Photo by Caroline Hernandez
I’ll start by discussing some important pre-requisite considerations you should keep in mind before you ever open your mouth.
Things To Consider
Your Parenting Style
My parenting style has always been very purposefully informal, relaxed and non-hierarchical. This is the standard generational response to my own father being the exact opposite of that — an authoritarian, a disciplinarian, and a stoic impenetrable wall when it came to his own feelings.
One distinct, and quite sad, memory I have of my teen years is a rough argument with my father where he had wronged me in some way. “You’re a horrible father!,” I yelled at him. “You’re a bully, an ogre. I hate you!” My father did not react, maintaining what I’m sure he thought was equanimity and patience in his face — but what I interpreted as smug malice. He maintained a Mona Lisa smile, never showed emotion. Looking back, he must’ve felt pained. I know I would be torn to pieces if my kids spoke to me that way.
It’s always been important to me that my kids experience me as a real human person, with feelings and flaws. I have sought to appeal to their compassion, their innate decency and good hearts rather than demand strict obedience, force an antiquated hierarchy or become a bully to them.
This informal parenting style helped me in coming out to my children.
If you have a disciplinarian approach, if your parents see you as a ROLE rather than a person, if you are a symbolism instead of a human being, you’ll need to bridge that FIRST — lest you confuse them utterly and entirely, and create a communication shutdown.
So, if you have been the aloof “father” or the disciplinarian “mother” and now intend to suddenly become flesh and bone and show vulnerability, please realize that a pretty sturdy, pretty large communication bridge is first required.
The World in Which They Live
If your children have never met a gay or lesbian person, if your children have never seen a trans man or trans woman (or haven’t even heard that terminology used!), then I strongly advise you against coming out to your children. You might as well be announcing you’re an Alien, or a mythical creature. (I was going to say a Centaur — but that breaks the analogy. Most kids HAVE seen Centaurs in the Harry Potter movies. Not only that — Bane, Ronan and Firenze are depicted as strong, beautiful and loyal.)
The unknown creates uncertainty and fear. These are the raw ingredients for phobia and anxiety. Familiarity leads to predictability and comfort.
Are your kids exposed to any positive LGBT role models? How many trans folk have they met? Have they seen trans people in any TV shows or movies? And if so, were they depicted as victims, villains, pariahs or positive figures?
Have your kids soaked up homophobia/transphobia through ‘innocent’ jokes at school, comments from relatives, or from restroom scrabblings?
Please factor all of this in. There is a fallacy called ‘poisoning the well.’ Do not lead your children to drink from a well that’s been poisoned.
Allies and Foes
As you introduce a surprising twist to the children’s lives, they will immediately seek to regain a sense of order by referencing everything you’ve told them against other sources of knowledge in their lives. The other parent, other relatives, teachers, school counselors, friends at school, etc. While you have less and less control or influence over these expanding circles, you can (and should) have a measure of understanding of the landscape that faces your children — the land into which you’ll be releasing them to harvest information about your announcement.
Setting The Stage
Ask, Don’t Tell
All of this said, and assuming you’ve taken all this info consideration, it is time now to think about how to inform your kids of your impending transition.
A principle I really like, when it comes to delivering shocking or potentially destabilizing news to anyone, is to frame the news not as a statement, but as a question.
Instead of, “We’ll be welcoming a baby brother!,” start with, “Ellie, how do you feel about being an only child? What feelings would you have about having a sibling?” Instead of, “We’re moving next month!” lead with, “Johnny, how does the idea of living in Colorado sound to you?” As the children express their emotional state associated with that concept, you can now take some time unpacking that set of emotions.
The Unknown vs. The Known
It is a good idea to limit the scope of the unpredictable and the uncomfortably new by delineating that which does not change — that which can be considered steady ground. In terms of a move, emphasizing that all of the furniture will find its way to the new place, or that the kid will still attend gymnastics once-a-week in the new city are sources of comfort.
In the case of transition, take care to emphasize the bonds, rituals, activities and behaviors that will remain unchanged. If you’ve bonded with the kids over ice cream on Fridays or movies on Sunday evenings, make sure you emphasize that those remain in place — and take great care that they do.
Gender Roles and Gender Norms
At a few points during childhood kids become very aware of gender norms and are likely to become absolutists about these. At six, my daughter was utterly inflexible about her ownership of the color pink. My son considered pink items radioactive and wouldn’t touched them with a hazmat suit on. As time passed, they both let go of such fixed preconceptions, and defined themselves more by their hobbies, activities and interests than by strict gender archetypes.
Keep this in mind as your kid’s perception of gender norms will drive their reaction about your gender transition.
Tell them that change in life is inevitable; that much as we’d like for things to stay the same — for Ms. Fiorina to remain their teacher next year, for the old car to run forever, for their best friend not to have moved to Arizona — change does happen. In fact, change is the one constant, with the passage of time. Some of that change is predictable. They already know that next year they’ll have a new teacher. And some of it is unpredictable. The change you need to discuss with them is an unforeseen change — something they didn’t know.
