I live my life frolicking through the light of the forest with my family. Recently, I tripped over a root that has always been there, beautifully unique and essentially strong, but grew higher above ground this season, calling us to shift and reorient the way we experience the forest.
This happens from time to time when you live a life that is brave and raw, perhaps even more so than running on the crowded asphalt, blindly following the footsteps before you and ignorant to the wildness hidden below your feet. But I’ve been struggling to regain my balance. All my carefully cultivated maneuvers and tools are failing me.
Well, they aren’t failing me really, because the birds still sing, the flowers still bloom, and the forest still thrives, but they are failing to ground me at the familiar pace. I feel stuck, struggling in the mud, and while I’m assured it’s okay and a patch I simply must allow and wade through that will eventually dry, I feel guilty and frustrated with myself for stumbling at all. I planted that tree and am responsible for that root and yet the tree is exactly what it is meant to be – it can be no more and no less, certainly not faulted for it and actually owed appreciation for it.
My compass is still set firmly, so my feet move in the right direction, but my heart—it lags behind. And so, I breathe, because sometimes that’s the most I can do. I breathe in a deep and slow way that all the air reaches into my depths, with hope that I will eventually float to the top and trust that the mud is not quicksand that will swallow me forever and darken the forest. Hope that I can just barely touch with my fingertips that the words of Alice Walker are true and this moment of weepy confusion is really the discomfort of growth, and we will all emerge from the muddy chrysalis as more beautiful butterflies.
Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.Alice Walker
You may be familiar with the story of a 3-year-old boy who persistently and consistently insisted that they were born in the wrong body (“I am a girl”), in such desperate distress that they pleaded for the release of death.
This is an important story to know.
But it’s not our story.
You may be familiar with the story of a young adult who endured a childhood of relentless pretending and shame, hiding who they knew themselves to be because they felt they must, until they could no longer maintain the mask and were set adrift to survive alone as their true self.
That is an important story to know.
But it is not our story.
Our story is one of a beautiful, kind, and clever child who was happy, comfortable, and confident in their gender creative life, with freedom, support, and love: sweatpants with long hair, pretend play of house with girls and superhero wrestling with boys, a bright pink background featuring Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.
As the dusk of childhood sets and the dawn of adolescence rises, we find ourselves in a new season. The peace and joy that defined my kid has been woven with a fresh strand of discomfort for the binary boundaries puberty defines. With this natural season of metamorphosis on the horizon, her body begins to lean toward the masculine, and in response her heart and mind lean toward the feminine. As the incongruence grows, so does the pain in my mama heart.
“I would be devastated if I grew a beard or had a deep voice.”
These words, spoken casually in conversation completely unrelated to gender, couldn’t have cut deeper had they been wielded on the blade of a knife. What innocently fell out of my child’s mouth under the guise of innocuous sibling pretend play and chatter was the realization that puberty is binary and what’s coming is not the right fit. Of course, it wasn’t really sudden at all, but a natural culmination of a million conversations and a 12 years long journey toward getting to know, honor, and celebrate her unique self.
Our eyes met and we both somehow knew a line had been crossed. Not the kind of line that people draw with unquestioned expectations meant to box people in—we’ve practically made a family career out of crossing those. But the kind of line that divides a person’s life into “before” and “after.” It was a line drawn by the DSM in the shape of the word “dysphoria” and the security of being behind it had always been my life raft in the sparkly gender sea. Those words popped it and the refreshing mist and fun motion of the water was now threatening to drown me.
Feeling All the Feelings
I hope for my child to be happy: to have a deep, abiding contentment and fulfillment within herself and her connections. My child was gender nonconforming and we honored that. She was always happy, proud, and at home in her own skin. “Blow up the binary – rock a pink skirt and a superman t-shirt while you sword fight with the boys and giggle with the girls.”
But now that has shifted and I’m faced with the question: Can one ever truly be happy within themselves in the most meaningful and honest sense if they suffer from gender dysphoria, which is characterized by distress within your natural body? It was the one line I was so desperate for her to never cross as I showed her people who were thriving with beards and sequins. “Express yourself however feels authentic, just love who you are (we sure do).” But now she’s afraid her body is going to betray her, and it will, because you can’t order secondary sex characteristics a la carte. “I’ll take the height, strength, and baby making and you can keep the facial hair, deep voice, and Adam’s apple.”
