A photograph of total strangers on a Facebook page for parents-with-teenagers-finishing-high-school-and-moving-toward-whatever-their-next-step-as-they-launch-into-adulthood popped up on my newsfeed. The “members only” page focuses one of the (many many many many) complicated times in the lives of kids and their parents – if you’ve ever had a teenager you know of what I speak – and is often an excellent source of guidance, support and advice, usually positive.
The picture: a tuxedo-clad teenager flanked by his parents; his height nearer to his mother’s than his dad’s, all three smiling comfortably into the camera. In the background, a cluster of similarly dressed guys and a gaggle of girls in brightly colored gowns and intricate up-dos posing for cameras furiously clicking away from every direction. The boy/young man had delicate features, impressively clear skin, and a pubescent beard which was spotty but worn with great pride. The white boutonniere on the lapel of his (most definitely) rented tux had likely been pinned on by his date as it was slightly askew, slightly oversized and slightly misplaced. A snapshot of a moment that many parents will experience with their children this time of year: the high school prom.
At first blush, this photo memorialized a scene played out on lawns and living rooms across the country this time of year, right down to the tissue for wiping tears away (not so) discreetly clutched in the mother’s hand. But it was not the photo, rather the mother’s caption that set it apart from all the other prom images.
“Prom. Our great kiddo who looks so handsome. This transgender journey we are on is not for the faint of heart.”
Even before the caption confirmed my suspicions, my keen and sensitive-to-these-things self spied many of the hallmarks of the gender transition that others might have missed: the shape of his legs, the gentle density of his eyebrows, his delicate bone structure. I noted the lack of pronouns: my “kiddo” and not my “son”. Intrigued, I examined the photo more closely. I explored their body language with a different eye. The smiles were definitely real. Their arms rested on one anothers shoulders naturally, their bodies as close to one another as possible. But most importantly, there was quite clearly a lot of love in that picture. That, my friends, cannot be faked. Bravo to all three of them, because mom is right: this is not for the faint of heart.
And then, with the knowledge (and firsthand experience) that things could get ugly when one posts a photo like that, I hesitantly glanced at the comments…all 135 of them. Much to my relief and pleasure, each note was more positive and accepting than the one before it. The assemblage of rainbow and heart and smiley face emoticons exceeded my greatest (albeit conservative) expectations. Oh, and did I mention the 1.1k likes? That’s some pretty awesome stuff right there.
My initial reaction was: How cool that this was posted not on a Parents/Friends/Neighbors/Teachers of Transgender Kids kind of page, rather a plain old parents’ page. Even just a few years ago, posts like this were found only on private, and thereby “safe”, Facebook groups. The world wasn’t anywhere near as ready as it is now to tolerate such a loud and proud display of the uniqueness of their family. Some folks still cannot, but we are definitely making moves in the right direction.
My very-soon-after-that reaction?: While it is no doubt (truer than) true that the transgender journey is not for the faint of heart, I’d further argue, advertise from the rooftops even, that being the parent along for the journey of any kid is not only not for the faint of heart, but just fucking hard. There, I said it.
The other night, I was doing what many of us moms do at the end of the (probably somehow taxing) day: playing Words with Friends, listening to the bedtime routine happening outside my door and half-tuned into “American Housewife” a silly little sitcom narrated by a “strong-willed mother raising her flawed family in a wealthy town filled with perfect wives and their perfect offspring.” The show is perfectly mediocre but does manage to capture some of the moments that spur less than charitable, but crazy honest thoughts about other parents, their kids and the whole parenting experience. I cannot tell you the plot line of the episode, but there was one spot on, couldn’t-have-said-it-better-myself line that I could hardly wait to share with my morning coffee friends:
“Kids should come with a warning: Don’t have kids.”
A tongue-in-cheek comment that resonates with anyone ever who (is honest about having) tried to help a kid navigate the world. And, if someone says it doesn’t resonate with them, I’m calling bullshit. In fact, it is so spot-on that I am (sort of) seriously considering having t-shirts printed. Who wants one?
I’ve always been a somewhat irreverent mom, never reacting with “not my kid”, rather assuming, sometimes unfairly, that it was my kid. That is not to take away from the proven fact that I am among the fiercest and most rabid advocate for my kids, because Lord knows I am. I also, however, am very well aware of what my kids are all about, where they excel and where they suck. Over the years, they have thrilled me, angered me, amazed me, embarrassed me, impressed me and made me want to leave them by the side of the road…sometimes in the same afternoon day. Seriously, raising kids is really not for the faint of heart.
When I assumed the role of step-mother, I more than just doubled the number of children in my life. I doubled the number of journeys for which I would have a ring-side seat. I doubled the number of issues (although -and I am not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing – we actually have some overlaps), doubled the challenges, doubled the worry, stress, fears and anxiety. The fact of the matter is that there are many (many many) days that the “transgender journey” is decidedly the easiest journey of them all.
I love all the kids. I appreciate how bright, interested, talented, inquisitive, resilient and strong each of them is. I am profoundly and painfully aware that all of them watched their dads move out, were forced to leave the only home they’d known and have watched their parents fall in love with someone other than their mom/dad. I will not pretend to know what that feels like. My parents were nearing their 50th anniversary when my father died. When we moved from my childhood house, we did so as a unit. And, since my father’s death nearly twelve years ago, my mother’s not fallen in love with another man. So, parenting this group of kids? That, my friend, is not for the faint of heart.
I keep revisiting that photo of strangers with whom I know I share at least some experiences. I wonder what other challenges, journeys and stresses they have faced. Which have they nailed and which have come dangerously close to taking them out? Am I reading the body language right, is it telling the whole story? What effect has the “transgender journey” had on their marriage? Have they found themselves sitting in the car on a freezing cold night, devouring an ice cream cone as big as their head, crying and wondering how on earth they were going to survive? Or run away from home…even if just for a night? Or wondered if it would be okay to sit in the corner and suck their thumbs? Not that I have done any of those things…
My father used to say that he loved his children equally but not the same. I took that to mean that I was his favorite. But the longer I parent, the better I understand what he meant. Our kids are all different so we have to
tread lightly treat them different. There is plenty of love to go around, it might just be delivered in a different package because, as they say, this parenting thing isn’t for the faint of heart.
 This is a funny thing that, unless you have a transgender kid, you’ve likely not thought about. No matter how entirely accepting you might be of your child’s transition, it is often really hard to switch from son to daughter and vice versa. I personally found the name change easier to embrace. I adore Jess, but seldom refer to her as my daughter. It’s just one of those things…