One mother’s perspective on her trans child’s journey
This is such a loaded interview and I want to start by saying that I stared at the questions for ages, eyes welling, trying to grasp the wisps of emotions and thoughts. I want to open by saying with absolute certainty this journey is like the funhouse floor – wobbling and shifting constantly. I’ve changed my fabulous child’s name to Sam for this article, which is what I would have named them had they been born a genetic boy. Before I delve into how this journey has impacted me, I want you to meet my incredible, talented Sammy.
I think what many people and articles don’t take into account is the intersectionality of teens transitioning – that is, between 13 and 19, kids are already navigating the roller coaster of hormones and high school and FEELINGS and peers and self-discovery… in the simplest of scenarios. (Let’s face it, thinking back, who of us loved ourselves wholly during those years anyway?)
Now add to that the higher prevalence of anxiety and ADHD that kids are being diagnosed with these days. Throw in a dash of Covid isolation during these important years. You see where I’m going with this? We were already working hard to ease the isolation and anxiety in grades 10 and 11. To boot, Sam is my first / only child, so I spend a lot of time in the 'what do I know about any of this?' realm. I remember ME as a teen (awful, sassy, mixed up kid) but I’ve never raised another human. I’m a terrific adult (open, communicative, loving, cool) but that’s taken years of work, so I have always tried to impart my life lessons (good example / horrible warning). All that to say that in hindsight, I 'should have' recognized signs and symptoms of anxiety and OCD long before I did, and it might’ve made our teenage journey a little smoother. We’ve recently done the psychology evaluation and received a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, OCD, some social phobia and some ASD traits. And as a wise friend of mine pointed out, they don’t really have a diagnostic for "Highly Sensitive Soul" – but those sure as heck exist. *I recommend those assessments to anyone, it’s an investment but the learning and social supports are invaluable in school and at university.
At age 17 & ¾, Sam is a funny, talented, musical, goofy, gorgeous, blue-eyed kid with a motley crew of amazing close friends that I love dearly, in no small part because of the unquestioning love and support they give one another.
What were your initial feelings at first, and have they changed? And if so, how.
I work in the provincial government so for years I’ve been a Positive Space champion, LGBTQ2S+ advocate, an active supporter of the Pride network. I’ve done the Words Matter courses around pronouns and identity, I can walk you through the difference between gender identity, sexual orientation, and assigned sex. (Your head, your heart, your pink parts). I thought if anyone was ready, it was me. My husband, not so much. He would lay down his life for Sam without blinking an eye. They’ve had a tough relationship for years, in part because without knowing about Sam’s anxiety, we saw the 'people avoidance' as rudeness, the inability to help out as laziness rather than overwhelm. And he saw the gender switch as a fad. We all did things to take charge, break away from our parents and define ourselves in teen years, right? Am I relieved Sam didn’t embrace the Kardashian identity of skimpy clothes and vapid drama? Yup. The cargo pants and sweatshirts gave us both a big sigh of relief as parents – especially at age 15. But when the talk of top surgery and hormone injections started, we hit a wall. Lots of discomfort with those aspects and I don’t think that’s changed much yet. I’ll talk more about that later on.
When Sam expressed their gender identity, what were your personal feelings as a parent?
Okay, so Sam didn’t actually TELL us about the switch. Like, at all. I received a copy of an email from the school, confirming Sam’s name change and new email address, shortly after their 16th birthday. So naturally, I asked if there was anything Sam wanted to tell me. I got a couple of cheeky sarcastic answers and then we talked about the email. I asked about pronouns (they/he) and how it was manifesting at school ("everyone’s cool"). And I asked about a gender reveal. Sam asked me to wait so I checked in every few months or so until Sam said it was time.
What I wasn’t prepared for despite all my 'knowledge’ on the subject, was the overwhelming grief. I had lost my beautiful little girl. The vision of her future life – prom dresses, pregnancy, motherhood… gone. No more mani/pedi dates. No more dress-up shopping just for the fun of it. No more long-hair brushing.
