or Making Meaning
These are the moments that haunt me. I do practice self-compassion, and we’ll never really know, but these are those that I can’t help but wonder, if I’d handled them differently, would the identity continue to steer our lives?
Reposting from StoicMom’s Newsletter
The Booklet: I can’t remember when exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was when she was in 7th grade. My daughter sheepishly brought me a booklet she’d made. She was forever creating characters, spending hours on detailed drawings with written character sketches below the artwork, lovingly compiling these into little booklets. This one was different though. Instead of the fictional characters for some never-written novel, these “characters” represented a wide variety of sexual orientations and identities that were all new to me; the descriptions were definitions this time.
Little did I know I was getting my first exposure to Queer Theory–from my beautiful, quirky, naive 12yo daughter. My husband says this was following a school event where she learned about this stuff–I don’t have a recollection of this. I was curious about why she’d made it and felt compelled to share it with me; it seemed she was trying to communicate something to me besides just educating her out-of-touch mother. When I reflect, I recognize the nudge of my motherly instinct that I swept aside. I did ask her if she wanted to discuss it, but she was adamant that she didn’t. She was only 12! Maybe if I’d dug a little deeper, pushed her a little more to talk to me, I could have learned more in that moment, reinforced the basic biology that hadn’t occurred to either of us, up to this point, to question.
The Program: 8th grade seemed to be making my daughter sick. It seemed as each weekend would draw to a close, she’d start complaining of a stomach ache, preparing us for the inevitable insistence she needed to stay home from school. Eventually, she stopped claiming physical malaise on Monday mornings, but admitted she “just couldn’t face the day.” I had left my role as a classroom teacher several years prior and had become what I call “an education critic.” I had been offering her the option to do something different for over a year at this point, but she identified as a loyal student to this quirky charter school of which she’d been a founding first grader. She finally agreed with me that school shouldn’t cause so much stress for a 13yo and we stopped having the Monday morning battle.
This course of (non)action caused some tension in the home. My husband was less on board for this idea, panicking about his 8th grade “drop-out,” unable to process my insistence that we could frame this differently and there were endless ways for her to get an education. It was during these stressful weeks that our daughter also hinted she was either already, or was at least considering, harming herself. This stunned me and I felt my confidence quickly slipping. My daughter had been requesting therapy since 6th grade and I’d evaded, insisting we could handle her seemingly normal teenage angst. Suddenly, things didn’t seem normal anymore. It was also around this time that a friend “outed” my daughter to me.
We had connections in wilderness therapy and could get her into a program for a fraction of the usual cost. It seemed a win-win-win; she’d get the therapy she was requesting but in a wilderness setting that I convinced myself could also be framed as a “rite of passage”, and it would give my husband and me a chance to get on the same page with a plan moving forward. What I thought was going to be no more than 28 days turned into a 87-day nightmare. The worst 87 days of my life–I think I felt like she did on those Monday mornings, a continuous stream of cortisol flowing through my blood with the nights being the worst, gripped with extreme anxiety about the stories my daughter was telling herself about why we’d sent her away. I tried really hard to not know how much damage this separation was doing to our attachment. We’re both still healing from this and I’ve worked hard to let go of the guilt—I can’t say I’ve succeeded yet even, but we’ve worked with her therapist to process what I consider my greatest parenting mistake: outsourcing my kid to a punitive program.
Her story now is that we pulled her from school without her permission. She thinks, as her parents, we should have insisted she stay in school where she could have matriculated with the cohort that still contains her best (trans-IDed, on puberty blockers) friend.
The Talk: When we picked her up from the program which had been on the opposite side of the country from us, she and I had a few moments alone in the hotel room. She was distant and self-conscious. There was definitely a different, heartbreaking energy between us. It was clear trust had been damaged. Through letters (at this point, we’d never had a direct conversation about it) I had encouraged her to talk about her other name with her therapist at the program, but this never took hold as part of her “treatment” there. I gently brought it up in the hotel room and she told me it wasn’t a thing and to drop it. I gladly complied.
