Not long ago my son and I were talking about Covid-19. I said that it was better to be dealing with it as a teenager because at least he could understand why he couldn’t see his friends. He pointed out to me that when he was little, he didn’t really have any friends.
No mom wants to hear this even if she knows it’s true. You see, my son was different, but not in an obvious, walking-with-a-limp kind of way, but in a my-brain-works-differently kind of way.
While I grasped that he was different when I watched him in the corner of the playgroup reading a book, in other ways I completely missed it — and sometimes I still do. For those of us who are fairly typical, it is difficult to appreciate brilliance and understand its pitfalls.
Two conversations stand out to me, 13 years apart. One is a conference with his pre-school teacher when he was four. I’m a new mom, and I don’t realize that four-year-olds don’t teach themselves to read. I think he’s a little bit ahead of the other children, but the teacher sits me down and looks me in the eye and implores me to understand that she has never met a child like him and that I will need to be an advocate for him at school and in his life. I walk away blindsided.
The other is with his college guidance counsellor when he’s 17. Once again, I fail to understand how different he is. School comes easy for him, while friends don’t. Meanwhile, his teachers are amazed at projects that I have no framework to understand. We find out that Ivy League colleges are a possibility and once again I realise that I have missed an important piece of him.
I have missed the heartache. Even though he taught himself to read at four, passed his classes with ease, and made the teachers admire his outstanding brain, inside his heart was breaking, and somehow, I missed that too. I didn’t think he minded the missed birthday parties, the unreciprocated playdates and the lonely weekends.
A few weeks after he turned 14, I got a text from my son that said: “I am transgender”.
I was confused and bewildered, although I knew that there was more to the story.
You see, my son had just weathered a perfect storm. His favourite aunt had just died, leaving his beloved cousins motherless. His newfound friend group had splintered, with some moving away and the others turning on each other, with bullying in person and online. Puberty had hit hard and my son was struggling to see that life would ever be OK and things would get better.
I took him to a walk-in therapy clinic for kids, hoping they would help — but what we found was walls plastered with information about transgender support groups. My guess is that this is where he got the idea that started him Googling to find out what was wrong with him. Why had he always struggled to make friends? Why had his new friends left or turned on him? Why was his body abandoning him? Why did important people in his life die?
He was in a pit of despair. But the clinics didn’t help him. Just like the doctor’s office didn’t help me when I showed up in my pyjamas explaining that I couldn’t stop dry-heaving over the toilet. I was given ten pills and an admonishment to accept my son.
But I knew that even if I accepted him, the world would not. The world told him he was odd, different, and a klutz. They laughed when he spilled ice cream all over himself at twelve. They giggled when he rambled on about the physics of black holes. They pointed when he went out in crazy socks. And when he wasn’t the macho boy, they called him “faggot”, “sissy”, and “girly”.
Here is where our story should make a turn for the better. This is where I should get him to a good therapist who helps him through his pain, his angst, and his difficulty with his changing body. But I don’t.
Instead, what I find is a therapist who, after two sessions, says that he is fine and he just needs to live a little.
I press on and find another therapist, a world renowned one. He should be able to help us, but instead he tells me that my son won’t open up: he’s a lost cause.
I find an internet underworld that I didn’t know existed. I find people on Reddit, Tumblr, YouTube and more egging him on. Change the body and the mind will be healed, they say.
I find a summer camp for gifted kids, thinking here he will find some of his own. And he does: but they also put him in a dress, change his name and call him a girl. A boy who has struggled making friends, whose most recent group has turned on him, is finally applauded for his heroism and his bravery. He takes this to heart and sees it as proof that he is in fact a girl.
But underneath it all he is a boy who thinks that he has found an answer to his pain. That’s how he put it to me: all his pain would be gone. The pain from the isolation, the name-calling, and the feelings of difference would all be gone, he said.
When I tried to explain that this was not how it worked and that people needed to work through their pain, I was met with screaming and crying. He told me that he felt like chains were dragging him down, but they would be broken if he could be a girl.
The sad thing is that I could understand him, because during this time I also wanted an escape from my own pain. All day, my mind was churning. How could I make the pain and anxiety stop? And finally, it came to me one day: the image of a gun to my head. A wave of calm came over me; I had seen my way out. Later I realize this must be how he was feeling.
All of the struggles hidden for so many years – they might all disappear. The pain might evaporate. Be a girl and everything will be shiny and new. You don’t have to be that sad little boy anymore.
In so many ways, we both considered deleting ourselves.
But we’re in a good place now.
As for myself, I survived that first year; I am not sure how, but here I stand. As for him, it took years, but I finally found a good therapist, who took his time and saw my son for what he was. He saw a boy struggling to understand himself and his place in the world. He helped him work through the pain; he helped him understand the little boy who was called names; he helped treat the lonely boy inside with some compassion, instead of deleting him and adopting a new identity.
And now, at this point in my story, I really question how others cannot see the reality I see. There is a whole slew of boys (there really is) who are brilliant; who don’t fit the mould; and who are hurting. They claim a female identity as the cure for their pain, and those in authority don’t explain that you must work through this pain. They don’t explain that you must see it for what it is, and you must mould it into your own superpower.
Instead, they tell you that fleeing from pain is the answer and that casting aside the hurt little boy for a “new you” will solve all the problems.
Why, I wonder? No one would think that my impulse to flee from pain was a good one. Why do they think that his is?
Ask yourself, what kind of society cares about a mother erasing herself, but about not her son? If our society thinks it’s OK to tell young people that deleting themselves is their key to happiness, is that a society you really want to live in?
The author writes from the United States. Her name has been withheld to protect her family’s privacy. She is a member of Parents of ROGD Kids.