And I KNOW, all of us going through this KNOW there was no commitment from our kids to do any of the above… Oh, but we dream. When I held my new baby in my arms, I thought 'wow… oh the fun we’ll have, my darling girl’. I lost my mom when I was 13 years old and had no sisters, beyond my amazing sisters-in-law as an adult. I ached to share my life with a female and do all the things I loved doing with my own mom, and all the milestones I missed with mine, I would be there for my little one’s.
Did you seek & find support outside the home?
I have an incredible tribe of women in my life. An outstanding,'got your back, we ride at dawn!’ kind of tribe. I’m so blessed. They held me up and they held my heart. And they LOVE Sam with equal abandon. They let me question. They let me rant. They let me cry. And cry. And cry. They comforted me when I screwed things up with Sam or said/did the wrong things. And they celebrated this amazing kid that we all love so dearly, every single minute.
Now the other interpretation of that question could be: did I enroll in a trans-positive support group? And the answer is no. Here’s why (and it’s also the 'why' around a trans-focussed support group for Sam at this point in time). I have found there is a tendency for support groups – especially with that specific focus – to be focussed on helping you 'get on board’ and to help the transition actively happen. And right now, we’re not there yet. We’re navigating prom (with a gorgeous suit!), graduation, university applications & residence selection, setting up the IEP and supports at school, and a live-away summer job. Sam has started anti-anxiety medication that we’re monitoring. And he’s HAPPY. And laughing and playing music and making plans with friends. And that has to be our focus right now. There is so much for Sam and us to juggle right now. We’re doing a life transition so adding encouragement about surgery and additional hormones needs to be off the table at this moment. If I had been able to find a trans support group that said 'Hey, take a while and don’t do this right now’ we’d be all over it. Unfortunately, the messaging we’ve consistently run into is 'Of course you can’t/ won’t be happy until your body reflects your true self. We understand that and we’re here to help you get there’.
For a pretty happy but somewhat anxious kid about to leave home and navigate a new life away from the usual support, the added pressure of encouraging physical/hormonal changes isn’t the thing for right now. However unpopular that is. I love my kiddo like a fierce mama-bear, and I recognize what overwhelms them. When the timing is right, I’ll be 100% right there.
How did you manage your emotions?
Generous of you to assume I’ve managed my emotions – lol! I don’t think I managed them as much as I’ve just had them. I am an outloud emoter. Sam & I have had some blow ups for sure (remember the intersectionality of teenagerhood). Last year for example, I was cross about something that happened and did the old "first name-middle name- last name!"... except I slipped up and used the old name, causing a flood of tears. Sam was named after my mother, whom I adored and who died when I was young. It was the biggest honour I could bestow on both of them, sharing her name with my wonderful child. I am not a fan of the term "dead name" and have insisted that in this case, we call it the "birth name" instead. On that, I have been adamant, and I cried in front of Sam when we talked about it… I couldn’t stand having her die again in that manner and it was no reflection on Sam’s decision. My amazing incredible child realised that it wasn’t me rejecting the gender change, it was part of my heartbreak and my journey, and they had to realise that we were also allowed to have emotions around things. It didn’t mean we rejected Sam or Sam’s feelings. I’ve never insisted that Sam keep my mom’s name, it just meant that it was important to have our feelings and emotions understood and respected too, so we could work through them as a family and not hide them. And we’ve had great fun tossing around new middle names for the coming name change.
How are you navigating Sam’s transition?
Well, the pronouns are a BIG deal. We took a while to un-learn 16 years of the first pronoun and we still stumble with 'he'... but we are totally slaying using 'they' consistently (finally).
The rest we’re taking day by day.
Aging out of the terrible teens and attitude is helping a LOT. Anxiety meds seem to be helping too. I still don’t love the idea of hormones or surgery – yet. When the growing and maturation and brain development have all leveled out, if I wind up being mother of a flat-chested, bearded groom instead of a blushing bride, I will have no less love or pride in my heart.
