Messy But Beautiful

When my husband told me that our sixteen year old had come out to him as transgender, I laughed. I thought it was some weird joke I didn’t understand. John may as well have said Sam was on a spaceship headed toward Jupiter. I was shocked and confused; it made no sense to me. “Bring Sam up here,” I said. “I’m gonna call his* bluff and make him* put on some of my clothes.” Then we’ll see who’s really a girl, I thought to myself. Thankfully, my husband  knew better than to comply with what would have been an awkward and humiliating experience for everyone.

Three and a half years later I still can’t bring myself to call Sam Samantha, and I don’t know how to tell this story without using masculine pronouns, (note the asterisks in my first paragraph.). But when Sam comes upstairs in a skirt and asks me if I want to grab lunch at the foodcourt, I say yes. Because loving someone you disagree with is complicated.

In April I finally finished writing my first book. It’s a memoir about how I learned to give myself permission to grieve the loss I experienced growing up as a preacher’s daughter in the Deep South. When I began writing the book, after my second miscarriage, I never imagined I’d be struggling with a whole new grief by the time I finished it—brought on by a grown-up child.

But what I’ve learned over the past twelve years is that grief is a part of everyone’s life, no matter how we grow up.

And grief will continue to come into our lives again and again, until we die.

Up to now I haven’t written publicly about Sam because I was afraid of exploiting my child, just so I could be part of the conversation on the topic du jour. And because this story is just beginning, and who knows how it will turn out; and what if what I say—or don’t say—has a negative impact on it?

But despite those complicated emotions, I want to share my experience because other moms need to know they’re not alone. Because I’ve been the mom who feels like she has no one to talk to. I’ve been the mom who feels like it’s all her fault. I’ve been the mom who questioned her faith and got mad at God. I’ve also been the mom who said all the wrong things and forgot to say the right things—whatever you think those things are. Because there’s not a handy pamphlet for this kind of parenting. Yes, a few people are writing books that are helpful these days, but no amount of advice is enough when you’re in the thick of parenting an adolescent.

Which is what Sam is. And regardless of the particular issue being faced, Sam is just trying to figure out what to believe and who to follow. And when I remember some of the things I thought when I was sixteen, and nineteen, and even twenty-two, I realize that Sam is normal. Sam was made to question and struggle and “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” just like me. And if God can handle my wandering, faithless heart, perhaps he can handle Sam’s, too. That’s not to say I’ll stop telling my kids when I think they’re headed in the wrong direction. It just frees me up to love them a little better, which is what they need most anyhow.

So if you have a kid like mine, I hope this post encourages you.

The devil wants us to feel shame about our parenting. He wants us to stay isolated and keep silent and be afraid of every decision our kids make. But he’s not the one who gave you your children. God is, and he knew all about the various issues they’d face, as well as the advice you’d give them, and the mistakes you’d inevitably make. But he decided to trust you with them anyhow. Because he knew you were the right one for the job, and because his love is more complicated than ours. God’s love believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Because God’s love never fails.

In fact, God says His love is perfect.  And I believe and have even experienced how perfect love drives out fear. Because fear is the real enemy here, isn’t it? It’s what makes me choose a side and fight so hard to prove my side is right, beyond a shadow of a doubt. But what if being right is less important than staying in relationship with my child? What if love is more complicated than simple, and what if I could learn something new through this struggle? Something messy but beautiful, something unexpected and difficult, yet in the end, totally worth it.

Janna Barber is the kind of girl who’s been known to spill potato soup in her lap; and it’s not always funny. She grew up with a Preacher Dad, a Southern Belle Mom, and two cool siblings. Now Janna is married to a guy who works for a church, and they have three kids of our own. She likes to write poems and tell stories about faith, family, feelings, and hope. You can find more about Janna and her work by visiting her website: Janna Barber