These are my kids, all grown up now and living on their own, but they are always my children. That decision to have a child is a huge one. For me, it was something I grew up believing was the ultimate expression of my religious devotion. When I got married at 20 years old, it was just part of my understanding that I would get pregnant right away and begin having children. When I got married I wanted seven kids! I had names picked out for all of them. I was pregnant in the first six months of marriage and I had three children in under four years, but with my last, my daughter, Jayden, my body was giving out on me. I was severely anemic, I was too thin, I was flu-like the entire pregnancy and she and I were in that labor experience for too long. She was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit and I was unconscious when she was born. I was already struggling with my religious devotion, so I made a choice when my daughter was born that it would be my last pregnancy.
I was a full-time mom for a lot of years and having three kids in less than four years resulted in some really wild times at our house. I had one learning to walk when one was learning to crawl. I was nursing and bottle feeding two kids at the same time. I potty trained my youngest two at the same time. A lot of those first years with three kids is a big blur of emotion, lack of sleep, laundry, stress, and trying to get three kids out to the grocery store was a sheer act of will. But I wouldn’t change a thing. It was difficult, but worth it. The fun we had together is part of the reason my nest feels so empty these days. I miss having the kids around.
Being a parent is, in my opinion, the toughest job in the world. You are suddenly responsible for this tiny human and they look to you for everything and when you have nothing inside you to give, somehow as a parent you do it. Raising them was so very hard, but so rewarding. I grew up without a dad for a lot of my life, so I was focused on making memories with the kids. We camped together (and their dad went along sometimes), we road tripped together, we played a lot of card games and discovered our family’s love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and TV in general). We can have entire conversations where all we do is quote lines from television shows. There are stories we tell when we get together that having us laughing so hard our stomachs hurt, and usually other people with us look at us funny. We can be loud! Parenting is my most-fulfilling life experience so far and I don’t know if anything will ever feel more fulfilling, but having children is not easy. There were learning times. Here are some of mine.
- My middle son, Cooper, was terribly ill from the time he was 18 months old until he turned eight. He got flu-like symptoms about once a month, he vomited, he was feverish and he lost weight. The doctors kept telling me he had the flu and giving me antibiotics for him, but after a few months of this I asked if kids got the same flu over and over again in a flu season. The doctor said “no.” So my next question was “then why do you keep giving him the same medication over and over again, if he doesn’t have the flu?” That led us to Primary Children’s Hospital and then on to another hospital’s Infectious Disease Department and when my son was about five years old the doctors said he had a rare virus and that Coop’s body would continue to fight the virus over and over again until he got better. Essentially, the doctors said he would “grow out of it” like this virus was a pair of blue jeans. I thought they were crazy and I was mad, but they were right. Now my son is in his early 20’s and he hasn’t been ill since he was 10 years old. And I am not over-dramatizing that! Indeed, he is beyond healthy. It’s like all the illness he suffered as a child gave him a super-human immune system.
- About ten years ago, when I was newly divorced, I had left the religion I was raised and married in. For a while, my first husband and I raised our kids in that church, but I stopped going and he got a job working on Sundays and it became a way of life. My kids adjusted to life without a long church day and instead we went out into the woods or the desert or sat by a lake. Our religion became nature and family time. But part of the reason for my divorce was that my husband went back to that church and he wanted the kids to go. They vacillated back and forth. If there was something better to do on Sunday, like watch the Olympics on TV, they wanted to stay home. It was a hard time for our family. A couple of years after my divorce was final, my daughter went to live with her dad all the time and we stopped talked altogether. It was 100% my fault and I knew I had let her down, but I was afraid of rejection (because of my deep seated fear of abandonment) so I didn’t call her. I was also afraid of what her dad would say about me. Jay was doing her best to find her way in that church and because I was no longer a member, I was not going to be part of her eternal existence. For three and a half years, we did not speak. She turned 16 and I wasn’t there. She went to her first high school dance and I wasn’t there. A boy broke her heart for the first time and I wasn’t there. For the last year of our silence, I bought her gifts online and had them mailed to her. She eventually figured out they were from me. I checked up on her new Facebook profile and followed her on Twitter (I know, right!?!). I got engaged to be married and I invited her to be a bridesmaid. She was not receptive at first, but she came to the family wedding party two days before I got married. I gave her a hug that lasted minutes and we smiled and she was back. It sounds trite to say it was not like any time had passed, but that is how it felt. As difficult as it was to be without her for over three years, our relationship is so incredibly close now that I would not change a thing. There is an appreciation between us that transcends our mother-daughter relationship. We can talk about anything. We can disagree. But there is always that deep and abiding love and care between us that carries us through.