Almost exactly a year later, I couldn’t help but notice my daughter didn’t seem to have breasts. She’d started her periods while at the program. She was almost 15 and tall and lanky–and flat. I picked her up one night from hanging out with her friends, and one of them said, “Later Bro.” My intention for pushing the topic was to figure out what she was doing to flatten her chest and make it stop. And of course, to make it all stop. I thought I understood what was happening and was feeling more confident I could parent her out of the identity. She seemed both awkward and relieved with my probing questions, unable to say anything herself but only to deny or confirm the theories I spoke aloud. She said, “I never would have told you.” We spent the next few days in long conversations, me asking lots of questions, her cheerfully “educating” me (me descending into desperate fear each night as I researched and realized there was little help out there for me to figure out how to snap her out of this.)
Then things got ugly for awhile. You know why–I tried to persuade her how impossible and dangerous what she wanted was. At one point she said to me, “I knew you’d never support me.” She said this because she knows how I am about seeking medical/psychological interventions. I’m a minimalist, and admittedly suspicious of our profit-driven sickcare system. I said, “I am going to advocate for your healthy body because no one else is.” I can’t help but wonder, if I’d not pushed her to tell me and put her in the position to dig in and defend it, would she have dropped the identity long ago…
The Move: After a semester of adventures-instead-of school followed by a move from the suburbs to downtown where I hoped she would seize at least some of the ample opportunities to be out and about instead of holed up in her room, we moved again. This time, I was hoping for a hard reset, but as I explain in What Hurts Most, it backfired.
I didn’t think she had the guts to actually introduce herself as transgender to her new facilitators at the learning center in this small, red-state town. But she did. I suspect she was bolstered by her therapist who was a good therapist, but not one who was well-informed on the harms of social transition. We had to pull her brother into the know; he’s a pretty staunch ally now with his best friend at this learning center also trans-IDed.
Now, she spends her days as a “boy” and has far more people affirming her than she did in the city we left. (Funny, though. This is a low-pressure environment where she gets to choose how she spends her days, and she still looks for every excuse to not go.) She actually spends way more time now with her trans-IDed friends back in that liberal city, albeit virtually. When we lived there, she couldn’t wait to grow up and get out of that place. Now, she’s planning to move back the minute she turns 18 this summer. Oops.
Why do we do this? Why do we spend hours reflecting and beating ourselves up over what we might have done differently? As if we could go back in time and course-correct. I suppose this is how we learn: we reflect and replay it over and over with different scenarios, so next time, we might take the “right” action.
It’s hard to imagine what our life would look like now if we’d successfully rescued our daughter from the trans cult by doing something different at any one of these pivotal moments. If I’d headed it off at the pass when she brought me that booklet…I somehow doubt we would have had the unique adventures we had that summer and the following fall semester that neither of my kids were in school. (I share more about these adventures in my paid content: Reflections from the Trenches)
Would my daughter and I have still created the unique and special relationship we have? I get pretty caught up in my passion projects. Her adolescent struggles snapped me back into conscious motherhood. I work hard now to be less distant and inaccessible, to savor and appreciate the moments of closeness any time my family experiences them. When either of my children are hanging about, I remind myself, “You’ll never regret the time you spend with your kids” and I set whatever project I’m on aside and work—because it’s work for me to get out of my head and into the moment though I’m getting better at it—to be present and ensure they feel seen and heard.
The communication skills I’ve developed have brought my husband and me to a new, easier partnership in life; he used to be the target of all my resentment, representing lost hopes and dreams. He bore the brunt of my moodiness that marked our first decade and a half together, and I found it easy to blame him for what I saw as our parenting failures. In my desperation to rescue my daughter, I considered leaving him (again); maybe our conflicts had caused this confusion in her. The reality of what that would look like was terrifying, and I decided instead to practice the same new skills I was working on with my daughter with him also—in the hopes it would save us. It was hardest with him, but little by little, he started to trust that I meant the appreciation I now expressed. I studied the few healthy relationships I knew of; I started practicing small acts of kindness, hearing my mother’s words “you love the ones you serve.” I researched attachment styles and paid attention to just how prickly I could be when I was caught up in my escape complex. I learned how to recognize my triggers, and slowly I was able to shorten these periods of porcupine energy. I did force uncomfortable conversations to work on our connection, but I got better at genuine curiosity instead of trying to steer him where I wanted him to get to. His own counterwill slowly faded, and now we laugh at the things that once would have driven us to our opposite “corners.”
