Pronoun Problems on our Gender Journey

We were walking back home from the pool, my 8-year sparkly son and I, when we had a conversation that tugged at my heart and left me hoping I’d handled it well… at least well enough.

At 8-years old, my sparkly son is becoming more aware of himself in relation to others and their reactions to him. This has added an extra layer of complexity to his gender journey.

Once relatively unaffected by others’ side-eyes and commentary, my 8-year-old is now increasingly sensitive to these social signals. He’s begun to realize that, more often than not, when people realize that he is a boy — despite outwardly appearing to be a girl — people react with a mixture of surprise and embarrassment or thinly veiled disapproval.

“It’s always the same face,” he has told me twice now. “They don’t look at me the same way when they realize I’m a ‘he.'” Hearing this breaks my heart. It’s a reality I was hoping would never come, or maybe to which he’d be immune by way of his firm awareness of and loyalty to self.

The initial conversation came a few weeks ago. There was an incident on the beach. My kids were all playing with some children in the sand when the new friends’ grandparents joined in. One grandparent referred to my sparkly son as “she” and my 6-year-old son, in an effort to affirm and stand up for his older brother who often took offenseto being misgendered, corrected the grandparent. “He’s a ‘he’,” my littlest told the grandparents. According to my sparkly son, they recoiled and said, “Oh.”

The evening of the beach incident, my sparkly son snuggled next to me after his bedtime story and told me he had been thinking about his pronouns. He wanted to be referred to as: he/she. I told him I honored that, then asked him what spurred the decision. He recounted the grandparent scenario from earlier that day and said, “I don’t want people to react like that, so it’s better if they don’t know. They can just call me ‘he’ or ‘she’ so they don’t look at me like that.”

I asked, “Are you requesting these pronouns for you because they feel right and true for you, or are you requesting them so people don’t judge you?” He thought a moment and said he was doing it so people wouldn’t give him the look anymore.

As my heart crumbled, I hugged him and said that I will always honor him and his pronouns but that he shouldn’t change who he is for other people, and certainly shouldn’t pretend to be something that isn’t true to him just to maybe please people. He should be proud of who he is and if people don’t accept him, they have let him know that they are not his people. This resonated with him.

A few quiet minutes later, he said he wanted to take more time to think about the pronouns. Then, he asked that we not correct people anymore if they misgender him because he wanted to avoid “the look.” Swallowing the lump in my throat, I agreed and promptly discussed the new expectation with my other children.

I didn’t sleep well that night.

I didn’t let my sparkly son know that though.

The following weeks were filled with family and friends. No misgendering occurred. Part of me thought we’d escaped the hurdle, at least temporarily.

Yesterday, my three kids were playing at the pool with some unfamiliar children. One child kindly referred to my sparkly son as, “she.” The moment the child said it, my breath caught. I’m pretty sure my sparkly son’s breath did too. In that moment, I realized the weight I now carried to honor and protect my sparkly son’s wishes.

I became acutely aware of the affectionate and colloquial terms I used in reference to my sparkly son. I made certain not to call him by his full name when he was unresponsive to my calls, because his middle name is clearly masculine unlike his gender neutral sounding first name. I avoided pronouns altogether. I had to be sure not to “out” him.

On our way home from the pool, I asked my sparkly son how he’d felt when his new playmate had referred to him as “she.” He said, “It made me nervous.” I said I was sorry he felt nervous and asked him why he felt that way. “I didn’t want them to find out and give me the look. It’s always the same look.” I said I was sorry he had to worry about that. I asked if part of him felt happy when the friend called him, “she.” He said he wasn’t. I asked if we’d all handled it OK, and he confirmed that we had. I told him I was glad to hear that.

And so our gender journey continues its lengthy, winding path. But we’re all on this path with our sparkly son — stumbles and all — letting him lead the way.

A Big Gender-Affirming Christmas

Isn’t it funny how change so often happens? With our biggest and scariest life shifts, so often things reach a point in transition at which resolution seems almost impossible, even hopeless, and then — suddenly — the change is completely normal. Entirely commonplace. It’s as if life has never been any other way.

For us, this sudden awareness came at Christmas. All three Christmases, to be precise.

2020 meant Christmas was small and multi-faceted to keep everyone safe. We saw my parents (who we’ve seen regularly since late Spring) on Christmas Eve. Just my husband, my daughter, my sparkly son, my youngest son, my parents, and me. Concise but fun, festive and delightfully undramatic.

We ate. We sang (poorly and loudly) the requisite “12 Days of Christmas” with dance moves. We opened presents. Then, we were home by bedtime. Perfect!

On Christmas Day, it was just our little party of five opening gifts in the morning. Then, my father-in-law and step-mother-in-law popped by (masked and distancing, as per their comfort and needs) to see the kids.

My sparkly son came prancing down the stairs to greet them in the outfit he’d been donning all morning: the pink, glittery fairy costume with moveable wings he’d received from my parents the night before. It was a beyond normal sight for us, so I didn’t even register the attire.

Until later that day.

Quietly reflecting on the morning, which whizzed by in the usual festive frenzy, I finally processed the morning scene. My sparkly son in full tulle-and-sparkle regalia and my lovely devout Catholic, imigrant in-laws casually and sweetly complimenting his new garb. How had I missed it? How had I not seen it… felt it… processed it sooner?

He was FULLY accepted. Fully affirmed. Fully able to be his truest self and receive nothing — not a hiccup, not a head tilt, not a questioning dig — nothing but familial love.

Then came this weekend: Christmas Part III. My cousin and my aunt met with us via Zoom for a belated Christmas present opening. My aunt nailed the gifts: a keyboard with microphone for my daughter, a unicorn-mermaid- hairstyling Barbie (one I didn’t even think existed!) for my sparkly son, and a roaring stegosaurus for my youngest son. Not only were the gifts perfect fits for each kid, this was the first year that she’d gifted my sparkly son a Barbie. And not just ANY Barbie, it was THE Barbie.

