Engendering Hope

Sometimes, the struggle to control and understand a child's whole being must be let go until they are ready to define themselves.

 CIRCA 1950s: Mother playing with baby. (Photo: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

CIRCA 1950s: Mother playing with baby. (Photo: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

We are in a conference center. We are being shushed.

The women around me exude a sense of celebration. There is champagne. There are mimosas. There is a silent auction where you can win an apron stuffed with cash. Folks are having a good time.

Except then we are interrupted by a voice over the loud speaker. “Ladies, please take your seats.”

We pretend not to hear, and continue to bid. Here’s a day at the spa. And over there, a weekend in Sonoma.

“LADIES…” the voice warns again. “If we want to begin on time, we really do need to get started with the program.”

It turns out that none of us cares if we get started. At all. We have already gotten started. The drinks are flowing. The prizes are wonderful. We don’t want to sit down and listen.


We do not want to exchange parenting tips or recipes. We want to go to a bar, and dance, and be served fruity cocktails by a sexy waiter named Tim.


But the woman at the podium keeps kvetching. Someone flicks the lights on and off. Grumbling, we return to our seats.

The first item on the agenda is The Friendship Circle. We are invited to stand at our table and share answers to the following question:

“What inspires you to be the best mother you can be?”

There is silence.

I dunno. Chocolate?

Date night?

Knowing one day the kids will move out and I will miss them, maybe?

Most days, I do not feel very inspired. I pack lunches. I cook chicken. Folks at my table agree. I halfheartedly share a Margaret Mead quotation I saw etched on the ground at Disney World, but otherwise, none of us says very much about being a mom.

Part of our problem is context. We have come here to escape motherhood. It is a conference at a hotel, with silverware, and a swimming pool. A blessed twenty-nine hours away from our children. We do not want to exchange parenting tips or recipes. We want to go to a bar, and dance, and be served fruity cocktails by a sexy waiter named Tim.

We debate whether to duck out after lunch, but they haven’t auctioned off the cash apron yet or the laundry baskets full of wine, and you have to be present to win. So we settle in for the speaker and hope she will be brief.

“Being a mom isn’t always what you plan,” the recitation begins.

“I’ll drink to that,” comments someone at my table.

“You plan to give birth naturally, but instead find yourself grabbing your doctor’s private parts and demanding an epidural. You craft an inspirational playlist of Nora Jones and Stevie Wonder tunes, but hear only your heartbeat as they rush you to a crash C-section.”

I half-listen and half-daydream about what color to paint my toenails, and whether I will spend the remainder of the afternoon shopping or reading by the pool.

“But so much about being a mother is like that,” our speaker continues. “Being a mother is so different than what you expect. Sometimes it is inconvenient. Sometimes it is terrifying. Sometimes it knocks you to the core.”

It was that word, terrifying, that caught my attention. Being a mother is a lot of things: boring, fun, wacky, irritating. But I seldom use the word ‘terrifying’ to describe days with my children.

Our speaker — to whom I had never intended to listen — went on to tell the story of her teenage daughter’s depression, rage, and threats to kill herself because she felt suffocated by her female body.


When your daughter comes to you to say she is different, say I love you no matter what. When your son comes to you to say he is questioning, say I love you no matter what.


The speaker had never considered what it might be like to have a daughter who wanted to be a boy. She tried to hold onto her daughter, and realized that the more she pulled, the more her child pulled away. In the end, assisted by therapy, and aided by prayer, Mom decided to respect her daughter’s wish to become her son.

This mother confessed that she blamed herself, and wondered — if she had parented her child differently — whether her daughter would still want to be a girl. Here was a woman giving public witness to the fact that she felt like she messed up her kid.

Maybe she did.

Maybe she didn’t.

But it does not matter.

We have all of us effed up our children in one way or another. We have loved them too much or too little, have said the wrong things when they cried. Like it or not, we do damage. We are not always the parents we plan to be.

So what happens when the kids we think we are making grow up different from the kids we thought we would get?

We love them anyway. No matter what.

The topic of transgender children is a polarizing one. I know folks who welcome individuals of any orientation or preference, and I know other folks who condemn them. But I defy anyone to listen to this mother’s story, to this child’s story, to any transgender child’s story, and fail to be moved.

Children do not set out to be bullied, harassed, or shamed for they way they feel in their bodies. The least we can do is listen when they tell us they are hurting. The best we can do is to help them change the world.

Is a transgender child a broken child?

Maybe.

Is every child a broken child?

Probably.

Is every child a beautiful child? A miracle? A precious, precious gift?

Yes. Yes. YES.

When your daughter comes to you to say she is different, say I love you no matter what. When your son comes to you to say he is questioning, say I love you no matter what.

Listen. And love them.


It turns out that a group of inattentive, half-drunk parents can change the world, too. We may just have to try a little harder.


But what if it is a phase? Then it was a phase. And your child will know that her parents loved and supported her through it.

What if it is forever? Then your child will know that his parents love and support him.

I had not wanted to hear this woman’s difficult talk. I had wanted a silent auction prize and a vapid afternoon. Instead, as I listened, I remembered why I ever sought out a moms club in the first place. Because when I became a mother, I lost myself for a while. I felt like a prisoner in my own post-partum body. I wondered if I would ever find my way back to the person I believed myself to be.

Margaret Mead was an anthropologist who, among other things, studied how gender roles differ from one society to another, how the values of an entire culture shape its young people. She wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It turns out that a group of inattentive, half-drunk parents can change the world, too. We may just have to try a little harder.

Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh is a mother, teacher, and dog lover, an above-average cook and below-average housekeeper. Follow her at DadvMom.com.

Engendering Hope