Today’s Parent

climbWhat is it like to parent a transgender teen? Well, I can’t really answer that question. I can tell you, however, what it is like to parent my transgender teen. It is an emotional roller coaster. For real.

By now, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love my son unconditionally. I am his advocate. I am his biggest cheerleader. I am a walking billboard for acceptance. That said, this is no piece of cake.

Transgender individuals come with a built-in set of insecurities. They feel different and wrongly put together. They walk around believing that the outside world can see the anxieties and mismatched parts that make-up this living, breathing human.

For every “win” we experience numerous hurdles. For every successful step forward, there are many steps backward. For every joyful milestone, there are tears of frustration and sadness.

Most of us wondered, as we were growing up, if we would find that special someone. The teen years were fraught with bad dates, rejection, wistful longings, that first kiss, a homecoming corsage and so much more. There’s a “lid for every pot,” my grandma would say. Try convincing a trans teen of that concept — a trans teen who feels that no one would want to date “someone like me.” This is sobering.

When Hunter first “came out” to me, one of my immediate concerns was, “how hard would it be for a transgender adult to find love.” Ironic, for sure. Now, we are collecting friends who just happen to be transgender and have managed to successfully find love and create a family. These are the role models our son needs to see. There is someone for everyone.

Being the parent of a trans teen boy is exhausting. It is like regular parenting on steroids. I always joke that Hunter was never an easy child…he was a fussy baby requiring special formula, then came night terrors (if you’ve ever experienced someone going through that you know how frightening and exhausting that is), climbing out of the crib too early, eating anything and everything including rocks, dirt, cigarette butts, chalk, markers and crayons, refusal to take a real nap, disorganized chaos at school where each day meant searching for another lost piece of paper, lunchbox or article of clothing, difficulty learning to read, never learning to write in cursive, printing that’s near impossible to read, an ADHD diagnosis, social anxiety up the wazoo — well, you get the picture.

Being Hunter’s mom has never been easy…but parenting is one tough job. Hunter is bright, kind, artistic, quick-witted and musical. He is loving, caring and an amazing friend. Hunter’s philosophy is don’t be a hater. He embraces diversity and is an outspoken ambassador for the transgender youth community. Hunter is compassionate and vulnerable. He fills my heart in a way that no other human being can. He is different and difficult and moody and complicated.

He is my son and I am today’s parent.

 

High Anxiety

trans medYIKES. What is going on with our healthcare system?!?! I know many of you ask this on a daily basis. Our physicians are being squeezed so tight that the level of care is visibly and dramatically taking a downward plunge.

Normally I am not one to get on a soap box about anything. But, mess with my kids, and get out of my way.

It took us months to find a pediatric endocrinologist that would treat Hunter. There is one in our geographic area that has the right credentials and regularly sees transgender children. However, she does not accept Hunter’s insurance. FAIL. So, we kept looking. Finally, we found a smart, compassionate, caring endocrinologist that was willing to treat him. She didn’t have the transgender thing under her belt but had access to leading authorities and said she was willing to do what she needed to do to make things happen. SUCCESS.

Our first appointment went really well. Thank g-d. She spent plenty of time with us. She interviewed, examined, shared and committed. All was good that day. I filled out releases so she could speak to our pediatrician, therapist, school social worker and anyone else that was critical to the success of this transition.

Now it’s time for our second appointment. I pull Hunter out of school early. We get to the doctor’s office, we sign in and we wait. And we wait. And we wait. Finally, 45 minutes later we are called in. It is an hour plus from the time we walked in the door until we finally see our doctor. Now, we are late for another appointment so we rush through this appointment after waiting for more than 60 minutes.

Good news, though. She approves the necessary next steps and promises to secure the appropriate documentation from Hunter’s therapist and to connect with the insurance company. We race out of there on a high.

Well, that was exactly one month ago today. We are no further along.

I have now called the endocrinologist’s office multiple times. By the way, nothing has been submitted to the insurance company yet (one month after the appointment). I have spoken to a nurse 4 out of the 5 calls and relayed my concerns. This morning I emphasized the fact that the delay is causing significant depression in my son.

So, we wait. I am disappointed and frustrated and concerned for my son. He deserves better than this. He deserves to get the appropriate care in a timely fashion to put him on the path to emotional and physical wellness.

This is one angry mama bear. Don’t get in my way.