And that evening, as I reflected on our family’s three Christmases, I realized something. 2020 may have taken and killed and contorted countless precious parts of our life, but it gifted us something absolutely priceless too. Something that could never have come, but through years of dedicated effort, advocacy, battles, losses, shifts, and an ocean of tears.

My sparkly son was accepted. Fully. Completely. His gender expansiveness was not only common knowledge but commonplace in its expression. He was fully affirmed in his current experience as an individual.

If someone had told me two years ago, three years ago, or even last year that this would be the case — this level of pure, unencumbered acceptance and affirmation — I would never have believed them.

So, if you are where I was five years ago with a child diverting from gender norms, know that there’s hope. Know that if you fight for inclusion, if you demand acceptance (not just backhanded “tolerance”), if you openly share knowledge, if you stand fervently as your child’s greatest unwavering advocate and ally, it will get easier. It will get better. The world WILL see the beauty that is your uniquely and wonderfully made child.

Be brave. For them.

The Wisdom in Not Listening to Myself

I can really be a jerk sometimes — a lot of times — to myself. As a Type-A mom with Endometriosis who is newly homeschooling three close-in-age kids during a pandemic while simultaneously watching her beloved and newly established yoga career swirl down the toilet, I’ve hit some stumbling blocks. Some created by life, and others by myself. But today, today I did a good job.

Type-A to the bone, I push myself. I guilt myself. I demand more of myself than I ever would anyone else. My expectations of myself are notoriously unattainable and leave me with two choices: meet the goal by way of self-destructive levels of effort or fail and face the mental self-flagellation. Then you factor in mom guilt and, yikes!

It’s good times in this brain of mine.

Still, I’m far better off now than I was years ago. I know my triggers, my pitfalls, the things to watch out for and what to seek, the actions to take when I feel myself traveling down certain pathways and when to call upon quasi-omniscient intuition. I know myself.

A big issue though, is listening to my body. Considering I am a yoga teacher, it seems odd to have this problem. But you know how the saying goes, “Those who can’t, teach!” Having suffered from eating disorders — and once you have an eating disorder, you never don’t have one, you simply learn to harness it — my body and I aren’t always pleased with one another. I don’t always like paying attention to my body’s demands, and I certainly don’t do well adjusting my personal goals because of its limitations.

And because life has a sick sense of humor and a dark way of forcibly teaching us the lessons we don’t want to learn, I have Endometriosis. That means that I HAVE to listen to my body and that for the better part of each month, I am at its mercy. I also bloat numerous pounds due to no other reason but my Endometriosis. It’s lovely.

Now, if like most people, you don’t know a thing about Endometriosis — and if the thought, “That just means bad periods, right?” crossed your mind, you don’t know a thing about Endometriosis — you might not realize that there are a couple of widely experienced tough portions of the monthly cycle: ovulation and menstruation. Different people experience different things, and even one cycle to the next often varies widely for seemingly no reason at all, and this month for me ovulation was a bear.

I could tell it was going to be rough. I was hormonal leading up to ovulation, and that’s not good. That’s like being a famished, PMS’ing emotional eater in the grocery store snack aisle with an unlimited grocery budget on 2-for-1 Tuesday: perfect storm.

First, the inexplicable 4lbs of bloating. Then, lower abdominal twinges and low grade nausea. Next, migraine warning signs and the tightness in my back. Not good. Not good. Not good. Still, my Type-A self was commanding that I, “just push myself” and take the kids to the playground in the afternoon. My rational brain countered that real-deal ovulation pain was on its way and the combination of stress and standing were lighter fluid on the flames of ovulation woes. I knew the sheer act of walking would be painful in a matter of hours and pushing myself would only exacerbate this.

My Type-A self rallied, “But a GOOD mom would get the kids outside to the playground. They deserve it! You’ve kept them home from brick-and-mortar school, after all. And you know your littlest has been wanting to go to that far away playground for weeks. Who cares if it’s on the opposite side of town from where you need to be later this afternoon? Push yourself!” I wavered. My rational brain silently shook its head. Then my intuition chimed in: “Things are going to get much worse this afternoon. You need to stay home. You’ll be glad you did.”

My Type-A bulldozed with, “Ooo! You should try to arrange a playdate — your kids AND your friend deserve it — at the far away playground. Push yourself! A GOOD mom and GOOD friend would do it. Your friends probably think you don’t want to spend time with them. They must have hurt feelings. Don’t do that to them. Just push yourself!”

I mulled over the conflicting arguments as my pain worsened. And I decided to be wise.

I listened to my intuition but prepared myself for the wave of guilt. Then I saw my kids on the deck — two were painting and one was using Kinetic Sand — and they couldn’t have been happier. The ovulation pain soared and I had to lie down, and while I did, they rushed inside to play upstairs together. Dress-ups and music, giggles and make-believe… they were having a great time.

Eventually, the pain increased to the point that I had to take an epsom salt bath to reduce the nether region swelling. I looked at the clock and realized that, had I gone to the playground, I’d be in absolute misery now and, because I am the way I am, I’d be tasking myself with hiding every ounce of it.

As I waddled back downstairs following my bath, feeling as if my underwear was made of hot sandpaper and rocks had been implanted in my puffy abdomen, I heard that my children — whom I’d “selfishly” not taken to on a playdate — were still playing, joyfully reveling in their shared creativity. I realized the wisdom I’d shown in ignoring the inner Type-A self, in listening to my intuition and body. In NOT pushing myself.

