BY CJ's Mom
I grew up with a cousin who had Down syndrome. As I watched my aunt raise her, I became aware that parenting a child with special needs was equal parts rewarding and challenging. I learned that sometimes a mother has a tough day (or 100) all in a row. On tough days like those, a mother needs her best, strongest, most loyal women-friends to pop over for a glass of ice tea on the patio (or a smoke in secret on the side of the house, from what I saw).
From my perspective nothing bonded women like motherhood. When a member of your female inner circle had a baby, that baby became a child of the group automatically with all the rights and privileges.
Decades later I watched my best women-friends struggle with motherhood in all sorts of ways: infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths, adoption, kids with special needs and perfectly happy, healthy kids who left my friends — their mothers — feeling threadbare. In some instances, as lovely as a husband or partner may be, there is no substitute for the women-friends in a mother’s life.
In my nearly thirty-five years, I’ve been blessed with amazing relationships with stellar women. It’s been reinforced to me that women assemble in a time of need, especially when motherhood and children are involved. But, I didn’t fully understand the power of women and friendships until I was the gal who needed them most; because I was raising a boy who one day might want to live as a girl.
My son C.J. is five and for more than half of his life he has been gender nonconforming, which means he doesn’t conform to traditional gender “norms”. As C.J. explains it, he’s “a boy who likes girl stuff and wants to be treated like a girl.” On the gender variation spectrum of super-macho-masculine on the left all the way to super-girly-feminine on the right, he slides fluidly in the middle; he’s neither all pink nor all blue. He’s a muddled mess or a rainbow creation, depending on how you look at it. I see the rainbow, not the muddle.
Have I considered that C.J. is transgender? Yes. It’s hard to see a boy with a perfect mani-pedi, in a cheerleader skirt waving pom-poms and not consider it. Go ahead, try. Have I considered that he is pre-homosexual? Absolutely. I grew up with a brother who was gender nonconforming at heart and later came out as gay. I’ve seen one version of this story. Statistically speaking, 60 to 80 percent of gender nonconforming little boys grow up to be a member of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning) community.
Kids like C.J. have the highest rates of suicide, depression, addiction, unsafe behaviors, STDs and pretty-much-you-name-it. I can lower his chances of experiencing those things by providing an unconditionally supportive, strong and loving home life, complete with family and friends who, like me, are eager to love him, not change him. I need my women-friends to be a part of that support system, for C.J.’s success as a person and my success as a mother.
For the most part, the women in my life have gladly stepped up to my family’s unique challenges, loving C.J. and answering my late-night phone calls and texts when sleep eludes me and worry about my son and his future takes hold of my heart. The great women in my life have rallied around us. They are a group of women that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
Some of my women-friends have disappointed and hurt me greatly — women who I considered to be my forever friends, women who were the “additional emergency contact” in my son’s school file. With these women, it was more than superficial stuff like sharing a bottle of wine, a closet or a secret; it was about sharing a life. When my son started wearing dresses, I guess my life wasn’t worth sharing.
Other women and mothers have questioned my parenting skills plenty. What kind of mother lets her son wear red Mary Janes to ride his purple scooter in plain view? I do. What kind of mother French braids her son’s hair? Me. What mother lets her son have a princess-themed birthday party and, when asked, suggests that guests gift him with anything that they would buy for a girl his age? This mother, this one right here.
We make strangers feel uncomfortable. I get that. But, when we started making my closest women-friends unconformable, I struggled to understand the unexpected negative judgment they cast my way. We were the closest of friends, mothers doing the best we could, helping each other at every turn. Then, suddenly, we weren’t.
When C.J. started liking girl stuff and acting effeminate life was good. We were just a little different, a little quirky. We were that family with the free-spirited redhead. A two-year-old boy playing with Barbies and dressing up like a girl gets far different reactions than a five-year-old boy playing with Barbies and dressing up like a girl.
A woman-friend of mine had two boys who loved C.J. when they first met, when C.J. was more boy than girl. As C.J. shifted, so did they. They got mean. I talked to my woman-friend about their behavior. I asked if she had ever talked to her sons about C.J. being different.
“No,” she said.
“Maybe it’s time,” I said softly, but seriously.
“I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to talk to my boy about gender and homosexuality,” she replied sternly. She’d been thinking about this, I could tell.
“This isn’t about gender or sexuality, this is about empathy,” I said, in shock. Treat others how you want to be treated, it’s that simple.
She shook her head no sadly. I walked out of her house, the one I had previously always entered without knocking and cried big fat silent tears.
For some, C.J.’s effeminate shenanigans were no longer amusing, they were becoming disturbing. My inner circle got smaller. Homophobic friends? Gone. Friends who judge negatively? Gone. Friends who seriously questioned my parenting? Gone.
My inner circle got smaller, but stronger. The women who were left are powerful, sassy, loving, sincere, protective, trustworthy and all-around kick-ass. They are ice-tea-on-the-patio-(secret-smoke-on-the-side-of-the-house) kind of women. My inner-circle started to grow again, expanding as I met mothers of (current and former) gender nonconforming kids and other women of character who are allies for my son, my family and me.
It took me a while to get to the point where I could let women into my life again. Now, I have two requirements: they must have open hearts and open minds. All others need not apply.
I’m happy to educate women about my son. My son is not weird, he is different. When most people are born, their sex (male or female based on their genitalia) and their gender (male or female based on their brain) are in total alignment. My son’s aren’t. He was born this way. He’s not trying to make anyone uncomfortable, he’s trying to make himself comfortable. His gender nonconformity is a way of expressing himself, of being true to himself, true to the way his heart beats and his blood flows. As a mother, I will not ask him to do any differently.
In our house, colors, clothes and toys aren’t “only for girls” or “only for boys.” Colors, toys and clothes are for everybody — regardless of how they are marketed. My son doesn’t fit into a category, a box or a marketing category. He may not be easy to explain or understand, but if you approach him with an open heart and an open mind, I can guarantee that he will change your way of thinking forever, he will make you a better woman, mother and friend.