Op-ed: What My Transgender Child Taught Me About Motherhood

One mother learns the value in listening to her son.

BY Tanya Shapiro

May 11 2014 6:32 AM ET

Alex at the White House Easter Egg roll in April

Across the country, mothers like me wait with bated breath to see what tokens of affection our partners and children endow us on Mother’s Day. When Mother’s Day arrives, we’ll kiss our spouses for their gifts of chocolate, flowers, and jewelry. We’ll thank our children for their construction paper cutout hearts and crayon-scribled love notes. We’ll glow in these hugs and kisses as we delay the naggings of our daily chores to enjoy the warmth of this day.

Since becoming a mother of two beautiful children, and as I think about my childhood celebrations for my own mom, I understand the joy Mother’s Day brings for so many. Its annual occurrence doesn’t make it feel less meaningful. It’s a feeling that — as other moms will say — is deepened by the responsibility that comes with caring for the life of another person.

This year, as I count the fortunes that give me so much to cherish, I think about how getting here wasn’t always clear or easy. As parents, we’re always challenged by the lessons our children teach us. But as a mom of a transgender child, our journey toward acceptance and understanding taught me more about motherhood than I could have ever known. For mothers like me, it’s this journey that inspires hope for the world my child lives in. 

In 2009, my husband, Ty, and I welcomed a baby girl into the world. We named her Alia. But Alia had other plans. As early as 12-18 months of age, Alia gravitated to “all things boy’s” picking out cars, trucks, and dinosaurs over dolls or anything pink or sequined.

By the time Alia was 3 years old, she continually said, in the adorable way pleading children speak, “Mommy, I want to be a boy.” Alia was clear and articulate in communicating this demand, but my loving response, “honey, you can be anything you want,” was a shortfall in understanding what she was truly saying.

The problem was, in that moment, I failed to realize that this wasn’t just a cute thing Alia was saying. Alia’s claim to her true self wasn’t the adorable misgivings of a child. It was the fiery sureness of a person’s identity finding a voice. This was the first lesson Alia taught me—to listen, both verbally and nonverbally.

One afternoon clicking through television channels, I stumbled on Katie Couric’s show, when she had an episode on transgender children. As I watched, I immediately phoned my parents in Colorado who coincidentally were watching the same show. That segment, for the first time, introduced me to the word “transgender” and made me think that maybe this is part of Alia’s story.

Soon after watching that show, I delved into research on transgender kids. A 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 78 percent of kids who expressed a transgender or gender-nonconforming identity in grades K-12 faced harassment. Thirty-five percent faced physical assault and 12 percent experienced sexual assault. In the same study, 61 percent said they faced harassment and even expulsion because they were transgender or gender-nonconforming at school. These conditions in school contributed to long-term barriers to completing an education, finding a job, and accessing healthcare.

Understanding these problems helped me come closer to terms with what Alia was going through, but I soon faced another struggle. My husband was reluctant about what all of this meant for us and Alia. He frequently blamed me for encouraging Alia’s innate tendencies and for “creating” the situation. I followed Alia’s wish to remove earrings, wear boy’s clothes and toys, and cut her hair shorter and shorter. But my efforts to help Alia feel more comfortable in expressing her gender often met conflict with my husband. At one family event, they went so far as to stage an intervention convincing me to not “push” and indulge Alia’s desires and instead remain neutral.

But denying the truth of who someone really is rarely succeeds. Alia’s identity became more firm, growing louder and more apparent with time.

Ty and I were faced with a choice. We can move Alia through, what my husband called a “phase,” or accept the fullness of who Alia is becoming. We changed his name, removed his earrings and cut his hair to the spiky haircut that made him beam. We let our family and closest friends know, one by one, of our journey and our acceptance of the child that God made. After being rejected from a preschool that insisted we force Alia to be a girl, clearly showing uneducated bias, we finally found a Christian preschool that was respectful of allowing Alex to be who he is. This was the second lesson our child taught us. Motherhood will test our relationships—be it with our partners, children, or with friends—but if love and trust is in your heart, then the right decisions will come to you.

Today, Alia is Alex. Ty is more supportive than ever, fondly calling him son and engaging in NERF gun adventures and Lego building block competitions. At four-and-a-half years old, I am in awe of this magical child who is so confident in his gender. “That’s a dress, mommy, and I am a boy and boys don’t wear dresses,” he’ll tell me. Alex will frequently remind his grandparents of his new name and has even offered his old name to a new baby should we ever have a new baby girl in our family.

I won’t lie and say that Alex’s transition didn’t come with a great sense of loss of the daughter we thought we had. But all mothers have a fear of our children’s safety and a passionate defense for their happiness. Doing anything less for Alex went against what I knew about being a mom. Alex helped me see that.

Acceptance means loving my child for who he is. I give him love and tender discipline, but when it comes to accepting him for who he is, I do it without reserve. So as mothers celebrate the fulfillment of being a mom, we should remember that our children — transgender or not — have something to teach us about motherhood. It’s up to us to listen.

 

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