I dropped my oldest kid off at college this past weekend. A bright new freshman, full of possibility and hope for the future. I demonstrated my love and pride by carrying and unpacking only what I was told to carry and unpack at the dorm. I obeyed the No Photos Rule. I even managed to not shed any tears when I said goodbye.
[I may have lamented just a tiny bit on the car ride home.]
I know that there are plenty of other mothers who are fretting about this back-to-school transition and who have many valid worries about sending their chicks away from the nest, but this mama is feeling especially vulnerable.
Because I sent a son to college instead of the daughter I thought I’d been raising for the past 18 years.
Two weeks ago, this new-to-me son came out as transgender to his summer camp friends, his high school friends, his dad, and his extended family. He had originally talked about coming out at his high school graduation party in June, but I was worried about how the news would be received. He was clearly ready to enter adulthood with a more authentic identity, but I expected that the response to this revelation might not be especially rewarding. My family and husband were still grappling with the transition of my now stepdaughter, and my kids' dad was still pretty much in the dark. Shortly after that, we went on a week-long trip with my siblings and their families to commemorate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and I was wary of conversations about gender overshadowing their momentous occasion.
In hindsight, I was probably just trying to delay the inevitable, because I wasn't quite ready to face this transition in a public sphere.
When my son finally made the announcement at his summer camp, he was met with applause and offered a huge embrace of acceptance. I too applauded him for bravely revealing who he believes himself to be. But a day earlier, when I stood in a coffee shop and shared the news with a friend, speaking this truth out loud made it a reality after months of furtive conversations at home. I sobbed with a profound sense of grief and shame that I hadn’t realized was there. As my husband said when his adult child transitioned, “You think you’re progressive and open-minded until it’s your own kid.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ashamed of having a transgender child. I’m ashamed of how afraid I’ve been of the transition that is required of me. Embracing my child’s new identity means I have to let go of the dreams and expectations I had for “my” daughter, along with surrendering my status as "her" mother. It also means reckoning with my own fear of rejection and sense of not belonging. This is especially true with my family of origin because I know this news is distressing and difficult for them to accept, and I don't know how to even begin having a conversation with them about it. And of course, I’m worried about my child’s safety and mental health on a college campus, and I’m terrified that he will be subject to bullying, violence, and abuse for the rest of his life. Maybe I will finally have to summon up the courage to get out and fight for the LGBTQIA community in a meaningful way, instead of offering mere lip service.
Right now, though, I’m too overwhelmed to fight.
I'm just trying to focus on loving and supporting all of my children, as each one of them is going through their own coming out and identity crises in a not-always-loving-and-supportive world. I’ve heard other mothers say, “If people can’t accept my kid for who they are, then they don’t have a right to be in our lives.” But that just breaks my heart as much as the family members who can't accept it. Because no matter how difficult and confusing and objectionable these transitions might be for some people, I believe the only opportunity for love to win is to stay engaged and find a way to be gracious and compassionate. Even in the absence of understanding. Even when we have a tendency to mess up, or lash out, or give up.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a far more painful and messy way. Come to think of it, it's not unlike transition in childbirth. It fucking hurts. After a long, hard year of labor pains, I keep wondering if the hurt and exhaustion will ever end. And I'm fed up with my husband for not supporting me or our kids in a way that I crave. His slower and more reluctant path toward acceptance leaves me frustrated and lonely as I am trying to move forward with my own. I've lost patience with his emotional absence, and I've pushed him farther away during this transition: "No, I don't want your help. Don't you dare touch me! Where are you, and why can't you be there for me when I need you?" I finally whimper through gritted teeth and hot tears, "I can't do this anymore, I don't know how to do this anymore..." And yet here we are, still here in the birthing room together, occasionally glimpsing the tender promise of new life.
The hardest part of this transition by far, even as I knew it was coming, was hearing my child shed the names that had been thoughtfully chosen, endearingly given, and intended to honor my mother and my faith. Together, they mean, “wise gift from God.” I have always believed that my child embodied this namesake: wise beyond their years, fierce yet gentle in spirit, quick to help those less fortunate, eager to entertain existential questions, and willing to advocate against injustice. When I learned that he was considering the name Warren, the only thing I could think about in my haze of wounded disbelief was, “Really!?! You’re going to challenge the predominant gender constructs with the name Warren?”
Yes, yes he is.
Let me tell you, having a transgender child dispels the myth that we, as parents, are the authors of our children’s lives.
For that reason, I'm honored that my kids risked sharing their truths with me. I've told them repeatedly that I will always love and support them as they step more fully into who they are becoming, as hard as it is for me to hear. I also continue to encourage them to be mindful of the transition that is required from others to accept their newly-expressed identities. Case in point: my difficulty with Warren's choice of name. I had still hoped he might consider other options before he came out publicly, which I alluded to in a letter to all three of my teenagers earlier this summer:
“You are in the stage of life when establishing your identity is so important -- how you define yourself, your outward appearance, how you want others to view you and refer to you, and how you want to occupy a place in your community. I recognize this as a necessary part of your development, AND... [they hate it when I say "AND"] ...your dad and I chose your names with great care, and the meaning of those names was very important to us. If you choose to change your name, I hope you will be as thoughtful about what your new name means, what it says about who you believe yourself to be, and how you intend to operate in the world. Above all, I want you to know that the essence of who are you are is far greater than any aspect of your identity. I believe that each of you has a unique purpose, one that is tied to this very essence and has just as much to do with how you serve others as to how you define yourself.”
This went over about as well as any lecture does with teenagers.
And yet, I'm pretty sure at least one of them listened. Because my new son, in a subsequent conversation about his transition, told me that he wondered if he was trans because he was meant to help other kids who don’t feel like they fit in in the same way. He imagines someday creating a space for kids who don’t know what it’s like to have a place where they belong or who don’t feel cherished for who they really are, a place like his summer camp where he has always felt accepted and celebrated, especially in this process of becoming. Because aren't we all in the process of becoming? Far too few adults entertain the truth of who they really are in a way that I see this generation bravely exploring.
When I finally asked him why he was considering the name Warren, my kid said, "I don't know, I was just always drawn to it." As it turns out, the name may have chosen him. Because when he finally looked it up, he discovered that Warren means “loyal protector.”
I'm pretty keen on the name Warren for my son now.
And I definitely still believe he’s a wise gift from God.
I have found comfort in and highly recommend Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children. I am also incredibly grateful to the midwife-mother-friends who have come alongside me to help with the birthing process: Alexis Braun-Marks, Rachel Francisco, Lisa Tucker-Gray, Laurie Atwood, and Kathy Waugh. Thank you for your love, counsel, friendship, and support during this challenging time. I am also eternally grateful to the Children's Creative Center community for showing my kids what true belonging really is.