I wasn’t a bad mom for not taking the kids to the playground. I wasn’t a bad friend for not scheduling a playdate while I was in pain. I wasn’t deserving of self-flagellation. In fact, I was wise.

I made the right choice.

No matter what my Type-A has to say.

Return to School — Gender-bending During a Pademic

As the school year neared, most people pondered which option was the best — or least bad — for their child(ren)’s educational, emotional, and health needs. I examined this too. But I also carried another boulder into my mental juggling: how can I cause the least damage to my gender-expansive son?

The moment I should’ve known my one option: the day we tried on uniforms.

Anyone who has worn uniforms to school knows the irritation that accompanies this try-on task. The chore inevitably takes place on a hot, steamy day, making the stiff, autumnal fabric feel even more torturous against the summery skin. The last thing anyone wants to do in July is think of September, so this is a whiney, fussy, loathsome undertaking all around. But this year, it was even worse.

I looked up from the pile of stiffly starched khaki and woolen green to see my portly rising-kindergartener struggling to shimmy the khakis over his belly. I reached to help him and my daughter tossed a pile of outgrown gym uniforms at my feet. Then, I saw my sparkly son. Arms crossed in coverage over his bare chest, oversized khakis drooping about his narrow waist, his face was nothing short of crestfallen.

Annoyed. Agitated. Those are reactions I expected. This? This was not that. This was damage. This was mourning. This needed to be stopped.

I ended the try-on session then and there. It was clearly too much.

You see, with school having gone virtual in March, there was no uniform or dress code for months. My three kids reveled in the freedom, unofficially deeming every day “costume day.” As long as they each accomplished their academic goals, I didn’t care how they were dressed (just so long as neither regions were covered come outdoor play time.) Clothes were far from my greatest concern, especially in a near-global shutdown.

My “sparkly son”, as he prefers to be called, used this opportunity to delve deeper into his gender exploration. He went from unicorn t-shirts and pink leggings to daily tutus in what seemed like days (but in real time, as opposed to “Covid time”, it was really more likely a couple of weeks.) He found himself and couldn’t be happier . Nor could I, seeing him so unabashedly comfortable in his truth.

Isn’t that what all parents (who are worth their salt) want for their children? To witness their offspring fully, happily, brightly, proudly being the truest versions of themselves? Being strong, vibrant, kind, resilient, healthy, happy individuals? It’s certainly what I wanted. I just didn’t expect it to come during a pandemic, or entail so much tulle!

Well, my sparkly son found himself, but now I had to determine how that newly discovered self fit into school requirements. Yep, I was not just having to evaluate educational and health elements as I mulled over the method in which my children would return to school, but gender identity concerns abounded, as well.

You see, my children attended a Catholic school. That may sound odd given my sparkly son, but it came from great consideration and recurrent, open discussions with school administration. Located in one of the most conservative archdiocese (translation: regional sections of the Catholic Church) in the nation, which is fascinating since I grew up 45 minutes away and was raised in one of the most liberal archdiocese, it’s a challenge. However, the order of priests that runs the school is the “hippie” sect of priests, if you will. So it takes the conservativism down a notch and the social justice bend up a notch. It evens things out a touch. A touch.

Despite all of that, the school has a zero tolerance bullying policy that they are more capable of upholding than our local public schools, who are bound and gagged so fervently by red tape, that they cannot dependably act on bullying matters. So, after being assured by administration prior to enrolling my sparkly son that this was the school for him, this is where we were. The problem: uniforms and antiquated approaches to gender.

Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics has openly stated that gender expansive/nonconforming children should be supported and not pressured into or shamed out of any gender expression, the Catholic Church has leaders who are behind on the research. Yes — absolutely, positively, YES — there are priest and nuns and countless laypeople who loudly advocate against this dangerous behavior of forcing individuals into gender molds. Still, the school uniform demands that boys wear pants and girls, well, the girls can wear a jumper or the boys’ uniform. (Trying to explain this undeniable sexism and discrimination to my gender-expansive son was beyond challenging.)

We found ways to make it work, though… in the past. A sparkly belt buckle, rainbow and jewel embellished P.E. sneakers, a hairstyle that juuuuust slipped under the radar. We worked with the system while ensuring his developing gender identity was unscathed. (The lack of peer bullying was a major driver in striving to keep my sparkly son happily enrolled.)

However things had turned. In December, administration began singling out my son for not, “dressing like a typical boy”, at after school events that had no dress code. The PE teacher refused my son’s self-advocacy in requesting that the class no longer be divided by sex and given completely different gym experiences based on sex-based stereotypes. A parent who was highly involved in the school told me directly that she took issue with my sparkly son being at the school because him being himself spurred her own son to ask her questions. Another parent, who was miffed that my efforts towards inclusion instigated change, told me that we should just leave the school. Then, there were constant exclusionary and downright dangerous allergy-unfriendly practices, that people without firsthand experience with food allergies absolutely refused to amend for the sake of inclusion. Tides had turned. Though many families were supportive of us, there was a growing chill from the outside.

All the while, my sparkly son enjoyed attending mass at school or joining my father-in-law for services more than any of my three children. And I waited for the shoe to drop. I waited for him to realize that this church that spoke of love and acceptance, of kindness and humility, of inclusion and welcoming in the “other”, didn’t want him. Didn’t support him. Didn’t consider him worthy unless he fit the mold. This church contributed in ways small and large to the continued damage of beautiful humans like him. I waited for the moment he’d realize and be heartbroken.

Still, I held out hope.

When the school laid out a plan that allowed for in-person and virtual learning, I listened with an open heart and voracious ears to the virtual townhall presentation. For us, it was draconian. The plan would not be emotionally healthy for any of my three children. Not for my strong-willed yet sensitive daughter. Not for my fearlessly flamboyant and creative sparkly son. Not for my highly social and empathetic youngest son. It simply wouldn’t do. Then, I factored in the uniform try-on experience.

