Raising A Son

Hunter FTMFor the most part, I have always been the mother of girls. When my oldest daughter was born more than 18 years ago, I actually felt unprepared to mother a daughter. Then, as the years passed, I couldn’t imagine not having girls in the house. HA. Parenting a son was a foreign concept.

I instinctively taught my girls about being female. You know, not sitting “criss-cross applesauce” when wearing a dress in circle time, what to expect as they approached puberty, how to use a tampon, and the best hairbrush for smoothing their tresses when blow drying and styling, among other things.

While I wasn’t looking, my daughters (well, at least one of them) secretly observed how to apply lip gloss, figured out which shoe to wear with a casual outfit and noticed when I polished my nails or got a pedicure.

My younger child was too busy building Lego fortresses and imagining life on a Bob the Builder construction site. She preferred super-hero sneakers to glittery sandals and monster Halloween costumes over the latest Disney princess attire. As the older sister was shopping for just the right gown to be Miss America, the little one was figuring out if she would be able to see out of her “headless horseman” costume while trick or treating.

Let me just say that parenting is certainly meant to be shared and dads certainly have a role in teaching their daughters…girls learn how to be treated by watching the way daddy treats mom. They learn about relationships and self-respect from their dads (or other significant, important male figure in their lives).

Recently it dawned on me that we needed to teach our son how to be a man…not just what it means to feel male but what is expected of men in society.

Now, I look to my husband. He needs to be in the driver’s seat here. The spotlight is now on him to teach our son what it means to be a man, what the responsibilities are. I believe that a man should hold open the door, let a woman go first, have a firm handshake, stand up and greet someone by looking them in the eye and so much more. One could argue that much of this should be expected of woman as well. Humor me for now.

For a trans boy, being a man takes on a whole different meaning. There are behaviors that belong to guys such as the way they walk, the way legs are crossed, the way hands are shoved deep into their pockets, etc. Boys don’t squeal with delight the way girls do when excited about something. The male stance is different. Their body language is different. Their voice is different. These are things that a trans male learns by observing and studying other men.

For Hunter, a FTM trans male teen, there is a lot to learn. He watches YouTube videos and tries to deepen his voice so as to sound more like a GUY. He walks with a swagger that can only belong to a GUY. He dresses like his GUY friends. For the first time ever, he loves to shop. This was my child that hated to go into a store…refused to try anything on…carried on like he was being tortured.

I am learning what it means to have a son, to parent a boy. It’s not so bad – most of the time.

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What do you see?

When you look at your child(ren) what do you see? Beauty? Potential? Vulnerability? Curiosity? Capacity? Wonder? Intelligence? Hope? Or do you see flaws, fears, anxieties, failure? Do you see a boy with an endless thirst for knowledge? A girl twirling her way to Broadway?

my son is transIf how we see our sons and daughters is reflected daily in our eyes, how do you think we affect the way they see themselves? When my son looks in the mirror I know he doesn’t always embrace the image that stares back. His reflection is a blended concoction of what he feels, who he wants to be, how we make him feel and much more. What he sees is a hybrid of a sort.

Often we worry about our kids – are they making good choices in the important areas of their life? When they are little, it’s pretty easy to control who they have play dates with, what they are viewing on the screen and what they wear. As they get older and more independent it is increasingly difficult to control; influence is what we hope for.

Our children see disappointment on our faces when they make a poor choice. I learned early on that I have to pick my battles. Putting my foot down about clothing (as long as it meets dress code) is probably not a fight worth having. Enforcing a no tattoo, no ear gauges, no blue hair policy makes me less popular. However, these are battles that I fight and will continue to fight. This is how I teach my son to respect his body.

When I look at my son I see a beautiful child with incredible potential. I see a boy that owns a place in my heart that is buried deep within my soul. When I look at my son I see someone longing to fit in, hoping to belong, wishing to feel normal. I see a young man in the making.

My hope is that the choices I make and the ways in which I view him will positively influence the choices that he makes and the ever evolving reflection he sees daily as he combs his hair and adjusts his collar.

Added Note:

Individuals with body dysphoria don’t see a reflection that makes them happy. When they look in the mirror they are often disgusted with what they see. It’s difficult to see hope, confidence and self-esteem when the image staring back at you is so foreign from what is expected. Many transgender men and women are plagued with body dysphoria. Trans FTM and MTF have similar yet different issues with how they see themselves.

