With International Women’s Day on the horizon, I am forced to have a deeper look at my self-identity as a fierce defender of women’s rights. Before my third child transitioned to a boy, I spoke of empowering women and gender equity until I was blue in the face. I purposefully worked with women clients and spent my dollars in women ran businesses. But having two sons today has opened my eyes to so much more than my own experience of “being a woman in a man’s world”.
Last month, my husband and I cuddled up with our two sons and fresh popcorn to watch the Grammy awards. My heart was warm and fuzzy when the opening included five powerful women—Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Alicia Keyes, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez. They each spoke about what music meant to them, ending with “Tonight we celebrate the greatness in each other through music.” And then Alicia Keys said, “Who runs the world?” and I shout back to the television “Girls!” almost jumping out of my skin with fervor.
My youngest son quietly responded, “I don’t like feminism.”
My son. The offspring of the Wonder Woman idolizing, once Women Talk co-director, card-carrying feminist warrior just said he doesn’t like feminism?! I think my husband actually recoiled to save himself. But seriously, this taught me that I needed to not only define things for my son, but for myself as well.
Feminism is definitely getting a bad rap these days especially among Millennials and Conservatives with traditional gender role values. Some women born into a society that already allows the right to vote, own property, get a job and have access to birth control view feminism as an unnecessary plot to devalue and denigrate men. That is not what feminism means to me. While we are miles ahead of where we used to be, women still often earn less than men, hold fewer senior management positions, and own less of the world’s wealth. Compound all that by the fact that women are more likely to pause their careers to raise children and take care of aging parents. Compared with a man with no workforce interruptions, the average woman cumulatively has earned $1.06 million less by the time she hits retirement age. That’s an enormous wealth gap. That is why I am still a feminist.
This was where my conversation with my eleven-year-old son began. A fish doesn’t know it is swimming in water. My son, like most men, doesn’t know the privilege he enjoys. It is difficult for him to realize that at such a young age. I gave him the example of being allowed to walk to Seven Eleven alone, but I never would have let his sisters go alone in grade six. From his point of view, my son feels that he didn’t ask to be treated special, but more than that, he feels that he doesn’t matter when I celebrate women and girls. We are asking a whole new generation of fish to evolve and breathe air on land. Of course, there will be pain and push back for them! They were happy in the water, we dragged them out!
I am going to be very frank. When my third child came out as a transgender boy, I felt like he was crossing the aisle. I wanted a little feminist warrior working alongside me and I had a tiny bit of resentment that, by becoming a boy, he would enjoy the same male privilege as his younger brother. Privilege I never had. I’ve grown and changed quite a bit since he came out. Thank God! And this has also changed my view on the gender binary and gender equality. I hear what the anti-feminists are saying in terms of not wanting to denigrate men. We don’t need to make someone else wrong to make us right. This is not about right or wrong, good or bad, it has always been about the fact that everyone matters. So, I am changing my language. I now stand for gender compassion. Compassion for women who are striving to have access to all that matters most to them. Compassion for men who are learning to adapt to a new society where they may have to yield access. Compassion for gender non-conforming people who have a right to take up their own space too.
While I am saluting all of my women friends, sister, daughters on International Women’s Day, I am also sending love out to our men who are making an effort to shed their toxic masculinity and love to anyone who doesn’t identify with the prescribed gender binary.
As the mom of a transgender 13-year-old, this is the question I get the most from parents of LGBTQ children and youth. How can they trust that their child is right about their gender or sexual orientation? How can they tell if it’s just a phase? How can they trust that it’s not just the latest cool thing to do?
My second daughter does not like kale. I have presented it to her a thousand different ways and asked her to taste it again every time, but she has known from a very young age that she will not eat kale. I trusted that at 7 years old she knew that she didn’t like it no matter how much I love it myself. At what point do I go along with her preference and offer spinach or broccoli instead? I want to be a good mom and take care of her nutritional needs, so when do I accept that my child knows she won’t eat kale?
My children have all shown preferences for colors and flavors and types of music and styles of clothes and sports and activities at different stages of their lives. Yet, we question whether we can trust that our child knows they are attracted to a particular type of person. This is because the social implications of our child coming out as LGBTQ are far bigger than if my son chooses to play the guitar instead of the cello.
What happens if you trust them?
1. Being a former nurse, my first fear was the medical implications. Changing genders meant hormone therapy and surgery which sounded barbaric to me when I felt that I had a healthy child. And the first thing that comes to mind with a gay child is HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted infections. The good news is that we should all be having well informed sexual education talks with all our children no matter where they fall on the LGBTQ spectrum. The other good news for parents of gender creative children is that nothing has to be permanent in the beginning.