- Finally, a great part of parenting is experiencing that unconditional love. A love that transcends time, space, appearance, actions, choices, pain and illness. No child taught this lesson to me more than my oldest, Cameron. He is, in every way, my child and he is my son, but he was born my daughter. As a child, he wore his hair in a pony tail, wore baggy jeans and t shirts. Getting a dress on for church was almost impossible and ended in tears. When my son turned about 12, I started to notice things, but I wasn’t in touch at all with the LGBT community and the idea of even being acquainted with someone who was transgender was outside the realm of possibility for me. But I found myself in my living room all those years ago, looking at my 12-year-old daughter who was telling me she thought she was a lesbian. My first husband was a silent mass of a human and while I think I was a little surprised, it’s like so many things clicked into place and made real sense to me. Suddenly I understood so many things! The fights about dresses and hair curlers, the tom-boy attitude, the way my child acted around girls AND boys. I got it and because I was on the way out of my religion, I was OK with whatever made my child happy and content. But this is only the beginning of this story. When I got separated from my first husband, the kids and I spent out time together in our new little apartment. We watched whatever TV shows we wanted and we slept on mattresses on the floor. One day while I was at work, Cam went out with his allowance money and got his hair cut very short in a boy’s hair style. It was surprising, but I also thought is was brave! I started taking him to a local group called SMYRC, the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center, so he could hang out with kids who also veered from the norm. That place helped him and me and it was the beginning of my education about transgender kids. School started that year and my oldest started high school. One day a nice young boy came to the door to get Cam for school and I said, “sure I’ll go get her.” And the look on that kid’s face was one of confusion and then I looked confused and we stared at each other for a few seconds. The light turned on for me. I went to Cam’s bedroom door and said, “Your friend is here to walk you to school and he thinks your a boy. We need to talk.” After school that day I got the story. He had always felt like something was different and he felt like, even though he was born a girl, he was a boy. What I didn’t know was my kid had enrolled in high school as a male. The haircut, the clothes, the lowered voice (which I thought was just a puberty thing) were all part of the plan to start over and for him to be a young man. The thing was I still saw my daughter. I still saw the 14 years I had raised her. I had pictures of her all over my house and so began the big battle of gender at our house. I said “she” and “her” and my oldest heavy sighed and rolled his eyes. So I did what I do and I got our family into a low-income counseling service where we could all talk individually and together. What a help that was! From that experience our family decided on a six-month trial period where we could mess up our gender and his name (because that changed, too) and he wouldn’t roll his eyes or be mad. And for the first couple months, it was a bit of a mess. I had all these memories in my head of her and our family adventures and I saw one thing and remembered another. He, she, his, hers and I just couldn’t get it right all the time. I felt like I was trying to be respectful, but my mistakes were not showing that. And then one magical day, I was in the kitchen cooking and I heard the kids laughing. I looked up and there was Cam, his eyes lit up with laughter and I realized that the laugh was the exactly the same. Boy or girl, outside or inside, his laugh, that pure moment of joy, the light in his eyes was exactly the same as it had always been. I’d been looking in those exact same eyes since the day he was born. I realized in that moment that it didn’t matter what he looked like on the outside or whether he was a boy or a girl. He was my child. He came from me. And his soul, that beautiful soul on the inside that laughed and cried and looked at me was the same soul I’d known for 14 years. I stood there and stared at him, but after that, he was my son. The gender just changed. Our whole family felt it. Pictures came down off the wall and new ones went up. And the memories are still in my head, I still see the dresses and the pony tails, but I don’t remember a boy or a girl, I just feel the memories of my child, my first born, and that is all that matters. My son taught me unconditional love in a way I would never have expected, but it brought that to my heart in a way that is so profound and deep that I will always be grateful to him for that.