In the meantime, it’s a high-wire, balancing act. I respect Sam’s desire for the changes. I do. I understand the body dysphoria, and (certainly it’s different but) I’ve spent years battling the head worms of having the way my body looks determine my happiness and wholeness.
That’s what I want for Sam – to know that whatever shell they come in, they are amazing and perfect and can be happy in any form. And their integrity and intelligence and love and self-worth have zip-all to do with the form their body takes. This kid is fierce in their love and support of their dear friends and not one person cares about the skin Sam is wrapped in. And after that is all settled and ingrained in Sam, I will support and be post-op nursemaid and shop for face shaving stuff and form fitting shirts to welcome and celebrate a new physical form.
What steps did you take for your child to feel safe at school during the transition?
The school environment was AMAZING. It probably helped that Sam is enrolled in our Regional Arts Program (music, drama, vocal & fine arts) so there is a ton of fabulous, outrageous kids, not afraid to embrace their uniqueness and 'fly their flags'. Sam’s not the only trans kid at school. But he seems to have a really special group of friends that aren’t averse to Sam’s change, but also don’t make life about the change or Sam’s body. They’ve just been constant in their love and acceptance the whole time, regardless of Sam’s gender. His best friend Jack said "I don’t understand it but I love you and I’ll support you however you need".
What steps did you take to share with loved ones?
So, mistake #1 was sharing news with my husband before Sam said it was okay to do so. I failed to realise how critical it was that Sam was in absolute control of the timing, and surely “don’t tell anyone" didn’t mean Daddy? It did mean that, and I had to own that mistake. It was about trust. Sam trusted me with a scary emotional thing, and I blabbed it, even if it was to the other human that loved them more than life. Never tell without permission; it’s called Outing and it’s very, very bad.
Later, I had the honour of writing a gender-reveal letter to our friends and family. It was really important for me to let people know what was going on, that Sam was still the same amazing kid just with a new name, and based on recent tragedy with two classmates, I made it clear that there would be no rejection of Sam tolerated, period.
What is your advice to parents who may notice their child struggling with gender identity?
Love them. And I mean love them HARD. And fiercely. And LOUDLY. Love them like the world is out to hurt them and you stand RIGHT between them and something unimaginably terrible. Make sure they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that YOU. ARE. THERE. And do this before the conversation starts – set the groundwork of trust and openness. Let them know when they’re ready, you are safe to talk to. When they do come to you, gently ask the questions. Don’t roll your eyes or poo-poo the idea. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a phase – for them, right now, it is critically important and it is who they feel they are. Let them know you love and accept whoever they are, even if that’s something you need to work on. Ask them what they need. Talk. Talk. Talk. And keep your sense of humour – their gender identity doesn’t change their heart or their love. If they trust you enough to share their struggle with you, remember that they may be terrified that you will mock or reject them and if you do, you’re screwed. It is critical to let them lead. Tell no one without their express, explicit permission – even inside your own house. It will take forever for them to trust you again - so don’t let it happen. You hold their hearts in your hand; be gentle and let them know that nothing will ever change your deep love for them.
In grade 11, not one but two trans students at Sam’s school killed themselves within 6 months of each other. One child’s parents posted only pictures of James when he was a little girl. They didn’t have recent photos. They used only his birth name and gender. They refused to acknowledge anything about who he’d become. And man, I get it. They lost their beautiful tiny, baby girl and I cried for 3 days solidly and sloppily about what it must’ve hurt like not just for them, but for James to get to a spot where suicide seemed like the only way to go. The kids who knew him lost their funny, shy, trans friend and the world echoed with horrible, haunting "What If's?"
I vowed to never, ever, ever leave a shadow of maybe around my love and support of whomever Sam turns out to be. Ever. When you’ve seen how badly it can turn out, it gives you poignant perspective on what’s really important – having a child to love as they grow old.