As a parent, you anticipate the day when your child comes to you with something profound to share and hope that in that moment you do everything right. You will listen, you will be open, you will be accepting.
But the thing about those moments is they sneak up on you. You don’t know when they’re coming. And then they take you into uncharted territory. So no matter how confident you are you’re going to nail it and get that “Best Mom Ever” badge, it’s not always in the cards. That’s what happened to me when my 5-year-old told me he was trans.
The evening had started like any other in our home. I’d gotten my three kids fed and ready for bed, then laid down with them to read a short book before I tucked them in and kissed them goodnight. As is often the case, I was rushing through our bedtime routine hoping for a few hours of “me-time”– catching up on reality TV, scrolling Instagram — but what I got instead was my then-daughter wanting to share with me the biggest secret of her short life thus far.
Here is where I need to share that I had one son and two daughters; this was a fact, or at least it seemed like one. It wasn’t until that very night that I began to understand that all along, I’d actually had two sons and one daughter. My middle child had been presenting as a girl, yet inside felt much differently. In her mind, she knew she was a boy. And she was ready to share that.
When my trans son started explaining to me that yes, he’d been born as a girl, but should be living as a boy, my first thought was this couldn’t really be that. My child wasn’t telling me that he was transgender, he was just confused, surely.
It wasn’t until he went into more detail that I started to fully understand the seriousness of this moment and what he was trying to communicate. He said things like, “When God made me, he messed up, I should have had a penis.” And “I can feel in my heart that I’m a boy.” He told me he had been thinking for a long time about getting a haircut and how he should have a “boy” name. The way he walked me through the changes he wanted to make made me realize this wasn’t random bedtime banter. He had been thinking about this for a long time.
Here was my chance to shine as a mom. Instead, I froze.
My mouth went dry and my heart started pounding. Why was this coming out now? Did he want attention? Maybe he was struggling with friends? It wasn’t that I couldn’t see myself loving or supporting a transgender child; I was just so thrown off and terrified of what this would mean for his life. I didn’t want my child to be seen as an outsider or different in the community. I couldn’t stop thinking what this would mean for his future and the potential struggles he would face. I thought about how family would react and what people would do when he cut his hair or changed his name.
In those three minutes, instead of being present, I was reeling, obsessing over how ill-equipped I was to shield my kid through whatever might lay ahead.
My heart was in a vise as I leaned down and gave my son a goodnight kiss and a promise: that no matter what, I loved him and that we were going to figure this out… together.
Thinking back on this night one year ago, which I often do, I realize that not much could have prepared me for that conversation. Still, I wish I’d handled things differently. Better. I definitely also thought I had many years of parenting to practice before Big Topics would arise. You just never know.
Parenting is a learning process and if I’ve learned anything in this experience, it’s that the “Best Mom Ever” designation doesn’t come from isolated moments in time, it comes from a myriad of those moments all wrapped up in the end to show the big picture. To me, that “big picture” is how you took what you learned and what you did about it.
As much as thoughts of that night bring me twinges of guilt, what’s happened since then is far more indicative of the parent I expected I would be. Since that night I have shown my son nothing but unwavering and sustained support. Tried, anyway.
I try not to get hung up on those three minutes. Lucky for me, my son and I have had many conversations since for me to make it up to him. Many of those subsequent conversations have covered all of the things I wish I had said during that night, but was too stunned to do so.
My child might not be able to tie his shoes, but he is a very self-aware little being. I find comfort in the fact that he trusted me enough to share his biggest secret with me. In the year since then, he’s been sharing his identity proudly and without shame. I’d like to think that the way I’ve loved, affirmed and supported him since has helped with his developing confidence. My actions have granted him the permission to live his truth, unapologetically. And, in turn, his patience with me has allowed me to grow into that “Best Mom Ever” after all. For him, anyway.