So we left.

The school. The church. The bigotry. The exclusionary insensitivity. The constant battles. We left it all.

And we couldn’t be happier.

We are homeschooling with a piecemeal curriculum and no screen usage. We take weekly field trips, spend hours outside, and are thriving.

Was it scary to take the leap? Hell yeah it was. Did we figure it out? We sure did and still are. Do we have rough moments and irksome days? Sure. Do we have more authenticity and a life that resonates more with who we are? Yep. Do I navigate my own personal struggles? Recovering conformist, Type-A mom who in recent years toiled to regain her autonomy… yes! But that’s life.

Sure, there are things we all miss. But we’ve welcomed in far more beauty than that which we lost. And, to be honest, many of the things we miss simply don’t exist these days. Who knows when and if they ever will again?

So, here I am. Homeschooling a kindergartener, second grader, and fourth grader during a pandemic. And it’s actually kinda working.

My children can be themselves and KNOW that they are loved unconditionally. No molds required.

What Does the World See?

We’re at the beach, at my mom’s beach house, escaping the swampy DC area summer heat that exacerbates the challenge of COVID restrictions. I was watching my kids play in the sand and sea, in their quirky ways, contentedly navigating their imaginary worlds without a thought to outside viewers. Then I saw it.

For a moment I got a glimpse of what others might see.

When I look at my trio of unique children I see them. I see my eldest daughter: a small, bright, and in-all-ways strong girl who rules with an iron fist, struggles with her own self-doubt, and is one of the most strong-willed individuals I have ever met. I see my youngest: a broad, sweet boy with freckled cheeks and a soft heart so full of empathy and full-body horseplay, he is a beautiful combination of all things soft and hard. I see my middle son: a quick-learning, quirky, innately graceful boy who adores ballet, mermaids, unicorns, sparkles, creativity, and flamboyantly being his truest self in all settings.

But, I realized in that moment, that not everyone on the beach saw what I saw when they looked at my children. I began to wonder what they did perceive.

I’m sure if they listened for a few moments to the direct orders and unabashed decrees from my Rapunzel-haired, pint-sized daughter towards her barely-younger siblings, they would quickly gather her leadership skills. I’m sure if they looked upon my littlest — in his bright orange truck-emblazoned floatie, reveling in the waves washing him up the sand bank and laughing as his hair filled with sand — they would gather his rough-and-tumble, carefree nature. If they looked upon my middle son in his mermaid swim top, blue swim trunks, weathered pink mermaid baseball cap, and shoulder length ponytailed hair, they may think him a tomboy. Or maybe they’d think his sister dressed him. Or maybe, once they witnessed him pirouette’ing in the waves and styling his mermaid Barbies’ hair, they wouldn’t quite know what to think. And maybe, when they heard me call his full name — his first name sounding unisex but his middle name being firmly masculine — because he, per usual, decided to be the epitome of a middle child and annoy the bajeebers out of one or both of his siblings, they would simply look away not quite understanding what our situation was at all.

I don’t know what others see. I don’t know what others think. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Because it doesn’t really matter what they see or think or whisper. It doesn’t matter if my children do or don’t fit neatly into others’ boxes. It doesn’t matter if my children do or don’t ascribe to norms that others find comforting. None of that matters at all. Nor should it.

What does matter is that my children are growing into kind, resilient, happy, self-assured individuals who know that they are loved, supported, and appreciated for precisely who they are. And so, fellow beachgoers can smile or sneer or simply look away, because we will not change who we are or imply to our children that they should be anyone but themselves simply for the fleeting comfort and easy digestion of onlookers.

Each of my children are growing on their own trajectories and are on the precisely right tracks to be who they are each meant to be.

My Weird Perspective on the Pandemic

The pandemic has hit everyone, but it certainly hit me — as not only an able-bodied sibling to a brother with highly involved special needs, but as an allergy mom with a gender-bending (“sparkly”) son — differently than many. That singularity in my experience, that uniqueness of my perspective is not at all new. In fact, it is actually characteristic of me. But it is no less lonely.

I began the pandemic not overly concerned about the virus, itself. Not to say I didn’t take it seriously, but I didn’t fear it. I’d experienced ample medical melodrama — my own, my brother’s, others’… — throughout my life. However, what really built the emotional callouses was my medically alarmist family members. I was so accustomed to people insisting that they, and everyone around them, were in dire straits and facing near-certain death that it was no longer unsettling.

I was well-trained to shoulder the burden that my special needs brother was at serious risk. Drinking from a cup or facing a seasonal cold was equivalently dangerous for him, and that was daily life. In fact, he began the pandemic hospitalized for weeks with kidney stones and bowel obstructions. The virus was no more or less threatening to him than aspirating dinner.

I was adept at remaining steady while others spun out. It was a scenario not unfamiliar to me. If anything, it seemed oddly normal.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the ease I discovered amidst the pandemic. The lessened weight on my heart despite the increased burden on my shoulders.

My first and third graders had a half-day planned for that cursed March Friday, which was abruptly canceled, and by Monday the entire archdiocese was up and running seamlessly with online learning. The first day went as expected: horrendously, painfully, brutally awful… because new technology and change is hard. But each subsequent day things got easier. By the second week, we were in a steady rhythm of learning. Even my preschooler’s teacher pieced together educational packets, so not even he missed a beat!

To my children’s delight, every day was costume day. (Every. Single. Day.) One day all three kids would be soccer players, no doubt strong-armed into the collective ensemble by my tiny-yet-tyrannical third grade daughter. Another day, one would be a businesswoman, my sparkly son would be a fairy princess, and my youngest son a stormtrooper. It was a complete upending of the school dress code. And my sparkly son LOVED it.

