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Parents Just Don’t Get It (But, Damn, We Really Want To)

A surge of feeling welled up in me while Mark talked about his trans kid (who I'll call X). I said to myself, “He loves X so much! But he doesn’t quite get it.”


Since Mark’s youngest came out as trans a few years ago, he has been trying every way he knows how to understand. He reads about trans issues and brings those articles to his kid. He researches gender-affirming medical interventions in professional journals. He has explored his own ideas of masculinity and femininity through writing and reading. Mark plots this data on his mental graph then launches into lengthy conversations with X and his wife trying to figure out the equation. It’s not that Mark is asking the wrong questions, but at times he’s asking the wrong person: his kid.


As a clinician specializing in therapy with gender-expansive youth and their parents, I come from a gender-affirming perspective. Meaning, I support any person’s statement of gender identity as their truth. I aim to empower the individual’s journey to their fullest expression of themself. In my work with parents, I encourage the development of respect and belief in their child’s gender first and foremost.


Why prioritize believing your kid’s gender identity? Because a parent’s quest to understand is just that, it’s their own. A kid's identity often challenges their parent’s existing ideas about gender, as well as their existing ideas about their child’s gender. Parents want more information, and in some cases proof, to resolve that challenge and accept the transition. Their kid, on the other hand, has already resolved it. They know who they are and they will exist regardless of their parent’s uncertainty. In seeking more information, a parent’s pursuit can place an unwanted demand on the child to explain or, at worst, justify their identity. 


So here I am sitting with Mark while he strains to understand his child’s gender transition. Mark is a white, middle-aged, hetero male who is married, with 2 kids, the youngest of which is trans. He has had a successful career evaluating data and risk. He’s also a self-proclaimed family man. In his pursuit to get inside his kid's head, Mark leaves no rock left unturned. Meanwhile, X has been rejecting and resisting his father’s insistence at getting it. From X’s perspective, it’s persistently intrusive and mistrustful. 


All that being said, when listening to the details of his attempts to achieve understanding, I didn't redirect Mark. Instead, struck by his tremendous statement of love, I said: “You love your kid so much but your attempts to understand X aren’t working. X needs your respect while you work on understanding on your own time.” 


A desire for connection drives Mark’s towards understanding X. His paternal connection rests upon  knowing X as the gender they were assigned at birth. Mark needs to make a leap of faith that their connection will withstand the process of reorienting himself to his kid’s gender identity. He has to trust that X is still the person he loves. Mark will hopefully find that X has become more fully themself than he has ever known.


As the clinician, I have the challenging task of honoring Mark’s process but not at the expense of X’s gender expression. My goal is to strike a balance between respecting both a kid’s transition and a parent’s uncertainty.  To do this, I can help Mark find ways to distinguish between his desire for understanding and his love of X. In other words, he must compartmentalize his need to understand as his own personal journey. Meanwhile, as a parent, he needs to support his child. For X, they need to find ways to peacefully reject responsibility for their father’s struggle, even when it’s about them. In other words, X will benefit from hearing their father’s questions as his own journey and thereby step aside. I can help Mark accept and appreciate this rejection as well.


I believe Mark and X will move towards these goals because of the connection they share. Mark loves X so much and he doesn’t get it. And that’s okay.


*Mark is not a real person but is instead a composite character made up of pieces from a variety of my clients. Any likeness to a real person is coincidental and not intended.


This post is part of my series about cis parents of trans, nonbinary and gender-expansive kids: Parenting Through Transitions. If you liked this post, please subscribe so you won't miss the next one. If you are interested in learning more about my writing project involving interviews of parents of gender-expansive kids, please go to this page to get the details

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