Becoming a Butterfly: A Transition Story

I saw butterflies everywhere the summer after my youngest child came out as transgender. In my yard. Driving to and from work. In the parking lot at Target. Every time I was outside, there were butterflies around. At first, I thought we were having a bumper crop of butterflies that summer. Then, I started to think about how butterflies transformed from caterpillars. How a caterpillar becoming a butterfly is similar to a transition.

A monarch caterpillar feeds on milkweed, placed next to the purple coneflower garden it will feed on after it becomes a butterfly.

I thought about how butterflies kept some of the characteristics of the caterpillars they started as. How they were the same, but different. And then it hit me. What I couldn’t understand before all those butterflies showed up.

My son was the same person he had been before he transitioned.

A monarch butterfly perches on a purple coneflower in a garden of coneflowers.

Like the butterfly, he carried with him the characteristics he’d always had. The core of who he was hadn’t changed. He still liked to eat mac and cheese and watch funny movies. He still listened to the same music and liked to make art. My son was still himself. He just looked different.

According to Discover Wildlife, “caterpillars are primed to become butterflies from birth.” Parts of their bodies stay with them once they transform into butterflies. And some parts of their bodies are prevented from maturing by hormones. These parts are later flooded with different hormones during metamorphosis. Tiny discs that are inside the caterpillar grow and become the wings of the butterfly. The wings of a butterfly are in a caterpillar from the time they are born. They are just waiting for the right time to emerge.

Just how our transgender children have always been their true selves, only we didn’t know it yet.

They were there the whole time, waiting for the time to be suitable to tell us. Sometimes they had to go through the work of learning for themselves who they were first. And sometimes that work was difficult and took time – much like the process of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. We don’t see it happen, but suddenly there they are, flying in the yard.

As parents, it can be challenging to understand this when our child first comes out as transgender. Especially if they come out as teenagers or young adults. We’ve had years, sometimes decades, of thinking about our child in one manner. Then suddenly, almost overnight, it seems, they are someone else.

It’s important to remember that our children have had a lot of time to think about who they are and how they will present themselves to the world before they come out. In some cases, they have been thinking about it for years. There’s a good chance they tested out clothing styles and hair and make-up choices in the privacy of safe spaces long before the words “mom and dad, I’m transgender” ever crossed their mouths.

As parents, we are playing catch-up, even though all the change feels fast and furious. So while we would like some time to get used to the idea of our child being transgender before all the changes come, they are just waiting for the time to be right. To spread their wings and take off.

The best thing we can do for our children is to let them soar.

Much like when they were little kids learning to ride a bike, our job was to support them until they were ready to do it by themselves. We let them ride further and further until they were off on their own. Our new job was to be a safe place for them to come back to. Our job is still to be a safe place for our kids to land. It’s our work to learn what it means for our children to be transgender and all that means. We may catch up to where our kids are, but maybe not.

In the meantime, we love and support them. And let them lead the way.

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