Your child can dress as their preferred gender. It’s just clothes, and a wardrobe can be switched back at any time and any age. If your child is older and flirting with puberty, or just entered puberty and it is causing them distress, you can talk to your doctor about puberty blockers. They are reversible, and delaying puberty gives you more time to explore their gender identity. If this is a phase or something cool to do, you can ride it out.
2. And then we have the social implications. Let’s face it, not everyone in our society is super accepting and enthusiastic about people who are “different”. Trusting that my son was indeed a boy and allowing him to dress like a boy and to change his name and pronouns was difficult for him at school and difficult for me with my friends and family. Even if this wasn’t permanent, even if we were riding out a phase, doing so in public is a big commitment to bravery, courage, and authenticity. Sometimes scary experiences are worth it. In the end, my son’s mental health far outweighed what other people thought of me.
What happens if you don’t trust them?
3. The mental health implications are undeniable. After my child settled down from a relatively short episode of suicidal thoughts, I asked the therapist in the emergency room how I could tell if my son was truly suicidal or just trying to get out of school and away from the relentless bullying he was facing there. Her advice to me was to always believe there is a suicide risk because if we don’t, and he was truly suicidal, we can’t take back our decision to ignore his plea for help.
If you don’t trust that your child knows in their heart that they are a different gender than what they were assigned at birth, or that they know who they love, you risk damaging their self-esteem. How would you like to live the rest of your life being told something that is fundamentally true about yourself, that you know to your core, has to be hidden and denied? Would you feel depressed, anxious, and live in fear of having that secret show up unexpectedly as you went about your everyday life? Is that the future you want for your child “in case it’s a phase”?
Trust me, trust them.
Of course, I am completely biased. I see the difference in my child since we embraced transition. His school grades are back to excellent, he thrives in his music lessons, he has true friendships, and there is a spark in his eyes that had been dimmed for years. Even though everything we have done for his transition to this point is still reversible, I know in my soul that he was right and that I have a son. His happiness and contentment have been worth the social implications and I would do it all again.
Our children come out to us in various ways. Some of them declare their LGBTQ identity the same way they tell you what they ate for breakfast. It’s just a fact. This is how my oldest daughter announced she was bisexual. Some children, however, come out to us in more subtle and cautious ways. My transgender son came out to me in a note that he left on my pillow. He didn’t say he was transgender per se, he (she then) merely asked to start taking testosterone. That note launched my husband and me into a few months of denial before we finally sat down with our child to address the topic head-on.
There is no one path that our children take before they come out, and no one “right” thing to do after they come out. This list is what some parents of LGBTQ youth have found helpful.
The reality is that most of us parents grew up in a very binary, heterosexual culture, and most of us were handed a baby that was either wrapped in a pink or blue blanket and we automatically assumed they would one day marry someone of the opposite sex. It is a shock for many of us to have our child tell us something different from what we assumed from the day we first held them in our arms. The best thing you can do for yourself in that state of shock is to take a bit of time and create some space between what you’ve been told and your next step. When my son came out, I was full of fear for his future and doubt that I could trust an eleven-year-old to know who they truly were. Fear and doubt can cause decisions and reactions we might regret, it’s much safer to take some time to clear our heads. Which leads to the next step.
Google will soon become your best friend. Of course, be wary of the sources from which you gather your information. There are a lot of new terms and labels to familiarize yourself with like pansexual and gender fluid in addition to the standard Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender terms. There are also questions about legal issues like name changes, and medical issues like sexually transmitted infections and hormone replacements. There are statistics you will want to know about such as the number of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ and the staggering number of suicide attempts among transgender teens. I know these statistics can cause us more stress, but they are an important part of the whole picture to keep our kids safe. Which leads to the next step.
Be compassionate with your child and be compassionate with yourself. It took a monumental amount of bravery for your child to come out to you and be their authentic self. How many of us can say that about ourselves as adults? Even though it seemed easy for my bisexual daughter to tell us who she was, it is not easy for her to have people say she’s just confused or saying it for attention. Our kids have a world of judgment to face and being their safe place to land is a genuine gift for them. And, this is not easy on you as a parent! I know. I live it. There is a steep learning curve and there are so many opportunities to mess up. I’ve used the wrong pronouns. I’ve dismissed something that I thought was minor that turned out to be a big deal to my kid. I’ve had to go through a bonafide grieving process for the daughter I gave birth to, and that’s okay. I am compassionate with myself, but most importantly, I don’t dump my feelings on my child. Which leads to the next step.