Though my elementary schoolers were thriving academically, due to the hard work of their teachers and learning resources instructors who had somehow managed to pivot their entire syllabus on a dime in a matter of days, the benefits of not being in the school environment became clear. The camaraderie and independence were undeniably lacking without the standard classroom, but so were other elements.

No uniform meant no hair length rules, no confinement into easily digestible gender norms, and no bullying by educators who refused to be allies. It meant no judgment from strangers at the playground or store, no battles with administration to ensure true inclusivity, and no exposure to individuals who sneered at my efforts to safely include every single child (even their own.)

There weren’t even allergy fights anymore! No more cafeteria mix-ups placing my deathly-allergic son in the middle of peanut-eating classmates. No classroom events requiring triaging (Every. Single. Time.) in order for my own — and others’ — allergy kids to be safe and included in what were intended to be unifying class events. No pushback from non-allergy parents refusing to see the potentially lethal harm and notable unkindness in their attachment to keeping allergy-unsafe food traditions unchanged. It was a great time to be an allergy parent!

In this upside down world of masks and anxiety, isolation and Zoom ballet classes, financial ruin and grassroots community efforts, I’d found a bizarre sense of ease rooted in all of the struggles — past and present — that shaped me, my life, and my perspective. Yet still, as always, I felt quite alone in my position.

I felt alone in so many ways. Despite having no personal space and no independence, I was lonely. I missed my friends, my yoga students (adult and child), my autonomy. I ached. I cried. I felt lightness in my heart but a solemn pit in my stomach.

One day the pandemic — well, not the pandemic, exactly, but its related impacts — were so heavy that I sat down with a pen and paper to write down my list of pros and cons. Yep, I am so Type-A that I wrote a pro/con list for a worldwide pandemic. Who does that?

Me. I do that.

Five sheets of paper later, I felt a bit better. All that had been attempting to process in my head for nearly two months was finally evacuated. I had, at last, released the thoughts that had been continuously interrupted by my suddenly increased life responsibilities.

I had gone from an already busy life to a differently busy life. There were aspects I appreciated and parts I loathed. There were many elements that tested some of my fundamental shortcomings. Realizations demanded deeper examination into areas I truly did not want to peruse. But that list was more healing than I could possibly imagine. The “pro” side grew longer than I’d ever expected, though it was absolutely much shorter than the “con” side. I realized I was doing more than just existing.

I was surviving and savoring parenthood in a pandemic one day at a time. And that’s exactly what I needed to do.

Challenges of Having a Gender-bending Son

Having a child who naturally, innately side steps gender norms is both inspiring and terrifying. I am equal parts amazed by his self-assurance and self-awareness, and jittering with fear at the onslaught of “what ifs?” And, nearly 7-years into this journey, we’ve begun facing some new challenges.

My middle son is sparkly. He adores unicorns, rainbows, mermaids, and princesses. He enjoys styling hair, putting on colorful drag performances, figure skating, and is absolutely enamored with ballet. He is unapologetically himself. He knows who he is, what he likes, and that it’s not worth hiding any of that and unhappily living a lie all because of some fearmongering maybe-possibly-could-be hypothetical scenarios. (Can I have a little bit of that bravery and wisdom, please?)

Still, as unwaveringly supportive of him as I am, I worry. A lot. I’m his mom; I worry because I love. Also, as his mom and #1 supporter, I’ve become increasingly aware of some challenges creeping up on us.

Bathrooms. I grew up as an able-bodied sibling to a younger brother who had highly involved special needs. From feeding to bathing, dressing to toileting, I was heavily involved in his daily care during my formative years. That said, I learned early on that there was no one checking anatomy at restroom doorways. My brother came into the women’s room out of necessity through his teen years. Even in adulthood, if there’s no unisex/family bathroom and his caretaker is a female, my brother gets wheeled into the women’s room. That’s just the reality of things.

That said, I’ve brought my three children into the bathroom with me all of their lives. At 8-, 6-, and 4-years-old, we are nearing the time when some restroom users may question the presence of my two boys (4 and 6) in the ladies room.

The problem: my sparkly 6-year-old is often mistaken for a girl. Would you send your 6-year-old daughter into a public men’s room unattended?

At school — where he dons a uniform — my sparkly son uses the boy’s bathroom without issue. However, when we’re out and about outside of school, I have to think twice about how we handle restroom situations. My son’s aesthetic generally resting somewhere between “human disco ball” and “Prince in pastels”, makes standard sex-deliniated bathrooms tricky. And I know this matter will only worsen with age. All I can hope for is a significant upsurge in the number of unisex and family restrooms at public facilities.

Passing. Right now, my diminutive sparkly boy often passes as a girl. His name sounding unisex has proven to be an unexpected blessing, especially in areas where gender nonconformity is less than accepted. Right now, there is no reason any unfamiliar passersby would even question my son’s sex assigned at birth; they would undoubtedly (but incorrectly) assume he was female. This works for us. Most of the time.

Occasionally, my son’s ability to “pass” does put us in uncomfortable scenarios, though. Just this weekend, we were taking a family trip on the Metro and ran into a bit of an issue with the Metro card. While talking to the helpful Metro employee, I used my children’s pronouns: two “he”s and a “she.” “‘He’?” The employee questioned me, looking at my sparkly son. As is usually the case in these situations, butterflies erupted in my belly and I took a deep breath to repress my defensiveness and encourage kindness.

“Yep,” I replied. She wasn’t convinced. My mouth spoke words I didn’t know to say: “He just loves sparkles.” The woman gave a pensive slow nod then, after an uncomfortably long (for me… as I was unknowingly holding my breath) pause, she threw up her hands and declared, “There’s nothing wrong with that. I like sparkles too.” Then she offered the kids some candy and I tried to mask my efforts to recuperate my breath.

As much as my slight son can fly under the intolerance radar given his enormous blue eyes, exceptionally lush eyelashes, elfin features, soprano voice, and spritely form, I know this too shall pass. In too-short time, puberty will culminate in a muscular, broadened, masculine form. This will, inevitably, complicate things. The ability to “pass” will be less likely opening my son and us to judgment from the same passersby who currently glaze right over him. I try not to think too much about it.

Friends. I have learned to lead with my son’s sparkliness. It is an easy way for me to assess whether someone is an individual who would be accepting or not. It’s better to find out right away than to be sorely disappointed after facilitating a connection.

Still, I have recently been disappointed in the lurking intolerance in communities in which I had felt safe. Hearing that people consider my sparkly son — who has absolutely no behavior issues in school at all (despite being a spunky, mischievous, at times melodramatic middle child at home) — to be a negative influence or an unwelcome community member who represents unwholesome values is heartbreaking. Truly.

As a person who believes that humans are, for the most part, innately good with predominantly good (though sometimes misguided) intentions, it wounds me to uncover the unfeeling intolerance of others. As someone who fights — to my own detriment — for the safe and intentional inclusion of ALL children, it disappoints me greatly to witness the exclusionary tendencies of those who take comfort in judgmental divisions of fellow humans. Still, these are lessons for me to learn. I know my son will have to bear witness to this too as he bravely chooses to be true-to-self instead of betraying himself for the sake of maybe avoiding some bullies.

Loneliness. I’ve given voice to this very real sentiment before. This journey of parenting a child who rests outside of the norm is lonely. Few bravely and openly walk this path. It makes the inevitable battles feel larger when, leading the charge is my sparkly son and there I stand behind him, armed to the teeth, shivering with equal parts anger and fear, trying to lead with kindness but knowing confrontation is going to be a necessity. And I stand there alone. No one beside me. No one even immediately behind me but for a solid mile. There, in the recesses of the battlefield, is a loving hoard clapping and cheering for my victory. Supporting me in words and sentiment but unscathed by inevitable war wounds.

Then there’s the loneliness of knowing some dear friends cannot fully comprehend or accept my plight. The loneliness of having no partner with whom to link arms and walk in lockstep into each storm. The loneliness of knowing my experience is so unrelatable that it is abundantly easy for outsiders to judge.

Still, despite all of these challenges I would never dream of shrouding my child, hiding who he is from the world, insinuating to him in any way that he is wrong or broken, communicating that pretending to be that which he is not is wise because living in a shame- and fear-based lie may possibly help him avoid some of the potential intolerance of others. I will not do that. Not ever.

In my truest heart, I know he will be fine. He’s resilient and determined, courageous and clear-headed, confident and amiable. His is a smart kid and will do just fine. He manages to find friends and supporters no matter where he goes.

My son is sparkly. My son is beautiful. My son is who he is and that is for no one to judge. My son is perfectly imperfect just as he is. No matter the challenges ahead, granting him the strength, space, and ability to live his most authentic life offers him the greatest chance at happiness. And that is the greatest gift I can provide.

The Pep Talk

Sometimes you see stuff coming, and sometimes you just don’t. As in, not at all. Yesterday was one of those times I was blindsided… entirely so.

12 days into winter break. Survival mode and low parenting standards were in full swing. With three full days remaining in our lengthy school hiatus, we were at the playground with friends trying desperately to encourage interactions with others instead of continuing our sibling civil war.

My 8-year-old daughter, the self-proclaimed leader of our offspring herd, borrowed our friends’ scooter and a mohawk-festooned helmet. Off she went, pushing-and-rolling her way down to the tennis courts where a smattering of kids were scootering around the fenced perimeter.

My daughter entered the makeshift scooter rink as I half-watched (OK, three kids on a playground and a half-quadrillion hours into winter break with — FINALLY — semi-uninterrupted adult conversation, I was maybe 1/8-watching her. But still, I was somewhat aware. Kind of. Ish.) A few minutes in, she ran up to me, lugging the borrowed scooter and unfastening the spikey helmet.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, hugging her petite frame against my hip. “They said I look weird!” She whimpered. I turned away from my socializing and rubbed her back as I spoke, “I’m sorry! That’s not nice of them.” I paused, harnessing my inner helicopter mom who wanted to haul out and give those judgmental scootering snots a mommy monologue.

I looked down at the borrowed helmet she’d tossed at my feet. “That looks like a pretty cool warrior’s helmet to me,” I assessed. She was leaning against my side, gaze down. I clearly needed a different approach.

“What would Aaron do?” I asked her, referencing my middle son — her younger, incredibly annoying yet beloved brother who is fearlessly sparkly and unabashedly flamboyant. She looked me in the eyes and I had an oh-shit-where-am-I-going-with-this moment. Quite uncharacteristically, I began speaking without actually thinking about the words coming out of my mouth. The utterances just rattled out in some inspired semblance of poignancy. Thank goodness!

“He wouldn’t let those mean kids stop him. He’d say, ‘That sounds like a them problem.’ Right?” My mouth said. She nodded, hugged my hips, and popped the mohawk’ed helmet on her ash blond head.

“That worked!” I said to my friends with equal parts relief and surprise. “That worked?” I said to myself. “I need that pep talk when I look in the mirror,” one friend said, “‘That’s a them problem.'” She mimicked telling herself. We laughed but knew we could all use such confidence.

I wished it would work for me.

