Lean into Love
The tension had been building for months. At first, I thought that it was a hormonal surge, then teenage angst; the inevitable rebellion of a 17-year-old against anything that resembled authority. But, as the moodiness escalated and the arguments intensified, it became clear that something more was going on. Our eldest child was alternately sad and withdrawn or angry and aggressive. There was very little laughter, smiles were increasingly rare and the little boy who had still held my hand in public at age 12 would now visibly flinch at my attempts to hug him.
Our home was a battle ground but none us knew why we were at war.
Things eased momentarily when we celebrated high school graduation. For a few days, there was energy and enthusiasm and we had glimpses of the child we thought we knew, but it was short lived. I will never forget walking into our upstairs family room to discover our 6’2’’ child curled up in a ball, under a desk, sobbing so hard that his whole body shook. I got down on the floor and, as best I could, wrapped my smaller frame around their much larger one. It was heartbreaking and terrifying.
In the conversation that followed, my firstborn miracle-child confessed feelings of fear, pain, confusion and loneliness that were so intense that they had already harmed themselves a few times and regularly considered ending their life. I felt sick to my stomach with fear and profound sadness. How had this happened? How had I missed something so huge? What do I do now?
Our child had survived a two-year battle with cancer as a six-year-old and one of the few blessings of that experience was access to a fantastic team of health professionals at a large teaching hospital, a couple of hours away. I called the hospital and within 24 hours we had an appointment with a clinical psychologist.
Over the course of the next few months, they had weekly appointments with a wonderful psychologist. Things were marginally better at home but we were all still living on edge. Our child barely slept, instead prowling around the house till the early hours of the morning, unable to switch off their body’s physical response to the anxiety and fears that swirled around in their head. We were all exhausted and very aware that, although they were getting some help, we were still a long way from knowing what was really going on.
A few weeks before Christmas, my husband and our daughter were out for the day; it was just me and our eldest child at home.
‘Mum, I need to talk to you. It’s important.’
‘Sure’, I replied, ‘What’s on your mind?’
‘I have been talking to Rob (the psychologist) and he thinks I need to tell you what’s really been going on for me. Part of the reason that I have been so unhappy and angry and sad is because I don’t feel like I fit. I haven’t felt like I fit for a long time. I don’t think my body fits who I am. I think that I am a girl, not a boy. I think that I am transgender!’
I was speechless. I had been anticipating a number of possible scenarios, but this was not one of them, not even close. I did my best to acknowledge what they had just shared in a loving and supportive way. I could see how nervous they were, how difficult it had been to get the words out, but inside I was screaming. I felt like I wanted to cry, throw up and run away, all at the same time. Was this a cruel joke?
This revelation did explain a lot of things; the feelings of isolation, confusion and self-loathing, the violent and angry outbursts, the burden of carrying a secret so big for so long. My heart broke for my child all over again. They looked at me with a mixture of fear and hope in their eyes. I could see the questions written all over their face.
‘Will you still love me? Is there still a place for me here? Will you help me?’
That conversation marked the beginning of what has been a long, harrowing and costly journey for our family. The trajectory of mental health is not linear and gender dysphoria was not even a term I was familiar with, let alone understood. Three years later, we are still in the trenches, learning how to extend grace, be patient, stay faithful and kind, forgive, grow and change. At times, life has felt like a rollercoaster that’s gone rogue; twisting, turning and threatening to launch us, its terrified passengers, into the air whilst we struggle to hang on. We are all navigating uncharted territory and, along the way, we have hurt each other.
In the midst of one particularly brutal and confronting argument, emotions were running high, as my child screamed at me,
‘Stop saying that you know me. You don’t really know me and you don’t love me. You love your memory of me, you love who you think I am! You don’t love who I really am.’
My first response was to protest, ‘Of course I love you. I’ve known you since before you were born. I will always love you.’ Yet, even as the words came out of my mouth, I realised that my child had articulated a cry that is at the core of every human heart. ‘If I show you who I really am, will you still love me?’ As much as I had declared that I loved this new and emerging version of them, many of my words and actions had demonstrated otherwise.
I wanted to be the best parent I could be, to show unconditional love, infinite patience and give judgement-free support but I was failing. It was painful to see my child still struggling and heartbreaking to process the loss of dreams and expectations that I didn’t even know I had, until they were denied. And it was exhausting; the whole thing was so emotionally and physically exhausting.
We said things to each other that were unkind, thoughtless and, at times, cruel. We were all in pain and the burden of not really knowing what each day would bring was wearing us down. On top of that, if I spent too much time projecting into the future, I became paralysed with fear. Living like this was unsustainable for all of us but what was the alternative? None of us knew what we were doing and there was nothing in the ‘Growing Kids God’s Way’ parenting manual that had prepared me for this!
I booked myself into a three-day silent meditation experience at a local catholic Abbey. Desperate times called for desperate measures and spending three days in silence was a radical step for me. I had no idea what to expect but I was optimistic that something positive would have to come out of me having my mouth shut for that long! The morning of the retreat I had coffee with a dear friend who asked me what I was hoping to gain from this experience. I replied, quite honestly, that I had ‘No idea. I figure it can’t do me any harm and I need a break. Even if all I do is sleep, it will be good for me’. It was not a very spiritual answer but it was the truth. She nodded in agreement and then said, ‘What if you ask God to show you what love looks like for you and your child?’
That phrase became the theme of my retreat, ‘God, can you show me what love looks like today?’ Over the next few days, I slept, went to vespers four times a day, read my Bible (especially 1 Corinthians 13), prayed and, at times, just stared into space, thinking. There was no lightning bolt from heaven breakthrough, no life-altering epiphany. I returned home to the same challenges, questions and fears. Yet that phrase, ‘what does love look like today?’ was now embedded deep in my heart.
In the months that have followed, I have let that thought lead me. Every day love has required something a little different. Some days, love has kept me silent when I have known that my words, and the fear that drives them, would cause damage. Other days, love has led me to speak up for a community of people, including my child, who are often marginalised, demonised and grossly misunderstood by others. Love has released me from the need to know and control everything. I do not have an exhaustively researched theological position on gender diversity and the queer community. I do have Jesus, whose example of self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love is more than enough theology for me. That love has led me to live with a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty and presence of God, even in the most unexpected and confronting of circumstances. That love has led me to seek wholeness in my family and grace in our relationships, not a cure for my child.
Along the way, I have faltered and stumbled many times. Learning to love is an imperfect and messy process. Yet, it is in those moments that I am reminded of how gentle and restorative the love of God is. Every time I fail, God reminds me that his love covers and redeems those mistakes and that, through it all, he is making me whole. The more I live from that place of knowing that I am truly loved, the more freely I can release my grip of control and, instead, surrender to grace.
I do not know what the future looks like for my child or our family. This journey is complex, nuanced and still unfolding. As our adult child continues to discover their voice and identity, we all continue to lean into the softness and safety of God’s love. Life is still hard; some days there is tension, conflict and tears. We are all on a path of listening, learning and loving that will not end this side of heaven. But each day I anchor myself with this prayer. ‘God, what does love look like today?’
For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:12,13 (NIV)
Love is large and incredibly patient.
Love is gentle and consistently kind to all.
It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else.
Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance.
Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honour.
Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense.
Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong.
Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others.
Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (TPT)