Parenting teens through gender issues
“No one ever told us parenting would be this hard!”– every parent whose parents did, in fact, tell them that parenting would be this hard
Parenting is wonderful. Parenting is hard. Parenting transforms us in ways we never anticipated, and each phase—newborn, toddler, young readers, middle school, teen, and beyond—brings its own unique joys and challenges. My kids are both in their 20s now, living lives very different from what I first imagined. I, too, am currently living a life very different from the one I imagined when I first became a parent.
You may already know that my oldest child (25 years old as I write this) identifies as transgender. Over the last seven years since she came out to her mother and me, as a family we’ve been pretty public about her gender identity and the awful period of suicidal depression she went through from 18 to 21. We hope our own story and experience will be valuable to others going through it as well.
Many people have told me it has been. (Contact me to set up some time to talk.)
Coaching parents whose teens are struggling
Everyone’s situation is unique. Working through all the challenges of being a dad to my kid taught me exactly that: how to be a dad to my kid. I’ve shared my story and my learnings, and I’ve informally mentored and coached other parents through their challenges. The things I learned from my life sometimes apply in their situations, and sometimes they don’t.
One truth I’ve seen through these conversations, though, is that all the parents I’ve talked with love their children and want what’s best for them. It’s just often difficult for a parent to reconcile what they think is best for their kid, with what is truly best. And that gap—between what they think is best and what is actually best—is where so much of the anguish, confusion, and conflict originate.
To that end, today I want to share a blog post I originally wrote in 2017. I’ve edited it slightly, and a version also appeared in volume 2 of Guts, Grit, & the Grind. A video interview about my Guts, Grit, & the Grind essay is embedded at the bottom of this post.
“We don’t even know if he’s straight yet.”
Our baby Ethan wasn’t even 12 hours old. We were in the hospital, with morning sunlight honeying the recovery room. Ethan’s doting grandma—this was her first grandchild—had just suggested that Ethan might grow up to marry her coworker’s newborn baby girl. I rolled my eyes, but grandmas gonna grandma after all!
I was standing in the doorway, exhausted from being up all night, smiling at the scene. My friend, standing next to me, leaned in and whispered, “Marry her coworker’s granddaughter? We don’t even know if he’s straight yet.”
At first, I bristled. First-time dads can barely figure out which way to tape on a diaper. This “friend” could keep her insinuations to herself.
Twenty years later, I now believe that every doctor should say that exact same phrase to every newborn’s parents. Maybe not immediately after recording the Apgar, but at least once before they leave the hospital with their tiny squirmy poop machine.
“We don’t even know if he’s straight yet.”
Why? Because it reminds everyone that even the most “obvious” assumptions about our children could easily turn out to be wrong. Through the years, I’ve remembered that whispered comment and used it to check my expectations. My son doesn’t like soccer? I’ll get over it. My son has one weak eye and needs an eye patch for a while? He’ll be fine. My son wants to join the military? Well… all right, I guess I’ll get over that, too.
As for growing up to be straight, well…
Ethen grew up to become a creative, smart, artistic young woman named Emma.
The people I’ve told about this, they praise me for being supportive and accepting. They tell me it must be hard for a parent to go through such a thing. And I can testify they’re right. It is hard. It’s hard to watch your child suffer with the choice of living in the wrong body, or living with prejudice and discrimination. It’s hard to visit your child in a lock-down psych unit because depression drove them to the verge of suicide. It’s hard to take 20 years of habits and expectations, and turn them inside out. But it has never been hard to love Emma, or to feel proud of her. Those are and will always be easy for me.
We don’t even know if he’s straight yet.”
That one sentence, whispered 20 years ago, may have been the preparation I needed as a parent to understand that my assumptions and expectations will not always be right, even when they seem obvious. Like, “It’s a boy.”
Last week I introduced myself to a delightful young trans woman, a barista at one of my semi-regular coffee shops. She began transitioning a few months ago. I simply wanted to say hello and offer a few words of support. I’m glad I did; we only had a few minutes to chat, but she’s very sweet. Unfortunately, her parents weren’t able to accept who she is. Instead of realizing their assumptions about her were wrong, they reacted as if she had broken their trust.
If only the doctor had told them, “We don’t even know if he’s straight yet,” they might have been better equipped to understand that her transition has nothing to do with them. Of course it makes them uncomfortable, but their discomfort is irrelevant. Their discomfort simply represents the gap between their expectations and reality. Reality doesn’t change just because you wish things were different. But you can work on your own expectations and perspective.
Believe me, it’s damned hard to discard assumptions you’ve carried for 20 years. If you accept that those assumptions were wrong to begin with, however, it becomes at least possible.
We are all just stumbling through life, figuring it out as we go. I didn’t know the right way to be the father of a trans woman. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know the right way to be a father. All I really know is that it involves love and patience and acceptance. And I think I can manage that, especially for my own child.