15 minutes — and numerous bouts of kid squabble mediation — later, my middle son chasse’d up to me in his unicorn-covered ensemble. “She’s being nice to me,” he said in reference to his sister. “That’s good.” I stood listening for the formal complaint or problem I had to resolve. “She said I helped her remember it was a ‘them problem’ and now she’s ok.” I smiled, relieved and still quite surprised my unplanned pep talk was — apparently — effective. “Good!” I replied, hugging his thin frame against me. And off he leapt and twirled to the impromptu scooter rink.

More chatting and more kid wrangling ensued in the passing 20’ish minutes. Then, my sparkly son returned to my side again. “What’s up?” I said, as he blankly stared up at my with his enormous, lushly fringed blue eyes. “She’s still being nice to me,” he said. “She told me that I can have her morning treat tomorrow.” I asked why she offered this reward. “Because she said that I helped her feel OK about liking things that the boys liked and that now she’s happy.” And right then tears welled in my eyes, my heart swelled, and a bubble of relief and love crowded my throat.

I smiled wide, blinked away the tears, and cleared my throat. “That’s so nice! I’m glad.” I said to him. And off he scampered.

I turned back to my friends who were kindly looking towards me with lovingly inquisitive faces. “Sometimes you’re surprised to find out you actually did something right,” I said and I gave myself a tiny pat on the back as I sighed out years of self-doubt.

Sometimes — sometimes — we get it right.

My Tips for Raising a Sparkly Son

Being the mom of a gender-bending son (a “sparkly boy”, as we lovingly call it in our family) is lonely. Few are openly walking this path — often out of fear for their children and/or themselves — so it is near impossible to find a group of people — or even one other local family — who allow their sons to sparkle when, where, and how they so choose. This means there’s little opportunity to share insights, experience, guidance, or support.

As there’s little community for us, I offer this: my tips for raising a sparkly son. Take or leave what you will. Apply it as your heart sees fit for your life and your child. I simply extend efforts that have proven invaluable to us as suggestions for other parents seeking guidance.

Tip #1: Accept with no exceptions. “Mommy loves you always, no matter what, and more than you will ever know.” This is a constant reminder in our home since my children were but moments old. My children know that they are unendingly, unconditionally, and unabashedly loved no matter what they do, no matter who they love, no matter who they become. This goes for my hyper-competitive daughter, my sparkly middle son, and my rough-and-tumble marshmallow-centered youngest son. I practice acceptance so that they learn and see the habit. We read about acceptance. We discuss accepting others and self. Acceptance is a part of our family culture. They know that, in our home, grades will never be as important as being a kind human.

Tip#2: Talk about it. We talk about gender identity, gender norms, sexuality, and inclusion. We read kids books about kindness and inclusion. We peruse inclusive history books that note the contributions of individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life. We discuss my sparkly son’s gender-bending interests within and outside of the family. It is not presented as shameful or something to be hidden. We are open and fully accepting of his tendencies, thus outwardly and inwardly establishing the unwavering expectation that others should follow suit. We give it voice. We honor it. We recognize it. We establish the norm by presenting our own.

Tip #3: Be the biggest supporter. Show no fear. Show no shame. Be as proud of your sparkly son as you would be of any of your children. Be steadfast in your stance to allow him to sparkle when, where, and how he chooses. Be strong. Be lovingly fierce. Be determined to make this a world where future children and families shouldn’t even have to question whether it is safe or acceptable to allow their children to be true-to-self. Never give him reason to doubt your loving position as his greatest ally.

Tip #4: Communicate with the school. Out your family. It’s scary, but it’s the best and most valuable step you can take. Be brave. Schedule a meeting with your son’s principal and make sure the school will be a safe, supportive space for your child and establish firm steps for handling fallout. Meet with his teachers before each school year, being clear about your son’s tendencies, your family’s stance on those inclinations, and your expectations for classroom management as well as requesting open communication between school and home. Meet with any of your other children’s teachers to give them a heads-up on the sibling situation, as classrooms are not vacuums; your son’s sparkle will affect your other child(ren) in some way at some point. Communicate openly with fellow parents so that they know what discussions to initiate at home, and open yourself up as a resource to any of their questions. Establish a relationship between your child(ren) and the school counselor, just in case (there’s zero harm or risk in doing this… pure benefit.) It’s better to communicate clearly, establish expectations, and offer everyone a chance to succeed, rather than reactively putting out potentially avoidable fires. Plus, if your son is happily sparkling everywhere, it’s really not a secret anyway.

Tip #5: Be realistic. As much as we would like our fellow humans to be open, accepting, kind individuals, that’s not always going to be the case. It’s not our job to shelter or change our children in light of potential unkindness. Instead, we must help our children assess, prepare for, and address possible risks. So, before your son wears a pink tiara to the playground or a Rapunzel dress for Halloween, have a loving talk with him. Tell him that, though it’s not ok to do so, some people may react to his ensemble choice negatively. Tell him that he should only seek friends who are kind to him and love him, but that he should be prepared in case someone is unkind. Discuss how he would react and respond to such a situation. Really talk it through. Empower him. Remind him that his interests are ok and that he shouldn’t hide who he is simply because someone might possibly maybe be unfriendly. Guide him through this journey while reassuring him that he is loved, supported, and absolutely beautiful as he is.

Tip #6: Be creative. Think outside of the box… your son is! Right now, there’s a counterculture movement that celebrates females who buck the norm and dive into S.T.E.M., who reign in sports, or who rebuke stereotypical femininity. Males are not quite as empowered to shed their own gender norms yet. So you may find dinosaur hoodies and airplane t-shirts in the girls clothing section, but you’d be hard-pressed to encounter princess pajamas or unicorn flip-flops in the boys section. So, take your child’s lead and stop caring about labels and categories and gender sections. Dig in and shop the girls section. Scan the famous Olympic figure skater, Johnny Weir’s Instagram for outfit inspiration. Turn to tunics, shirtdresses, sequined tops, jeggings, kilts, and unisex-cut shimmery accessories. Be bold. Be resourceful. Make it fun.

