Being a parent is not easy; parenting is hard work. It requires determination, dedication, perseverance, and utter selflessness. When thinking about having children, these are not the first things that come to mind. The natural touchstones that make becoming a parent magical and make us want more kids are love, family, nurturing, and bonding. That has been my experience so far in raising two boys: confusion at times; exhaustion always; love, passion and high energy at baseline; confidence that our boys are loved, acknowledged for the persons they are and will become; and trust that they are happy and well-adjusted in the life we are making together as a family. Unexpectedly, though, some families have additional issues to confront, for example a medical condition or a mental health problem (the incidence of autism spectrum disorders is at an all-time high), which are unwelcome deviations from the path we set out on and are in many instances and for many families total game changers.
Terri and Vince Cook have such a family, and in their book Allies and Angels: A Memoir of Our Family's Transition, they lay bare their experience and journey of parenting a transgender child. The word "transgender" broadly describes anyone whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Often it refers specifically to people who have an experience of transitioning from living as one gender to living as another. This is the case for the Cooks: Their child transitioned from female to male at the age of 15.
The manner in which they detail their child's anguish, despondency, and ultimate suicide attempt before finally understanding what he was dealing with is terrifying. As a parent, imagine that your child is dealing with raw, unexpressed and discordant feelings about their gender and society's push for gender conformity. Imagine that they would rather be dead than face another day. As the Cooks manage their son's struggles, they must deal with family, friends and co-workers who are not knowledgeable about transgender identities, not to mention the direct and indirect social opprobrium.
The Cooks' family transition culminates with their understanding and ultimate acceptance of their son; it is a true example of parental grit and determination, unbounded love for one's child and a resilience that is truly enviable. This book is a must-read for anyone curious about what it means to parent a child who is transgender. It is not a medically or academically heavy book; instead it is the chronicle of one family's path to recovery and happiness. As a parent, you will find this book inspirational, no matter what challenges you may be facing with your child. Terri and Vince Cook show us that resolve and steadfast love are what truly define the parental instinct.
We all want what is best for our children and will do almost anything to help them achieve happiness, but for many that path is bound by what we, as parents, expect and want our children to be, based on our own experiences, understanding and projections. Inevitably we must come to the conclusion that our children are unique individuals, and that our true role as parents is to help them on the path toward happiness, fulfillment and self-confidence, whoever they are or will become. This is the lesson that Allies and Angels imparts to us. Terri and Vince found a way to support their son's transition, and a way to come out of the process stronger and more resilient as a family.
The Cooks' new-found mission, of which the book and the Ally Project are a part, is to bridge the gap in knowledge that exists about transgender health, and to serve as beacons of hope and inspiration to others who are fighting stigma and ignorance, which are all too pervasive in our communities, especially in health-care settings, when dealing with transgender individuals. The Cooks offer free e-books to health-care workers, educators, social workers, service providers and LGBT youth centers. Allies and Angels opened my eyes and heart to a message resonant with unconditional love for our children, no matter who they are or they know themselves to be.
Jorge R. Petit, M.D., is a psychiatrist and a member of the board of the Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation.