This will make me a better parent
My daughter was always a good kid. Thoughtful, quiet, and artistic, she attended a public Montessori school. She had a close group of girlfriends, and an outspoken disdain for boys, who she found to be annoying and gross. Her favorite game was stuffed animals, all of whom were female, all with complex personalities and backstories. She had trouble paying attention in school, but got good grades anyway. She liked wearing dresses, but could not tolerate stiff fabric or scratchy seams. Art and music came easily to her, and she always participated in children’s choirs and school orchestras.
As for me, I was a progressive mom who purposefully avoided pushing traditional gender roles on my child. I didn’t know her sex until she was born. I didn’t care—I only wanted a healthy baby. I bought her comfortable, fairly gender-neutral clothes, and I adamantly avoided anything related to Barbie. I had grown up immersed in the unrealistic feminine beauty standards of the 80s, and I wanted my child to have the best chance possible of feeling whole and complete in her natural female body, however she chose to express it. As she grew up, I let her choose her clothes and hairstyles, as well as the toys she played with. I considered myself progressive, feminist, open-minded, and very much an LGBT+ ally. Her friends thought I was a pretty fun mom.
My child was 13 when she told me she thought she was trans. She had already been experimenting with male names and pronouns with her friends and therapist, who had advised her not to tell me until she was ready to fully come out of the trans closet. She was among the last of her small group of biologically female friends to socially transition. It was mid-pandemic, and she spent most of her time with her best friend, who had, unbeknownst to me, shown her hours upon end of transgender entertainment on You Tube and TikTok.
By 8th grade, here’s what her friends (and their TikTok feeds) were saying about me:
“Your mom is transphobic". “She doesn’t want a son. She wants a daughter.” “She won’t let you be who you are.” “MY mom is so progressive, she buys my binders from a BIPOC trans company.” “Your mom doesn’t really know you.”
And even worse, a succession of therapists:
“You may not know your child as well as you think you do.” “Your son just needs your support.” “Your child doesn’t share your values.” “Your child is at risk of suicide if you don’t affirm.” “You just need some education on having a transgender child.”
So much for being the fun mom.
This child. I had nursed her, read to her, fed her healthfully, sang her to sleep, held her when she cried, played with her. I taught her to read, to count, to make brownies, to brush her own teeth, and to be kind to animals and elders. I had read parenting books and joined library play groups, studied her learning styles and tailored her education to them. My Christmas gift was always her favorite, because I knew exactly what toy she wanted the most. When she was little and woke up feeling sick, I had already woken moments in advance knowing something was wrong.
And now, expert strangers were telling me I didn’t really know her.
I affirmed her change in gender identity, at first. I thought it was an antipatriarchal movement, a rebellious play on artificial standards of attractiveness, a principled game of pronouns, clothing and hairstyles. I was an out-of-the-box, feminist Gen X-er. I was cool with that.
But I quickly learned this wasn’t about self-empowerment. It was about self -rejection. Self-loathing. Self-erasure.
Her friends considered natural breasts disgusting, so binding became a rite of passage. The whole body became a thing of shame, covered by thick, baggy clothes that would betray no feminine curves. A swimsuit was unthinkable, even to swim in the ocean, which we traveled thousands of miles to visit. The new trans-boi posture was rounded forward, with the attitude of a sad thug, black COVID mask firmly in place under a black beanie, so only the eyes were visible. Their given names – many chosen with great care and meaning by thoughtful parents - were proclaimed “dead” and replaced with the names of fandom and cartoon characters.
My daughter’s best friend (now an ftm trans child with two gender affirming parents) started calling her mother by her first name, and demanded the removal of all childhood photos from their home—to escape her past as a girl. Soon thereafter, she was admitted to a treatment program for suicidal ideation. My daughter started cutting her forearms, and her demeanor became dark and secretive. Her beautiful art became morbid and even cruel.
I drew the line at breast binding and said no. I could not rationalize the compression of a child’s developing breast tissue and rib cage. It made no medical sense to encourage a practice that would restrict the respiratory, circulatory, and lymphatic systems during a crucial physical development stage.
And, of course, the experts told me I was wrong. They said if I didn’t buy her a proper binder, she would use duct tape and ace bandages, which would be even worse. They said she would harm herself more. They said she would be at risk of suicide.
I cried for days. I meditated, I prayed, I consulted wise friends who knew my child well. I told her dad everything I knew, and spoke with her stepmom, who works as a child therapist. Everyone who ACTUALLY knew my child confirmed what I knew all along—this didn’t make any sense. And being trans wasn’t making her better. It was making her worse.
I still wanted my child to have the best chance possible of feeling whole and complete in her natural female body, however she chose to express it. If gender exploration necessitated my complicity in her self hatred, I wouldn’t participate.
So I stopped listening to the experts and took back my authority as my child’s first and primary parent.
I set new boundaries. I profoundly restricted online access, took long breaks from overzealous trans friends, checked daily to make sure she wasn’t binding. Her dad, stepmom, and my partner all concurred, and she was pretty mad at all of us for awhile.
So perhaps even more importantly, I added a lot of things that I realized were missing during the pandemic. I facilitated friendships with healthier teens, and had frank conversations with their parents to ensure we were all on the same page. I enrolled her in a music performance program and aerial silks classes. Over the summer, she went to camp and volunteered at a nature center. We took interesting trips, went to live music shows, and watched diverse movies about all kinds of people. We planted raspberries and went camping and brewed herbal moon tea to ease her menstrual cramps. I wanted to show her that the world was much bigger than her friend group.
It's now been a year since she first announced her new identity. My work seems to have paid off. She has developed an identity outside of trans—she’s an aerialist, a musician, a good writer, an artist, a traveler, and she believes in a spiritual side to life. Consistent aerial silks practice has made her physically strong and flexible, and she likes what her body can do and how it looks. She’s phased out of the ultra-baggy clothes, and regularly shows her arms and collarbones. Sometimes she wears dresses or braids her hair. She doesn’t appear to have engaged in self-harm in months, and her art is brighter and even humorous. She stands taller, laughs easily, and speaks confidently with adults. She has new friends with similarly unique interests. She’s still quirky, artistic, and alternative in her style. She may be bisexual, and that’s fine by me.
I really do want my daughter to be her authentic self, and I know that she has to find that path on her own eventually. I will always support her in all her ups and downs. I’ll even love and support her if she decides, as an adult, to identify as a boy. But until she is actually an adult, I’m still the parent. I am a mature, educated, mentally healthy adult woman with many life experiences and learning under my belt. Many of my interactions with the mental health community undermined my legitimate questions, my knowledge of my child, the wisdom I’ve gained over nearly 48 years on planet Earth. I didn’t go to psychology school, but I do know many things. And I do, actually, know my kid. I’m reclaiming that. I’m a much better parent for it.