When I look back at my parenting life, I don’t see pivotal moments standing out as the sea change of our lives. Sure, every once in a while life changes in the blink of an eye and you don’t see it coming. But more often, for every pivotal moment we have experienced, there have been months and years of signs leading up to that moment. These signs give us clues to the road ahead so that by the time that pivotal moment comes, even though it might still be an emotional kick to the gut and we don’t feel fully prepared, we have had some guidance leading us to the right decision to make.
As a parent, I have learned to trust my instincts, because they are fueled by those clues. Those clues carry us forward to a moment that, in the end, will be but a flash of time propelling us forward to those next months and years that will inform our split-second reaction at the next pivot in our path.
One such pivotal moment came a year and a half ago. I was working in my home office, the door open so I could hear my kiddos playing in the living room. I had one ear cocked for squabbles as I tried to meet a deadline when my seven-year-old little boy crept in. He came up to me for a snuggle, then pushed away and stood in what was probably supposed to be a casual stance, except I could see the nerves behind it.
“Mama, I’m a girl.”
I won’t say that I didn’t feel my heart shatter at that moment. I wasn’t expecting those words right then, surrounded by the detritus of my working day and wishing desperately that my husband were home to face this with me. But at the same time, I wasn’t really surprised.
I was, however, deeply afraid. Terrified for my child, who had already struggled so much in the face of friends and acquaintances who didn’t understand a little boy who had a deep love for both Minecraft and sparkly pink skirts, foam swords and long hair. A little boy who wanted to get his ears pierced like his big sister and could wrestle with the best of them. So many stereotypical expectations for how girls and boys should behave slapped him in the face every day, and he had just made his life so, so much harder with those four words. I was terrified of how the world would treat him now.
That fear tempted me to brush his words off as childish fantasy, something that could be postponed and maybe forgotten.
Thank goodness for instincts. Because those instincts reminded me that this precious little boy already felt so much pain for being pressured by the world to hide his true self. And danger comes from within as well as without. You can’t hide who you are without facing serious consequences. Self-harm, suicide attempts, body dysphoria, eating disorders — these are all internal risks faced by children whose gender does not match their genitalia.
“Mama, I’m a girl.”
My heart stuttered, but my mouth worked.
And I pulled her in for another hug, a big one. She left the room to go back to playing and I put my head down on my desk and cried. As our new reality sank in, though, I realized that we had been living this new reality for a long time. Since she was a toddler and went into her sister’s closet for the most fabulous dresses she could find. Since she was just starting to talk and asked when she could cut her penis off because it didn’t belong. Since she started preschool and wanted to wear pink every day. Since she started kindergarten and gained the social awareness that most boys didn’t choose “the girl snack” at school or wear girl’s clothes, so she started hiding her needed pink in socks under tall rain boots so no one would see them.
We had weathered that pivotal moment and going forward, we had a new life to live. But not really. Our words changed. “She” not “he.” “Her” not “him.” But the exact same kid. With the same heart, the same dreams, the same joyful hugs and the same hope for the future. To be happy. It’s worth overcoming my fear of the unknown to have a happy kid. No doubts there at all.