Your kid needs you, and you need adult support. Some of your existing friends will be amazing and will listen and empathize, and some will be a source of more stress and non-stop almost voyeuristic questions—choose who you confide in wisely. There may come a time where you need to speak to a counselor just to help you past the most stressful parts and there are excellent psychologists who can help you and support you so that you can be an advocate for your child. I found major benefits in meeting other parents of LGBTQ children and there are many organizations that offer this support such as PFLAG, Calgary Sexual Health, Skipping Stone Foundation and our very own Airdrie Pride Society.
As much as we want to leave the past behind us, it comes up for re-examination every once in a while. Memories resurface during the holidays, people say things that resurrect an old hurt, or in my case, we go digging in the past as we write.
This week, I am remembering and writing about the most horrific time in my life. I am writing from the point of view of an innocent eleven-year-old girl facing confusion, pain, and betrayal by the very people who I expected would protect me.
The emotions that memories bring up are real, and our body’s response is real too, but they both stem from thoughts—dancing with ghosts that are not here in the present moment. Whether you lean more towards the scientific realm of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or The Work by Byron Katie, we have been taught to question our thoughts and turn them around to thoughts that serve us better. As scary as it can be for me to dive into the deep dark past, I also know that I can change what is on the screen of my mind at any second.
My advice if you are writing about the past, or have it resurrected for you… face it and embrace it. Most of us respond to unpleasant emotions by trying to avoid them. Wine, screens, and the plethora of life’s other distractions. I have found that avoiding the ghosts just invites them back when we least expect it. It also atrophies our resilience muscles. The more we face the unpleasant feelings head on, and let the wave eventually subside, the more we learn to tolerate them.
Of course, I dealt with the most horrific parts of my past in therapy and I am not suggesting you white-knuckle your way through life’s most difficult moments. As I am writing about my past, the emotions come back, but they are fuzzy and duller than they had been at the time. I am taking my time writing about it, taking many breaks, and practicing being in the present moment when I’m not exploring the past.
Luckily, I don’t dance with my ghosts everyday or for very long, but they are important characters in the story of who I was and who I am becoming. Writing about my life gives me a chance to practice self-care and exercise my resilience. If you have some ghosts come out to play over the holidays, or while you are writing, know that they’re only thoughts, and you can change your thoughts at any time. Take care of yourself and distract responsibly.
It was meant to be a relaxing bookend to a glorious day. We headed to the hot tub right after dinner, our tummies full and my muscles loose from the heavy pour on my one glass of wine. Though the evening temperature was mild, we had played in the snow chasing moose for photographs most of the day and were ready to melt into the bubbling waters under the starry sky.
When we got to the hot tub, nine of the twelve spots were occupied by young, giggling, gossiping women and my hopes for a relaxing soak instantly vanished. I sat Anderson on my lap, so we could all fit. The young ladies decided to head to the indoor pool instead. I was relieved as they departed one by one and only two remained.
The girl who sat in the corner proceeded to explain why she would not leave the heat of the hot tub, “the pool is too cold, and my leg muscles cramp up. I need the heat.”
“I don’t like cold pools either,” I replied.
She avoided eye contact, though I sensed she was talking directly to me. “I have a disability, it’s hard for me to walk. I’m also small for my age but I’m going to be sixteen soon. I’m a Halloween baby. Well, actually, born November 1st. This bathing suit is a size 8 even though I’m almost sixteen.” She barely took a breath between each staccato sentence. Her hands fidgeted with the bead at the end of the tie of her bathing suit.
Rod and the boys stayed silent and turned towards each other almost to create a bubble around themselves from the onslaught of conversation. They didn’t speak because the girl’s silence was never held for more than a millisecond.
The girl continued to tell me about her family—a family constellation that sounded very familiar—a step-father and a biological father, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents from the step-father side of the family, and her mom, the one who bought her the size 8 bathing suit. They had a family tradition of spending Thanksgiving in Jasper every second year, and in Banff on the opposite years.
A wise woman had recently challenged me to engage in curiosity and be in conversation with someone I would normally avoid, and this situation was certainly the case. Not only because all I had wanted was quiet time relaxing with my family, but also because the girl in the corner of the hot tub reminded me of all that was inside of me that I tried to run away from my whole life. Being from a broken home, being the different one in the family, not wanting to make eye contact because I always thought people could see in my eyes all the shame I carried from my past. But I also knew the pain of being silenced, of having so much to say but terrified of telling the truth. We fill the silence with inconsequential fluff. Don’t stop talking too long or someone might ask you the question you don’t want to answer, the one that will break your life open.
So, I sat in the one-way conversation with the girl in the corner and compassionately let her fill the silence that she dreaded as much as I once had feared, and sometimes still do.