What to Expect When Your Child is Trans*
Just in case it is not obvious, the post title is a spoof on What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Despite the title and the tone, I have absolutely no idea what you will encounter. This is a rant about my own experiences. If the events and confusions in my own life help other parents and friends of trans-kids be a little more prepared, I am over the moon. So here goes:
Expect to Feel Guilty – a lot: Whatever fears and annoyances you experience, you are always painfully aware that it is a thousand times worse for your child. No matter how angry, hurt and shocked you are by the world, you are reluctant to complain, because you don’t want to set your own pain in front of your kid’s.
Expect to Feel Afraid – Most parents worry about their teens when they are out at night, or when they go to school. If your child is trans, multiply that by a billion. If your kid isn’t home from hanging out with friends, is it because they are happy and having fun, or because someone decided to beat them up? The numbers are not going to reassure you. Trans kids are abused and bullied at phenomenal rates.
Expect to Feel Frustrated – Your kid is not only a kid who is going through all the usual aspects of rebellion and separation, they are people who feel like they have almost no control over their lives and bodies to a degree beyond that of most of their peers, a reality which is particularly hard on teens. Like many marginalized people, they look at the world and the news, and they don’t believe you when you say things will get better. Why should they? So they often resort to self destructive behaviors, some, like cutting, directed at their own bodies, and some, like not turning in school work, directed at asserting their will in the face of authority. As a parent all you can do is love them and try to support, advocate for and reassure them, but you can’t change the world that is hurting them. Sometimes, deep in your heart, you will want to scream at them, ‘stop cutting and turn in your damn homework!’ because the world is obdurate and you hope that they are not. You hope that since you can’t change the world, you can guide them to cope with it. Occasionally you will lose control and actually say that to them. It won’t help. Then you will head back to guilt.
Do Not Expect Help From the Public School System – A good teacher or counselor can make the difference between suicide, complete withdrawal or life for your kid. You may be lucky, you may not be. Even if you find wonderful individuals, however, school systems exist within their state government rules (see Kansas and North Carolina). Beyond this, the reality of transgender issues is only just, in this social and political moment, starting to be taken seriously. Entrenched, invisible prejudice is common, even in basically well-meaning people, and outright backlash among others is vicious. Moreover, teachers and counselors (who are already overworked and overstretched) really have no idea how oppressive and horrible it is for trans kids, nor what to look out for to help children who are just coming to terms with their sexuality (an issue which has been on school radar for longer), much less their gender. For these reasons, here are a subset of things to expect:
- Expect to be told that your child is lazy, withdrawn or quiet, and that, because of these traits, they do not deserve help or outreach.
- Expect your child to come home from school traumatized because they have been told by a teacher that being attracted to people of the same sex means that they are defective, but that they can get over it, and we won’t even mention people who think they are not the sex their doctors said they were at birth.
- Expect to be told that you should not interfere, and that your child just needs to learn to advocate for themselves. Because one young teen taking on the entire power structure of a school, from bullying classmates to disinterested teachers to counselors and administrators who are actively hostile makes perfect sense and is sure to be effective.
- Expect to be told that there cannot be any problem outside of your child because the school is committed to tolerance.
Expect to be Lonely – Outing your child is at a minimum an unwelcome interference with their lives, and at worst dangerous. Once they have transitioned socially, they, quite reasonably, don’t want to be known as ‘the trans person’ they just want to be the boy or girl that they are. Even if there are other trans kids around, their parents are likely to be as evasive as you are. It is nearly impossible to have a conversation in which you are not holding your breath and weighing every word. There are groups (for many of us only in virtual space) for parents of trans kids, and you may have some close friends you can open up to, but relaxed, chummy conversations with people who understand what you are dealing with and can offer support or advice as someone who knows you are few and far between or, more commonly, just outright nonexistent.
Expect to be Dropped From Parenting Conversations All. The. Time. – Parents, whether they approve of gender divisions and constructions or not, talk about them frequently. Sometimes gender is avowedly the center of the conversation. If you add your take as the parent of a trans child, the conversation will stop. Either everyone will move on to a completely different topic, because they’ve no idea how to respond, and are nervous about trying (I guess?), or you will be informed that your experience is irrelevant, because your child is not normal.
