatment and undetectable, women can have safe vaginal births and healthy HIV-negative babies. Some women don’t know they are HIV-positive until they become pregnant, while others contract the virus during pregnancy. If a male is living with HIV, there is also little chance that he will transmit the virus to a female partner and on to the newborn.
Either way, there’s very little concern for transmission risk when on treatment.
Changing the way the world sees HIV starts with each new generation. If we don’t make an effort to educate our kids about this virus, stigma will never end.