It was late in the evening of our close friend’s son’s wedding reception outdoors on a large farm. Our two older kids were inside the tent on the dance floor with the bride and groom, and our younger two were at the fire pit making s’mores.
My husband and I stood a few feet away reconnecting with some friends we hadn’t seen in a few years.
“You guys are so amazing for accepting your child as he is,” a friend of a friend whispered over the rim of her drink.
“I don’t see that there was any choice," I replied. “We love him. We would never want to hurt him.” That was one of the canned responses I’d developed over the previous few months, although most often I went with a simple thank you.
A second friend came in for a hug and looked me in the eye, “You truly are a great mom. So brave. Really.”
“He’s the brave one," I replied. "But thank you.”
I looked over to my son. He was laughing and wiping melted marshmallow on his friend’s arm. A friend he’d known his whole life. Not missing a beat, everyone around us accepted him as if nothing had really changed.
When our family came out to the world about our 11-year-old child transitioning from female to male, my husband and I were inundated with praise. Still today, two years after the fact, we have random strangers, like the registrar helping with his legal name change, tell us we are remarkable parents.
Of course, we could never live with ourselves if our child felt unloved and unaccepted. But there is more beneath the surface to the Rockstar Parent persona. There is a secret that most parents of transgender children are purposefully hiding from their kids, the world, and a few of them are even hiding from themselves.
If I have learned anything on this LGBTQ journey it’s that not everything fits nicely into a box. There is so much more than the black and white, male and female, gay and straight dichotomy. There are more than two ways of responding to our child coming out besides waving the rainbow flag or sending our kids to a conversion therapy camp. While it appeared on the outside that I was accepting my child the ‘right way’, there was a whole lot of grey area going on behind the scenes.
Transgender kids and teens, like all children, fair much better in life with loving support from their parents. Trans kids face a world in which they are often misunderstood. From the neighbourhood bully to the president of the United States, they have to listen to messages that say they don’t matter and shouldn’t exist. Having a safe and soft place to land in the loving arms of an understanding family is a saving grace for these children. They need someone to dry their tears, someone to give them hope that it gets better, and someone who stands up for their rights. Those parents happen to be human. They have tears and fears of their own that they don’t show their child. The parents need support too.
A bolstered parent has more emotional resources to care for their child. When we treat parents as whole individuals and acknowledge their feelings and challenges, they have more reserves to face the obstacles ahead of them.
I don’t expect the clerk at the registration desk to hold my hand and ask me how I’m doing with my child’s transition, and I also don’t expect my closest friends to ask me if I’m overwhelmed when my child is in the room. I am sharing this secret so that people who are close, or become close, to the parents of a transgender child know they need a friend they can be vulnerable with, someone who allows them to put down the “ultra-accepting mom” mask for a few minutes and be authentic.
In August of 2016, I found a purple journal on my pillow as I was changing out of my work clothes and about to make dinner. The note inside read, in part: “I want to take testosterone. I am transgender.”
My face tingled and flushed as the words leaped off the page. They made as much sense to me as if my child had told me she was from Jupiter. I reread it a few times, took several deep breaths, and then hid the journal under my pillow.
I did not rush over to my son and give him a hug for being brave enough to write that letter. I did not run out to the store the next day and buy boys clothes. I certainly didn’t rush to write a Facebook post about it, either.
Our first trip to the boy’s section of the clothing store was four months later, in December of that year, and I didn't click "Share" on that carefully orchestrated Facebook post until the following April.
When I think back to my reaction to learning I had a son instead of a daughter, it’s clear to me now that I went through all the stages of grief. I am not proud that my first reaction wasn’t to shake pompoms and cheer for the whole world to see. But I want other parents of trans kids to know they are not alone in unpacking their grief within their own proverbial closets.
Nothing happened in a linear, check-it-off-the-list type of way. I have since learned there is nothing linear about grief, and grieving is very different for different people.
My grieving process went from denial to bargaining, and then acceptance mixed with anger, followed by deep sadness and finally unconditional acceptance. My initial reaction was to dismiss the journal entry as confusion. My child just needed a therapist. In my mind, she wasn’t really transgender because she never complained about wearing dresses, was never interested in sports, and never outright said, “I am a boy.” I told myself this was clearly just a phase because it was cool and everyone was doing it—even though we knew no one else who was.