All of the letting go I had to do parenting my daughter through this has helped me avoid (most of) the connection-damaging reactivity with her younger brother whose onset of puberty is almost more trying in some ways. He’s the same age as she was when we started Driving Lessons, and I look forward to the time he and I will spend in the car together. My boy has a sharp wit and likes to entertain (especially himself); he’s less philosophical than his sister and has a very different communication style. This means he’s less like me and it’s taken me a bit to figure out how best to disarm him, and sometimes my strategies don’t work. But I’ve learned that, like most teens, his moods are temporary and to be expected. If I don’t take them personally, they fade, and he returns to his normally lighthearted self. He’s incredibly well-liked by his classmates, his facilitators, his co-workers and boss—evidence that he, too, will be just fine.
The really dark, scary times while she was away in The Program and after The Talk reflected back to me my psychic baggage and forced me to get clear on what kind of parent, woman, human I want to be. I had to really examine my values and my lifestyle and recognize where they weren’t aligned. I had to let go of those lost hopes and dreams and create more realistic ones. I also had to forgive myself and develop a practice of self-compassion.
The move to this red-state small town has brought me lots of new, meaningful connections and opportunities to discover beautiful, natural places along with ways to be in better harmony with the planet. I’ve modeled for my kids how to use difficult external circumstances to practice resilience, review my values, and improve my life. My mother says, “the minute we stop learning is the minute we start dying.” Life is rich with opportunities to learn and grow, to make mistakes and figure out how to fix them—and maybe how to avoid them next time. Sometimes it takes repeated effort—and maybe mastery is unattainable—but the effort is worth it. If we work toward something beautiful and worthy, even if we never get there, isn’t that better than giving up?
To be honest, I’m not sure I would like the life in that alternative universe where my daughter spends her adolescence as a typical teen girl. Would we have just kept plugging along on auto-pilot, doing what we thought we were “supposed to” do to fit into this broken culture we inhabit? What other path would she have chosen to individuate instead of adopting a trans identity? Would she have taken up cutting? An eating disorder? Binge-drinking or promiscuity?
It happened again. I thought this was to be an article about pivotal moments to warn other parents about. That maybe if you encounter similar circumstances, you could choose to do something different than I did. Now that I’m here, wrapping this up, I’m realizing that’s not my point at all. Maybe you choose that as your take-away. That’s fine. Seriously, I want you to do what works best for you and your family–you’re the expert in your home.
My take-away is that I continue to be grateful for the growth and conscious connection; the new awarenesses and skills; the opportunity for my kids (and myself) to develop resilience; the richness of this Life that brings me both joys and sorrows; the clarity I’ve come to about what kind of experience I want to have and how to take charge of that. Indeed, my daughter’s trans-ID steered me here.
I grapple with the idea of fate and “what is meant to be.” I think this might be a trick of the human mind to create meaning from the randomness. But then I think, so what? If it helps me to have a better experience, if it’s adaptive, then why fight it? I think a life without meaning is likely a very difficult, empty life. Maybe that instinct for meaning-making evolved for a reason? Isn’t that how evolution goes–keeping in the gene pool those traits that work? It’s helped to get us this far. All this to say: I like to believe my daughter chose this path to help me on my own journey to wholeness.
Maybe one way we can “change the world” is just to change our experience of it. To take responsibility for that experience and model this for our children. Maybe the best we can do is to change our own internal world–then see how that influences those around us. I see how this work I’ve done has had enormous influence on how it feels in our home; my family members are more responsive and less reactive. A sense of humor has returned and we laugh together often. We’re not perfect, but I’m rather satisfied with where we’ve come to and have faith that our bonds are strong and will not be broken by “different world views.”
Knowing my own capacity to take charge of my experience gives me confidence that my daughter can do it too. I get glimpses of this new maturity in her and it contributes to the faith I have that she’ll let this identity go when it stops working for her–that she’ll recognize when it’s time, and be strong enough to do the work she’ll need to do to be able to shed it and take responsibility for her own experience.
Maybe a different path would have brought us to a similar place. Does it really matter though? We’ve arrived here. Oddly enough, I rather like it here.