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Reaching Family Goals Takes Heart

heart walking alone on a desolate street

When my firstborn was only months old, a friend shared with me a quote from Elizabeth Stone: “Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” 

As parents, quite naturally we want our hearts to not just be okay but to thrive. When we envision goals for our kids, our answers circle around similar themes of confidence, community and meaningful contributions to the world. In conversation with parents over the past several months, when I’ve asked about their 5-year family goals, I’ve heard things like: “I just want them to feel good about themselves, to be doing what they wanna do, to feel like they're accepted and supported outside of their house.” One mom shared: “I want them to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.” Lastly, one parent explained her family motto: “You find your passion that's inextricably linked to some sense of purpose you have in the world. And you always say to yourself, ‘I have potential.’”

Considering these comments, there’s nothing too remarkable in terms of family goals; they seem pretty universal. What isn’t obvious but is true of all these moms and dads is that they are the cis parents of trans, nonbinary or gender-expansive youth.  When I asked one mother about her family’s goals, she stated, “It's the same thing as any parent, right? No matter how your kids identify. That's what I want for them.”  No matter who our kid is, as parents, we naturally respond to their exposure to the world’s realities with a fervent desire to do anything to keep them safe.

With that in mind, fears about the outside world permeate our goals for our kids. For example, one mom stated: “What I want is for him to be at college …being himself and being accepted and … safe, and being able to do the things that make him happy without the barriers of gender and mental health getting in the way.” Another parent replied: “I want her to be able to see herself the way she wants to be seen … because she talks about looking in the mirror and just not even identifying at all with that person in the mirror.” 

Additionally, the goal of self-acceptance in the face of challenges echoed through many parents’ answers to my question about family goals. For example, “I just hope he never loses that spark … Undoubtedly he's gonna … face challenges. And I just hope he has the resilience to … bounce back and not go to deep dark places,” said one father. Finally, another parent expressed her fear of acceptance in her stated hope for belonging for her trans child: “I want [my kid] to have friends who are good for her.”

Parental fears stem from the realities of the world. It is reasonable to worry that our kid will find belonging, meaningful work, and be happy when we know the inevitable challenges of relationships, professional success, and existential crises. Parents of trans, nonbinary and gender-expansive youth hold these worries alongside additional concerns about the unique, societal obstacles that may prevent their kids from reaching their goals. In interview after interview, those unique obstacles include: transphobia and transphobic laws, location-specific safety concerns, and the mental health impact of transphobia.

I clearly remember asking one parent what would prevent her family from realizing their goals and she replied: “The outside world. We have the tools for everything else. My community is amazing. My household is amazing. My child is amazing. I'm amazing. There's no reason for us not to have all of [the] things.” Another parent expressed her anger: “Something that really infuriates me as a parent of trans kids [is] that I think people don't understand about where we are in this country. That [as a parent of a trans kid] you have to think about your kid’s safety all the time.” 

Regarding safety, many parents highlighted fears about travel outside of states that guarantee trans rights and gender-affirming care. “[My kids] can't live in Florida or Texas. Or Arkansas or Tennessee. Or Alabama,” said one parent. Another explained that even visiting certain states presents safety concerns, “It limits travel [because my kid has to think] ‘Where do I go to the bathroom? [That is] the kind of thing that’s gonna give away that I'm trans … [and] will make me unsafe.’”

One parent relocated her family to MA because of existing anti-trans legislation in their former locale. She identified how co- navigating her trans child’s school and health care in the deep south became a full-time job. She starkly described the practical obstacles interfering with her family realizing their goals: “There's a lot of [financial stress] because I have not been able to work. … And I've found that it's hard for me to … work while also having this [stress] at home. … And so financially we've definitely taken a hit. And it's really expensive up here: the school's expensive, housing [is] expensive. So, you know that is an obstacle. But we're willing to do whatever it takes so that [our son] has what he needs to meet his goals.” As much a statement of her determination as a parent as it is a proclamation of the utility of having societal and legal protections in place, this parent ended her answer by stating: “[But] otherwise, I think we've been removing obstacles and clearing the path.”

The strain on these parents is certainly matched, if not exceeded, by the strain on their kids. Poor mental health echoed throughout my interviews as an obstacle to achieving family goals. To be clear, parents unanimously worried about the negative impact of transphobia on their kids’ mental health. One parent shared: “[Our son] has a lot of confidence and it's gonna be hard to see if that ever got squashed. If adversity crushed him.” Another dad expressed his concern for his kid’s resilience: “I want more confidence that they can navigate this world of ours because I think that perhaps the combination of their mental health and the fact that it's a world that's kind of built for another type of person … makes it very easy to give up and very easy to get down and depressed.” Lastly, one parent wondered aloud about how her kid can maintain mental integrity in the face of transphobia: “The work that you have to do to feel good about yourself … How does that not be undermined by what you're hearing [in the news? Hearing what] the people that run your country say about you or what they do [to you.] That’s hard work.”

This last obstacle, poor mental health, isn’t entirely unique. Certainly many families struggle with their children’s mental health needs due to anxiety, depression, attention deficits, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety or bipolar disorder. (Not an exhaustive list, by the way) And, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the societal stigma associated with many, if not most, of these diagnoses. What is undeniably unique to the obstacles identified by parents of gender-expansive youth; however, is the codification of stigma about trans individuals in both law and in protocols. The legitimizing of transphobia in these concrete ways presents a seemingly unmovable obstacle to ensuring the mental health of their gender-expansive child. It makes those vulnerable hearts walking around in the world even more tender, more fragile, and more at risk.

As one parent stated, “We want our child to reach his potential with whatever supports and safety nets [are] needed.” What parent doesn’t want exactly the same thing? Further, parents don’t just want this security for their kid but they want to rely on it being possible. Because at the end of the day, all those tender hearts deserve the same level of reassurance that they’re going to be okay.

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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