Victory

victoryAside from learning about things that I never dreamed I would be researching, I am learning a lot about the “loophole.” Nearly a year ago Hunter asked that we start calling him “Hunter,” rather than “Olivia.” While I choked on the name (I could hear it in my head) as it moved from tongue to my lips, we were committed to doing what was necessary for our son.

What I didn’t really think about was what would come next. When my friend (in a similar situation but about 6 months ahead of us on most fronts) announced that she went to court with her son and now he was legally “Jack,” I found my self in the midst of conflicting emotions. These kids are so young; a legal name change just felt so FINAL. And yet, somehow I was envious of how she took charge and did what she needed to do as a parent of a child who was transitioning from female to male.

We spent nearly an entire school year getting used to the new name. Little by little we expanded our vocabulary until we were using only male pronouns in lieu of the female ones that we had grown accustomed to. Summer came and with it greater acceptance and more knowledge. It was time to apply for a legal name change. It was important that Hunter begin the new school year “officially” as Hunter. We didn’t want any mistakes. It would’ve been devastating for him to sit in a class on the first day and have a teacher take attendance and look for or call out “Olivia.”

So, I filled out the paperwork and waited. Hunter was at camp and I wanted him to sign the documents. Not only did I want him to be a part of the process but I wanted him to tell me that he was 100% sure about the name. Admittedly, there was a tiny part of me that was hanging on to the familiar; I was not quite ready and it was easy to find a reason to wait.

You would have no idea how complicated this entire process is. Legal name change at the state level. Birth certificate legal name change at the state level in which one was born. Gender marker changed on birth certificate. WHOA. Not so fast…this too, is at the state level and every state has it’s own law about changing the gender marker. I went into a tail spin. What good was the name change if Hunter’s birth certificate still indicated that he was female??? According to the state of Florida (where he was born), in order to legally change the gender marker, one needs to submit an affidavit from the physician stating that gender reassignment surgery has occurred. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Many transgender individuals never have surgery for various reasons. This was crazy and unacceptable.

I reached out to a number of people and organizations (including legal teams) within my network to see if there was a way around this. Hunter was about to start driver’s ed – I had been told that once you get a permit or license it is nearly impossible to change the gender marker on the document.

Facebook at its finest … another mom, who just went through the exact same scenario, was a wealth of information.

LOOPHOLE.

The federal government, not too long ago, changed its policies regarding passports and gender markers. Too good to be true. All we needed was a letter from the doctor stating that Hunter was in the process of transitioning along with the legal name change document from the court. In addition, while the social security administration doesn’t put a gender on the card, they track it for employment purposes. So, the passport and social security card (with new name) become the legal documents in place of the birth certificate.

VICTORY… until the next hurdle.

Out of the blue…

shockingSo, I went to the dentist recently and while catching up with the dental assistant whom I hadn’t seen in quite sometime, I was thrown for a loop. She asked me about my “two girls” and I was momentarily paralyzed.

What do you do? I had a split second to decide if I would just nod or go into a short version of the long story about my second child, who definitely is not a girl. Talk about being caught off guard. WOW.

Since Hunter is not a patient in this dental office anymore, the staff is not aware of what has been going on with him. Our dentist knows the whole story and is completely accepting and supportive and even told me that he is “impressed” with us as parents and how we’ve handled everything (with our transgender son).

Certainly we have no issue sharing our journey and Hunter is very open about his transition from female to male. But, honestly, this is not really the kind of news you share when having small talk before a dental procedure. I felt the wind being knocked out of my sails.

While we are open about our son being transgender, sharing this “out of the blue” ranks up there with, “by the way, we’re getting a divorce,” or “I was just diagnosed with fill in the blank,” — by my standards, these are topics where you choose a time and place to have an honest, open, bare your soul conversation.

When faced with some “news” about a friend or family member (sometimes known as gossip) you have to make a quick decision about how to respond to the messenger; you can nod, mutter an “ah ha,” cough to hide your shock, quickly change the subject or just act as if you didn’t hear what they said. Understandably, this can be an incredibly uncomfortable space to be in…I certainly don’t want to be the one to blurt out shocking news and then not have the time to discuss, empathize or explain.

Given that I was about to get numbed up for a procedure, I did some quick thinking on my feet. Surely, this was a case where a simple nod would suffice. However, I will make sure to ask the doctor to update our family records and to inform his staff. Hopefully, this will eliminate or at least minimize future awkward, pick your jaw up from the floor, I want to disappear moments.

