6 min Read
What Parenting My Gender-Diverse Child Taught Me About Love
March 30, 2023
6 min Read
March 30, 2023
To mark International Transgender Day of Visibility, we spoke with three moms whose kids who are either transgender or non-binary. Each shares the joys and struggles of their very different parenting journeys with a gender-diverse child.
Unlearning the gender binary (i.e., male or female) isn’t always easy for people, especially parents. Many caregivers delight in learning whether the baby in utero is a boy or a girl. And with few exceptions, our culture further reinforces the gender binary with pink versus blue, dolls or dinosaurs, ballet shoes or ball caps.
In reality, one in every 300 Canadians aged 15 and older is transgender or non-binary, according to Statistics Canada. The number is even higher among Canadians in post-adolescence—within the 20 to 24 age bracket, almost 1 in 100 is transgender or non-binary. (Experts suggest the generation gap is explained through better support and answers to questions that weren’t accessible to older Canadians.)
We spoke with three different moms of gender-diverse children who shared their experiences, insights and thoughts about parenting.
When Susie Berg’s trans son came out, she admits she felt a period of loss over her child’s birth name, which was carefully chosen and held a lot of meaning for her as a mom. However, about a month after her son came out as transgender, a school letter arrived with his former name on it. Berg found herself saying, “Who’s that?”
While acknowledging that other parents may struggle more than she did with the actual gender, for her, that wasn’t where the grief settled.
Berg’s strong message to parents and caregivers is that kids do not owe you, the extended family or the community any explanations. A parent’s most important job is to not put any of the work onto kids who come out as transgender or non-binary. Instead, tell them, “Thank you for trusting me with that. I believe you. I love you. What do you need from me?”
If the child then says, “I want to go to the gender clinic, or I want to take medication,” don’t start arguing with them. If you have questions, go find the answers yourself. It’s not the child’s job to do the research for you.
“Often, we think there’s something way more complicated at work, or some kind of explanation. There isn’t. There’s nothing complicated at work here. My most valuable advice? Listen to your kid.”
Melinda Davis admits to a lot of confusion and tears after her trans son came out. Then, her son tried to take his own life.
“I had a hard time with the pronouns for a really long time. I think I was hurting him and I didn’t realize how much. It was when we were on the pediatric psychiatry unit that, for the first time, I was able to just say, ‘No problem, you want me to call you he? I’ll call you he, because I’d rather have that than no child at all.'”
But that was kind of a hard way to accept it.
Davis says family therapy, along with peer-to-peer group sessions with other parents of transgender kids, has helped to heal her relationship with her gender-diverse child. They live in a multigenerational home, where there continues to be misunderstanding, confusion and unsolicited advice from extended family members.
Davis has arrived at a place of radical acceptance as a parent, which she says means realizing that something can be true and valid for her child, even though she has no control over it. “I don’t have to like it, but I accept it because I don’t want the relationship with my child to be wrecked for the rest of my life—and theirs.”
She says she’s grateful that her child is also patient and accepting of her.
“I lost who I thought I had. You know, I thought I gave birth to a girl. But if they need to be something different now, that’s fine, and I’ll deal with that loss. My child is still here.”
Jen Wong’s gender-diverse child came out as non-binary while they worked on a sewing project together. She had her first a-ha moment in the fabric store when her then-son walked in and chose exactly what they wanted—a unicorn pattern with rainbows all over it.
“In fabric stores there’s just all these different colours and patterns. There’s no boy and girl section. It’s just fabric. You walk in and choose what you like. So, we made their first sweatshirt with the pattern they chose. And then, that day, while we were sewing, we started talking about gender. And that’s when they came out as non-binary.”
Wong says she feels very lucky to have had a positive family and community response. Her child asked her to email to their classmates’ parents to share the news. “We probably got 20 emails right back with support and hugs. I know that’s not normal; not everywhere in Canada is like that.”
They still face some challenges—school forms often have just two gender options, not to mention washrooms or sports. Wong and her husband regularly check in with their child about how much advocacy they want to handle on their own, and what they need their parents’ help with. Wong admits she felt pressure to advocate on a larger scale for her gender-diverse child. But a counsellor advised her otherwise: “She said, ‘No, You need to love your child and look out for your child but you do what you want. You do not have to take on the world.'”
She says, “I so admire people who are [gender] activists but right now, I don’t personally have the energy so I am pretty calm. I feel like we’re constantly educating people in our daily life but I’m not trying to do it on a big scale, I’m just doing it as it comes because that’s what feels good right now.“