Mom, what if I told you that I was a boy…
A few years ago, I stopped breathing, not literally, but I felt totally paralyzed in fear. I was sitting upstairs in my bedroom folding laundry when my child asked if they could talk to me. “Mom, what if I told you that I was a boy”. I asked, “Do you think you are a boy”? Nodded, yes, I said “we would still love you” were the words that came out of my mouth but inside I completely disassociated. I knew what my kid was saying was true and that his identity was a boy.
This is my story, the story of a mother to a transgender child. Each parent has their own journey, this is mine.
I found out that that my child was transgender. Woah, not my kid, no way, this wasn’t my plan. I thought he was only 11 and his life would be so complicated. He would be subject to people’s hate and judgement and he was only 11. I was terrified but I took a deep breath and supported him as best I could. Later that night I told my husband, he took a deep breath and then said “well, I always wanted a son”. I knew that he would be okay with it but he was too okay, where was his panic? I was a little jealous because all I could think about was the obstacles and hate that my kid would face. How was he so confident that the world would not hurt our kid?
We always knew he was different, but I thought he was gay, I was ready for gay, I wasn’t scared of gay, I understood gay. Don’t get me wrong there was never a question of would I support my son, that wasn’t my issue. But my son was only 11. How could he possibly understand what the world would do to him, how was I going to protect him from the awful judgement and hate? What about the kids at school? I spent years recovering from a toxic and traumatic childhood, I had no resentment or anger in my heart, and I wasn’t ready to expose myself to hate again. I was terrified. I knew this wasn’t about me and I had to keep my process separate from his and I couldn’t stand in his way. Back to therapy I went.
I quickly realized that there was a lot to learn about being transgender so I sought to learn from every resource I could think of. I had a longtime friend whose son had also come forward as being transgender in recent years. I reached out to her to ask for some help. I had nary a clue about transgender. I knew nothing about social transitioning, I knew nothing about gender affirming healthcare. Some of the things she said terrified me. I recall saying “ if my kid can’t buy beer until their 21 they can’t make any decisions about healthcare until then” I soon learned about the rates of suicide when children are denied gender affirming medical care. I also learned (after meeting with an endocrinologist) that there is no such thing as permanent medical interventions for children. My friend added me to this private Facebook group for parents of transgender kids and every morning I would jump on there with my coffee and read these stories of mothers in every stage of the journey from denial to acceptance, I felt connected and even though I didn’t know these women I knew they knew my struggles.
One night my husband and I attended a parent meeting at a local LGBTQ center, like I said, we wanted to learn everything. I don’t remember everything that was said but 2 things stuck out at me. There was a man there who was speaking about us boxing our kids in. He was talking about our tendency as a society to have the need to label everything and put it in a box so it makes sense but not everything should be in a box, I immediately related. I flashed back to my dad’s speech at my wedding. He spoke about the moment he realized that for me to grow in the way I needed to grow, that he had to back off and let me grow in the way I wanted. That was my kid, I didn’t want to be the reason he didn’t flourish, okay, got it, take the lid off the box, I could do that. The other thing this man said was that we needed to let our children drive the bus. I didn’t like that at first. My kid was 11, he needed guidance, how could he know what’s right? Well, he certainly knew what was wrong, he knew which label didn’t fit and since he was clearly a very different kind of kid maybe I needed to let go of the rules that I thought would apply. I could still be a parent, you know the drill, study, clean your room, use your manners, stuff like that. But, on this gender issue I was going to need to let him lead us aka, drive the bus. I found a little freedom in that because I didn’t need to solve anything or have an answer. I just needed to listen and support. I left that meeting feeling like at least I had some direction.
I read every book and attended every support group I could find. I had so many questions, I didn’t even know what pronouns were or why they were important. I recall asking someone who was working in a local LGBTQ center, and she was so patient. She welcomed and validated all my questions. She was a gift. I wanted to be like her, so I adopted the personal mission of no matter what was asked of me I wanted to respond with education. I believed that if I responded to people in anger, I would close a door for my son but, If I could provide education and insight, like these people had done for me then I could open that door” That became my goal in therapy, I wanted to be able to be that person.
