My son stepped out of his dad’s house, a shoe box in his hands. “It is a present,” he said, “but I don’t want you to open it in front of me.” I could tell he was nervous.
Later, when no one was around at work, I opened it. Inside sat a hair ribbon, an elementary school art project with his dead name etched in it, and some other feminine trinkets. Now fully committed to his female-to-male transition, he wrapped up what he had left of his feminine childhood, and gave it to me, as if to say, “Here are the remaining artifacts of having had a daughter.” I sat at my desk and cried the rest of the day.
Later, scrolling through Twitter, I ran across a tweet written by a young transman early in his transition. It read something like this: “My mother actually compared my transition to a miscarriage she had. I am still alive!” The comments mirrored the author’s outrage: “How could this mother be so insensitive, so transphobic, so awful?”
“How?“ I asked myself this same question, suddenly realizing how much this mother’s words resonated with my own feelings. She was in mourning. And, while I didn’t want to admit it, I was also a mother in mourning. I was mourning the two babies I recently miscarried; but I was also mourning the idea of my daughter, who was still alive as my son.
In the rare moments that I spoke of my grief, I only talked about the babies I had lost. Even then it was only with those very close to me. Women who had been through similar losses could relate to stories of my husband and I scrubbing blood out of our sheets, our carpet, our mattress. Sanitizing and washing away our dreams. They could understand why it was difficult for me to work, given that, as a doula, my work was to hold women’s hands and coach them through childbirth.
What I couldn’t talk about as an intersectional feminist, trans advocate, and academically trained gender scholar, was what it felt like to mourn the loss of a child that is still alive.
What I couldn’t talk about as an intersectional feminist, trans advocate, and academically trained gender scholar, was what it felt like to mourn the loss of a child that is still alive. No one wanted to hear that story. More than that, I didn’t want to tell it. It didn’t fit into my concept of what it was to be a supportive parent who fought for the rights and recognition of her trans kid.
When I was pregnant with him 17 years ago my ex-husband and I were driving, throwing out name possibilities. He was our first and we were giddy with excitement. After several rounds of lukewarm suggestions, he suggested the name we settled on. Without hesitation I said, that is the one. It was beautiful: feminine, but also powerful. I could imagine it on a book jacket or a business card.
When he came out at thirteen, he came to me with a list. “Mom,” he said, “You chose my birth name, do you want to help me choose this one too?” I read down his list of suggestions and with the same ease, we settled on one. The experience was oddly parallel. His new name is equally powerful, it had the same alliteration that his now dead name had, a nice ring.
When we were going through the legal process of changing his name and gender marker I remember asking my ex-husband if we should do something to mark this change. I didn’t know what, it just seemed so big, so final. Our son’s records would be sealed, his dead name would be just that. His dad blew me off, only offering, “Isn’t this a good thing?” He wouldn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, acknowledge that at a happier time in our lives we named him.
Because of my son, I have spent a lot of time with trans teenagers. And perhaps because we have been so accepting, many of these teengaers have told us about the terrible rifts that they have experienced with their parents because of their gender identity. Most of these kids put parents in one of two categories: supportive parents who facilitate their transition, or abusive parents who can’t handle it and kick them out or behave in otherwise antagonistic or abusive ways. What this binary doesn’t account for are the ways in which supportive parents quietly grieve their own feelings of loss.
Being the mother of a trans kid means having to wrestle and come to terms with the expectations that you had, and what these expectations tell you about your own gendered socializations.
Unlike the Twitter mother, I never said those words to my son. I didn’t think it was his responsibility to take care of my feelings. What I wanted for my son, what I want for all of my kids, was for him to be exactly who he wanted to be. I was proud of the way in which he was bravely asserting his identity in the face of so much opposition.
The problem with the supportive parent/abusive parent dichotomy is that it flattens the parent experience into something that is one dimensional. The truth of the matter is that I was always supportive of my son and always advocated for him. But the truth is also more complicated than this. Being the mother of a trans kid means having to wrestle and come to terms with the expectations that you had, and what these expectations tell you about your own gendered socializations. It means having to constantly tell acquaintances that you run into your life story, and it means making a thousand decisions every day about how to frame a transition that is not you own.
When my son was a toddler I remember talking to a mother of teenagers. I asked her if she remembered what it was like when her kids were toddlers. She told me that she didn’t, but that she thinks that this is a good thing, because holding too tightly to that would prevent her from being able to really see the people they have become.
I no longer mourn the loss of a daughter. As I write this it is almost hard to remember how difficult that was for me. I remember sitting at my desk crying, I remember having a difficult time even thinking his dead name. But I no longer feel the same loss. In the way that, with the exceptions of a few isolated memories, I don’t really remember him as a toddler, I also don’t remember him as a daughter. Who I see when I look at him is a young man with broad shoulders and a deep voice, a body that has been transformed by testosterone. I see the young man that he is becoming and I am grateful for who he is. I have marched with him a trans pride marches, and I have sat in courtrooms and doctor’s offices with him to facilitate this transition.
Yet, I had to go through this process to get where I am. I had to allow myself to experience the loss that I was experiencing. I did this in solitude because there is no space for mothers of trans kids to mourn these loses. There is not space, really, for conversations about complicated feelings.
Perhaps those of us who are supportive parents of trans kids, those of us who have opened up space for our children to express their gender identity, can extend that same compassion and understanding to ourselves and each other. Perhaps we can, among one another, have these conversations about complicated feelings: about gender, history, expectations, and love. Perhaps we can take our own feelings as seriously as we take our kids, and perhaps, if we do this, we will be able to move though these transitions with our kids with a bit more grace, in community.