Tip #7: Do not bend, so he will not break. Whether it’s family not accepting your son’s interests, classmates making unkind remarks, teachers not meeting the bar for classroom management, strangers being intolerant, or even your spouse having doubts, do not allow your son see you falter. Do not give him reason to doubt his right to be who he is. Do not let a whisper slip into his mind that he is not supported, not accepted, or that he is somehow lesser. Do not feed or create self-doubt (or, worse yet, self-loathing), and don’t let anyone else do it either. We all know the terrible, gut-wrenching statistics on self-harm for kids, teens, and adults who are not supported in their gender and sexuality journeys. Don’t let your child be one of those statistics! If you are iron-strong in your support of your child, if you lovingly yet firmly demand that others honor him for who he is, if you openly rebuke unkindness and intolerance, your child will hold that strength within himself. Give him no reason to doubt himself.

We are a rare breed, we moms to sparkly boys, and we are forced in love to navigate an uncharted, lonely path. But on we plod on because love matters most.

You can do this, and so can your son. Know that every victory and every struggle is worthwhile. When you are on the side of love, you are on the right side. And this, my fellow mama, is most definitely a journey of love.

Keep loving. Keep fighting. Keep listening to your mama heart.

You are not alone.

Birth Trauma and Birthdays

My heart is racing even considering typing this post, because writing it means thinking about it, and thinking about it means recalling it, and recalling it is just horrific. Isn’t that a terrible thing to say in regards to the birth of your first — and much wanted — child?

Despite my trepidation, I’ll keep diving — securely clinging to my safety rope to the present so as not to get sucked into the dark abyss of recollection — knowing someone somewhere needs to know they’re not broken or alone or wrong. That they needn’t shoulder the guilt others hoist upon them. That there is hope. That it does get better. It does.

I began having contractions on July18, 2011. Type-A and working from home on bedrest, I was still emailing and updating project implementation spreadsheets as I winced and grunted. Around midday, I stood to try to “walk off the pains” and I wound up on my knees, moaning, clutching the kitchen counter. I called my OB, whose office was closed for lunch, and left a message for her telling her that my husband and I were heading to the hospital.

Many hours and a traumatic birth later (story here), it was 3:36AM on July 19th. I had my daughter. We still had another round of resuscitation yet to go, a NICU stay, and some painful physical healing for my daughter and myself. But, it was over.

At least outwardly.

Inwardly, that event still haunts me 8 years later. I don’t sleepwalk or have baby-in-peril nightmares as I once did. I don’t get stuck seated on the toilet due to my physical wounds or cry during sitz baths as I once did. I don’t get faint or stop breathing at the mention of birth anymore. I don’t struggle to pull myself out of the vivid, palpable, horrific memories as I once did.

I do still find myself inexplicably tense, angry, flighty, and agitated as my daughter’s birthday approaches. Unwaveringly, I will look at the clock throughout the day of July 18th and be transported back to that Labor and Delivery room. I will get visions of the blank dry erase board that absorbed the sounds of my sobbing. And every year I awake at 3:36AM on July 19th and I shudder then sigh. But now I can return to sleep, the inky black bleed of the trauma now kept at bay. Throughout the day I will hide my ragged and raw emotions to celebrate my daughter. I will pretend all is well. This is “her day” after all. But the fact that I am capable of doing this is proof of healing not lost on me.

As real as my trauma is to me, birth traumas and birth-related PTSD like mine are dismissed. Shamed. Birth is positioned as beautiful and natural, as something to be regarded as sacred, spiritual, superhuman… not potentially lethal. Some of those who, like me, struggle(d) to conceive hoist their own pain upon mothers with birth trauma, insisting that the mother’s pain is negated by the birth of a child and wholly necessitates gratitude. Some say, “all births are tough” and shrug off the mothers’ pain. Some hold a sense of competition, perhaps rooted in self-preservation, to present their own birth story as more challenging or painful or trying that others’, which fuels them to discount other mothers’ traumas. Then there is the sect that views birth as an unsavory topic of conversation altogether and force mothers into stoic silence to quell their sensitivities. (As someone who openly discusses pelvic floor health or menstrual cups, digestive woes or breastfeeding with the same casual fluidity as chatting about Target purchases, this prudish leaning is a foreign mindset.)

The intent to shift public perspective of birth from medical to metaphysical is lovely. Beautiful. And yet the reverberations can hum as callous to those who do not share the glowing birth experience.

As hard as I try, I cannot perceive birth as anything but dangerous. As something to be brutally survived for the love of a child. Birth nearly killed my daughter and me; to me, its lethal potential, its dark and scarring qualities are unquestionable. As much as I wish this wasn’t true, it is. And I am not alone.

Mothers are expected to hide, bury, forget their birth traumas and heal physically and emotionally from the harrowing feat without perceptible scars. To bounce back in all ways. They are expected to tell and retell their children their birth stories. They are tasked with ignoring any of the day’s ghosts in favor of feigning joyous celebration. They are expected to feel sheer elation and abounding love at the mere glint of a birth recollection. Anything less is shameful, selfish, weak.

Any utterances regarding birth struggles will inevitably be met with, “but at least you had a baby” or “you should be grateful for your child.” A soldier’s PTSD would not be met with dismissive responses of, “you should be happy you got to serve” and “war is beautiful.” So, why are mothers’?

Eight years later, I am nearly a decade removed from my birth trauma. My physical wounds are long healed. My emotional wounds are in a state of healing. I am far from where I once was; happier, more present, capable of recalling without falling in. I am here. I am healing. I am trying. I am stronger than I ever knew.

It is better. So am I.

Now, to celebrate my daughter.