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A mom's Mother's Day tribute to learn and grow alongside her transgender child

Mother's Day Flowers
Julia Sudnitskaya/Shutterstock

A mother's reflection on the transformative journey of challenges, acceptance, joys, and advocacy of raising a transgender child.

My fourteen-year-old child came out to me and my husband as transgender three years ago. Over these tumultuous years, I've learned it's not just my child transitioning: I transformed, too.

While I knew affirmation meant a higher quality of life and better mental health outcomes for my child, it's not like I suddenly understood my daughter to be my son. This was the child who, at age three, begged to "go see the fancy shoes" for our first mom-and-daughter outing. Since my footwear style leans more toward Lilith Fair than fashion runway, I tried to steer her towards something more amiable—say the zoo or a nice picnic. But she insisted. I remembered trailing behind as she pranced up and down the aisles, searching for the perfect pair. She stopped before a wall of tightly stacked shoe racks, began wiggling loose a shiny pink box, carefully removed the lid, and lifted up three inches of dazzling turquoise. Sunlight bounced off the sequins. Speechless, her mouth froze as sparkly raindrops encircled us.

These beloved memories plagued me as I reconciled them with our new reality. I had much to work through—my son's new name and pronouns were like glue in my mouth. But each time I came up against my sorrow or discomfort, love spurred me on.

Despite whatever the raging cultural battle says, transgender children aren't a risk to mitigate or a deficit to overcome. The narrow, national narrative around transgender youth—a discourse as binary as the gender framework it buckles against—doesn't begin to capture my experiences raising a transgender son.

On one side is the rising number of anti-trans bills, which have broken records for four consecutive years. 2024 is on track to surpass all the rest, with the ACLU monitoring over 400+ anti-LGBTQ bills and many targeting every aspect of transgender life. Proponents of these bills argue that parents like me who want to provide gender-affirming care for their children are pushing a "gender ideology" and seeking the right to injure, harm, and abuse our own children.

The tragic recent death of Nex Benedict, a non-binary youth in Oklahoma, suggests that this discriminatory legislation seeds harm and violence. For even the most well-resourced parents, our bodies can respond as if we're under threat, spiking cortisol levels and often leaving us too destabilized and dysregulated to fight back.

Too often, the story stops here, with the parents of transgender youth reduced to either perpetrators or victims. What's missing from the conversation is the transformation possible for parents navigating gender transition alongside their children. Though every story is different, I've seen firsthand how extraordinary this journey can be.

As I wrestled to accept my son’s gender identity fully, I began noticing subtle shifts within me. One bright afternoon, my friend and I met at an outdoor café for lunch. As we were catching up, our conversation veered into the subject of abortion—a topic where we have vastly different views. In the past, we’ve steered away from discussing our differences meaningfully. She’s pro-life but also a feminist. That day, I got curious and asked how she holds these tensions inside her. She shared how she grapples with the nuances of her views. As I listened, for the first time, I understood how her life experiences led her to these positions, even though I still disagreed with her. Instead of righteous anger, I felt empathy.

Afterward, I reflected on our ability to have this challenging, productive conversation. What changed? I realized that my child’s transition expanded me. For years, I smashed up against the limits of my perception. The energy I spent processing my shock about his gender identity changed me in ways I hadn’t fully grasped. If I was so wrong about his gender, what else was I missing?

This conversation helped me realize I’d developed an ability to untether myself from my limited reality long enough to try to see the world through my friend’s eyes. Through parenting my son, I’d cultivated an appreciation for how complicated and multifaceted other people’s realities are—even those I love and know better than anyone.

The word "trans" means to cross over. By parenting my trans son, a smidgen of that crossing-over magic awakened and bloomed inside me.

More parents than ever before are raising gender-expansive children. According to a 2022 Pew study, about 300,000 teens identify as transgender in the United States, nearly twice as many as previous estimates. We spend our days stretching, worrying, reconstructing, shedding, imagining. Our love for our transgender children compels us to live in tension between reality and possibility, between a broken world and a new world calling. All the while, we're cultivating the qualities to endure these perilous times and shape them.

To my fellow parents, I want to say this. Your love for this child you didn't expect can lead to flourishing you never imagined. By enduring the discomfort of uncertainty, you can withstand life's unpredictability. By fighting for your child's safety and human rights, you're defending the expansive, unruly, dynamic essence of gender identity.

By caring for your child, you're stewarding the imaginative potential of transness we need to build a future that works for everyone.

Shannon Mannon is an author and parent, who has written for USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, & Motherly. She leads Storytelling for Social Impact at WD Communications & is the Founder of 3-Minute Storyteller. Shannon's upcoming book helps parents of transgender children understand their love for a child they didn't expect can lead to transformation they never imagined.

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