What’s the difference?

“I always knew I was different.” I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by many, including my own child. Funny thing is, I always knew he was different, too. In the early days we didn’t have a label for it.

transgenderAside from the “tomboy” behavior, there were little things in her/his behavior that, individually didn’t mean much, but when cobbled together raised eyebrows and questions. In fact, I remember at one point we bought a beautifully illustrated children’s book titled, It’s okay to be different. We wanted to reassure our young child that not everyone is the same, diversity is a good thing and that it was truly okay to be different.

Young children who don’t fit into the perceived definition of what’s normal, by either their peers or others around them, are open and at risk for ridicule, self-doubt and numerous anxieties and insecurities. Olivia always loved playing with the boys. I vividly remember a group of “mean girls” in third grade telling her that if she continued to play with the boys then they would no longer be her friends. Honestly, I think I was more hurt by these insensitive children. Where did they learn such discriminating behavior at such a young age? We’ve always taught our kids to “be nice to everyone” — live and let live.

Speaking of differences, did you know that gender identity and sexual orientation are different? I never had thought about this until recently. Actually, I didn’t really understand the notion that these two worlds have different definitions.

So, for those uninitiated, let me explain. It’s really quite simple. Gender identity is how you see yourself, the gender in which you affirm — used to be the only choices were male or female. Sexual orientation is about attraction, sexual preference. For example, my gender is female and my sexual orientation is heterosexual; I am attracted to men (only my husband, of course).  I am not going to get into the array of “preferences/attractions” in this post…suffice to say that the boundaries are moving and changing. Perhaps they always have. The good news is that what used to be viewed as “deviant” is now referred to as “variant.” Think about the autism “spectrum” and how that’s changed.

Transgender individuals have a variety of sexual attractions. A trans man (FTM) may prefer women or may identify as gay and prefer men or may be attracted to men and women. The same holds true for trans women (MTF). Just because she identifies as female doesn’t mean she prefers men. It can be complicated and confusing and full of anxiety for trans families and individuals trying to find their way. This is all uncharted territory for most of us.

Regardless of the journey, no matter the road travelled, one thing’s for certain. It’s okay to be different.

 

Legal Name Change

One of the camp counselors called the other day to give us a few last minute reminders. He wanted to make sure that we send a brown bag lunch (for the bus ride), bug “dope”, some spending money and Olivia’s passport, among other things. ALARM BELLS. He also wanted to let us know that he was looking forward to having Olivia up at camp (ALARM BELLS) and that we should arrive by 6:30 a.m. Monday morning. 

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Of course, he was looking forward to meeting Olivia. Hunter is registered for camp as Olivia. We have not yet changed his name legally. I reminded the youngish sounding counselor that while the name “Olivia” is on all the official forms, she is transgender and prefers male pronouns and goes by Hunter. “Oh, Hunter.” he said with some recognition. Apparently, he had been told about Hunter but did not make the connection between Hunter and Olivia. WHEW. Glad we got that cleared up before the bus on Monday morning.

Recently, we had to send official school transcripts to a doctor’s office. I got this email in response, “Thank you for sending these. However, I think you sent your daughter’s transcripts.”

At first I was confused. Wasn’t I supposed to send the transcripts? Then, it hit me. The transcripts say Olivia. 

It is mortifying (for Hunter) to sit in a doctor’s office waiting room and hear them call, “Olivia, we’re ready for you.”

From what I understand, it is not all that complicated to change one’s name legally…just a bunch of paperwork including filing a petition, a $150 fee and a court appearance. We can get his name changed on the birth certificate as well. And, then there’s social security. Oh, and the passport. It is tricky to travel because the photo on the passport is of Olivia with long “girl” hair. This really is all fairly straightforward. HA.

Do not confuse name change with changing the gender marker. This is a big deal. And, I don’t believe we can do that until sex reassignment surgery takes place or at least “top” surgery. This is where breasts are removed to achieve a masculine chest appearance. This usually doesn’t happen until the age of eighteen.