Expect to Alienate Old Acquaintances – When you see people who knew your child when they were identified as the wrong gender around town you have three basic choices. (1) Try to get away before they see you. (2) Talk to them and answer them as blandly and monosyllabically as possible when they ask how your (fill in word with wrong gender for offspring) is doing. They will often regard this as being cold and rude, and tell other acquaintances how standoffish you’ve become. (3) Out your child with all of the betrayal and risk that involves. If you’ve talked to your kid, and sorted out some reasonable situations in which to out them (e.g. parents of school friends) you may choose #3. Invariably the person you are talking to will say “Oh, I’m so sorry!” and you will have to figure out how or if you should respond to that. Which leads us to the next entry.
Expect to be Exhausted – As with so many other things, this hits your kid a million times harder, but there is never a time when you are not walking on eggshells.
Expect Some People to Think That You are Oddly Shifty and Weird – There’s a good chance that you will need to take time off from work to be with your kid for appointments or surgery. You have several choices here, depending on your employment situation and your boss. (1) If you work for a larger company you may be able to use vacation time or sick leave. This assumes, of course, that you have the luxury of leave and can afford to take it either in terms of finances, work environment, or perceptions of work performance for promotion. (2) Tell your boss and the people who will cover for you while you are gone that your child has an appointment or surgery, but don’t tell them what it is for. Or lie about why you need time off. And keep track of the lie. Either way you are going to seem and feel dishonest or evasive. (3) Out your child with all of the betrayal and risks that it entails.
Expect People to Think That Having Surgery is Simple, and That Your Child Doesn’t Really Need You There or Will Only Need You During the Exact Time of The Surgery – It is extremely difficult for people to get their heads round what is going on. That means that not only are they not likely to be helpful to you while you are trying to sort things out, they are likely to be outright difficult, adding to your exhaustion.
Expect People to Tell You That You Are Grieving – Some parents do grieve. They had visions for their children that were linked to their gender, they miss their little girl or boy, whatever. It’s ok and natural. But not all parents feel the same things!!! You can be confused, and need to sort through how to reconcile old photos of a ballerina daughter with a cute adult son, and it doesn’t mean that you are sad, or that the child you knew is dead. It just means that there isn’t a template for sorting through the transition and you are working it out. Explaining this, or not explaining it, to people is exhausting. Note, that friends asking you how you are doing, or feeling, or dealing are not the problem; it is the people who just assume and tell you how you feel (even when they are wrong) that wear you down.
Expect People to Think That You are Rejecting Your Child – Whether it is people who are, themselves, rejecting your child, or people who love your child, and jump on you when you slip up with the pronoun or name (which happens after two or more decades of using one set), you will sometimes just want to tell them to go away and leave you alone. If it is someone who expects you to share their revulsion, you have to resist throttling them. If it is someone who is defending your child, you may feel hurt and guilty, because you have let your kid down. Either way, it is exhausting.
Expect Your Role as a Parent to Affect Every Part of Your Life – You know, this is true whether your child is cis, trans, gay, straight, whatever. The notion that life can be sliced up into personal and professional spheres that do not touch one another is an unrealistic construction that disadvantages anyone who does not have enough money, power, and narcissism to outsource and wall off the people who care for them. Plus, there is no magical age that your child reaches when you stop caring about them. Nor should there be!
Expect to Find Some Truly Wonderful People Along the Way – This has been all gloom and doom and complaining. So let me reassure you if you are in the deep, dark tunnel phase of parenting a trans child, there really are people who are rays of light that will help get you and your kid through, although you may have to search for them. In the meantime hug your kid as often as they will let you, and hang in there.
All images are from Flickr and are on the theme of transition:
- Featured Image, Transitions-001, by theda tammas
- transition, by Eduardo Ortiz
- Transition, by Alan Levine
- Transition sculpture by Malcolm Payne
- transition_serie7, by Charles-Etienne Pascal
- demolition/transition bySw Swann