Dear son,

I bought a new Pride shirt to add to our collection. Who could resist a sloth holding a rainbow flag? Since Pride Month was just beginning, I knew one of us would wear it. I didn’t think it would be you, though.

You came downstairs ready for rehearsal, rainbow flag on your shirt, threatening to knock me over. You are not my outspoken one. You’re not the first one to stand up for causes or voice your opinion. You’re always a little worried about causing a stir or drawing too much attention to yourself. Your strong convictions come out in quiet conversations and contemplative car rides.

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I appreciate your approach and demeanor. It’s a lot like mine. Which is why I know not to say much. You are a preteen now, and if I draw attention to the statement on your shirt, you might smile, but you might shrink with embarrassment. Or slip away to change into something from your usual rotation.

Together we leave for our busy morning. I consciously tamp down the edges of my smile, but seeing you in that shirt makes me want to follow you around with a confetti cannon and applause.

The booth you’ve chosen when we stop for doughnuts puts me back-to-back with two women deep in conversation. Their bibles contend for space with coffee cups and powdered sugar. Their flowered dresses and pearls remind me that it’s Sunday morning. One woman gives your shirt an up and down glance. I want to believe I’ve mistaken her look. Maybe she just enjoys sloths and rainbows. There’s a chance those women have no idea what a brave statement you’re making.

But there they sit, and here we are.

I struggle through an airy conversation with you while sharp words drift my way. They discuss the sins of same-sex couples and the success rates of conversion therapy. I’m not sure if this conversation was intended for us. They didn’t seem to be speaking loudly so we could hear, although I’m sure they didn’t mind if we did. As wrapped up in their outrage as they seemed, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d welcomed a microphone between the cream and sugar.

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As I tried to drown out their conversation, I looked across at you—my sweet, naive child—and tried to concentrate on your words. I tried hard not to stand up or twist around and say all of the things I wanted to say to those women behind me. Not because they didn’t deserve it, but because I didn’t want you to know.

I don’t know who you will be yet, or who you will love. I don’t know whether that Pride shirt that fits us both is for you or for a friend or for the LGBTQ+ people we know and love. But just for a little while, I want you to stay blissfully ignorant of the other side of this wall. I want to help you paint a rainbow over the hate that is out there.

When you think back to the day you decided to wear this statement emblazoned across your chest, I want it to be a good memory. I want you to remember that your mom let you get an extra doughnut, and she didn’t do anything to embarrass you. (At least I don’t think I did.) And that just about every kid at your theater rehearsal said “nice shirt”—and that the child wearing the tank top with a unicorn jumping over a rainbow said it with extra enthusiasm.

For now, I hope to lift the burden of hate off you whenever I can. You will have plenty of years of reality. Plenty of time to decide if you’re ready for Pride parades and the protestors at its fringes. Years to be old enough to make your social media accounts public and respond to or delete comments from people who don’t like your latest selfie or the shoes you wore with those jeans.

As your mom, I know I need to teach you strength and advocacy and how to be an ally but I also have to decide how much to hand you and when. It’s my job to know when you’re ready to carry more.

For today, I will simply give you an encouraging smile, a quick “love your shirt” and a ride to the most accepting places we know. You’ve taken a step, and whether it’s for you or countless others, I’ll be right here by your side.

This story originally appeared on Apparently, on June 16, 2020. It has been updated.