An apology

mother's role mother's loveA while back I made a statement that I felt very sure of. Today I am retracting my statement and offering an apology. When my son told me he was transgender (FTM), I was surprised to hear those words spoken by him. However, I wasn’t shocked. There had been little signs all along and more recently, lots of signals – like cutting off his hair and asking to shop in the boys’ department. As we stepped off the starting block and inched along on our journey I began to meet parents who told me they were SHOCKED by their child’s confession.

“How could that be?” I wondered. Surely, when one reflects back and starts put together all those little pieces, signs, and nagging intuitions, the result is one big message; a billboard of sorts, screaming “how could you have missed this?”

I have always believed that if a parent is tuned in to their children they would never miss something so important.

The other day I had the privilege of talking with a woman who just found out that her daughter wants to be male. Her “girlie, long-haired, pink skirt-wearing” child can no longer live in secret. Anna* was SHOCKED. Listening to her anguished, desperate account of the prior week, where her daughter spent several days in the psychiatric unit on suicide watch, I knew I had been wrong. There had been no signs.
Now, Anna did tell me that her daughter has suffered from depression since an early age. Perhaps this was the red warning flag. Tatum* didn’t have the words or understanding or ability to articulate what was going on. Most likely, the root of her depression was that she was assigned the wrong gender at birth. Her vocabulary didn’t include the word “transgender.”

As a side note, one of the reasons we chose to tell our story publicly was to be a resource for others. It was our hope that by coming forward in our community, at least one family would be helped. Anna told me that while in the hospital, Tatum asked to read Hunter’s story. Never having met us, Anna had no idea how Tatum even knew about Hunter or the recent article that ran in the Detroit Jewish News. Not having their own subscription, they googled the story and were able to print it out, delivering words to their daughter that would bring a source of comfort and hope.

After spending quite a bit of time speaking to Anna, I realized that it is possible to be caught entirely off guard. It is possible to love your child so much that you become deaf and blind to anything that is a bit “off.” We often think, “they march to their own drum,” or “they just aren’t that social,” or any other phrases that make allowances for our children’s differences.

So, I am sorry. I am sorry for making a judgment and pretending to know what goes on in another family. We do the best we can to love and provide and nurture and educate. As parents, we learn as we go. We don’t always have all the answers. As friends and community members we need to reach out and support each other, sharing the knowledge we do have so we can raise stronger families.

*names have been changed to protect the privacy of this family

In a different place

Hunter

When I take the time to think back, I am startled into the realization that a mere eighteen months ago I was in a very different place. Our family was in a different place.

Somehow I’ve managed to brush aside the memories of that overwhelming urge to google every iteration of gender identity disorder that I could come up with. Simultaneous to this desperate search for knowledge, my husband wrestled with the possibility that this was a phase; many adolescents go through an exploration stage, he insisted.

Deep down, I knew he was wrong. I knew this was not a phase. I knew that our child was clear headed in his convictions. This was about much more than shopping in the boys’ department. CONFESSION. Though I was avoiding the inevitable–what I knew down to the core of every fiber of my being, I was seeking out a therapist — not just any therapist. We (Richard and me) wanted someone that would act as “Switzerland.”  FEAR. We were desperately afraid that the wrong therapist would polarize the situation rather that remain neutral. We were terrified, really, that if we chose poorly, the outcome would be devastating.

At this point we are “pre” everything; pre-male pronouns, pre-name change, pre-purging of all things girlie, pre-public awareness, pre-full understanding. When Olivia* initially asked to buy a chest binder I put her off. When I found the remnants of clothing layers shed before bedtime the previous night, my heart began to break. Sports bras, t-shirts and a home-made device looking something like a prototype of a strapless chest binder, heaped onto the floor taunting me to LOOK at what my child was going through. Then, upon discovering that Olivia took it upon herself to order a binder and have it shipped to a friend’s house, a strange mix of tangled emotions reared up at me.

It’s one thing to say, “OK. We accept you. We are with you. We support you.” It’s another to actually feel comfortable with a shift in mindset. I completely understood that my child, my DAUGHTER, wanted to look male. I understood that in order to look male, breasts needed to be camouflaged. What I couldn’t wrap my head around was the use of a binder. I read all the articles that said compressing breast tissue was “harmful, could cause cancer, might cause shortness of breath, and so on.”

It was strange to log on to my computer and see google and amazon searches for chest binders available in a variety of colors, styles and sizes sold by Chinese companies that guaranteed discreet delivery. Hunter was hopefully searching for solutions that would aid his transition and help him “pass” as male when out in public. This garment became a lifeline.