Having a few analogies to draw from helps a lot. Start by explaining that they’re not in trouble, and that you’ll be discussing something that is not about them — it’s about you — but will affect them. That you’re discussing it with them so that they can share with you their concerns, so that you can prepare them for coping with the upcoming changes, so that they’re not caught unprepared.
Don’t just blurt out the imminent change. Build some context for them. Explain to them that most people are right-handed, but some write with their left hand. That most people have brown eyes, but some have blue or green. That most people are heterosexual — men who plan to marry women, women who want to dance with men — but about one in ten are men who enjoy dancing with other men, and women who prefer kissing, dating, marrying women.
Tell them that at the very start, in the mother’s belly, all humans are first female. And that at some point in the pregnancy, about half of these start changing, and turning into boys.
Then tell them that for most people their brains, their hearts and their bodies are wired in a simple way — a boy body, with a boy heart inside, and a boy brain. A girl brain inside a girl body, connected to a girl heart. But, just like some people are left-handed, some people are wired in more complicated ways.
There are some people who are born with a girl brain but a boy body. Or a boy brain inside a girl’s body. Ask them this: A cereal box with cereal inside — is that cereal or popcorn? It’s cereal. But what if you have a cereal box filled with popcorn inside, is that cereal or popcorn? It’s popcorn. It’s what’s inside that counts. The box doesn’t matter. It helps when the box tells you what to expect inside, but even if someone mixed things up, you can tell once you eat a few of them. What’s inside is what counts.
Talking It Out
Ask them how they would feel if you started presenting as a different gender. Let them tell you. Absorb their answers — don’t reject them. And address them. You don’t have to agree or disagree — just engage in active listening. And then address their concerns — not in an argumentative way, but helping them expand their thinking.
I remember a really funny drawing of a kid angrily staring at a bowl of soup. The caption said, “I don’t like soup. And it’s a good thing — because if I liked soup, I would drink soup. And I hate soup.”
I think that cartoon does a great job of showing how we can get stuck on fixed, rigid constructs. Don’t argue with these, but gently deconstruct them. Like Jenga. Sentences such as, “well, have you considered…?” Or, “do you think that would still be the case if … ?”
Tell them — And Tell Them Why
As you then tell them about your upcoming transition, and tell them the timeline you’re facing, when you’ll start presenting in your gender, when you’ll be introducing yourself by a new name, etc. make sure that you also explain to them why you’re doing this — tell them about the internal struggles you’ve faced, what you’ve done to cope, why you now feel you need to transition.
Explain to them that you understand this is an inconvenience to the family, and explain to them the degree to which transition will likely be to you personally. Then, explain why even with all of that factored in, you still need to do this.
Ask For Help
Tell your kids that this will be a challenging time for you. Ask for their understanding, their patience and their compassion. Tell them that transition is a bit like getting sick — or like getting OVER being sick. It takes a while to start feeling better, it takes a while for the fever to break. It will take a while before you’re comfortable with your own transition, and it will take a while before you’re at peace with yourself. But, just like taking medicine when you’re sick, doing this will make you feel better inside.
Give Them Tools
At some point you’ll need to discuss with them how they’re going to deal with this socially. How will they tell teachers, parents of their friends, etc.
In my own case, I presented female at home for a year or more before I started to present female outside the house. Then it was a full two years before I went full-time, at which point I had to come out at the kids’ schools, at the Boys-n-Girls Club, etc. The gradual nature of my transition helped my kids adjust, and made it easier for them.
Discuss with your children what they will call you, how they will address you when referring to you to third parties, who knows and who doesn’t, and the importance of letting YOU tell, of not getting ahead of you and letting you tell people as you feel ready.
Remain a Parent
Transition may have the effect of putting a focus on you. Remember to center the kids instead. Parenting is about caring for them, not having them care for you (it’s wonderful if they show empathy and caring, but let them be kids). Do your venting in the therapist’s office, not to your children. Keep your frustrations and challenges away from their ears as much as possible — lean on grownup friends and counselors for help.
Speaking of which, it’s a great idea to encourage the child to seek therapy. There will be a lot to unpack, and both parents are too close to the issue to provide an objective viewpoint. The child might want to vent, to express frustrations, and may feel guilty about hurting your feelings or seeming disrespectful. A therapist’s office is a safe zone for the kid and allows them to focus on their feelings without parent bias.
The Long Ride
This will be a long hike. Transition takes four to five years (at least). By the time you’ve transitioned, your kids will have become teenagers, or move out and be at college. Don’t get impatient. Take it one step at a time. Make sure that you don’t focus so much on your transition that you lose sight of being an effective parent. Parenting is your number-one job. Love your children, and give them comfort and support. And they will respond to that love.
Everything else will fall into place with time.
© Cassie Brighter 2018