The day I realised I was in love with another woman
For many mothers, after years of not-so-happy marriage, their true awakening comes when they finally accept their lesbian sexuality, writes Deirdre Reynolds
'We need to talk" -- four little words that have spelled the end of many a relationship.
When Sheila from Westmeath (not her real name) uttered those fateful words to her husband of 25 years, however, he was completely clueless as to the bombshell she was about to drop next.
The relationship was over alright; but she wasn't leaving her husband for another man -- she was leaving him for another woman.
After 31 spirit-crushing years in the closet, Sheila had finally cracked under the strain of camouflaging her sexuality with a loveless marriage. And at the age of 45, the mother-of-five decided to publicly make peace with her attraction to women.
"I knew from the age of 13 that I was lesbian," tells Sheila, now 59.
"But back then, the word 'gay' didn't exist in Ireland. Girls didn't even know anything about their periods, let alone their sexuality.
"Fear of being found out drove me to get married. I suppressed my feelings for 25 years.
"But finally in 1995, after a year-long depression, I couldn't take it any more and I came out. My husband had no idea."
Across the country, she's not alone.
A relative latecomer to the LGBT community, Sheila is just one of thousands of women worldwide nicknamed late-blooming lesbians -- women who declare or discover same-sex feelings in their thirties and beyond.
And shackled by the social mores of Catholic Ireland in the 50s, it could be your mother, aunt or even grandmother.
"At the time, I thought I was the only married woman on the planet to have these feelings," says Sheila. "But now I know there were lots of other women out there going through the same thing.
"As a young person, I didn't have the option of coming out -- you were expected to be straight. On the morning I got married, I felt awful -- I knew in my heart there was something wrong.
"Mothers put everyone before themselves," she adds. "If I had come out earlier, my children would have had no home -- so there's a financial element to it too.
"But one day, you wake up and your family's not there anymore. Everyone's entitled to a bit of happiness."
Celebrity late-blooming lesbians have garnered the group attention in recent years.
Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon (44) was in a heterosexual relationship for 15 years and had two children before hooking up with current partner Christine Marinoni in 2004.
Arrested Development star Portia de Rossi (37) was married to a man before coming out and falling for talkshow host Ellen DeGeneres, whom she married in 2008.
And last year, it was reported that British singer Alison Goldfrapp (44) had embarked on a romance with film editor Lisa Gunning.
Now academics are getting in on the act too.
At this month's American Psychological Association's annual convention in San Diego, a session entitled 'Sexual Fluidity and Late-Blooming Lesbians' is set to present a study of women who experienced a same-sex attraction when they were over 30 and married to a man.
But while some always fantasised about the fairer sex, for others, their newfound lesbianism is as much a shock to themselves as it is to their families.
For author Carren Strock, the revelation came when she was 44.
Married to her high-school sweetheart for 25 years, the mum-of-two had the picture-perfect family life in suburban New York when the penny dropped.
One day, sitting opposite her best friend, she realised: "Oh my God. I'm in love with this woman."
Although the feeling wasn't mutual, it triggered Carren's life-altering acceptance of the fact that she was a lesbian.
"If you'd asked me the previous year, I would have replied: 'I know exactly who and what I am -- I am not a lesbian, nor could I ever be one'," says Carren, who subsequently wrote the book Married Women Who Love Women based on her experience.
Such cases have led boffins to surmise that sexuality is, in fact, fluid and can change over the course of a lifetime.
But is it possible for a heterosexual woman to suddenly wake up gay?
Until now, the accepted wisdom has been that when a person comes out later in life, they must have always been gay or bisexual -- but hid their sexuality.
Increasingly, researchers are questioning whether adults go through a type of second puberty that can impact on their sexual preference.
A recent University of Utah study tracked shifts in the sexual identity of a group of 79 women over 15 years. By the end of the study, about 70pc had changed how they had initially labelled themselves as straight, lesbian or bisexual.
"What I often found was that women who may have always thought that other women were beautiful and attractive would, at some point later in life, actually fall in love with a woman," explains Dr Lisa Diamond, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the university.
"It wasn't that they'd been repressing their true selves before . . . I think a lot of women, late in life, when they're no longer worried about raising the kids, and when they're looking back on their marriage and how satisfying it is, find an opportunity to take a second look at what they want and feel like."
That's not to say that women are choosing whether to be straight or gay, she stresses: "Every one of the women I studied who underwent a transition experienced it as being out of her control. It was not a conscious choice."
However, the research suggests that when it comes to sexual fluidity, women may be more malleable than men.
"Deep down," said one woman, "it's just a matter of who I meet and fall in love with, and it's not their body, it's something behind the eyes."
That was certainly true for Toddy Hogan (45) from Ballincollig, Cork.
The mum-of-three left her husband after falling in love with a woman -- despite believing herself to be straight.
"At first, I thought it was just a midlife crisis," laughs Toddy, who now works with L.inC (Lesbians in Cork), a community centre for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women.
"I absolutely loved my husband and hadn't a clue that I was a lesbian.
"But when I met this woman, I realised: 'Oh my God -- this is more than just a friendship'.
"Until that point, I had never questioned my sexuality. In hindsight, though, it was like the pieces of the puzzle fell into place."
Once she had wrestled with the realisation, Toddy faced the terrifying task of telling her family.
And while coming out isn't easy for any age or gender, for married mothers it's even more agonising.
'It was very tough," agrees Toddy. "As a married mother, you not only have to deal with telling your family, you have to cope with telling your husband and kids too.
"My kids were two, eight and 10 when I came out," she reveals, "so while my youngest has grown up with it, the older ones had a harder time.
"Now that they're teenagers, looking back they both say it wasn't as tough as they thought it would be. Sure, they got the odd comment at school -- but I think kids will get that whether their mum is fat, wears glasses or is a lesbian. Anyway, if I had lied to them, they would have only resented me.
"My parents still struggle with it hugely," she admits. "Their logic is: 'You were married with children -- you couldn't be a lesbian'."
Late-blooming lesbian Sheila still hasn't addressed the pink elephant in the room with several members of her estranged family.
"I told three of my children, but still haven't said it out straight to the other two," she says. "During an argument after I came out, one of my daughters said some horrible things to me -- but she's OK with it now.
"None of my brothers or sisters know and I don't think they ever will," adds Sheila, whose partner of 12 years died last year. "I don't tell people unless they ask."
They may be out and proud, but for now, many are still not loud, adds Toddy Hogan.
"Until I joined LinC's parent support group, I thought I was the only lesbian woman who was married with children," says Toddy.
"But I think we're going to see a lot more Irish women coming out later in life."
"It's a very frightening time for women; basically, you're turning your entire world on its head. Homophobia and internalised homophobia sadly still stops people from coming out -- sometimes to the point of suicide.
"Even within the LGBT community, when someone comes out later in life there can be a bit of 'Were you sitting on the fence?'"
Once the closet door shut behind her nine years ago however, Toddy didn't look back.
"I had breast cancer 11 years ago and going through that was a wake-up call," she adds.
"I decided that whether I lived for one year or 50, I had to be true to myself."
You can contact the Lesbians in Cork helpline at 021-4808600