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.
The stress and trauma of the last two years have calmed enough for me to finally take a few deep breaths and heal my heart. Of course, this is not something that is done in a day, as much as my strategizing, achievement-driven, forward-focused self would prefer. No, this is a long, deep, and emotional process and it’s not going to be something I get to tick off my to-do list.
I have been feeling exceptionally tired and my mood has been low for the greater part of two months, so I decided to book an appointment with a Naturopath. Part of her intake form asked about the most recent, top five, stressful events. I knew I was in trouble when I wrote out my list.
January 2017 My husband was diagnosed with colon cancer
February 2017 My third child who recently came out as transgender was suicidal
April 2017 My oldest child relapsed in her mental illness and drug addiction
May 2017 My mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly
October 2017 My youngest child was diagnosed with a lifelong autoimmune disease
I threw in a 6th for good measure… I had major surgery in November of 2017 followed quickly by the flu three weeks into my recovery.
I met with The Naturopath in her corner office overlooking the beautiful autumn colors on a walking path along the Bow River. We discussed the list and all my symptoms and we’re doing blood tests and exploring the physical implications, of course, but the biggest takeaway I got from the Naturopath was what she found during some muscle testing. She said my Heart Chakra needs work. She explained that I am hyper-focused on tasks and work, and that I need to learn to trust others with my heart again, to acknowledge my fear of more disappointment in relationships, my fear of being let down yet again, and my fear that getting close to someone may add more stress and demands on my time and energy.
She had just met me, yet my body told her the story of my life. She mirrored for me exactly why I felt desperately lonely. And, she was 100% right.
This is how I cope with stress, the way I coped my whole life in my dysfunctional childhood, as an ICU nurse, and with every challenge as a mother: shut down all emotions except anger, lock them up inside, be cool and composed on the outside, and focus on the solution. The role I assume is the strong one, the responsible one, the fixer. I don’t do warm and fuzzy in a crisis, and I have been in crisis so long that I don’t remember what warm and fuzzy feels like.
How has this affected my kids, my husband, and my sister all dealing with their own level of grief? Do they know that I shut down to survive and not because I don’t love them?
I had started making friends when I moved to Calgary, mostly in the context of being an entrepreneur, but I have retreated from all of them on some level. I was ashamed of how crazy my life had become, I didn’t feel like I had deposited enough in the friendship bank after knowing these women for such a short amount of time to justify requesting a withdrawal yet. And I had nothing in me to give to them if they had a crisis of their own. I was ashamed of my need when I spent a lifetime being the caregiver. Ironically, I know many of these women would step up and show up if I asked, but I just can’t bring myself to ask, so I continue on with this façade that tells everyone that I’ve got my shit together and deal with my lonely broken heart alone in the dark.
Make no mistake, this is all my responsibility. This is not a convoluted cry for sympathy or a manipulative way to make others feel bad or sorry for me. I am responsible for the choices I made under stress and I am responsible for the choices I make to heal today.
This is a precautionary tale for anyone who is hiding behind a mask and dealing with a broken heart in silence. It doesn’t get better on its own. We have to take the steps to trust and love again. This is also an apology. I am sorry for not fully showing up in relationships, for not asking for help, for not revealing my true essence and for not seeing, and being with, your true essence. I swear I know how to do this, I know how to love and be loved. If you can be patient with me while I get my heart back online, I look forward to nurturing and trusting true friendships again.
I was speaking on the phone to a business colleague as I packed my bag for a six-day retreat in the Canadian Rockies with Eckhart Tolle. “I’m actually nervous about this trip. I’m worried about leaving my business behind for six whole days and I’m worried about the money I am spending because I’m not sure this is going to do anything for my business.” In fact, I was so nervous about going away on this trip that my stomach swiftly kicked out my lunch before I got into my car to make the two-hour drive to Lake Louise.
I didn’t know what to expect. It had been 10 years since I read A New Earth, and though I swear it changed my life when I read it, I could only recite some platitudes from its passages. I didn’t remember it’s essence anymore. I racked my brain wondering why I signed up for this in the first place only to recall the year from hell I had last year and how much I needed self-care just to live another day.
I awkwardly stood in line for the opening talk and found a seat in the third row. The foundation leader came on stage to say that the room was filled with almost 700 people from 40 countries, to which I looked behind me to realize the size of the crowd. We dutifully turned off our cellphones—my link to my business and my children—and on walked Eckhart, slowly, purposefully, fully present.
I, too, slowly, purposefully became still. Fully present. Connected to my essence.
I remembered instantly how Eckhart Tolle changed my life, and I instantly found that peace again.
Over the five days that followed I met Fran, a mother of 9, who imparted her wisdom onto me when I said I wished I could give this awareness we learned on retreat to my children, to which she replied, “you never want to be so awakened that your children don’t struggle and grow.” That hit me like a brick and was exactly what I needed to hear.
I also met the beautiful and enigmatic Claudia. A spiritual goddess in her own right that allowed me to be adventurous and free as we acted as mirrors for each other’s life lessons. She introduced me to a Thai artist and musician and a former Thai monk, and I introduced them to Moraine Lake. I also got to meet successful conscious business owners which also served as a lesson for what I can do differently in my own business.
I won’t even attempt to write the lessons Eckhart taught us into a blog. Do yourself a favor and read The Power of Now and A New Earth. I will give you a short passage from my notes on Creativity because it is relevant to my biggest A-ha from this retreat.
“Creativity is the act of creation that comes from our connection to source. We receive it fully formed and are often overpowered with the insight, invention, music, and art. Creation needs a vehicle, the power needs to manifest into this world, and after many hours of practice you eventually are no longer the dancer you are being danced, you are no longer the writer you are being written.”
Why was I so nervous to go on this retreat? Because it meant that my overworking, artificially busy life might change, most importantly my ego was going to be challenged and die a little. I no longer identify so strongly with my business, my role as a mother, and my self-construct that was cutting off my connection to my true essence.
My big revelation came with regards to my intention with writing my next book and its underlying message. It has gone from being about my unspoken grief raising a transgender child to about how raising a transgender child has transformed me and brought me closer to my deeper true self, just as he dares to be his true deep authentic self. The book is writing itself and writing me.
I’m now back home and much more present to my children, much more present to my clients, and much more present in my writing. Though I am purposefully living in the present moment, I can assure you that I will not wait another eight years to recharge and attend another Eckhart Tolle retreat.