It only took one second, one phrase, for my life to change. “I want to be a boy!” my then 15-year-old daughter screamed at me on a ride home from a friend’s house after I demanded an answer, knowing something was wrong. My heart sank. I felt fear in both of us in that moment. So many thoughts and questions ran through my mind: “How in the hell am I going to deal with this? How is my husband going to deal with this? Where do I even begin wrapping my head around the fact that my daughter wants to be my son?” I am a clinician trained to deal with any crisis, but never thought I’d have to practice this in my own family. I immediately began to rub my child’s back and repeating, “It’s going to be okay. I’m not sure how yet, but we will get through this.” What I did know was that suicide attempts among transgender individuals were alarmingly high at 41%…a very scary number. My child was not going to be a statistic and I knew I was going to do everything in my power to support my baby. I had no idea where to begin, but I was going to do it. My child’s life literally depended on it, and as a parent, you are supposed to love your child unconditionally.
Life was a bit fuzzy for a while after this night. It felt as if we were grieving. I remember crying a lot, at work, at home. Knowing my oldest child, Lauren, who was living at college, supported her younger sibling from the very beginning comforted me. She always said growing up that she wanted a brother and now she has one.
For the next couple of weeks, I continued to check in with my child every day. Luckily, my child had already been attending counseling for their anxiety and was instrumental in keeping us all grounded. We also began seeing a therapist who was versed in helping youth and their families’ transition. We decided as a family to reach out to a transgender adult to see if they could help us make sense of our new journey. It was such a meaningful discussion; an education and a support that we needed. This is when I finally felt like I had the strength to begin talking to our immediate family. Without hesitation, they gave all of us their support.
There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I always thought you experienced these stages when you lose someone you love. I’ll never forget the day we were told by our child’s therapist that our child wanted to be called Andrew and we were asked to use he/him pronouns. I cried all the way home and told Andrew that I loved the name he chose. He told us he knew this was a name we could have easily chosen for him. He has put a lot of thought and consideration into his decision and I admired him for this. My grief felt different this time. How could I grieve a child that is still alive?
We had a family meeting to share Andrew’s decision about his name and pronouns. We cried together, we hugged, we felt their unwavering support and unconditional love, and then like we do, began making jokes to lighten the mood. We had dinner together and everyone began calling Andrew by his name and nicknamed him Andy. After this, we began Andrew’s social transition with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and then at Andrew’s school and church. It was emotionally exhausting, but it was the right way to do it. I made personal phone calls to all of our immediate family and explained what was happening and answered all of their questions. We were met with nothing but support for Andrew and for us as a family.
We began to notice that Andrew no longer spent time in his room, but instead spent time in the living room where his dad and I were. He laughed more, he talked more, he hugged you fiercely, and with emotion. Complaints of stomachaches were gone. He and I talked endlessly about his journey, his realization that he was transgender. He was so open with me and allowed me to ask the most personal questions to help understand. I no longer grieved for my daughter. Instead, I felt a tremendous loss of not being able to hold my son in my arms as a baby and nurture him as Andrew from the beginning.
We have been blessed to have a church family and a pastor prepare a renaming ceremony for him and our family. Every seat in the church was filled, and we felt overwhelmed by the support and validation for our son. This was a major turning point for me. I knew Andrew had a solid foundation of unconditional love and safety, and I had the strength now to begin helping our son transition into the man he was meant to be.
It was music to my ears to hear everyone call my son by his chosen name. However, it became increasingly difficult for Andrew to see his birth name on everything around him, especially in school and the college flyers that were showing up in the mail. It was time for the legal transition. It was heartwarming to see the excitement in Andrew when the judge called him by his chosen name. We had to change his name and gender marker on every legal piece of paper (birth certificate, Social Security, health insurance card, driver’s permit, passport).
Testosterone shots. Talk about an education! I wish I recorded our dinner conversations about testosterone. We navigated these new waters together, the four of us. I was fascinated by the changes that occurred, from his voice dropping, facial hair appearing, and noticing a boxier figure. The biggest change was his increasingly positive attitude and smile! I find that I stare at his pictures and can’t help but smile and feel proud of who he is.
I feel like I can write forever about my son, our family, and the life-long journey we are on. It’s important for families to know to love your child unconditionally because if you don’t, you risk losing them and might miss the joy in the journey. Keep talking with your child. I will never understand how it feels to identify as someone other than the person I was born as, but I can tell you this — I do understand that as a parent of a transgender child, I am not alone. There are supports out there that I never knew existed.
I want to add two additional stages to the grieving process because grieving for transgender families is unique…fear and advocacy. As a parent, you naturally worry about your children. However, with a transgender child, that worry increases and is heightened by what you read and what you hear on the news about transgender rights. Two years into this process and that fear is still there. I just don’t cry about it any longer. I have used my fear to educate and to advocate. Advocacy comes after acceptance. For Transgender Awareness week, it’s not only about celebrating Andrew and transgender individuals but also acknowledging the discrimination that transgender individuals face and the violence that has occurred against them. How can we change this? We can change this by having an open dialogue, by asking questions, and by educating yourself.
I am a proud mother of a transgender child. Our family has grown closer. We have a bond that we did not have before. Our daughter Lauren said, “Andrew’s been the best thing that has happened to our family.” And you know, I now can say she is right. Andrew has a confidence in himself and a light that is shining bright! He has family, friends, a church, and a community that loves and supports him and our family. You begin to understand that not only does your child transition, but your family transitions along with you. We are a transgender family.
I live in RI with my amazing and supportive husband and a very proud mother of two beautiful children; Andrew is 17 years old and will be graduating high school this year, then off to college; and Lauren is 22 years old, a new college graduate and is already working full-time as a pediatric nurse. I have dedicated over 23 years working with children living in foster care. I also spend a few hours per week as a licensed clinician and have co-facilitated a support group for parents of transgender youth. I have always taught my children the value of family and friendship, always be honest, open communication, and to help others. I am now learning to be an advocate for all LGBTQ individuals and am constantly learning.