FIRST PERSON | Who Moved My Child?

In 1998 Dr. Spencer Johnson published a small book titled, Who Moved My Cheese? Simply written, the book was meant to guide and support individuals who were going through unanticipated and unsettling transitions in their work and life. After reading the book I felt I had internalized the message: we all have our cheese moved from time to time; get on with life.

Recently my wife and I learned that our oldest son—a former combat Marine, an electrical engineer with a PhD in business administration and business psychology, a father of two sons, and a divorcee after fourteen years of marriage—was transitioning into a she. So much for moved cheese!

As concerned and caring parents, we asked ourselves the following questions and answered each [Spoiler alert!] in the absolute affirmative:

  1. Do you love your son? YES.
  2. Do you want your son to be happy? YES.
  3. Is your son happy? YES.

Simply put, that’s all that matters. Everything else branches out from there. Themes and variations.

I am a poet, so I prefer words and ideas that convey visual imagery. I favor metaphors. Here’s mine for how to think of a transitioning child: You’re of an age that encourages you to get up from bed each night and go to the bathroom. Over time you’ve learned the pathway to the bathroom by heart and are quite certain you could (and perhaps do) tend to your business with your eyes closed and return to bed without ever stumbling or bumping into furniture. Now, imagine this: after you drift off to sleep, and before your bladder wakens you, somebody sneaks into your house and totally rearranges your furniture and even the location of your bathroom. As you semi-awaken and get out of bed to go on your memorized nightly journey, you begin to run into things, stumble over unknown obstacles, cannot find light switches, nor even locate the bathroom. That, my reader, is what it’s like to have your child initially explain to you that the “he” or “she” you had raised and thought you knew was now becoming the opposite gender.

You, like us, may describe yourself in a new way: a PIT (“parent in transition”). Perfectly normal. Unexpected, unplanned, challenging, and expanding, but perfectly normal. The new normal.

Examples of furniture being moved? Talking with your soon-to-be daughter about the effects and expectations of hormone therapy that will assist in the physical re-contouring of the angular male body into the gentler female figure. Voice coaching to learn how to speak in a higher-pitched feminine register. Nail polish on toes and fingers. A diamond engagement ring worn on the hand where a thick wedding band had been for many years. Wigs. Make-up. Dresses. Learning to be natural with the feminine affects of movement, gestures, and so on. Can you close your eyes and hear furniture being moved? Do you keep your eyes shut just a bit longer, not sure of what the rearrangement will look like when you open them? I admit I do.

I suspect many parents of transitioning children will encounter these themes and variations. Lights come on. You look around at a new space with new furniture and new bathrooms. You begin discussing things with your child about which you previously had not a clue. Your understanding sprouts and attempts to grow. You grapple to identify your feelings: sadness, excitement, acceptance, celebration, loss, gain? All of these? Some? None?

You begin to learn new language. New ways of explaining. You meet new people and discover that they are just that—people, in all but superficial ways just like you. You attend weddings where some guests struggle with pronouns. You struggle with pronouns. You share, confront, and overcome new obstacles. You learn how and when to share your new beginnings with other family members and friends. Will there be some losses? Likely. Will there be gains? Victories? Certainly. It may require several furniture rearrangements before you finally figure out your new path to the bathroom at night. You may need to get new furniture! But that path will emerge. You, like us, may describe yourself in a new way: a PIT (“parent in transition”). Perfectly normal. Unexpected, unplanned, challenging, and expanding, but perfectly normal. The new normal.

My cheese. My furniture. My child. My world. They’ve all been moved, but I know where they are, and I am adjusting. Notice I said I am adjusting, which implies I’m not totally adjusted. I realize that life in its most complex and in its most simplified versions requires adjusting. Tomorrow is not a given and plans must be altered, and new plans are always being made. For all of us. For each of us. Adjusting, not carved in stone.

Remember my spoiler alert? That is the foundational point of this essay. I love my child. I love what she has been, I love who she is, and I love what she is becoming. I want my child to be happy and have a loving and rewarding life, surrounded by equally loving and rewarding people.

Be aware, but don’t be scared: your furniture could be rearranged at any time.