A child who cannot have that default happiness in their core is one of my worst fears. But “I am happy and I do love myself and I love you,” my child is quick to remind me on the rare occasion that my worry shows. “You have a happy, awesome kid who happens to be trans,” the gender therapist (who also happens to be trans) assures me. “Welcome!” greet the warm, smiling families as we join the transgender family support group, run by an advocate, who also happens to be happy, successful, and trans. Can a transgender adult be truly happy? The trans mentors I have turned to respond to that question with a resounding yes. So long as they are affirmed in their gender identity (and adolescence is a crucial time for this), they can grow to enjoy the same triumphs and struggles as everyone else.
I hope for my child to be healthy: as strong, swift, clear, and well as her body and brain can be to enjoy a life of quality and quantity. After 12 years of mindful nourishment I am now faced with the path of injecting drugs into her body to stop its powerful, healthy, natural growth and development in the form of a 3-year puberty blocking implant, followed potentially by cross sex hormones to induce female puberty, which will result in total loss of fertility, diminished sexual function, delayed brain development, and reduced bone density. And those are just the effects we know about since this is the first generation to use this protocol in this way and the longitudinal research just isn’t there to the level I would need to set my mind at ease.
Pharmacologically poisoning my perfect child is one of my worst fears and yet, an even bigger fear is that she might live her whole life depressed and hidden in shame or worse yet, not even live as transgender people have an attempted suicide rate of 41% if they are not affirmed in their gender identity. If my child was diagnosed with a cancer with a 41% fatality rate, I would pump them full of drugs to give them the best shot at a long life.
My child is so happy and I’m not going to wait until after she has irreversibly matured and is experiencing great distress to affirm her gender. “I have no agenda,” the wonderful doctor supporting us explains to my child, “I’m just here to help you live as the girl you know yourself to be, in the healthiest way.” There are no easy choices, just the right choice for my child, with consequences either way.
I hope for my child to be successful: being her best self, as she defines it. Societal hatred in the form of violence, discrimination, and rejection could overwhelmingly limit her potential. I have worked so hard to expand her world such that her opportunities are limitless and this one label may slam so many doors shut and lower the ceiling.
But it doesn’t just limit her, it could endanger her. 28 trans people were murdered last year in the US and I get too anxious combing through assault rates to even validate hard numbers. That 41% attempted suicide rate is actually attributed pretty much exclusively to unsupportive family and community. In other words, people who are transgender who are embraced and affirmed seem to have the same suicide rates as the general population. It’s the rejection that destroys people. As someone who has built a career on the vital connection piece, I get it.
And from a practical view, it’s difficult to be successful if no one will hire you, patron your business, or rent you a home. This is where my child gets knocked way down the privilege ladder she was lucky enough to be born into. While I would never encourage my child to make decisions in order to fit in (make others comfortable), I will inform her of the gender affirming medical care that will allow her to be outwardly recognized as her identified gender (avoiding potentially painful misgendering) and we will empower her with the awareness and confidence she will need to navigate life safely enough to come home alive each night in a world that is forcefully attempting to legislate trans identified people out of society.
Most of all, we will fight to create the world we want our child to inherit, one in which gender diversity is embraced, and be a steadfast safe harbor for our child to always come home to.
I am quietly grieving all the hopes that die with my beloved child’s cisgender identity and I am haunted by my dreams for her future happiness, health and success. I fear being transgender has the potential to reduce to rubble the foundation I spent 12 years pouring.
It feels like a death (not of a living child – we have always seen her and she is exactly the same person she has always been – but of an assumed future) and that death has to be mourned. It has been mourned through denial, bargaining, anger, jealousy, depression, and all the other friends grief would invite to a party. It has been mourned through heavy sobbing, burning tears, swollen eyes, and long hugs under the dark blanket of night. It has been mourned through books, research, documentaries, consultations, and new friendships. It’s still being mourned and I feel terribly guilty for feeling anything but pride for my child becoming exactly who she is meant to be, which of course prolongs the struggle (mothers and their guilt).
But at least now my fingertips are beginning to touch the shore of acceptance. Not acceptance of my child – that has and will always be unwavering – but peace with a new reality. A stream of warm light peeks through the clouds. Could that be hope? A sweet scent of optimism on the gentle breeze? My child can still thrive, it’s just going to look different than I’d imagined.
As beautiful as this diversity is, there are some hardships that come along with it that are likely to alter the course of my child’s life, a life that I am heavily invested in. I care. I worry. If people were protesting math prodigies using public bathrooms, then I would grieve that realization too. I love my child for exactly who she is and I am going to show up with all the support she needs (I am unwaveringly my kid’s biggest fan).
We, as parents, also have fears, anxieties, and viewpoints that we have to shine a light on and shift. We have to process the added weight of protecting and advocating for our children on this whole new level. We have to grieve the loss of the family members, friends, and for some, churches, jobs, and communities in which we felt at home who reject our acceptance of our children. I would never want to be in meaningful connection with people who were intolerant and bigoted and yet would still need a minute to mourn the loss of those relationships. We happily make up the difference for our children but there is an emotional toll to be paid.
