I’m going to stretch the topic a bit. Instead of talking about the U.S. celebration of workers (see http://www.dol.gov/opa/aboutdol/laborday.htm for great information about this important holiday), I’m going to consider those days-of-labor that parents endure for the sake of adding a family member.
I’m going to further extend this to include all people who raise children. Because whether your ‘labor’ was to give birth to a biological child or your ‘labor’ was the emotional/logistical/financial effort to adopt a child, it all counts.
Once you’re a parent, you’re a parent, regardless of how that child arrived under your roof. Once that child is under your roof, you will always and forever be their parent, regardless of who they are and who they become. You are responsible for their development and growth as a human being. Which then raises the question–what does it mean to be a parent to a gender-variant or transgender child?
The UMHS Gender Services program holds a monthly support group for parents/guardians of these special children. Whether your gender-variant child is 3 or 33, there are particular issues which need to be addressed as you move through your lives together.
Here are the top three issues:
How did you find out your child is transgender?
This matters when it comes to acceptance. How did you discover this about your child? Were you blind-sided by an announcement or did you discover your child’s gender variance by accident? Had you noticed throughout your child’s lifespan that something was different about him/her, that she/he struggled with self-acceptance and/or the acceptance of peers?
When parents have a ‘heads-up’ of noticing gender variant behavior, the announcement comes as less of a shock and more of a confirmation, which is far less stressful overall.
So if you found out suddenly, by ‘accident’, or were otherwise taken by surprise, give yourself a break and some time to adjust. Remember, your child has been thinking about this (and dealing with it) for a long time. It’s okay if you don’t immediately jump on the bandwagon and become an advocate for transgender rights, it is more important that you take the time you need to learn and grow.
Now that you know, who do you tell? This is one of the top questions parents of gender-variant children face, and people deal with it in various ways.
What our kids don’t understand—and what is difficult to let go of as a parent—is that through their lives, we’ve watched them go through many, many ‘phases’. The reaction that gender variance is a ‘phase’ is exceedingly annoying to transgender children of any age (but the older the child, the more annoyed they tend to be).
The initial belief that the child’s transgender feelings are another phase can lead parents to hide, either consciously or subconsciously, the changes that are happening, both within the child and within the family.
This is a good time to employ the secrecy/privacy test: something which is ‘secret’ has the capacity to harm someone, either the person keeping the secret (by not telling it) or the person or people who don’t know the secret (by not hearing it). Something which is ‘private’ doesn’t hurt anyone…it is simply a fact about an individual that is their business and theirs alone.
Therefore, as an example, the test of information about your transgender child is this—sending your young child to school ‘stealth’ (that is, dressed contra-gender) without an adult at the school knowing is a dangerous secret. The child could be harmed by this, physically or emotionally, if discovered by other children, and it’s absolutely crucial to have an informed and compassionate adult on-site at school to help.
However, how ‘far’ your child has gone in transition (dressing? hormones? surgery?) is no one’s business but your child’s and yours. This is an example of private information. No one is harmed by keeping this information within good boundaries.
What do you do when your child tells you they feel gender-variant?
The answer depends on so many factors that there is not one right answer, but the first step is to learn all that you can.
If you’re a person who learns by reading other’s stories, Rachel Pepper edited a wonderful collection of essays by mothers of transgender and gender variant children. It’s called Transitions of the Heart and was published in 2012.
If you’re a person who learns by talking with others, consider joining a parent’s support group to have the opportunity to hear from parent ‘experts’ how they’ve dealt with their own transgender child.
Finally, you can talk to trusted others in your lives—friends, family, religious leaders, and medical practitioners. Many people will know nothing about this topic in particular—transgender health—but if they care about you and your child, it’s a place to start to regain your equilibrium and decide how to move forward.
In closing, let me share this: I often say to people that there are few emergencies in the gender variant world, and by that I mean, you have time to begin to deal with what your child has disclosed.
Love, support, an open mind and an open heart will lead you and your gender-variant child in the right direction, even if you have no idea where you’re really headed.
Best wishes on this Labor Day, and let the Gender Services program at University of Michigan know how we can help.