Friday, July 29, 2016

Strong Women - Know Them, Be Them, Raise Them

I'm a thirty-something mom to three kids. I'm not in the best shape of my life. I have baby weight I'm still carrying around, "baby weight" that is as much a part of me as the two year old I frequently carry alongside it. My identity is wrapped up in mama, chauffeur, advocate, and housekeeper. I'm afraid of heights. I've never in my life used the word "rad", and I would sound like an idiot if I did. I haven't rode a bike beyond the church parking lot where I teach my kids to ride since long before I had kids.

But if my kid is going to fall in love with mountain biking, I'm going to find a way to support her. If my kid can push outside her comfort zone and get a real life lesson in falling down, then I can do it, too.  So, I grabbed a friend and braved two days of Women's Camp at Mountain Creek Bike Park.

Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
I was nothing short of terrified going in. I asked multiple times for reassurance that I wouldn't die. Walking into the bike shop, sneaking a peak at people flying down the mountain, I thought I'd made a terrible choice. The people I saw were rad. I couldn't even say the word, but these people seemed to live it. They were athletic, laid-back, seemingly fearless, and way more appropriately dressed than I was. I didn't fit here. But, I didn't have a choice. My good friend had driven up for the weekend to do this with me. I couldn't back out now.
Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

We spent the morning on a tennis court learning the basics and doing drills. Most of the women in our camp group had been mountain biking before with varying levels of experience but all were looking to learn and improve. Many had taught themselves what they knew or been taught by their boyfriends or husbands, so getting back to basics and learning the fundamentals was a game changer for them. I was totally new, awkward, and nervous.

Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
I quickly discovered something about the women's mountain biking community. They're amazing. In a sport still often dominated by men, women have banded together to own their place on the mountain and to get more women to join them. So inspiring. That was the beauty of Women's Camp, learning from and surrounded by women. Thanks to caring and supportive coaches along with the sweetest, most eclectic group of women, I somehow got the idea that I could do this.

The first run down the mountain was dicey. Let's be honest, just getting on the lift, riding it up, and getting off was dicey. I thought I was going to throw up. Then, I actually had to ride my bike down a mountain. Whose freaking idea was this?! I was so scared. My stomach hurt. I was on the edge of tears. My anxiety was out of control. But I did it.... one section of the trail at a time, encouraged by our group of women riders, and with a coach behind me giving me reminders as I went.

heels down, head up, elbows out... 
heels down, head up, elbows out... knees loose... 
heels down, head up, elbows out...

I chanted as I rode... my mantras, the many things I had to remember to successfully make it down the mountain. There was no space in my brain to be self-conscious about my fluffy waist or not looking the part. I couldn't worry about my body, because I was too busy using it. My muscles burned. I couldn't get distracted, the trail called me back each time. I began to intuitively adjust body in small ways for turns and different terrain. The intense focus it required was almost meditative. For two days, I wasn't mom. I was just me. I couldn't worry about my to-do lists, the schedule, the kids, or anything else. 

Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
Surviving that first run changed things. I was finally able to exhale. I knew I could do this. I always tell myself I can do hard things. This time I proved it to myself. I wanted to do it again. I got braver, a little faster, and I started to have fun with it. I'm still a totally awkward beginner, but I'm grateful for the experience and am excited to keep learning.

I talk a good talk with my kids about being brave and trying new things, learning from our falls, and doing things that scare us so we can grow into the people we're meant to be. This was me walking the walk, and I'm so grateful to an amazing group awesome women riders and coaches for making it possible. I couldn't be more proud of myself. I went into the weekend thinking I was learning how to survive mountain biking for my daughter, but I spent the weekend learning how to mountain bike for me. 

Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

Here's to strong women... 
may we know them, 
may we be them, 
may we raise them.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Transgender Kids and the Church - A Perspective for Youth and Family Ministry

I recently had the opportunity to write about Rebekah's story for the most recent issue of the Connect Journal, a quarterly publication of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network. The Network is a rich resource for those who work with children, youth, and families in the church. I was blessed to spend time serving on their Board of Directors as well as the event team for their annual event, Extravaganza. I highly encourage you to check out their site and offerings. Membership to the network includes a subscription to the Connect Journal along with a host of other benefits. They were kind enough to grant permission for me to run the article here on my blog as well. It's a little longer than what I usually publish here. For those of you who have followed our story, Rebekah's story is not new, but this is shared with the hope of raising awareness, starting a conversation, and calling our churches and faith-based organizations to consider how they do ministry for and with transgender children and youth.

Rebekah is an excellent student with a deep love of learning. She's a passionate writer and reader. She is adored by classmates and teachers. Singing and dancing bring her joy. She's articulate and wise beyond her years. She loves to climb mountains, rock hop down streams and swim in waterfalls. She is strong and her heart is bigger than any of us can handle at times. She is a beloved child of God. She is nine years old, and she is transgender. strongly believe that our stories, the stories of who we are, where we come from, and the way we interact with the world deeply matter.  With the recent explosion of transgender issues in the media, people know more than they have ever before but there are also more questions than ever before. If you're not transgender, the idea of being transgender is confusing. It's okay to say that. It’s important to say that.

I cannot speak to the transgender experience. I was born biologically female, and I have never in my life felt anything but female. Even while playing sports, refusing to wear a dress, and muddily stomping through the woods, I knew I was a girl. I don't understand what my daughter feels, but I don't have to understand it to support her. As beloved children of God, we are one. We are one body in Christ. When we claim our stories, tell our stories, and hear each other’s stories we are better able to enter into community with all God’s children and care for each member of the body. My daughter is transgender, and she is okay.

Some might say Rebekah was a born a boy, but that's not entirely accurate. She's always been the person she is now. She was assigned male at birth, meaning that when she was born everyone took a look at her genitals and assumed she was a boy. It turns out we were wrong. Over the years, our daughter was drawn to all things typically feminine. Her favorite color was pink. She loved to paint her nails and play dress up. Her closest friends were girls. We learned there was a name for this; she was gender non-conforming. We assured her that colors and clothes are for everyone and that she could be any kind of boy she wanted to be. But she wasn't a boy, she was a girl. After years of insistent, consistent, and persistent behavior and self-identification she socially transitioned at age eight and has been living as her affirmed gender since April 2015.

In the nine months prior to her social transition, Rebekah struggled. She went through an intense period of depression and her previously mild anxiety became crippling. At seven years old, she was a danger to herself and others. I don’t know what to do with that, even having lived through it and come out the other side. Seven is so little. Her pain and struggle were so deep. I have never been so scared in my life. We lived in crisis mode; all joy had gone. Our only goal on any given day was keeping us all safe. Through counseling, nutritional therapy, a wonderfully supportive doctor, and a deep trust in our kid, we were able to peel back the layers until we were left with the core issue of her identity, an issue she didn’t even realize was at the core until we sat there together staring at it.

When I used to explain that my young child struggled with anxiety and depression people were shocked and skeptical. What did she have to be stressed about? We are bombarded with messages about today’s youth and their idleness, irresponsibility, and self-centeredness. Struggling young people are labeled manipulative, defiant, or dismissed as looking for attention.  

As adults who work with young people, I hope and pray that we think better of them than society. I hope and pray that we see these Children of God for who they are and know that, like everyone else, they are born broken and also made perfect in God’s love. Cultivating a deep respect and awareness for a child’s own self-understanding is at the core of what we do in youth ministry. If we cannot respect these young people as called, claimed, and sent Children of God, then we cannot minister to and with them. We must be prepared to truly listen in order to initiate and respond to conversations about anything in their lives, including gender and sexuality.

A few months before Rebekah officially transitioned by going by a new name and declaring her gender to our community, she tentatively explored how people would respond. That exploration started with us, her immediate family. Her little brother did the best job of listening and responding with trust and compassion. Excited for a birthday outing with two close friends, both female, she chatted with him. “There is going to be three girls and three boys at the playdate today! Trinity, Sophie, and I will each be there with our little brothers.” Rebekah had never asserted herself as a girl prior to this point despite her consistent gender non-conformity. Elijah paused. Rebekah could see that he was doing the math and added “because I’m a girl”. Elijah didn’t flinch. He responded matter-of-factly, “No, you’re a boy.” Rebekah reasserted herself, “No, I’m a girl.” Elijah didn’t miss a beat. He said, “Oh, you’re a girl?” Rebekah affirmed, “Yes, I’m a girl.” Then Elijah said, “Oh, you didn’t tell me before so I didn’t know. Now I know.” That was it. Elijah, with the wisdom of a six year old, understood the situation clearly. 

Still, some people ask, “how can such a young child be transgender, what do they know about sexuality?” Pretty much nothing, thankfully! This is not about sexuality. Gender and sexuality are different. Rebekah knows her gender. The simplest description I've heard is that gender is “who you go to bed as” while sexuality is “who you to go bed with”. Gender is about who you are as a person and has nothing to do with who you find attractive. While sexual orientation emerges somewhere near adolescence, gender identity is generally established between the ages of two and five. 

Other concerned adults wonder about the life altering decisions transgender children and teens are making. It’s important to know that medical treatment and transition is a process that doesn’t start until puberty at its earliest, spans many years, and is not irreversible until the later stages. These are challenging decisions families and youth are making, but these are also lifesaving treatments they are seeking. My husband is pastor in an area not known its diversity or progressivism. One member, a bit of a walking stereotype when it comes to traditional gender roles, pulled my husband aside the first day Rebekah came to church as herself. He said, “You know, before, she never talked to me. She looked at the ground and hid behind your wife whenever she could. Today, she bounced up to me with the biggest smile, twirled around in her dress, and we had a real conversation. That says it all, doesn’t it?” Yes, transitioning to live as one’s affirmed gender is life altering. It’s the most life affirming thing I’ve ever seen someone experience. 

There's a lot we don't know or understand about gender identity. My family is living into this in the most authentic and supportive way we know. We have spent hours reading the available literature, consulting with top notch medical professionals, and connecting with others who have gone before us on this road. We are grateful to see a wonderful team of professionals in the Gender Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

On our most recent visit, the psychologist spent some time talking to Rebekah before connecting with us. The psychologist explained that when talking to Rebekah, she had asked if Rebekah had ever had to explain what it means to be transgender to someone who just didn't understand. Rebekah's initial answer was no, a huge testament to the overwhelming support we have received. The psychologist pressed on wanting to know how Rebekah might respond if that did happen. In relaying the story to us, the psychologist paused to wipe away tears, “Your daughter’s answer took my breath away. She said that being transgender is being who God made her to be.” Rebekah knows exactly what it means to be transgender.

As we deal with the everyday elements of a young transgender person’s life - church, camp, youth group, school, and even dance class - there are always questions about what this means in practice. What bathroom does she use? Where will she change? What about lock-ins, room assignments, or cabins at camp? I understand these questions, and we navigate them as they come. All current research points to the importance of transgender youth being allowed to access the facilities and programs of their affirmed gender for their physical and emotional well-being.

There will be uncomfortable conversations and situations as we, in the Church, work to provide a safe place for all, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Most importantly, the Church is called to act in love and compassion, working towards justice for the least of us. There is no “but” that follows that sentence. Our response cannot be that we affirm your gender, but you can’t use the bathroom where you feel safest. It cannot be that we welcome you as a Child of God, but you can sleep with the chaperones because you don’t fit anywhere else. We cannot say that we will walk on this journey alongside you, but we have to make sure no one else feels uncomfortable. I’m not dismissing the legitimacy of logistical questions, but we are the Church. We must strive to be a refuge of love and grace in a world filled with hate and fear, and we do that not just with our words but with our actions. 

