I looked like a supportive mom but failed with my trans son

“I am transgender. I’m supposed to be a boy. I chose Oliver as my new name.

There was nothing my 12 year old son could have said that would have shocked me more.

I couldn’t force my mouth to form words, but my heart broke watching this beautiful child with blue eyes and blond hair curled up in the opposite corner of the sofa, clinging to a pillow for dear life , as if to provide some protection against my response.

But why? I had recently come out as a lesbian, and his older brother had identified as gender fluid for a while, so surely he couldn’t think I would reject him?

“Of course I support you,” I said. And I meant it.

But I meant that I backed him on My terms. I suspected it was a fashionable move, not really believing it was permanent. I would have known. I would have seen something. I hugged him and added, “I want you to know that if you change your mind about this, that’s fine and you don’t have to decide anything now.”

By scrambling, I tried to make sense of it. He had hit puberty recently and abhorred it, hiding all evidence and refusing any attempt I made to celebrate. All conversations were quickly cut off, and I attributed it to him being more private than his sisters. Maybe this new hormonal surge was just miserable?

I racked my brains, looking for more clues that this new revelation was, in fact, real. The transgender children I knew showed early signs of shunning traditional gender expectations with protests emerging as young as 4 or 5 years old. We had none of that. What if my tween’s refusal to embrace femininity was because our small town didn’t offer enough versions of femininity for him to see himself in? What if my child wasn’t transgender, but I was just a bad feminist role model?

The truth is that while many trans kids feel like their gender doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth from an early age, others may begin to realize they feel “different.” when they are closer to puberty and may end up keeping it a secret for years. Years of living in a body that is not well.

I scoured thrift stores and filled a closet with boxers and “boys clothes” in a dozen shades of blue, and stuffed a trash bag of now discarded clothes into my closet. In case, I said to myself. I masculinized her room, met teachers, principals and school counsellors.

His new name seemed foreign to me. I had liked his name, now abandoned, and I wanted to like this new word, to link it to the one who had become my son. I had never had a son. How to raise a son, I worried. I filled notebooks with rivers of letters arranged in new ways. I ran my pen over the curves and curls of his new name, tracing my finger over the ink, wanting it to become familiar.

Sitting on the sofa with the laundry basket, I spent hours folding his laundry, repeating over and over, “It’s Oliver’s sock. He likes the color blue. It’s his orange sweater. I was ready to imprint his new name on my tongue, my brain, my heart.

A “name jar” sat on the counter and I taxed myself $1 every time I messed up. A blue plastic spray bottle filled with water emerged and it sprayed me like a naughty cat when I misspoke. They were gentle reminders to get it right – and I wanted to – but I selfishly whispered his old name to myself sometimes, late at night. I missed it, but the sound now felt like one more betrayal to this beautiful son I desperately wanted to feel loved and accepted.

I have been offering this duplicate acceptance for months. It must have seemed like an eternity. He saw me arriving at school and taking him to the hairdresser, but at the same time he heard: “It’s okay if you change your mind. You don’t have to decide now. No one will judge you. Or even: “We don’t go to the doctor to make permanent changes. You can do it when you turn 18.

He wavered on this tightrope of my ambivalence. On the one hand, I was fiercely protective and publicly defended him. On the other hand, I desperately hoped that he would change his mind—that it was a phase—because I imagined that life for transgender people was hard. Only. Life is brutal enough without… that, I thought. We had recently lost almost everything in a house fire in the middle of a divorce. Could this little town that covered us with kindness in ashes be trusted to even show up in this?

After a few months, Oliver expressed interest in going to the gender health clinic at our local children’s hospital. I agreed, just to see what they could tell us. It took months to get him in, and I wasn’t sure what to expect when I made the appointment. I am embarrassed to say that even as a nurse I had not researched the health care options available. I lumped them all together and naively assumed that our only options were irreversible surgeries and hormones that would render him unable to have children.

I had no idea that puberty blockers – gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists – are the first line of defense for young transgender patients. They prevent the brain from releasing key hormones involved in sexual maturation. The impact of these blockers is reversible and they have been prescribed to young people for decades for other hormonal conditions without harmful effects.

Earnings? It just puts puberty on hold and gives the youngster time to get some guidance, social transition, and live as their authentic self without fighting the ticking of their body. Some children stay there for several years. For Oliver, who had already started puberty, puberty blockers would still buy him – us – some time before the decision was made on whether to initiate hormone therapy like testosterone.

I explained to a friend, also a mother of a transgender son, that I would not agree to anything that would affect his potential to have children. “This is where I draw the line,” I said. Hormone replacement therapy carried that risk, and I wasn’t willing to let a 14-year-old take that risk. What did I know about the life I wanted when I was 14?

“There are lots of ways to start a family,” my friend said. “But he has to be alive to do it.”

Forty percent transgender people will attempt suicide. Forty. It’s almost as bad as flipping a coin.

What would you do to weigh this draw in favor of your child?

My friend knew what I didn’t yet know ― that gender-affirming healthcare is both broad and personalized, as well as evidence-based and developmentally appropriate. He integrates a team that includes social workers, therapists, pediatricians, endocrinologists, psychologists and pharmacists. Transgender adolescents on hormone blockers show improvements in overall mental health and general functioning after blocker use, as well as decreases in depression. You know what happens when depression decreases in young people?

They are more likely to stay alive.

A 2019 study on transgender teens found that 21 of 47 trans teens surveyed had suicidal tendencies before starting hormone therapy. After treatment, that number dropped to six. Another study two years later, they found that gender-affirming hormone therapy was significantly linked to lower rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts among transgender and non-binary youth.

No one releases hormones like candy. The number of hurdles Oliver had to jump through to get medical care would be laughable if it wasn’t really health care we were talking about. He had to prove himself again and again―with forms, letters, time, and therapists―before each new layer of care could be added.

It’s been six years, and my son has grown into adulthood, living his authentic self in a way that continues to amaze me. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed son who once curled up on the corner of the sofa now beams with joy in his very being. He is at home in the world, creating art and laughter, tender friendships and stubborn hope. Life has been hard, but it is also beautiful and he is there.

He never wavered in his truth. After five yearsless than 5% of gender nonconforming youth will revert to the gender assigned to them at birth.

Looking back, there had been a dozen signs of gender dysphoria before Oliver’s announcement but I had ignored them. He forgave me for my stumble, even though it took him years to tell me what impact it had on his journey. My initial reluctance had silenced him, made him hesitate to ask for what he needed, choosing to deprive himself rather than risk even a hint of rejection. He finally has the radical acceptance he needed and deserved all along.

I thought my reluctance to seek medical care for my son was protecting him. Instead, this medical attention likely saved his life.

Angie BestEgler is a writer, clinical nurse educator in psychiatry, and mother of four. You can find her on Instagram at @angiebestegler_.

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