He’s Always Been My Son

A Mother’s Story about Raising Her Transgender Son

This inspiring and moving story, told from the heart of an extraordinary family, recounts the emotional and uplifting journey of raising a transgender son.

Janna Barkin’s family has come a long way since their child, Amaya, first told them he was a boy and not a girl and this captivating memoir charts the family’s experiences of raising Amaya, from birth through to adulthood. With powerful chapters written by Amaya’s family and friends, Janna shares personal stories of the support and discoveries her family has encountered and provides a ‘care package’ of advice for families facing similar issues, including a glossary of transgender terms and a list of hand-picked support sources.

Written with warmth and humour, He’s Always Been My Son reminds us to accept others for who they are and will support, educate and inspire anyone who reads it.

The book opens with a note from Amaya detailing the feelings that were occurring, at what age and how he began to process those feelings of being in the ‘wrong body’. It was also nice to read that he had consented to this book and approved what his mother wrote so it makes it feel like you’re about to read something authentic. The introduction sets you up with a bit of background but also a solid foundation so you can understand how to approach this story which greatly helps if you have little to no familiarity with someone who is transgendered particularly a child.

People often skip introductions so they can dive right into the story but in this case especially it is of the upmost importance to read so you can get a fuller context on why discussing these issues is so incredibly needed. The suicide rates alone are horrific and tragic in that it could be so easily prevented if we put aside fear, anger and bigotry to realize this is the life of a human being we’re examining and therefore must be protected rather than treated like a broken toy to be thrown away.

The author does a wonderful job of providing information so that those who are transgendered or have a loved one who is can find the resources they need to get help so they don’t end up another statistic.

Since the world is so used to binary genders and operates pretty much solely on that ideal Janna Barkin provides a glossary and in-depth explanation to explain what goes beyond the two main genders people are familiar with. She also helpfully explains what gender even means from a scientific and social construct. Interspersed throughout the book are passages written by Barkin’s family members and friends which further add a more complete picture and interesting dynamic since you are getting various points of views and experiences.

As a parent with kids in school, and living in an area of the States that is staunchly conservative and Republican, I often hear all kinds of negativity from other parents when transgendered issues begin popping up. Chief among them being parents don’t think these kids actually are or can be transgendered instead it’s parents pushing these constructs on their child so they can be part of that ‘liberal group’. Barkin explains the various stages she witnessed her child go through from a mother’s point of view so it helps to shed light on a parent’s experience and thought process as to how they came to accept their child truly is transgendered versus a ‘tomboy’ versus a ‘girly boy’.

Having transgendered friends and living in a part of the States that is so openly hostile against the transgendered community I really wanted to read this book to gain some insight from a mother who was on the front lines. As a parent, particularly of children on the autism spectrum who are from an immigrant family and are half Hispanic, my own kids face challenges to who they are so it’s important to me to teach them to be accepting of others. For a good chunk of this book I felt disappointment because I couldn’t connect with Barkin even on a ‘mother’ level as she seems to place so much importance on mystic like situations; as if looking back she now realized these moments were some kind of all incredible signs.

There’s a reason the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” exists; we can all look back at different points in our lives and say “See, I knew it!” Despite having an Irish background which entails a lot of belief in mystical things the average person on the street might think is crazy, some of her reasons for knowing she always had a transgendered child seem a little out there and I really was hoping for more concrete, logically based reasons so I could understand how she got from knowing she gave birth to a baby girl to understanding her child may have been biologically a girl but in reality was a boy.

Such as when Barkin starts describing her prenatal dream journal and how she had dreams of a baby boy. Unfortunately I can already sense those staunch conservative parents latching onto this and saying “SEE! I told you parents are projecting what they want onto the kid! Kids can’t be transgendered, it’s all in the parents head.” I don’t know Barkin personally or anyone raising transgendered kids (I only know transgendered adults), therefore I can’t make a definitive argument saying I agree/disagree with the idea that parents are essentially brainwashing their kids into becoming the opposite gender for notoriety; I would hope not for everyone’s sake. I have to admit some uncomfortable feelings with having, much less keeping, a prenatal dream journal. I had never heard of this type of activity until her book and it’s a little hard for me to accept this as any kind of hard or even pseudo evidence but if her believing she had dreams that her baby girl was in fact supposed to be a boy led her to be a more accepting parent then so be it.

Another situation was her then 5 year old daughter was supposed to call out the baby’s gender once it was born as she was giving birth at home. Her daughter ‘mistakenly’ said “It’s a boy” though it was a girl and Barkin places importance on that moment saying her daughter knew already she had a baby brother instead of a baby sister.