Being transgender is just one small piece of who my daughter is, so much so that I sometimes forget it entirely. She’s just Rebekah, a little girl full of life, love, and all the sass a nine year old can muster. Sometimes I want to believe that this transgender thing, this label, doesn’t matter, but other days I’m forced to remember that it does matter. I remember that simply because of her identity, she is at much greater risk for violence, bullying, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and homelessness. I remember that there are people who think she shouldn’t be allowed to go to the bathroom safely. I remember that we keep a “safe folder” full of documents proving Rebekah’s gender identity, medical care, and general good health to protect her and us in the very real likelihood that someone calls Child Protective Services with claims of abuse and negligence.

There are people who have never met my daughter and already hate her. There are churches who would not welcome my family or my husband as pastor. I have to remember that every time she makes a new friend, I will need to carefully judge when and if I have a conversation with the parents about my child’s genitals. I’m reminded of the difficult and expensive medical decisions that lie ahead. My heart aches knowing that Rebekah’s journey has been far less challenging than many other transgender youth because she has a supportive family and community. And then, she bounces into my office so I can put her hair into a bun for ballet class where she is just one of the girls.

Written By Jamie Bruesehoff. Originally published in the Connect Journal of Children, Youth and Family Ministry (Summer 2016 issue) published by the ELCA Youth Ministry Network.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

It's Okay To Fall Down

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
So last month, Rebekah tried mountain biking. We took both our big kids to Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day at Mountain Creek Bike Park. They got instruction from pros, played on the pump track, and tried out bikes that are designed for this kind of thing. Elijah had fun; Rebekah fell in love. She came home with big plans to save up for one of the bikes she tried and to learn more. After that, she had an opportunity to do Kids Camp at Mountain Creek and jumped at the chance!

A lot of things come easily for Rebekah. She's the kind of kid that picks things up without any experience and looks like she's been doing them forever. She does amazing in school without even trying. She's naturally musical. She's graceful. We sometimes joke that she's the girl you'd hate if you could, but she makes you love her. It all sounds wonderful, but it's not. It's hard. It's hard because she thinks if she's not instantly great at something, it means she's completely terrible... not just at that thing, but as a person. (Did I mention she has a flare for the dramatic?) It's really difficult to find that sweet spot of challenging her without scaring her into giving up.

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

So, she went to Kids Camp. She worked hard, had fun, and came home absolutely exhausted. It was all good for a few hours... and then just before bed it started. "I'm the worst mountain biker in the world." "I'm horrible. I'm the only one who fell, and I fell TWICE." "I'm never mountain biking again." Her anxiety and perfectionism were in full force.
Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
But by morning, something had shifted. She was talking about when she could go to the pump track to practice. She was making plans to earn money for a bike. She was asking about the next Kids Camp date. In her words, she feels good mountain biking because "it's outdoors, in nature, and it's active, using [her] muscles."

She said, "It makes me feel pressured. If I do this wrong then I might fall. But it's fun. I feel awesome. It makes me have adrenaline, and I like that."

I asked her about falling. She paused, "When I fall, I feel a little upset. But I get up and try again, and that feels good. I know that making mistakes makes me better. I know if I fall, it means I'm trying something hard so I can grow."

YOU GUYS! That's it right there. If she's learns nothing else, I'll still call it a success.

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

We do not grow unless we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, unless we risk falling and failing. She's got it. She's learning to trust her body, her mind, and her coaching. Spending time on the mountain, with amazing coaches and professionals, she's in an environment that supports healthy risk taking that inspires growth, empowerment, and confidence. 