I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the place we are in. We’ve come a long way over the last year and a half. That’s the good news. The downside is that this is just a temporary stop along the way.  Every so often, I need to remind myself that over the next eighteen months we will be in a very different place than we are in right now. I am not really ready nor prepared for moving on in our journey. I know that moving on means letting go of what has become familiar and comfortable. I am not really ready for the unknown.

 

*Olivia is “pre” name transition

Familiar yet Foreign

You know that feeling when you see someone and just can’t quite place who they are or where you know them from? Aside from the fact that I am convinced my memory is completely shot, I’ve been having this feeling a lot lately.

Hunter not OliviaEvery so often I come across a photo of Olivia. Flat-ironed, much anticipated, long hair, smiling face…I am stopped in my tracks. I know this child. I’ve held her, soothed her, fed her, played with her, cheered her on, taught her to ride a bike, scolded her, disciplined her, and loved her. It’s been awhile since we’ve spent time together. So familiar, yet so foreign.

When I look at Hunter, I see my kid. I see a young teen boy who is quick-witted, full of personality and sarcasm and on the journey of a lifetime. What I don’t see is a boy who used to be a girl; a son formerly known as a daughter. It’s funny, really. Hunter would probably disagree but it’s almost as if they are two different people. We parented Olivia for a time being and now we get to continue on the parenthood path with Hunter. It’s sort of like being on a roller coaster that suddenly changes tracks. For a split second you aren’t sure you’re going to make it; then, the car “rights” itself and you breathe a sign of relief.

I am so saddened by the recent tragedy in New Jersey where a young trans man took his life by jumping in front of a train moving at a speed of 120 miles per hour. His parents who must be in unimaginable pain are quoted as saying, “She was such a good girl.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Do they not understand that referring to their transgender, FTM child with female pronouns was not the way to show support? I am not blaming the Moscatel’s for Riley’s death but they did not do what they needed to do.

It took me a long time to feel comfortable using male pronouns with Hunter; initially, I just avoided using them altogether. The familiar was much safer than the unknown. But, I pushed past any issues and discomfort I may have had so I could give my son what he needed. I reminded him that I had a daughter for 14 years; changing vocabulary overnight would be difficult.

My family is my priority. Having a healthy, happy family unit is, above all else, what I want out of life. So, does my heart ache once in awhile for Olivia? Do I get pangs of longing for a child that I’m missing? YES and YES. It’s hard to put into words what I feel on a daily basis. I do look at the pictures from time to time and recall what was once so familiar. Mostly, though, I look at Hunter and see a teenager who is paving the way for others. I see my child, so courageous of late, sometimes I feel as if I hardly know him. We are getting better acquainted with each passing day and navigating a complicated journey together.

 

Call him Hunter

It is my pleasure to share today’s post with you. The story is written by my friend Ronelle Grier. The article appears in this week’s Detroit Jewish News on the cover. A must read. Thank you to Ronelle Grier for writing this and Keri Cohen, Story Development Editor at the Detroit Jewish News for publishing this. Read the entire story here. Detroit Jewish News Call Him Hunter

Enchanted Photography by Marla Michele Must

Enchanted Photography by Marla Michele Must

What’s in a name?

Baby namesBefore our babies arrive most of us agonize, argue, assess, and advocate for the potential name options for this unborn child. No one wants to sentence their child to a lifetime of teasing (at least not intentionally) because they deemed it important to preserve some centuries old family name.

Will this child be a junior? Is there an easy nickname? If you follow Jewish tradition you’ll most likely select a name to honor the memory of a loved one. Then, there’s the Hebrew name to consider. Girl’s name or boy’s name? Modern or biblical? New age or traditional? And, if you are smart, you won’t share or ask your family or friends to weigh in. One thing is for certain, your child will not have a say. When he or she arrives the appropriate name is given; the birth certificate authenticates your choice from that moment forward.

Never did we imagine that our carefully chosen names would not be suitable for the long haul. Forever after came to a screeching halt when Olivia came home last summer from camp as Steven. Steven. WHAT? As the story unfolded, we understood that what started out as a camp joke soon became a sought after reality. Olivia loved being identified as male and the new moniker was a perfect way for her to try on being a guy.

Admittedly, I wasn’t thrilled with the name or the male identifier. Bottom line — I just wasn’t ready. I knew we were on borrowed time and at some point, in the not to distant future, we would be asked to stop calling our daughter Olivia. I just wasn’t ready.

