Leading with Unconditional Love

Photography by Abby Murphy

By Percival Haas

Even though my mother has visited me countless times since I began school at College of Charleston, this is the first time she’s driven to Charleston without the slightest clue why. “I have something to tell you, and it would be better in person,” was all I had told her. And so, after a few panicked questions ensuring I wasn’t in immediate danger, she packed up her car and drove from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to the Holy City.

It’s early evening and the sun is just beginning to set over the swaying reeds that surround the small waterside restaurant. Now that she’s here with me looking out over the water, all of the smooth phrases and self-assured explanations I’ve practiced have abandoned me. I have no idea how much the woman across the table from me has pieced together through motherly intuition and how much of what I’m about to tell her will take her by surprise. And though I’ve known her for 21 years, in this moment, we feel like strangers.

She lets us sit in silence, picking half-heartedly at our food, for as long as it takes me to work up the courage to start. When I open my mouth, I surprise myself with the way I begin. “Have you been watching the latest season of ‘Survivor’”?

Puzzled as anyone would be because who in their right mind would drive six hours out of their way to talk about a reality show hosted by Jeff Probst? she says, “Yes,” and asks me why. “Well,” I say, “You know Zeke, one of the players on the show this season? He’s like me.”

When she understands what I’m trying to say, she cries. I tell her the new name I’ve chosen for myself, and she hurts me deeply when she laughs. She asks questions that only worsen that ache, but I answer them as patiently and as honestly as I can. I’m proud of myself that I give her the time she needs to process. Eventually, she tells me that she’ll always love me, a simple sentence with enough weight to knock you flat if you don’t brace yourself. A simple sentence that so many of my transgender siblings never get to hear.

Now that it’s been two years since my mother and I sat across from each other eating peel-and-eat shrimp and crying together (shrimp seasoning and tears shouldn’t mix!), I can reflect upon the ways that we’ve both grown and the ways that my transition has allowed us to rebuild and strengthen our relationship. My mom has said many times since that night that she feels like my transition gave her the opportunity to have a second chance at being there for me, and she has used every opportunity that second chance has afforded her to show up for me in ways I never thought she could.

When I came to Charleston for college, one of the first things I did was seek out a local therapist. This decision was easily one of the smartest I’ve ever made. Through the painful and uncomfortable work of digging through my past in therapy, and with the help of the new, independent life I was creating for myself in college, I began to see my relationship with my mom as it truly was.

We were inseparably close when I was little. I reflected her in every way, down to the color of my hair and the shape of my smile, and our relationship suffered greatly for it. With my dad constantly traveling for work and logging long hours in the office, it was my mom who did the hard work of parenting, more or less on her own. She’s admitted to me before that she felt for a long time that she wasn’t “cut out” for being a mother, that she wasn’t ready for the responsibility when I was born and didn’t feel ready for a long time after. In the nine years between my birth and the time my little brother entered our lives, she took out the worst of those insecurities and fears on me.

There were moments when this hard reflective work in therapy was cathartic and reparative, and moments when I was sure the only solution was to cut her out of my life completely. I couldn’t be more grateful to myself for instead gently but firmly establishing boundaries with her, but never completely severing ties. I always left the door cracked, with just enough room for an opportunity for us to try again. When we were ready, I reasoned, we would start the healing process together.

When I came out to her, I think we both knew that it was our second chance. To my surprise and overwhelming joy, she has taken every opportunity to be there for me in a way that she never was when I was younger. She has advocated for me, gone to battle for me, cared for me through surgery recovery. She has begun in earnest the tough work of bettering herself, of cultivating her own happiness separate from the happiness of her husband and her children.

These days, she wears paint-speckled denim and funky glasses. She seems lighter, happier, the embodiment of all of the best memories I have of her growing up dusty purple gardening gloves, twinkling silver necklaces, and summertime Dixie Chicks sing-a-longs in the car with the top down. That woman that I caught glimpses of as a child, that free-spirited artist with so much joy to give others, now has the added joy of being able to make up for her past mistakes and truly be there to support her son. “Overalls Beth,” as I call this new version of her in my head, has freed herself from the fear of failing as a mother, finally understanding that even though she makes mistakes, leading with unconditional love means we can weather anything together.

This Mother’s Day, I find myself humbled by and grateful for my mom and the ways that she has grown with me throughout my transition. I’m so proud of both of us for refusing to give up on one another. While transitioning is a largely self-involved activity, I can’t express how thankful I am that she has also taken this opportunity to transform herself. From a woman consumed with self-doubt and anger to one who now leads with love and openness, my mother’s transition has been as remarkable as my own.