Once it became apparent that ignoring the situation wasn’t going to make it go away, I threw myself into bargaining mode. By nature, I am a strategizer. If there is a problem, I work it until I find the fix. My first step was to hit the internet to read everything I could about the topic.
At one point I’d convinced myself that the rise in people identifying as transgender had to be environmental because humans can’t evolve that fast. I wondered if removing all the plastics in our house would help. Maybe estrogen mimicking agents caused the disruption.
I shared none of this with my child. I shielded everyone from all my far-fetched mental schemes. However, my lowest bargaining point was asking my child, “Why don’t you just be a lesbian? Then you don’t have to worry about which bathroom to use and take hormones for the rest of your life and have surgery.”
A sliver of acceptance made its way into my heart when I saw how happy my child was dressed as a man for Halloween, and again when we bought boy clothes over the Christmas holidays. We made it official on his return to school from the break that they were to use male pronouns and the masculine spelling of his gender-neutral birth name. But secretly, on some level, my husband and I still hoped he’d change his mind.
We struggled with using the new male pronouns, and I recoiled every time I was corrected. The anger phase began to seep into my thoughts—thoughts I dared not share with anyone.
My anger and fear mingled into one sleep disturbing mess. I would lie awake at night feeling that I had already lost my daughter, and fearing for the life of my new son. The rate of suicide attempts in female-to-male transgender adolescents is 50.8 percent.
But there was more to my mental rage. I was a fierce feminist, and this was a slap in the face to everything I fought for daily. Part of me thought he was taking the easy way out by crossing the aisle and joining the enemy camp to enjoy the privilege of being a man instead of standing up for the rights of women.
Anger eventually dissipated and turned to sadness. The memories that would pop-up on Facebook showing me pictures of the daughter I once had tore me to shreds. I missed the long blond curls she used to wear. I missed shopping at the girly teen stores. I realized there would be no father-daughter dance at her wedding. There wouldn’t be a wedding dress or a prom dress to shop for. I wouldn’t get to watch her give birth. I had invested eleven years of hopes and dreams for my child’s future. I had to grieve the loss of the future I had imagined.
By this time, we were out and proud to all our friends and family. I had received hundreds of messages from people praising us for being amazing, accepting parents. Not only did I have to hide my sadness from my son, but I felt like I had to hide it from the rest of the world.
In a universal twist of fate, my mother suddenly and unexpectedly died of anaphylactic shock in May of 2017 and the horrible silver lining was that I could finally grieve openly with no one knowing which tears were for my mother and which were for my daughter.
Time eventually did its magic and the sting of grief began to fade away. Our son requested that he change his name from his birth name a full year after we had switched to using male pronouns. We sat down together with a baby name book and settled on something that suited him. But just as I had with my first round of grieving, I took my time making the change over to his new name. A few months later, he took on the responsibility and asked the school to change his name.
It was a year and a half after he’d come out to us as transgender, at a school award ceremony where our son was playing with his band and was nominated for an award in music, when I heard all his classmates in the crowd chanting his new name. “Mitchell, Mitchell, Mitchell!” That was the exact moment I realized that I adored and accepted my son utterly and completely in my heart as much as I showed others on the outside.
It is very rare for the tiny twinge of sadness to flicker in my chest now. It returns in very specific moments—like when I see pictures of my child as a cheery toddler who didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
Today, I run a support group in our small city for parents of children who identify as LGBTQ. I can assure you that I have witnessed this grieving in many other parents in varying degrees. Not everyone takes as long as I did to make it to acceptance. Some only spend a few days or weeks letting go of what they had envisioned for their child.
One mother shared with our group that she mourns how close she had been with her son as a child and how there is a distance now as they find their new normal. Another mother shared that she feared not having a biological grandchild and paid to have ovum preserved before her young adult child started testosterone. Both these mothers longed to have these conversations in a safe place where they knew they wouldn’t be judged for living in the gray area between rejection and acceptance. These are not clear-cut grieving processes and they are certainly not topics we discuss with strangers patting us on the back for being super parents.
There have been days throughout this whole process where I wished I had superpowers to make things easier. At the same time, the parents of transgender kids that I have met have been extraordinarily strong people. However, it is important for all of us to acknowledge the hero’s journey they have trodden and the immense emotions they’ve had to confront and might still be confronting. Supporting these phenomenal parents will, in turn, support these brave children who are teaching all of us how to be true to ourselves.
This article was originally published online in June 2019.