I have a friend, Sarah*,whose son is also FTM trans, who has already gone through the legal name change with her son. Though her son and Hunter are the same age, they are about 6 months to a year ahead of us. She has been a great resource for me. My friend and I met when we were at the beginning of our journey. I marvelled at how she embraced the process of dealing with a transgender child. Sarah seemed so together. It was really impressive. Her son is her only child and she was determined to do everything under the sun to aid his transition. But, there was something she said to me in that first meeting, our first of many cups of coffee, that stuck with me.

“I would rather have a live son, than a dead daughter.” As an Emergency Medicine physician, she had seen her share of bad stuff…not to mention the above average suicide rate among trans teens. For months that statement reverberated in my head. Sarah put things in perspective for me. I needed that.

So, it is time for a legal name change. It is the least I can do for my son to make his life just a tiny bit better on a daily basis. 

*Not her real name

http://courts.mi.gov/self-help/center/casetype/pages/namechangesh.aspx

Pushed from the Nest

As we watched the new family of downy headed blue jays in our front yard, I was reminded of the parallels between teaching our children self-sufficiency and a bird having the courage to push its babies from the nest. We strive to give our children wings so they can soar into adulthood and our feathered friends trust their instincts enough to know that when given a nudge, the babies’ wing power will kick-in.

So, what happens when that bond between mother and child, mama bird and baby is broken?

blue jayYesterday we discoverd one of the sweet, newly independent birds on the wicker rocker on our front porch. Something was wrong — he definitely didn’t belong there. The rest of its nest-mates were happily perched on branches in our Magnolia bush about 30 feet from the porch. Wearing leather work gloves, Richard gently carried this marvel of nature back to its family. He encouraged this baby to latch onto a branch to rejoin the family. Unsuccessful, he placed the blue jay on the ground within eye sight of the others.

What was going on? Did the mother bird choose not to protect one of her lovelies? Did the baby do something to make her angry? Did he leave the nest too soon and cause Mama Jay to punish him?

We watched the baby for a few hours, concerned that he would not survive. Clearly, its mother was not going to rescue it and provide the nurture and care it needed. Early in the afternnoon, our baby stopped moving. He couldn’t survive without the support and care of its mom.

So many have said to me, “You are an incredible parent. Hunter is lucky to have you as his mother,”  of course, referring to how we are dealing with his coming out as transgender over a year ago.

While I appreciate the feedback and positive reinforcement, to me there is no other way. Our job is to love and nurture and nourish and guide them so when the time comes, they can spread their wings and make their way in the world. If we “push them from the nest” too soon and abandon them when they need us most, how will they know that they are worthy, that they are loved? How will they survive if we turn our backs on our children?

Timing is everything. There truly is a fine line between preparing our children and gently guiding them towards their own path versus opening the door at 60 mph. I cannot ever understand a parent turning his or her back on the most precious gift they’ll ever know.

Make no mistake, what we are dealing with is not easy. However, no matter how hard it is for me, for Hunter’s dad, for his sister, it is even more difficult for him. Being transgender is no walk in the park. So, as a mother, it is my obligation to make this difficult journey alongside him and to help Hunter gain the confidence he needs to go out in the world and be who he was meant to be. And, until he is ready to take that path of independence, I will be right along side him every step of the way.

A friend said, “yes, Hunter is lucky to have you, but you are lucky to have each other.

 

Necessary Meds

 

transgenderI am definitely not what you would call an earth mama, tree hugger, nature girl, or any other designation that implies all natural, holistic, believer in naturopathic methods in lieu of modern medicine.

However, I do make an honest attempt to eat well, take my vitamins (just in case) and get a moderate amount of exercise providing the weather is decent enough to not require a full-length down coat and insulated boots.

Also, I am not quick to pop pills. If meds (like antibiotics that we are fortunate enough to have access to) are necessary because nothing else will do the trick, then I will be the first one in line at the pharmacy counter. This applies to my kids’ welfare, as well. If they are sick and the appropriate OTC remedy or prescription can help, then I am all for it. Everything in moderation.