I understand that for many trans adults, conversations around parental grief could feel hurtful, as though this more fully self-actualized and authentic form my child is growing and maturing into is seen as less than. I want to emphasize that that is not the source of this grief that I have seen to be pretty universal among even the most accepting and loving parent advocates (though for many it’s also a welcome relief from years of unexplained emotional and behavioral turmoil). “I cried every night for a few months, and then I was able to dance into this new season of connection with my child with pride,” shared a new friend, farther along on this journey than I. I have read time and again when a parent attempts to reach out to others with their feelings and insecurities to “grieve in private.” This admonition breeds shame. It discourages parents from getting the guidance, information, and community they need to be the parent their child needs. Pretending we are one-dimensional cheerleaders does our role as parents a disservice.
Since my children and I are in authentic connection, I can honestly share that, “I unconditionally love, accept, and support you and I’m struggling to find my way through the details of what you need right now, but I will. I just need a little time and we’ll move forward together.” We hold space for our child’s emotional experience and honor the grief circle (grieving outward), but we need allies to hold space for us.
If there is no space held for this hard, emotional, educational, and self-reflective process, then we are slowing down our cultural progress. Our children are the first generation with the real possibility of living their whole lives as their true selves with family, peer, and societal acceptance, love, and support. That is a huge victory and for us parents on the front lines scrambling to get our bearings when we weren’t raised with role models to follow, there will be a learning curve. But one thing I know for sure is that when we’re honest, vulnerable, and open-minded, we move important conversations forward. One of the most powerful things said to me, from another fierce and beautiful mother of a trans kid was, “This is normal. Let it come. Feel it. It will pass.”
Exploring the Cause
I have been accused of intentionally imposing my liberal agenda onto my child and making her transgender by showing her movies with powerful female leads, by not simply saying “no,” and by not forcing her into social systems where she would be beaten and bullied into masculinity. What parent would wish this hard life on their child? Too many powerful female lead roles in Hollywood (sarcasm) didn’t cause this. You can’t discipline and shame the gender variance away any more than you can shame the gay away (reparative therapy has proven to be an utter failure in efficacy and ethics). The thing is, you can’t parent it away because it’s not a choice and you can’t cure it because it’s not a pathology. It’s a diversity. So either come bearing glitter or don’t come at all because I’m done allowing people to rain on my kid’s pride parade.
The truth is that we see a genetic (identical twins are more likely to share gender variance than fraternal), brain-biologic (brain scans show a trans women’s brain looks more like a biological women’s brain than a man’s brain), and utero-environmental (lower levels of testosterone in the womb of trans women and higher levels of testosterone in the womb of trans men) component when we seek the source of the gender issue. It’s a complex web where nature, nurture, and culture intersect.
I made this child so one piece to my grief is guilt. If you want to say it’s my fault, go right ahead. I’ll take credit for this wonderful human being any day of the week.
Regardless of the cause, the reality is that genders beyond the binary are natural and can be found throughout the world and throughout time (the Torah, Native Americans, Samoans, etc.), often within cultures that honored and celebrated their value.
My child was assigned male at birth but knows herself to be female. I see that, I honor it, and I’m going to celebrate it.
The path forward can feel messy, confusing, lonely, and hard. We’re used to walking the path less traveled (gentle parenting, natural homeschooling, simple living) but this generation of gender diverse youth are pioneers on the front wave.
While this elicits some optimism, gratitude, and excitement, it’s more rational fear. I played Oregon Trail on floppy disk – I watched most of those pioneers die. The heart of our rebelliousness has always been a return to trusting our nature and intuition. My mama heart and well-informed mind are telling me this gender piece can fit nicely. My kid loves and trusts herself. I love and trust my kid. We move forward together.
This is her body, her identity, and her life. It’s my job to love and support her. You see, gentle, respectful, collaborative parenting doesn’t fail you when the road gets rocky – it carries you through. While I’ve been struggling on the inside, my kid has not at all. She has every confidence – knows through and through to the core of her being – that she is loved, accepted, and supported and we will follow her lead as she is ready to step forward throughout her life in whatever directions feel most authentic for her. She is determined to be her best self and live her best life and grateful to have us by her side. We’re still in harmonious connection—all 5 of us—as we transition to a family of 1 mama bear, 1 papa bear, 2 man cubs, and 1 sister bear who will henceforth be addressed with she/her pronouns.
Click here to read about our next step into the medical transition.