Becoming a parent for the first time filled me with a jumbled array of emotions—excitement, awe, and even a little worry. Would I do this right? Holding my newborn baby and looking into those deep, dark eyes, I simply fell in love. Everything else fell away. Love became the groundwork in which our new relationship would grow.
Most parents hold expectations for their children—at least, I have not met one who does not. Perhaps it is for our child to be successful in a career and financially prosperous. Perhaps the expectation is for them to love and be loved. Or maybe it is purely the hope that they will grow up to be happy.
We hold onto these expectations mainly because it is what we know, and what has been our path in life. But what if your child is not happy? What if something deeper is brewing, causing them to feel conflict within themselves? These deeper feelings are not always so easily identifiable. At first, they may show up on the surface as surly defiance when really, at the heart of it all, your child is feeling incongruent, incomplete, and very much alone.
Six years ago, my 17-year-old son decided to come out to me. He is transgender (FTM, female-to-male). That night I felt the depth and conviction of unconditional love.
What do you do when the child you have known since birth comes to you, in all their vulnerability, to tell you their truth? In my case, to tell me they are not my daughter but my son?
Listen to MaryRose Denton tell her story of unconditional love for parents of transgender children on the latest episode of The Well+Good Podcast:
We were speaking by phone when he dropped the news. After a momentary shock, thinking in my head, Did I hear that correctly? Transgender? I metaphorically opened my arms and I said, "Come here, I love you no matter what." My love had no conditions and certainly did not stop in that moment. That is what love is.
In that moment, my senses heightened and I became very aware that, though I did not harbor these feelings, if I reacted with anger, disbelief, or disgust, the end result would be a severed relationship with my child or, at the very least, a deep rift.
For my son, I knew that coming out might be a defining moment in his relationship with his mother. He anxiously waited on the other end of the receiver to hear me say something, to know if I accepted or rejected him. All I knew is that I did not want to lose my child.
According to The Trevor Project, "LGBTQ+ youth represent as much as 40 percent of the homeless youth population. Of that population, studies indicate that as many as 60 percent are likely to attempt suicide." Family rejection is cited as the leading factor in these statistics.
I decided to opt out of letting my family become a statistic. In one brief moment, my heart rose to the occasion in a way that would change our lives. Love surmounted all else, including any previous or future expectations I held for my child. Except one—the hope for him to be happy.
Soon after, my emotions were tested again—grieving the loss of the child I thought I knew. This quietly surfaced and then subsided, as he spent the next year transitioning.
My worry for his ability to find happiness is not different than any other mother's. But I added the worry that being transgender might be a harder road to navigate. Sometimes it is, especially when family acceptance is missing. But this diminished as I witnessed him creating a full and fulfilling life, immersing himself in school and social activities, and spending time with friends who loved and accepted him, as himself.
My love for him only deepened as I watched him step more fully into himself. Love, without any bounds, is the foundation for an authentically lived life. I can only believe it gives us the strength to be our true selves.
My love for him only deepened as I watched him step more fully into himself.
A few weeks after our initial conversation, we had lunch together. "I have only one request," I said to my son. "Walk—don’t run—into this, and I will walk with you." I knew his transition would transform me as well, and I needed time to adjust to each step of the process. I set out to educating myself on all things transgender. Proper pronouns to use, hormone therapies, starting T (testosterone), top surgery, and how to legally change one's identity became integrated into the fabric of my life. I championed my son's right to live as he lives, authentically and truthfully.
In the midst of this transition, my life felt muddled at times. It was all new territory for me, accompanying a big learning curve. But at the end of the day, there isn't anything I would change. Like all good love stories, there are hurdles that bond you closer together and there are triumphs to celebrate together. It took bravery from my son to live life on his own terms. I, on the other hand, dug deep to trust his path and watch him become the 23-year-old man he is today.
Now, years after that initial conversation with my son, I find myself speaking with other parents of transgender children. They are searching for guidance, support, and simply the best way to love their kids. My best advice is two-fold. First, at some point, I realized my son had been with me all along. It happened quietly and incrementally. I no longer thought of a time "before" transition or looked back at photographs with any sense of longing. In fact now, when I look back at old family pictures, I see my son. This is how I know he is living authentically. Second, I applaud these parents for choosing to side with love and acceptance. On the toughest days, it will serve as a sturdy foundation for the lessons that follow. Choosing love is never the wrong thing to do, I tell them.
Sign up for the Well+Good TALK: Love Out Loud, celebrating pride as the fight for equality continues, on June 23, 2021.
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