Where am I going with this? Though I am generally not a supporter of longer term use of meds, there are exceptions. Much written these days about the ADHD over-diagnosis. Too many kids are on Ritalin or Adderall or some other flavor of the day. Do we know the effects of long-term stimulant meds? I’d rather see alternate strategies employed that can provide relief for the child with too much energy, not enough focus and poor organization skills, especially in really young children. Sometimes, the meds are the only thing that does the trick. We held off for several years until our pediatrician said, “You’ll know if you are doing the right thing. Olivia’s behavior will be like night and day.” She was right.

Six years later, at age 14, when Olivia confided in me that she was transgender and really was a boy trapped in a girl’s body, she immediately followed the confession by a pronouncement that she “couldn’t wait to start on “T.”

“T” is trans-speak for Testosterone.

I wanted to scream, “You are too young. You don’t know what you want. You have no idea what the side effects are. This is irreversible. There are cancer risks. Why would you want to grow facial hair? We need to talk about this? Maybe you can consider this when you are eighteen…not before.”

But I didn’t.

Calmly, I outlined my concerns. Apparently, Hunter had already done a lot of research. He understood that in order to even be considered for hormone therapy, one needed to undergo a certain amount of psychotherapy by a qualified professional. He also was unfazed by my concerns. In his mind this was not a passing phase, a decision made on the fly or the “want” of the day. He had been thinking about this for a very long time.

Now you know how I feel about unnecessary meds. Was testosterone really necessary? I was just getting used to the short hair and shopping in the boys’ department. We hadn’t even begun the talk about using male pronouns. Really? Hormone therapy? I needed to process this.

So, here we are, one year later and we have come to understand, thanks to leading Pediatric Endocrinologist, Dr. Norm Spack, that if Hunter doesn’t start “T” while in high school, he will go to college “looking like a fourteen year old boy.” What a way to not fit in.

I am coming to terms with the idea that this is one prescription that falls into the “necessary” bucket.

Resources: The Transgender Child by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper

https://www.ted.com/talks/norman_spack_how_i_help_transgender_teens_become_who_they_want_to_be

 

 

In the Wrong Line

When my kids were little there was no such place as a “family” restroom. If a diaper needing changing or a toddler-in-training needed a potty, it was generally me who rushed to find a Ladies Room. The Ladies Room was where the diaper changing stations were. Rarely, was there any accommodation for the dads who just happened to be out and about with the kiddos.

Fast forward a few years and we had a real dilemma. The girls were getting too old to go into the Mens Room and dad didn’t feel completely at ease letting a five year old go into a public restroom by herself. Those family rooms would’ve come in really handy.

Now, of course, architecture and planning has caught up a bit. Along with the need for unisex “handicap” facilities, it is recognized that dads do take their kids out on errands, various activities and the like; and different family structures necessitate more forward thinking public spaces.

About a year ago we attended my niece’s dance recital. There are two restroom choices closest to the auditorium; Ladies and Mens. Olivia, not going by Hunter as yet, though dressed in a ball cap, jeans and t-shirt, was waiting patiently in the Ladies Room line. A soft, yet insistent voice of an older woman, “honey, I think you are in the wrong place.”

Olivia, not sure that she was the one being addressed, continued to wait. A little louder and more emphatic, “this is the Ladies Room. You are in the WRONG line.” Talk about creating paranoia in an already socially anxious kid with body dysphoria.

Now, realizing that she was being spoken to, Olivia was in a quandry. Give up the place she’s been holding for several minutes, stand her ground, or quietly leave without further embarrassment. Before she could fully weigh her options, another recital-goer turned to the busy-body offender and said, “she is right where she’s supposed to be.” I have no idea who that woman was, why she stepped in, or what was going through her mind, but I owe her a huge THANK YOU for being my child’s advocate.

This is one of the issues that trans people face daily. In California, transgender students can play on sports teams and use the locker rooms and restrooms of the gender in which they identify. Seems simple. Not really. What about school trips that involve overnights? Camp? Shopping malls? Birthday party sleepovers?

HunterWe have already navigated much of this. Fortunately for Hunter, there has been no discrimination and very little turmoil over this. He has guy friends and girl friends. They have sleepovers and really don’t see him as Hunter, formerly Olivia. They see him as a really cool kid that is working on living an authentic life. They see him as a creative, witty, scream-o music loving, guitar playing, drum banging teenager.

The next time you see someone who looks like maybe they don’t belong, think twice before you comment or form a judgement. Please.