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It's Not My Journey: A Mother Gives Her Child the Freedom and Boundaries to Explore and Desist From a Transgender Identity

This post was written by D. Houston (a pen name). She is the parent of a brilliant and creative client in my private practice and D describes herself this way:

Mom to two kids, one on the spectrum. I’ve been home with them since they’ve been born. Homeschool teacher for 5 years. Butcher, baker, some time candlestick maker. World traveler. Truth seeker. 

“Mom, I think I am trans…” There are a lot of scenarios parents consider and mull over, but I suspect almost no one preps for this one.   My child was almost 16 when those words were spoken, seemingly out of nowhere one day. My gut reaction was intense—I know what it means when people describe your blood running cold. I had to sit down. I needed to collect myself. Since my child is on the Autism spectrum, clear communication and understanding can be challenging. We frequently discuss the same topic several times in several ways to ensure understanding between us.   I had the presence of mind to keep my mouth (mostly) shut though as my mind reeled. I began to ask questions and I listened and tried to detach myself from the voice inside that was screaming, “WTF?! Where is this coming from? You, who at age five gave yourself a severe pixie cut to get rid of your curls, but then cried each time an adult mistook you for a little boy until we finally got your ears pierced so that it would stop happening? The same little girl at age seven who would not wear khaki pants because that was the color your brother wore. The same child at age 10 wanted to know when she could wear makeup. ??!!?”

But this wasn’t about me; it was about what was going on in in my child’s head. My child was reaching out to me, the parent, sworn enemy of many a teen, trusting me to bear witness to this most vulnerable piece of herself. And if I were smart, by nurturing and cultivating this dialog between us, I would be able to act as a sounding board instead of the echo chamber her teen peers would surely be.

There is language available today that was not available when I was a kid, but it doesn’t make the adolescent experience of embracing one’s identity any different. When I was a teen, I cut my hair and changed the style of my dress to suit how I felt at the moment. I didn’t question my gender literally, but figuratively as a girl growing up in the 80s, I certainly tested the boundaries for what was acceptable for a “young lady.” My parents never questioned much nor curtailed my choices. So when it came to my own child, as far as superficial things, I did not stand in the way of change.

My child had chosen to cut her hair very short awhile before this announcement for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Before that drastic cut, I asked her to wait six months, and if she was still sure, then why not? It’s only hair and not my hair either.

We purchased more gender neutral clothing, clothing that made my child more comfortable. When school came around and choir uniforms were being fitted, my child asked permission not to wear the customary dress, but to have a tuxedo instead. The choir directors agreed. So we purchased a tuxedo that was more flattering than the borrowed ones, and my child was able to wear it to prom as well. They are only clothes and not my clothes either.

Did I love all of these superficial changes? No. Did it make me cringe inwardly at times? Certainly.   As a parent, it can be doubly hard to see things happening that we may not like or approve: 1) we reflect our younger selves onto our kids, remembering or reliving these same life scenarios, and we may hope to steer to them to avoid the same mistakes we made, or maybe to do it better this time around and these changes can derail that; 2) we also feel them reflected onto us, that how they look or behave is a product of our parenting, and we may feel ashamed, or that we have failed in some way. Most of us teach our kids that it doesn’t matter what’s on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. My kid is still my kid on the inside.

I joke that though I am not crafty, my kids are handmade and completely from scratch. So while I feel possessive of my kids, I deeply respect that they are people in their own right. I have given them a strong foundation and framework to help shape their lives, but their choices are their own to make. I repeatedly told my child I loved and supported her on her journey, but it was not my journey and that while I would respect her decisions, I did not have to embrace every one of them either.

One decision over which I drew the line was at calling my child by a different name. I had no explanation at first, other than I just could not bring myself to do it. This was a sore subject, one that made my daughter angry. I had personally never liked my own name growing up; it was unique, always mispronounced, and never found on an obliging keyring in gift shops. My mom had always told me I could change it when I was an adult, but I never did. I had come to realize that it was a part of my identity, and I couldn’t part with it. I fully realized when I was pregnant with my daughter, and my husband and I were choosing a name, that my name wasn’t MY name, but it was my parent’s name carefully and lovingly chosen and given to me, a gift to have with me forever. I explained my feelings about my daughter’s name to her, that it was sacred to me and that if she wanted a new name, then it should be up to ME to rename her. She didn’t like that idea at all, but I think she understood why I wouldn’t call her by her new self-appointed name. I think because I had been respectful of her other decisions, she was respectful of mine. I left it up to her if she chose to ask her teacher’s to call her by her new moniker (she did), but that I would not change anything officially with the school as that was a much more complicated task, and one I wasn’t going to rush into. Since we are more informal at home, my kids are more frequently called by their silly nicknames and endearments, so we agreed those were acceptable to use. And life went on…. 

My biggest fear when all of this was unfolding was that because we have become so much more open and accepting as a society that everything my child said would be taken at word without discovery, and then once the talking was done, medical intervention would follow. Not to make light of the gravity I felt around this, but I likened any semi or permanent physical alterations to my example of getting a tattoo. I have one tattoo and I do not regret my tattoo. I had wanted one since I was 13, but I waited until I was 22 to get it. My kids have grown up seeing my tattoo. So, we had conversations about it, and other choices my kids would face that could alter their appearance, or their life for that matter. I always urged my kids to wait until they were well into their adult lives to see if they still really wanted those same things. So when my child was talking about binding and the possibility of surgery, I didn’t forbid her; I encouraged her to think long and hard about these choices, what they would mean not just today, but in 2, 5, 10 years.   We were able to discuss candidly the unknown long term effects of hormones, the realities of surgery and post-surgery recovery, the plain truth about what those changes might all mean practically and sexually. No one had to choose sides, and no one was under attack. In that setting, I was able to convey my reservations and concerns for any kind of immediate medical intervention and my child could express her own reservations about it all without having to blindly defend it.   It was an incredibly challenging conversation, but it also was the moment that our consanguinity shifted from parent to child, to adult parent to adult child.

I often felt shattered after these conversations. There were times after talking that I would just go straight to bed because I was so drained, or to the shower to weep so no one would hear me. There were many times early on when I didn’t feel strong enough to handle it all. Then I would ask myself if I felt like that with 40 plus years of life experience, how much worse was my child’s anguish? As a mother, wouldn’t I do anything to ease my child’s pain? No one wants to struggle. No one would choose to be this conflicted. No one wants to be ostracized. By inviting me into this part of her life, maybe my child was really asking me if she could still be loved, and while I can’t do much else, love I can give.

After about 18 months along this trajectory of exploring, talking, and questioning, there was a shift. My child no longer identifies as trans because she feels that that label is too limiting. She has discovered her quandaries are about her own expression of femininity and masculinity rather than her gender and she is finding ways to express both sides. I think by reacting to my child’s choices with flexibility, it didn’t escalate into a battle of the wills. She did not have to become intractable in defense of her positions. It gave her the freedom to explore without feeling persecuted and becoming a martyr. We both learned about acceptance and tolerance. And while I certainly wouldn’t want to have to do it all over again, I do feel a certain gratitude that I was able to actively take part in such a pivotal time in my child’s life.

D Houston