Gabriel, the author’s husband, talks a good bit about circumcision because they both come from a Jewish background but don’t seem to be part of the traditional culture or beliefs anymore. He implies, if I’m understanding this correctly, that because there was this big argument and uncomfortableness with the fact that he and his wife did not want to circumcise any son they had that Amaya found a way around that by being born biologically a girl so his parents could avoid that uncomfortable situation.

Eventually she starts getting to the points that make logical sense and I can begin to understand her decisions as a fellow parent. Such as when it came to clothing. Once each of my girls could start voicing an opinion I rarely picked out anything on my own preferring instead to let them decide. I can see why Barkin would allow Amaya to have a say in what he wore and be accepting of those choices because I do the same. My oldest daughter LOVES anything really girly and would live in nothing but dresses if she could get away with it. My youngest daughter just seems to hate all clothes so we’re still working on that one lol.

Later in the back Barkin goes to great lengths to describe the years’ worth of experiences she and her husband had when they still believed Amaya was a girl who just happened to dress and have her hair cut in a way that made ‘her’ look like a boy. She talks about how they corrected people, often in front of Amaya, because they felt they were doing their job as supportive parents. They were going to let their ‘daughter’ define ‘herself’ via fashion however ‘she’ wanted but ensure people knew that even if Amaya looked like a boy ‘she’ was still a girl so society needed to accept there was fluidity in how the binary genders could present themselves. As much as Barkin explains that she feels bad in certain ways because she feels as if she was hampering her son’s ability to be honest with himself and others I think what she’s trying to convey is important. It goes to the heart of the argument some people make that parents are trying to force their child into a transgendered role for whatever the reason. Barkin shows they were in fact doing quite the opposite for years, they were going to let Amaya dress like how ‘she’ wanted but in their minds they had a daughter and they were going to fight tooth and nail to make sure others knew they had a daughter even if it looked otherwise.

She further details how she point blank asked her child if he wanted his parents to start publicly identifying him as a boy but at the time he said no. Even though she had strong feelings as a mother that her daughter was in fact her son she says she still did not push that identity onto him.

She talks about how Amaya had this one particular friend who also born biologically female was very much like Amaya in that she wanted to dress more like a male but her parents only allowed her to a certain extent. Barkin guesses, because she apparently never talked to the parents about it in all the years their children were friends, that it was because the parents are Catholic and being transgendered is considered a sin in Catholicism. I’m an Irish-Catholic and know other Catholics who don’t think this way. I wish she had actually talked to the parents rather than include assumptions because having factual information would be more helpful.

Just as I’ve heard the arguments that parents of transgendered kids are forcing their kids to be that way, apparently Barkin experienced the same when Amaya was in school and some of her classmates’ parents expressed similar beliefs. Getting to see how a parent who is being accused of that handles the information was interesting particularly in light of all the laws and school policies that keep being created to either help transgendered kids or force them to comply with their biology.

I could emphasize with the part when they talk about a mourning process parents go through upon realizing the child you thought you were having or have is in fact someone different. I remember when I was pregnant with my girls and when they were very little I couldn’t wait until they hit 3 so I could enroll them in soccer, then the inevitable ballet or gym lessons, the play dates, the ‘mom’ friends I would have, all the family activities we would engage in. When I began to realize my kids were different and not going to be able to fit into my original dreams I began to undergo my own transition of having to change my dreams based on who they are instead of who I wanted them to be. Understanding that parents of transgendered kids go through a very similar process provides a framework we can all come together on in order to support one another.

Reading the intense hurdles the family has had to go through whether it was socially, in the education system or just trying to get adequate medical care was heartbreaking. As a parent when you see your child need help or they’re just trying to live their life but people are doing everything they can to harm your child even if they don’t think they are it’s maddening.

Overall, once I got through the mystical parts that made no sense to me and were inhibiting my ability to connect with this book, I felt like I began to understand more what the term ‘Transgender’ fully entails. More than that I realized how similar the struggles parents face that are so similar to mine, their families are not that much different in the big picture and I’m glad I’m teaching my kids to be accepting of others but I’m going to alter my approach. I’m not going to keep teaching my kids to accept others regardless of differences, I’m going to teach them to be accepting of others because we’re all human beings just trying to find our way.

I’m really glad I read this so the next time I come into contact with someone who tries to argue that transgendered kids don’t exist and it’s just parents brainwashing them I finally have something to say.

Thank you to Netgalley and Jessica Kingsley Publishers for allowing me to review this book.

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*synopsis and pic from netgalley.com

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