In a sport still often dominated by men, in a world still often dominated by men, being a girl on that mountain is even more powerful. At some point, the world is going to tell Rebekah she can't do something, whether because of her age, her gender, or whatever else. But she's going to know, that even if it's hard, even if she falls the first dozen times, she CAN do it and that the failure and hard work is totally worth it.

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

Don't get me wrong. I'm not expecting her to become a professional mountain biker. She's 9, and she loves lots of things like theater, dance, music, writing, and more. If this passion fades away, I don't mind. If this is a fun hobby she enjoys when she can, that's cool. What I love is that she tried something new... something that I think was harder than she expected... and walked away saying "If I work at this, I can get better. I want to do that." 

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

Or maybe, I have a little adrenaline junkie in the making and this will be a passion for years to come.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Week of Possibility: Sleepaway Camp

We are solidly into the summer, and one of my favorite things on social media the past few weeks has been seeing posts of happy kids heading off to sleepaway camp! I get so excited every. single. time. I can't help but think of all the adventures they'll have, the friends they'll make, the things they'll try, the fun they'll have, and the ways they'll grow. There's just so much possibility. I know the life changing impact summer camp can have on kids. As a long time camper, counselor, program director, board member, and parent... I  think all kids should get to experience camp, ideally again and again! 

Last summer, we sent our oldest to sleepaway camp for the first time. I wrote her a letter and shared my thoughts and love for camp. She had the best time, telling me to go home when I showed up to pick her up because she didn't want to leave. I was only the tiniest bit offended. She gained confidence, built friendships, and claimed independence.

But tomorrow... tomorrow, I send another kid to camp for the first time. He's 7 years old, my outside of the box kid. He does things his own way and on his own terms. He's a brilliant thinker and builder. He has a burning passion for understanding the world around him. He feels and thinks things intensely. All too often, the world doesn't quite know what to do with him and he doesn't know what to do with the world. I'm both a little terrified and so excited for him.

He needs camp. Camp is a place where you don't need to fit into any box. Everyone gets to show up as they are, leaving anyone else's expectations or ideas about them at home. Everyone deeply matters. At camp there's both amazing freedom and significant responsibility. You are part of an intentional community, living closely with people you've probably never met before. Radical empathy, conflict resolution, and collaborative problem solving lay the groundwork to a successful week. After that, everything else is space for creativity, big ideas, messy games, ridiculous fun, and the immense growth that happens without kids even realizing.

He's not saying much about the whole thing, but he's definitely excited and anxious. He doesn't like to think too hard about things ahead of time. He doesn't like waiting or anticipation. As much as he talks nonstop, he still keeps a lot of stuff to himself. Meanwhile, this anxious mama just wants to hear what he's thinking, what he's worrying about and talk him through whatever I can. But this is his week and his experience. I get to hold my breath and keep quiet.

I hope he feels safe and loved. I hope he senses the possibility and relaxes into it. I hope he tries new things. I hope he gets space and time to make things, his biggest love. I hope he asks for help, shares his ideas, and makes new friends. I hope he sleeps well at night, with the paperbag puppets he's chosen to pack instead of a stuffed animal (told you, outside of the box, this kid). I hope he gets a glimpse of how amazing he is, and not just because his parents say it. I hope he makes mistakes and figures out how to make them right with the help of the community. I hope he sees some of his strength and ability. I hope he finds joy, silly joy, gleeful joy, laughter-filled joy... so much joy. I hope he loves every second without a toddler chasing him around or getting into his stuff. I hope the week is everything he wants it to be and more.

This looks like a random Lego creation, but it's not. E brought it to me one more morning a month ago and told me he made it with each item as a reminder. The bird reminds him that he can do anything. The horse reminds him that he is different. The one Lego person reminds him that he is giving. And the other Lego person with the flame reminds him that he is brave. He is brave and giving and different, and he can do anything.  

I think I'll send it with him. With phenomenal staff, an incredible program, and these reminders... he's going to do just fine, and I can't wait to hear all about it.