For most of my oldest child's life, I understood them to be gay. At one point in time, during their high school years, they made a FaceBook post about an informal name change. In it, they also referenced gender-neutral pronouns.
That was a year I was sinking at work. We were also preparing to send our oldest to college. I was still working on salvaging what a rough year in our marriage. I was very me-focused, and when I asked about that post, my oldest shrugged it off as no big deal.
In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to that post and asked more questions. At the time, I remember thinking the name part was likely a getting-ready-for-college-thing. I paid attention to the pronouns part, but they wrote, "My preferred pronoun is the neutral they/them/their, but I don't particularly care what you call me." In my tired brain, this permitted me to keep on the way we had been.
I've since learned that what people tell you is what they want you to know about themselves, and I've started to listen better.
Early this year, my oldest sent me a message and asked how I would feel if they changed their name. Because I'm in that posture of listening better, I now ask questions before I answer. I learned they wanted to change all their names: first, middle, and last.
Through much more listening and asking, I learned that my child is not gay; they are bisexual, which I did not know. They identify as non-binary, which I did know, and as transgender, which I did not. As part of this identification, they felt that the name I had chosen didn't fit with their inner, neutral identity.
When they first began sharing that with me, they didn't communicate it well. When I first started to listen to their reasons, I didn't hear them very well. In their wanting to give up our last name, I felt that they didn't want to identify with our family anymore. They felt that a name wasn't how you connected to your family. In our frustrations, we couldn't hear what the other was saying.
It took several months for them to decide on their final name. During that time, they began to use their chosen first name with friends and our immediate family. They asked us not to share it with anyone else. They wanted to come out on their terms - when they were ready. First, to people who felt safe. Then to everyone else.
Having to use two names to discuss my child was difficult. I had to stop every time I talked about them to someone, remembering which name I was supposed to use. I began using gender-neutral pronouns exclusively because they had already shared that with the world. It was also on all their social media profiles, and I felt I was setting an example for how to address them.
Those months gave me time to reflect on the post my child had made in high school. I felt guilty for the many years I didn't honor their wishes. For four of those years, I belonged to a support group for parents of transgender mothers. I knew how important it was to use proper names and pronouns. I knew children are at a higher risk of suicide when their parents don't respect their wishes. I'm not brand new to this community. I knew better. And yet, somehow, I failed my child.
As parents, we want what's best for our children. But sometimes, what we believe to be true can get in the way of what they are trying to tell us. Here's how we can listen better.
- Keep an open mind. While you are listening, don't think about how you are going to respond. Refrain from judging what the person is saying or considering how you would have done things differently. Your job is to listen to the speaker. The conversation is not about you.
- Think about what's being left out. What is the speaker's tone of voice telling you? Look at their body language. What can you learn from how they present themselves during the conversation?
- Ask questions only to clarify the information you don't understand or to further your knowledge of the topic under discussion. This shows you are actively engaged in listening to what the speaker is saying.
Sometimes, taking in information, sitting with it for a while, and discussing it later can be helpful. This is especially helpful if you need time to process what you have been told, deal with your emotions, or gather more information about a topic.
It's okay to say, "Thank you for sharing this with me. I need some time to think about what you have told me. Can we talk about it more at a later date?"
What are some tips you have for listening to your child when it feels like you haven't been hearing what they are telling you? How have you learned to listen better? Feel free to share in the comments.
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