I was raised with the belief that a mother’s love is unconditional. No matter what I said or did or what kind of trouble I got into, my mom would love me no matter what. That was the promise I was told from an early age, and it was repeated to me many times over the years as I grew up.
When I became a mom, I wanted to instill the same sentiment into my own kids. That there was nothing they could ever do to change my love for them. It was already written in the stars. Predetermined. Unwavering. Unshakable. I wanted them to grow up with the same feeling that despite anything that may come, I had a blanket of devotion with an untouchable force made especially for them … No. Matter. What.
When my son came out as transgender three years ago, I was faced with the harsh reality that although some may consider their love to be innate, the truth is, even unconditional love can come with conditions.
The day my son shared with me that he believed he was trans, he was just four years old. He was finishing up his last month of Pre-K and would be heading off to Kindergarten the following fall. Despite only having a few short weeks left in the school year, once he realized that my reaction to his news was compassionate and supportive, he was persistent on making big, significant social changes. He wanted to cut his long hair off, change his wardrobe and insisted on a shortened version of his name. Within a week he was asking me to start using he/him pronouns when referring to him, because, after all, “I am a boy, mom.”
Fueled by anxiety, fear, and concern for the unknown, I quickly started devouring any and all information I could find. I spent many days and nights extensively researching everything I could possibly learn about what this experience meant for him. I consulted with countless professionals from varying backgrounds and in the end, I determined that if I wanted to keep my son’s best interest at the forefront of our next steps, the best way was to allow him to lead the way, and me to follow.
As a person who is not keen on change in general and is built with a serious need to control ALL. THE. THINGS., learning to let go and trust my four-year-old to take the reins was not an easy task in the beginning. But, as parents, our main goal is to keep our kids safe and healthy. And with that in mind, it only took one night of reading about the horrific suicide risk and extremely high suicide rates concerning the trans community to convince me to put my uncomfortable, anxious feelings aside and trust that statistics don’t lie. And science had already done this work for me.
What I learned sitting at my computer late one night, scrounging up whatever particles of useful information I could, was at that time the rate of suicide attempts among the trans population was almost 50% — HALF. The fact that my child had almost a 50/50 chance of trying to end their own life before their 25th birthday was crippling news. It was a devastating thing to read as a parent.
But as I researched more, I found that there is one thing that can greatly reduce that horrifying risk — and that is being supported at home. This very essential piece was the single factor that could make or break my son’s future. Possibly the most important one of all. And it just so happened to be the ONLY thing that I had any control over. I wasn’t about to take a chance against 50/50 odds. This single bit of information quickly became the only motivator I needed to ensure that despite not being able to control the outside world, my child would have a safe space in our home. No matter what.
Before learning about the suicide rates and risk factors, I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was ambivalent. My son was young. I was worried what the future held for him. How would kids treat him after he socially transitioned? Would kids make fun of him? Would someone want to hurt him? Would the school and coaches be understanding? Would parents still allow their kids to play with him? What if later on down the road he changed his mind?
So many “what ifs” ran through my head, but all of the hazy, uncertain situations I was contemplating seemed to all come into focus at once when I realized that there was such a high risk that I could one day be burying my child because I chose not to provide him the supportive home he needed from the beginning.
Being trans is not a decision anyone gets to make. It’s inherent. I wasn’t entitled to options where much of this was concerned. I don’t have a choice in the person my child was born as. I don’t get to decide what pronouns he identifies with or what he feels and sees himself to be on the INSIDE. All of those things were out of my control, but this… this was MY choice. And I wanted to be absolutely sure I was making the very best one for the well-being of my child. For his safety. For his LIFE.
When I first explained to friends and family what had been going on with my son, I was shocked at the number of people who embraced us with open arms. I was also shook by the people that refused to believe this could be true. The people I always considered to love me and my family unconditionally showed us that love might be unconditional, but expression of that love will come with conditions. And those conditions depend on their comfort level. On saving their public image. On their beliefs. Despite having the knowledge at my disposal; rattling off statistic after statistic and quoting every professional I had met with, my words were just chatter to them… it wasn’t about my son at all. It was about them.
For some, it didn’t take much to show them that the best way to support my son consisted of simple language and name changes, they were a small request considering the massive consequences that could transpire later on down the road. For others, we struggled with misgendering, calling him by his dead name or constantly having to correct the language they used around him. The potential repercussions of those experiences and the effects they may cause on my son are something that still haunts me every day as a parent.
How anyone can look at a child, hear the ghastly risk factors and listen to me rattle off about the research and science behind it all and NOT want to do what we know can SAVE THEIR LIFE? It baffled me. It infuriated me. And, it broke my heart in many ways.
If a child has an illness and there is a 50/50 chance they could die, most people in their right mind would take any and all necessary preventative measures given to them by the professionals. But, when a child is perfectly healthy and happens to be born with an identity that is misunderstood and doesn’t align with the “norm,” some people seem to think they know better than the pros. Than research. Than statistics. They know better than science.
This experience taught me not only that unconditional love came with restrictions, but also that people who claim they would do anything for you or your child really mean they’d do anything… as long as it doesn’t mean they have to venture outside of their comfort zone.
I was informed by many professionals that if someone isn’t willing to openly accept and affirm my son, I should consider cutting them out of our lives. This seemed like a drastic measure at first, but as time passed and I saw the impact these exchanges were having on his behavior, attitude, self-esteem and self-worth, I was faced with making some serious decisions. Family that my kids had grown incredibly close to suddenly seemed so… selfish.
I decided to consult my kids on how we should approach the issue with friends and family. I sat down with them one day and it was first my oldest who stepped up and declared that if someone wasn’t going to do the right thing for his brother, he wanted to stop seeing them until they did. My youngest agreed. My trans son was the child who struggled with the idea of severing ties most. He’s a sensitive kid. He has an enormous amount of empathy in his tiny heart and he aims to please. Even if it means sacrificing himself to do it. For him, seeing his siblings stand up to the plate and put their necks out for him, showed him that he is loved, he can be strong, and he can be assertive. Especially when it comes to someone insulting or offending his identity.
Having the strength to confront family made a world of difference for my child. Not only did it show him how to defend himself and be brave, but it showed those family members that this was serious, and we weren’t going to allow it to happen any further.
After my kids collectively decided to take a united stand, the issue has been mostly resolved with the exception of a few mistakes here and there, but those mistakes now come with an apology and a replacement of the correct term or pronoun or name instead of an eye roll or a sigh like had been the case in the past. I’m grateful to have kids that have a strong sense of self-awareness and know when to put their foot down. I’m also thankful that my kids, despite being impossible to get along most days, ultimately DO have each other’s backs when it matters most. But most of all, I have a lot of appreciation for the family and friends that chose to do the right thing. Who chose to learn and grow and understand my child in ways they probably never thought possible. It’s consoling to know that, even if it took them some more time than I would have liked, they are trying, and they will get there, sooner rather than later.
I don’t think I could fathom what may have come if things had turned out differently. But, one thing I know for sure is this, regardless of what I learned about a mother’s unconditional love growing up, my kids will know, see, feel, and understand that true unconditional love can exist… and they’ve experienced that first-hand.