Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group. Nicole Cliffe is out today; Care and Feeding columnist Michelle Herman is answering questions in her place.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My amazing child has come out to me as trans, letting me know that they are taking testosterone and wish to be addressed as he/him. I think I handled it well in the moment—I was supportive and loving—and I want to be the best parent to this man that I possibly can. But omg I am feeling sad, too. In fact, I feel like I’m going through all the stages of grief even though he is still here—still funny and fierce and kind. I know I need help with this. Because of the pandemic I can’t seem to find a support group. I did reach out to a local parent via a website and plan on meeting up when it is safe, and I have attempted to join a Facebook group that may be useful (but since I have not used any social media in five years, I think they are hesitating to allow me into the group—understandably, because how do they know I’m not a troll?). All of this is to say that I feel like I am free-falling and have nowhere to go. I find myself weepy and overwhelmed daily. At this point I am only two weeks into knowing, and I am desperate for help gathering information on doing this right for my kid while also navigating my own feelings. I have a lot of questions about the physical and psychological road ahead for my child, too. Mostly I am just overwhelmed.
—Supportive and Sad Mom
It’s hard to let go of the child you thought you knew without grieving that loss.
As a college and graduate school professor who works with young people every day, many of whom write (and speak to me) frankly about their lives, I can assure you that your reaction “in the moment” was extraordinarily important. So many of my LGBTQ+ students dread coming out to their families, and for so many of them, that dread turns out to have been justified. Simply telling your son that you love him and support him—simply agreeing to address him by the pronoun he’s requested—goes a long way toward being the “best parent” you possibly can. And not sharing your sadness with your child, but instead seeking other ways to deal with it, takes you even farther to that goal.
The sadness a parent may feel upon the discovery that the child they thought was their daughter turns out to be their son—or vice versa—is both normal and also not a burden to be placed on the child. Which you, like all good parents, instinctively know. (Of course, not burdening our children with our own expectations and fantasies about them—whatever these are about—is one of the most important things we can do for them throughout their lives.) I’ve heard trans people in their 20s rail at their parents’ grief, and I get it: These are kids who are coming into their own and naturally want to be cheered on for it; no one wants to hear that embracing one’s own authentic self is making anybody sad—least of all the people who are supposed to be one’s biggest cheerleaders. But the fact is it’s hard to let go of the child you thought you knew without grieving that loss. So there are things to tackle with your son, for his sake (all those questions about what’s ahead for him, and how to best support him through it), and there’s the stuff you need to do for yourself. These are separate matters.
When I read your letter, I thought immediately of one particular former student of mine and his mother, because I remembered how anxious he had been about coming out to his family, as well as how supportive they were when he did. And because I knew so much about what this then-23-year-old had experienced but so little about what it really had been like for his mother, I asked his permission to reach out to her. And she, in turn, has given me permission to tell you everything she told me.
A decade has now passed since Kim Hansen’s son let her know he was her son and not her daughter. “There is, most definitely, a grieving period that you don’t [hear] about,” she said. “It’s almost as if your child has died and has been replaced with another … like a twin you didn’t know about.” She talked about how that other person, one you thought you knew so well, “now just ceases to exist.” For her, like for many other parents, she had to abandon the name she’d so carefully selected for her daughter and get accustomed to a new one, as well as a new pronoun. “And then there’s that loss of how you think things will be”—for Kim, the sort of marriage (and the sort of wedding!) she’d expected, “with Dad walking her down the aisle.” Other aspects of her child’s life she’d thought of as predictable—“typical, societal norms”—had to be set aside: “They no longer had any meaning.”
And then, at the same time, “There is the fear for your child. You worry about their safety. Will they be able to ‘pass’? Will people treat them differently? How will this affect their career? What about their health? Are those hormones going to cause cancer? What about the impact on your other children? How will the extended family accept it?”
Kim lives in a small town and her daughter—a teacher’s kid, active in scouts and church—was “very well known by many, many people. That made it especially difficult because everyone was constantly asking, ‘How she’s doing? Where is she? What’s she doing now?’ This presents the dilemma of a split-second decision of what to say in response. Do we pretend that nothing has changed? Is this a ‘safe’ person? Would our son want us to tell this person? Are we putting him in danger?”
She also told me that she “struggled with a lot of [personal] stuff when [my son] first came out. Was I not feminine enough? Should I have encouraged [my daughter] to be more feminine?” She was sure she must have done something wrong (“Naturally,” she said sarcastically, “it’s always the mother’s fault”). She looked to others for guidance, starting with her minister (“a waste of time”), then a therapist “who told us we were handling things well.” She sought out “the mother of a guy I went through school with who had transitioned to female back in the ’80s, and she was reassuring and supportive.” But what helped Kim most, she found, was helping someone else: “A former student of mine had begun transitioning F to M and [he told me that] his parents were not supportive at all. They wouldn’t accept him, use correct pronouns or his chosen name. They even threatened to disown him. We ran into the parents at a community event and I brought up their son and told them that we had gone through this ourselves. We talked for a long time.” She didn’t know until several years later what an impact that conversation had had on that entire family, but then and there she realized how much good it had done her.