Prior to his social transition my son loved grabbing a few pieces of clothing from the boy’s section at American eagle, I never cared it was just t shirts or joggers, they were basically unisex anyway. He was always afraid to go in that section himself so I would walk with him. One Friday night with my son stands out in my mind. After revealing his authentic identity, my husband and I took him shopping and off he went into the boy’s section alone, with a little more confidence than I had seen before, we both noticed and It made us smile. A couple weeks later we were out shopping again, and he asked if he could buy boys underwear and I paused to take a breath, he noticed that pause and his face fell, my heart broke. I said “buddy, I totally support you, sometimes I need a second that’s not because you did something wrong, that’s just my brain adjusting” He still felt ashamed, but we went to buy the underwear. Buying that underwear made him more comfortable. I still feel guilty that he caught my look.
I was born to be a mom, it’s my most important value. I never feel like I have the hang of it, but I have always given it everything I got. I had no idea how to navigate this new space. I was terrified of the world around my kid. How was he going to navigate school, the bathrooms, other adults, my family? He was only 11 and he was terrified that I would lose all my clients and business once people found out. How could an 11-year-old carry that kind of burden, The poor kid was already drowning. His reveal came in stages kind of like he was peeking around the corner to see if he was safe. I guess we were mostly making him feel safe because as days and weeks went on, he started revealing more and more.
I remember one afternoon in my living room, my baby was sobbing, with the chin quivering and the whole thing, telling me what it felt like for him to be at school. It was the saddest I have ever seen him and I never want to see that again. His pain was way too big for an 11-year-old to carry, and he needed my help. Being in school and trying to live as a girl was destroying him. The town we live in isn’t exactly a progressive town and we knew that there was no way he could handle the process of transitioning in the public eye. At that moment I made the decision to home school him. It was close to the end of the school year, and I promised him he didn’t have to return the following year. I didn’t ask my husband, but I knew he would be okay with it. I just needed to get him through the last month. Enter one of my son’s many blessings, his 6th grade science teacher. She was my client and he already felt very comfortable with her. She was also mother to a transgender boy, He asked me to tell her about his identity. He never went to any of his lunch periods, he felt weird sitting at the girls table and knew he couldn’t sit with the boys, instead he would stay with her in her classroom. I later learned that if she wasn’t there, he would stay in the bathroom stall for all the lunch period, heartbreaking. Once we learned this anytime, she would not be available at lunch she would alert me the day before so I could decide for him. She is one of many angels in my son’s story.
Next came the haircut, a step which I now know is difficult for many parents and yeah, it was hard. But I had read so many stories from parents who talked about the relief on their child’s face after the haircut, it didn’t happen that way for my son. I took him to my friend’s hairdresser, and we asked for a haircut like the singer, Pink. It still looked like a girl’s cut and he was disappointed. Okay, I thought, let’s try again. This time I asked my husband to take him to his barber. I was terrified, was my baby safe in a barber shop? I still had no idea where he was safe. Thankfully, my husband was friendly with the barber and filled him in on the situation ahead of time. To my surprise it wasn’t an issue at all, quite the opposite. The barber made him feel like any other guy, he got the haircut he wanted and when he returned home all I could see was his smile. A smile, I hadn’t really seen a smile on my son’s face in years, I breathed. I knew I was on the right track. I started to fear a little less and I was grateful that my son was safe in the barbershop. These milestones were helping me, all of the things I was scared of, once I did them, they weren’t so scary, any fear I had was replaced with my baby’s smile. Exhale.
There was this one day in particular that stands out in my mind, a day of terror for me. My son is a singer and he was performing in our town, again, kinda conservative. He was still not out about his gender identity in public but he also wasn’t hiding who he was. He had his haircut and his outfit, he 100% looked like a boy, anyone rolling into this concert would never have taken my son for a female. Regardless as people started to arrive I stopped breathing. What would they think? Would someone say something mean to him? Could he handle it if they did? Could I? I was surprised by my own thoughts, I always thought I was liberal and open minded and that I didn’t care much what other people think, well, all of that was being put to the test and now I wasn’t so sure. As he got ready to perform I stood in the back of the venue holding my breath and watching in amazement at his bravery, he seemed not to notice or care what anyone thought of him. He only cared how he felt. He was happy. He got up and sang his heart out and within moments the crowd was enchanted, my fears melted as I observed his spark. I exhaled and for a brief moment I thought he was going to be just fine. I started to realize that he had it within him to withstand whatever he would need to. That day was a turning moment for me as his mom.
