But what would you do if your child told you they were struggling with gender dysmorphia, when they look in the mirror they feel they should see the opposite gender looking back? As I read Linda Thompson’s blog this past weekend, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-thompson/bruce-jenner-linda-thompson_b_7080918.html, I was struck with the magnitude of Jenner’s journey and the complexities he and his loved ones faced and will continue to face, brave seems like such an understatement…no?
I’m not sure how my older children learned their sensitivity to and understanding about gender and sexuality differences, but they have, almost seamlessly. Jake, my youngest, has recently begun trying to understand gender identity following a trip to the ice cream store where he met a person who is transitioning. I am not ashamed to say that while I have taught them basic tolerance of all people they have taught me as much if not more. He came home with his babysitter, needless to say, rather inquisitive. I simply said that it was different than being gay, (he has known and loved many two Mom families), it was feeling you are not the gender you were assigned at birth and wanting to change that. (Okay, I also passed the buck and told him to ask his Dad…and rightly so, as the Doctor I sleep with specializes in women’s health, which, of course, provides him with the specialized parenting duties having to do with sexuality…phew… a good deal for me as I basically deal with everything else.) And just like that, he was done with his questions...at least momentarily. Later that weekend he was watching T.V. and asked me if I thought someone on the show was “transitioning”, I told him maybe, but maybe not…as I felt a stereotype might be developing in his 8 year old brain. He’s working his thoughts around some pretty complicated ideas and my job now is to take the mystery out of it, and help him understand that gender and sexuality are what they are for people, nothing more.
As he enters this new moment of understanding and inquiry about people, I find myself, more than anything else, incredibly happy about his willingness to talk to me, and this circles me back to an idea, or image really, which has played a vital role in my parenting since the moment it was introduced...
“Leave the door open, even if you can only leave it open a crack…just do it.”
This idea was shared with me by Eileen Ross, a clinician supporting LGBT and questioning youth on the San Francisco Peninsula. To me, Ross was the only one willing to talk straight to the parents gathered that 2010 weekday evening at the old High School auditorium in Palo Alto during the first cluster of teenage suicides. She was the only one I listened to that night… the rest were well meaning, experienced, and concerned, but with “ leave the door open”, Ross was the only one who had my full attention. She knew her stuff. I immediately imagined youth in this world behind a shut door with no one to talk to, and shuddered at the thought. Ross didn’t just spout statistics, pat herself on the back for the number of kids she supported, or make blanket judgments about “the problem” of teen age depression, she said it like it was. And although she didn’t provide an instruction manual, (wouldn’t that have been sweet?) she told us loud and clear...
“Leave the door open. Whatever you do, whatever the situation, if your child knows the door is open, even just that little crack… they’ll come to you…or at least know they could come to you.”
What further inspired me about what she said was that she didn’t say ‘hearing things you don’t want to hear is easy’, instead she said ‘no one is totally comfortable with everything.’ Even more specifically, she said no one is totally comfortable with transgender issues. For those of us who pride ourselves on being progressive thinking parents, I hope this is as much a relief to you as it is to me. I consider myself as cool as they come, and yet, I still have my stuck moments… I wish I didn’t, but I do, and I will… moments of ‘shit! I wasn’t ready for this yet!’
I want to say the right thing every time, I want my face and my words to always match up, but sometimes I am having a mini panic attack on the inside…’could you just momentarily hold that thought while I take a pill and pull myself together?’...deep breath and remember love conquers all, we have made it thus far… (and yes, I once did that...and it worked). It isn’t easy to predict our reactions (reactions are exactly that, unpredictable). Perhaps we can actually try to find comfort in this… our reactions can be short lived if we allow the reflection to unfold…our children can find comfort in this knowledge too, because once we can get over initial shock, we can move into acceptance and understanding and discussion.
“Leave the door open, even if you can only leave it open a crack…leave the door open.”
What I took away from this idea is that the mere idea of the door ajar is healing, just picture it in your mind, the imagery alone provides a crack of light. For a questioning child; a child questioning anything from gender identity or sexuality, to giving up on a long practiced sport or hobby, to taking off a year of college, to knowing they will fail their math exam tomorrow; that crack of light might be all a child needs to feel comforted, to feel that ‘deep in your soul’ knowledge that this too shall pass...the knowing that ‘I have someone open to talking when I am ready, whatever, whenever, if I really need it. I am not alone.’ Having that door ajar does not mean that we, as parents, won’t feel disappointment or have issues of misplaced shame or guilt to work through (which is, of course, our own burden to work on), but it does mean that we are there for the long haul… we are available to join our kids where they are, to support figuring out the hard stuff and to support their journey to their real selves, whatever that means for them.
I have had a few tricky parenting moments, but the trickiest moments by far are following through on my open door policy. I had to keep my shit together one night, when after multiple passed curfew phone calls, my daughter finally admitted there wasn’t a safe ride home. I was pissed to say the least… 2 hours of calls, late at night, being put off, coming soon… not my way of doing business with my kids. But I still picked her up, no questions asked, because that was our deal. I stuffed the dragon mom deep inside (for once) because her safety was really my priority in the end, wasn’t it?
I have also had to remind my adult kids, that while I might be a “pretty cool” Mom, I certainly am not a peer and do not want to hear about their escapades, and if I do get momentary TMI, my almost immediate cue to them is to cover my ears and say “lalalalalala”. Same rules as preschool, if you aren’t hurting yourself, someone else, or property… this is a need to know basis only, kiddos!
Why do my kids’ escapades sound so much more outrageous than my own? Is it my imagination? I promise that my children aren’t more wild than I was… and yet, some things I just don’t want to hear about if I don’t need to, right? Even though I know my kids use uber, walk or take private transportation if drinking, and even though they have steady heads on their shoulders (well, most of the time), the “what ifs” are crazy making. And when it just so happens that the “what ifs” become reality, we confuse our children’s story with our own… we wonder what we did wrong… we allow shame and blame to creep in and replace love and pride.
I know shame… shame has played a big role in my life, as has blame. I’m not sure one can raise children and not feel intense responsibility for who they become, and I long ago became friends with these deep seated core issues. I couldn’t stop the habit of blaming myself, try as I might… shoulda, coulda, woulda BS is second nature for me.
If only we could “un-friend” or “un-follow” shame and blame, like we can annoying posts, you might ask? Actually, I am not sure I would totally want to do away with these core issues, as they are a catalyst to my reflective parenting, and reflective parenting is what has made me a better parent. It was too much work to get entirely rid of shame and blame, so I have learned to sit with discomfort, learned to notice when it arises, and do my best to separate my issues from my kids issues. I let blame and shame join me on my big couch of life...
“No one is totally comfortable with everything.”
...and even in our uncomfortable and ‘stuck’ moments, I believe we can hold our issues in a different place and still move forward. I think we must learn to hold it and move forward if we are to truly leave the door open...
So, let’s leave the door open, cracked, unlocked, ajar… because if the door is open… there is always a crack of light. And when there is light at the end of the tunnel there is always at least one direction our children can go to get out of the dark.
To understand more about gender spectrum and our children, I recommend starting with this article.