Kim also asked me to pass on a message to you. “If there is one thing this mom needs to know, it’s that everything is going to work out. She will learn who her friends really are and she will make new friends, too. Time is the greatest healer of broken hearts and broken dreams, or rather, I guess, broken expectations. Looking back, I don’t know why I was so distressed about it all. My son is just fine. And we are, too. As you all will be.”
Of course, Kim’s experience is one person’s, and I don’t present it here presuming there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Your feelings and experience may (and probably will) be different. For information and support along the way, since there’s more available online now than there was when Kim was absorbing her son’s news, check out this support for mothers of trans children and this invaluable resource from the Human Rights Campaign.
P.S. Kim says if you want to talk, she’s available. So just let me know if you’d like me to put you in touch with her.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughters go to a private elementary school, and I’m good friends with the moms there. One of them, “Allison,” is a single mom whose daughter attends on financial aid. She talks about her struggles of being a single mom a lot, and as the daughter of a single mom who worked hard to get me where I am today, I empathize with her. There’s another mother, “Mary,” who is also a single mom, but by choice, and is the only child of very wealthy parents. Her daughters are adopted. I know Allison and Mary have different lifestyles, but they have had some similar experiences, and I had the impression they were close.
On Father’s Day, I wrote a message to them in a group chat saying how much I admire them for being two parents at once to their kids, and how much I appreciate their friendship. Mary thanked me, but Allison texted me privately that I shouldn’t have mentioned Mary because “she didn’t even have to go through pregnancy alone, and her daddy’s money is basically a second parent,” and how she was the only real single mom. I didn’t know what to say to that, but I’m still shocked and I don’t know what to do now. Do I tell Mary? Confront Allison? Should I ask my daughter if her friend—Allison’s kid—says things like that about Mary’s kids?
—That Shouldn’t Be a Competition
Well, sure, nothing about parenting should be a competition. And yet somehow it so often seems to be. But let’s forget about the idea of “competition” in this case and focus instead on Allison’s frustrations and sense of aggrievement. As (two different kinds of) single parents, it is much, much harder to live day to day as Allison than it is to live day to day as Mary. And while I’m sure Mary has plenty of problems Allison doesn’t know about—problems that can’t be solved by money—Allison is in the trenches, struggling, and understandably doesn’t want to think about that. I’m not going to scold you for the group chat because I know you meant well, but now that you’ve experienced the fallout from it, you might take a moment to consider why Allison responded as she did, and also to think about how differently she would have reacted to your kind message if you’d sent it only to her (and sent Mary her own separate, if exactly the same, message). And the truth is it’s not for you to adjudicate whether Allison “should” recognize the similarities you have observed in the two situations; your job, as her friend, is to be sensitive (in the future) to her point of view.
Honestly, as a general rule in friendship, it’s always a good idea to stop and think about other people’s points of views before you act. I understand that it simply did not occur to you in this case that your message would stir up Allison’s frustration (I’m surprised, I admit, that it’s never come up before—since I’ve witnessed the who’s-a-real-single-parent debate firsthand many times), and now it’s time to move on and let it go (and not make the same mistake again).
Absolutely do not tell Mary. (If Allison wants to talk to her about this, she will!) Do not “confront” Allison. (A text that says, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to downplay how hard things are for you” would be the appropriate response to her text.) And do not put your daughter in the middle of this! It’s none of your business what her friend says to her about one of your friend’s kids. Do not insert yourself into the dynamic between Allison and Mary any more than you already have.
And as long as I’m handing out advice—and, I mean, since it’s my job—let me say a word about well-meaning Father’s Day messages to mothers. Maybe just don’t do it? Single mothers aren’t “both a father and a mother” to their kids. Being a mother to them is plenty. And maybe it’s me, but the very idea of such a message grates on my last nerve (I don’t think it’s only me). If you want to let your friends know you appreciate and love them, just tell them that. On any day at all.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a primary school teacher. It’s looking like we’ll be reopening in September, and I’ll be moving up a year, which means I’ll be teaching most of the same students I taught last term. One of my students, “Matthew,” is the son of a fairly well-known rock star. The band he’s in is often in the tabloids shown partying. They’re a little older now so it’s not as hardcore as it was “back in the day,” but there’s still a lot of drinking and drugs. Matthew always shows up on time, his homework done, clean, well-fed, etc., and is very friendly and well-adjusted. I don’t think the partying continues at home, although I guess I can’t be sure. His mum and dad often show up for school events (performances, pageants, field trips, and so on) and always seem sober and normal. Luckily the other students are still too young to know this band so we haven’t had to deal with that (yet). My question is: Is there anything I need to be doing to better support Matthew? I haven’t noticed any red flags, but should I be asking about drug or alcohol abuse? He has expressed some sadness when his dad is away on tour but other than that he seems to be OK.
—One Eye on the Tabloids and One on the Kid
Dear One Eye,
Keep your eye on the kid, not on the tabloids. The kid is clearly fine. What you see in the tabloids doesn’t correspond to what you’re seeing IRL and there could be lots of reasons for this—none of which suggest that you should do a damn thing. (Except maybe stop reading tabloids?)
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