I will tell you that I did think about new names. Even though I wasn’t ready to discuss it openly, I began to allow the thought process to germinate. One of the hardest parts of losing a name that we were all so accustomed to is that we had nick names for Olivia that represented our love and affection. Liv, Livvy, Liv-Liv, Livvy-Lou, and Lou-Lou were the most common. Old habits are hard to break.

Finally the day I had been anticipating with trepidation arrived. “Mom, can we talk about names?” So I put on my warm, accepting, I will always love you smile, and responded, “of course. What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I really like the name Luke,” offered Olivia. For a number of reasons, which I won’t get into here, I didn’t feel that Luke was an appropriate choice.

When we decided on the names Olivia Lauren, we felt they were a combination of beauty and tradition. Richard and I agreed easily on this decision. We were thrilled to be welcoming another child into our family and had no reservations about the name selection. As an aside, we were not naming Olivia after any one in our family who had passed.

In the Jewish tradition, often a baby girl will have a “naming” ceremony. She is given special blessings by a Rabbi and the Hebrew name is conferred.

We’ll, we didn’t do this “baby” naming until Olivia was five years old. My Uncle Harold had recently passed away so we thought it appropriate to find a Hebrew name that was suitable for our precious child that honored his memory. Using the “h” sound we found a beautiful name; Olivia’s chosen Hebrew name was Hila.

Why did I just tell you all this? It sets the stage for how we arrived at Hunter. Some transgender individuals take their given name at birth and use a nickname or something similar for their “new” name. Olivia didn’t want to do this. I thought that rather than a random name selection we find something with meaning.

I reminded Olivia about the connection to family that her Hebrew name shared and she was onboard with trying to find an “h” name.

Thank you Google. I searched for boy names that began with the letter “h”.

Hunter. It was simple, masculine, easy to spell and pronounce and sounded perfect with our last name.

We also chose a middle name that was exceptionally meaningful to us all. That’s another story and you’ll just have to wait.

(I have a) secret in my closet.

For the most part, I am a pretty private person. I don’t put my personal business out there for all to see. It takes me a long time to decide what to share with whom. Chances are, if you’ve met me within the last few years there is lots of stuff you don’t know about me that happened a dozen or more years ago.

I can imagine that this is hard to believe. My kids would argue that everything goes on Facebook these days. It’s all superficial stuff, for the most part.

“She is blogging about her transgender son, for goodness sake. This is not someone to hold back,” one might think.

Well, you’d be surprised. And, no, I am not going to reveal all my secrets in this post. Truth is, after Hunter came out to me it was a long time before I spoke to even my closest of friends. I needed to process it. I needed to figure out how I felt about the situation and what sharing was going to feel like.

This is not really news that you bring up in casual conversation. You also don’t want to blurt out, “by the way, Olivia wants to be male.” At least for me, it wasn’t the right approach; I needed to try it on for a while.

A few years back my sister went through breast cancer. Thank g-d she is now ok. However, when she was first diagnosed, while I rushed to be with her, I didn’t rush to share the news with others. It just didn’t feel right. It took me a long time to reveal to my co-workers what was going on. Maybe saying it out loud made it more real and ominous.

When we lose someone, it is natural to want to hold on to something(s) of theirs. At item, perhaps, that meant something to them or symbolized who they were. We have pictures all over the house of our children. Hunter is probably not too crazy about the “before” pictures that are displayed. For me, those photographs represent moments in time; memories. Even if your present is different, you can’t change the past…nor would we want to obliterate it. Of course, we have made a point of adding new photos of Hunter. And as we move forward, more moments will be added to the gallery of our family’s life.

I might have mentioned in an earlier blog post that Hunter cleaned out his closet. He gave away 99% of anything that was purchased in a girls’ department. This was his way of saying goodbye to his former self and welcoming the person he hoped to become.

This purging was bittersweet for me. I looked longingly at the skinny jeans, capped sleeve t’s and various skirts and dresses purchased for one occasion or another. Wistfully, I mentally made a checklist of when I might’ve seen Olivia wear one of these outfits.

secret dress in my closetAmong the cast-offs was a black, three-quarter sleeve cardigan and a “barely worn once” dress purchased for his cousin’s Bat Mitzvah party. The sweater was a favorite of his. Soft, easy to wear, go with anything, Olivia wore this over and over. The dress showed off a waistline, model-like legs and fit her to a tee.

I just couldn’t part with the sweater or the dress. They hang together in the back of my closet. I can run my hand along the sleeve of the sweater; if I am looking for something…I am always surprised when I give a tug and the dress reveals itself.

Now you know the secret in my closet.