Most of my private writing has been about exploring sadness–something I’m not used to feeling, let alone writing about. It seems to be a thing that happens to people in midlife. We become softer. Things seem to move us more easily. At least, that’s how it is for me. I’d like to think this is the beginning formation of wisdom. Wisdom is definitely on my list of goals as I tiptoe into old age. One thing I’m beginning to grow wise about is Empathy. Having a transgender kid has unlocked layers of empathy in me that I didn’t know I lacked. So, here is my first post in around two years. If you like it, and want to read another post I wrote about being the parent of a transgender teen, read this one, too, called Love In the Time of Transition.
SUPPORTING TRANS KIDS MEANS FINDING EMPATHY
At first, Empathy came at me like a fire tornado. I’d given birth to my first child and my world suddenly filled with the sounds of an inconsolable screeching baby. Warm baths didn’t help. Car rides didn’t sooth my child. Fresh air and long walks only served to alert my neighbors of my baby’s discomfort. One thing that would work for about five minutes was holding the baby tightly to my chest as I jumped on my bed—queen mattresses stacked on the floor of our small apartment. Those 5-minute increments were so precious that I jumped for hours a day and eventually broke two box-spring mattresses in the 3 months of colic. Changing my diet seemed to help, too, though I could never pinpoint the hows or whys of it.
But mostly nothing I did would make the baby quiet down or fix the problem. My child was much more than a problem to be fixed. My child was too real and too human. Too suffering of something the world called Colic but didn’t understand enough to treat effectively. I cried along with my child, desperately wishing away this thing my baby was suffering. Then, exhausted, I had that eye-of-the-storm moment of quiet amidst chaos, where I closed my eyes, let go of my struggle, and accepted that this wasn’t my fight. I wasn’t a terrible mother. Sometimes babies hurt and adults couldn’t intervene with solutions. At best, I played a supporting role. While I held my baby and whispered that we were in this together, my crying moved from frustration and anger and willful desperation for change and became crying because my baby was hurting. It was pure. My child hurt. I hurt.
Weeks later, I rocked my baby to sleep. The screeching had waned to a general fussiness to an eventual general calm and overall well-being. I felt moved by the way my child had grown into a healthier happier baby. Perhaps it had to do with how I changed my diet and held him close, but mostly it seemed that he did it on his own, in my general vicinity. I felt moved that a human so tiny could have that much independence, will, and strength. I was incredibly proud to bear witness.
Seventeen years later, when this same kid came out to me as transgender, empathy would whisper uncomfortably in my ear as I quietly struggled to call my child by a different name and use different pronouns. I was that new mom all over again whose role was to hold my child close and give reassurance that we were in this together even though mostly I cried and secretly wished it away—a bias I’d face later. A trans life is not a lesser one. That’s wrong thinking.
Once again, my child suffered. This time in silence. It was something the world called Transgender and again didn’t understand enough to treat effectively—not physically, socially, or politically. Suddenly my world was filled with the sounds of a name and pronouns that felt like lies every time I said them. It was a stranger’s name. It was a stranger’s pronouns. I messed up all the time, which I knew hurt my child’s feelings. I worried about the weirdest things: Did putting my child in gender-neutral clothing cause this? What happened in Utero? Did my diet screw up my child’s hormones?
When my child came out as trans, the bathroom bill in North Carolina had just become newsworthy, which added to my worries. Indiana was introducing it’s own bill. And now my in-laws were coming to town for Thanksgiving. I asked my child what name and pronouns to use when family came to town. My child wasn’t ready to come out to them yet and asked us to go back to the birth name and birth pronouns while they were here. Though the name and pronouns were incorrect, the relief I felt was akin to when my baby was colicky, had cried for hours, and had finally fallen asleep. It washed over me fully. I knew it was temporary, but man it felt so good.
When family left town and I had to return to my child’s gender-affirming name and pronouns, my anxiety set in again. But I could sense relief washing over my child. Oh, I thought. I get it. It was a very small but real understanding of the incongruity my child felt. It wasn’t an eye-of-the-storm moment this time so much as quiet nudge that reminded me I wasn’t a terrible mother—that sometimes children hurt and adults can’t intervene with solutions. So my crying moved from ignorance and willful desperation for change and became crying because my child was hurting. It was pure. My child hurt. I hurt. I don’t presume to fully know what it’s like to be trans, but I felt the truth of my child’s identity for the first time that day. He was my son and always had been. Empathy had crept in.
Weeks later, I would stand at a rally, and watch my son give a speech on the Statehouse steps asking his community to fight for his rights. He was counting on us since he was too young to vote. I was moved that this now healthier and happier teenager could have that much independence, will, and strength. I was moved by the confidence he had to tell his community that he was proud to be trans and that someday he hoped he’d be proud to be trans in Indiana. Perhaps his bravery and confidence had something to do with how I found empathy and supported him, but mostly it seemed that he did it on his own, in my general vicinity. And I was incredibly proud to bear witness.
We know support of Trans youth matters. A 2012 study found that 57% of transgender youth who did not have supportive parents attempted to commit suicide in the past year, while just 4% of transgender youth with “very supportive” parents did. I learned at the National PFLAG Convention in October that our LGBTQ+ youth still overwhelmingly come out to their families via text, letter, email, or third party because they are scared they may have to live with the memory of their parents non-affirming reaction. Support can come in many forms, but it must first come in the form of empathy. Our transgender kids—like all kids—can and will grow into incredible adults with or without us. If we parents don’t show up with empathy, if we don’t choose to bear witness, we’ll miss out on their most dignified and courageous moments of growth.