Next fear, how do we handle kids asking why he wasn’t in school? As I mentioned he is a singer and musician so we told people that he was homeschooling so that he could focus on his music, not exactly untrue, he was in lessons all the time and that was the story he was comfortable telling so we told it until he decided he was ready to tell the world who he was. He was just so grateful that he didn’t need to go back. I don’t think he cared what kids thought and since he didn’t have any friends in school, he really was fine. As I continued learning I read that kids like mine frequently have issues with digestion and health because of fear and anxiety in school and these kids are afraid and uncomfortable to use bathrooms. More stuff started to make sense. He had so many stomach issues and I wondered if being out of school would resolve them, it did. Again, I knew I was on the right track. Exhale.
At this point my husband, my daughter and myself accepted that we now had a son and a brother living in the house. My kid continued his journey of peeking around corners and testing the waters. He asked me to tell some family friends who frequented our house. They accepted him without hesitation as we had anticipated, and he felt grateful that more people knew he was a boy and were using the correct pronouns. I must admit, it did get a bit confusing for a while as we were using, he/him pronouns at home and she/her in public. The more my son was able to live authentically, the more intolerant he became of living any other way. He wanted me to start telling members of my immediate family, no issues, everyone said that they supported him. 2 months had passed, and we were getting ready for my brother’s wedding. We spent a whole lot of time finding the perfect outfit for the wedding, it was fun, we went with a preppy vibe from Vineyard Vines, my dad would have been so proud. Twas the night before the wedding, and I was pressing his clothes when he approached me and told me that he needed me to tell all my extended family before the next day. Okay, I thought, my kid is driving the bus. I was scared but it wasn’t about me, he needed to feel comfortable at this wedding. So, I brewed some coffee and began to draft a firm and poetic text announcing my son and our support of him. After a few revisions I took a deep breath and hit send. I was pleasantly surprised 100% supportive, everyone, wow, I was starting to believe he was going to be okay. Then came the day of the wedding. We walked in and saw my uncle who gave me a hug, a hug to my daughter and the manliest of handshakes to my son. I will never forget that gesture. My son had a great time, he played and danced with his cousins, he performed, amazing as always. He was happy. This was really new to us, we hadn’t seen him happy in so long. Not only was he driving his bus, but he was also driving it well.
So, as I said earlier, I had joined a Facebook group for moms like me and I recall discussion about how difficult it was for some of our kids to look at photos of themselves prior to their social transition (BTW, a social transition is essentially a haircut, new clothes and a name, we will discuss the name later). I paused for a moment and reflected, my kid had never mentioned that was hard for him but, after taking an inventory of my walls I realized they were flooded with pictures that could be causing him pain. I called him into the living room and asked him if in fact these pictures on the walls were hard for him to see, he quickly responded with a yes, but he didn’t feel right asking me to take them down. We immediately took them all down*. But now there were only pictures of my daughter on the walls and that didn’t seem right. I had an idea, my friend was a photographer, I asked my son if we could tell her his story and ask her to take some new pictures as his new identity. He loved the idea and so we reached out. She took some amazing photos, smiles in all of them along with a whole lot of charm. We were all looking at the images on her camera when she asked if she could share the pics and his story on her social media so long as she didn’t use his name. I stopped breathing, there was that fear again. My son however, loved the idea and started begging. Please could he just share his pictures everywhere and just tell the whole community? He was begging to be done with hiding, oh my god I was terrified, I went and asked my husband, he too was terrified. Our kid was still only 11. We told my son we would think about it. That night the words “We have to let our kids drive the bus ran through my head” What were we going to do? Our choices were to teach our kid to hide and feel shame about who he was or share his story and risk him being rejected. We agreed that our son’s opinion of himself was more important than what others thought of him. We didn’t want to teach him to feel ashamed and hide. We talked to him the next day and asked if he was 100% certain that this is what he wanted. No hesitation “yes”. Okay then, the decision was made, he was going to come out and live authentically.
Now, I was a new mom to as transgender son and just because he was ready to come out didn’t mean I was, I wasn’t. Although I felt some relief at each stage of the transition thus far, I was not at all ready to see the ugly side of people. As a parent of a transgender kid, I have my own journey but mine is dictated by my child’s in large part so I made the decision to jump in the cold water with him, I wasn’t going to let him go alone. I had no idea where this kid was getting his bravery from, I was moving forward with my knees knocking together. So, I put on a pot of coffee (notice a trend?) and I sat down with these amazing images and my laptop and I began to write. I kept it super simple. Here is what I wrote;
Life is about discovering yourself and claiming who you are. Your path is your own and it doesn’t have to look the way anyone else thinks it should.
Be a one of a kind.
Meet my Skylar. Sky is blazing his own trail and discovering his courage and opening the hearts of everyone in his path.
I kept it short and sweet and shared the images
My world stopped spinning for a moment, This was it, the moment I had been dreading.
My phone started blowing up immediately with messages of support. People were sharing stories with me, thanking me, sharing well wishes for my son. I couldn’t believe it. Mom’s were reaching out to me telling me about their kids questioning their own gender or sexuality and all of a sudden I wasn’t scared and alone. I had been holding my breath for months for nothing, it was all okay. My son liked being able to walk around as himself. He no longer had to worry about people using the wrong pronouns which cut like a dagger. He was no longer peeking around corners; he was starting to walk with confidence. It really helped that he didn’t have to go back to school. I did find a homeschool co-op with other kids so that he didn’t feel isolated and he really flourished there. We went once a week and I got to watch him play with other kids more comfortably than he had before. I exhaled a bit more, again, I knew we were on the right track.
Fast forward a few more months in our journey, the name change. My son’s name was gender neutral and I really hoped he would keep it. This was a hard part of his journey for me, it felt like grief, like the final letting go. I hate to admit it but I fought it for some time. He settled on the very first name he tried. We agreed that the best approach was to try it on for size and let us live with it before making it official. He settled on the name Shawn, it fit from day one. It wasn’t nearly as hard to transition his new name as I thought, he looks like a Shawn. A few weeks later he and I were toying around with middle names and one of us said “Matthew” it was perfect, we loved it. I was now a proud mother of this dynamic kid named Shawn Matthew.
I was comfortable with my new role and my new title. Instead of being frozen with fear I had moved to dancing with joy.
My journey and Shawn’s have been very different. They needed to be, each of our stories is different. I supported him at each juncture and took my fears to the appropriate spaces, support groups, friends and therapy. Had I not taken those measures and gotten out of his way I could have done a lot of damage to my son. My main job as a mother is to give my kids unconditional love and support so that they can flourish into the humans they are meant to be. My kids are my greatest teachers in life; they unlock fears, push buttons, expose inadequacies and open doors for growth. In Shawn’s case I grew a lot. After I found peace and embraced my role as a mom of a transgender boy, I decided that I wanted to help other parents like me. I didn’t want anyone else feeling blanketed in fear and loneliness if I could potentially help. I co-founded a family support group for families of LGBTQ+ youth called Mid Hudson Proud Families. Together, our mission is to provide support and education to families and local agencies so that our kids can flourish. I am grateful for this journey and for everything that has emerged from it. I thought life was good before but, being able to support my child through this has made me a much better person on every level. We have created a beautiful space and I have been able to watch other families emerge into spectacular systems of support.
If I could leave you with some advice..
Find all the wonderful people you can, pull them in close and lean on them for support.
Let your child drive the bus.
Keep your process separate from theirs.
Learn, read, explore. The more information you have the less afraid you will be.
To any parent who is on a journey like mine, breathe. Your child is on the right path and if they tell you who they are, trust that it’s because you are a good parent and they feel safe with you. You have an opportunity to explore the edges of what it means to truly love unconditionally.