Joy & Grief Through My Son’s Transition

A MOTHER’S HONEST TAKE

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.

Jessie Sage

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 teenagers 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.

Jessie Sage

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.

LET'S TALK:

17 Comments

WHAT READERS ARE SAYING ABOUT THIS ARTICLE

  1. Thank you for this article. I am the parent of a teenaged trans-woman and was blessed to find a gender diversity support group for parents early on where they gave us permission to experience the grief we were feeling. It was not a loss of a child, we still have our beautiful daughter, but the life we were expecting for her has changed, and the life she will now live is going to be more difficult in some ways. We will grieve the ease of gender conformity she might have had as a boy. We grieve the gendered expectations we had, despite being progressive feminists. These may not be feelings we share with her, as they do not help her journey, but it doesn’t make the feelings less real.

    8 likes
  2. this resonated so deeply with me because a friend of mine from high school recently started his transition. much of our friendship was based on being the only girls in our shared activities, so i felt horrible when i felt bad even just thinking his dead name or feeling grief while he transitioned. but this put words to something i felt shame about, and i can’t thank you enough.

    2 likes
  3. Thank you so much for this honest insight of your own transition from a mother with a daughter to a mother with a son. My child came out to me 2 days ago and I found myself hunting the internet for explainations for my own grief. Was there another supportive mother who could understand? Who had been through this? Who could put into words how I was feeling when I was at a loss for words myself?
    Thank you, for in writing your story, you wrote mine as well. And that, has helped… sometimes just knowing that you’re not alone is enough.

    14 likes
    1. My child started the journey during the pandemic, unbeknownst to my husband and I. We found out by text in late January. I am still trying to process everything. I am struggling – torn by everything. While I would venture to say I am not as progressive as the author, I too found this article to be comforting. I just don’t know how to get past the grief.

      2 likes
  4. Thank you so much for this. My teen is non-binary and lately has been advocating strongly for testosterone. It helps to hear that other supportive parents also experience the loss as well as the gain.

    3 likes
  5. Thanks so much for this article. It covers the depth of our emotions as mothers of trans-children.

    As I was cleaning my son’s room last night and found some of his personal objects, I cried, sat down to cry. For the first time, I allowed myself to grieve his life as a daughter. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to explain my feelings.

    When he told me that he was transitioning, I was in the process of learning how to dispense hormone therapy. I am a trained physician. I haven’t picked it up yet. I will eventually.

    Thanks for offering this space –

    6 likes
  6. Tears are streaming down my face. We are coming up on the 1 year anniversary of my son>daughter coming out. When she told me she was trans, she was 26. To go into all that got her to this point, half of which I don’t even know, would be too much here. I was GLAD that she was going to start living her life, even if her life was not that of my son who I had raised with love and devotion. The hardest thing about her whole transition was the name change. The name I grew to love even before “he” was born. I knew when I saw his little face that he was the name we had picked. It fit him. Now, she picked out her own name, which I knew as her screen name online, and now that was her. It was like the air got sucked out of the room. I had no say in her name? What? I named her! She’s minee. Calm down, its ok. She’s an adult now, you’re an adult, it’s a name she loves, ok, it’s going to be ok. Then why when I think of her dead name do I feel so sad. Feel so sad that I miss my son, miss calling him his shortened name. Can I help you pick a middle name at least? YES? Ok, this is the name I dreamed of if I had ever had the ability to have another child (which I didn’t, even though we tired too many years for me to remember, yes infertility plays a part in my story). Really? You like it? ((hugs)). I didn’t hide the fact from her that I was sad. She wanted me to be completely honest with her about my feelings as she went through transition, so I was and so was she. I am so proud of her, and she had to do this completely on her own, not alone, but all her decisions. I have always fully supported her, went to all her appointments and court dates, as she snuffed out my son to be come the beautiful woman she is now. Yes, my heart still remains a bit broken from the loss of my son, who is now alive as my daughter.

    7 likes
  7. My daughter is introducing her new male name and is going to start a very real, tangible transition journey. Do I want her (she wants to use pronouns they/them/theirs) to be happy and whole? Well of course. But I am really mad, yes angry, that I’m supposed to swallow my feelings of grief. That my feelings as a person who raised and nurtured and loved this child are wrong. I’m supposed to not feel a loss of any kind when she disappears. Supporting my child and understanding they were born in the wrong body are both rational mindsets. Those are understandings, not feelings. My feelings are just as real and important as theirs. If it takes me a few months to get through the grief, they should care about me enough to help me through my journey as much as I am striving to help them through theirs – especially if they are adults and no longer need to be shielded by parents from the pains of the world as they did when they were children. I am not going to feel shame for my feelings, or keep them from my non-binary child. They can try to understand a mother’s visceral reaction to thinking of her child as “dead” in any sense of the word as much as I should try to understand my child’s dysphoria and the pain that needs to be addressed by being assigned incorrectly at birth. Love should go both ways. Understanding should go both ways. Why should I not be given the same compassion and, yes, consolation, that is expected of me to provide, and not as some kind of payback for having been supportive of my child, but simply because feelings are feelings. Mothers are expected to be selfless and we usually are, but I am just as whole of a person as my child. I did not cease to be of value because I gave birth. I am not going to be villified for arguing that mothers should be cared for as much as our children. Journeys of transition impact more than just the person transitioning. Trans people should help parents with our journey as well because we matter as much. In time, I will see my son for the person that he was always supposed to be and I will be happy that he is true and fulfilled, but give me the time I need to get there without telling me I should ashamed of myself, or that I’m selfish. Selfish can go both ways too.

    20 likes
    1. This is the first site I was allowed to have feelings. My daughter is 40 years old in a polyamorous relationship with a husband of 14 years and another man for 6. Between them they have 3 children; 14, 10, and 3. I have always been supportive of her, (She announced on National TV she was bisexual. She had never mentioned this before and had a string of boyfriends.) Oh well, she has always danced to another beat. I acted as if I always knew. Now to the present. She told me at dinner she was changing her name. OK. I had noticed some appearance changes but not drastic and thought nothing of it. I’m 77 yrs old and have been in the habit of her old name and slipped up frequently. She started ignoring me if I used that name. So I approached her and told I was having problems adjusting; only to the new name.
      She told me to get over it, she’d been in therapy for a year and now was ready. Well it would have been nice if she had communicated something to me. In the space of 2 days my daughter was gone and this other person was sitting in front of me, telling me I only had a few days to change, because she was now happy and hated her old self. I need some time to subconsciously let go of the name I chose and called her by for over 40 years. Her name bears absolutely no similarity to her old or connected to anything familiar to me. I’m at the age where I start a list of grandchildren’ names till I hit the right one. Is there anyone out there who can give me some helpful hints. It appears easier if a parent went through the transition that I didn’t have a clue about

      5 likes
  8. For the first time in 11 years I am trying to find an outlet to talk about the beautiful person my son represents as a person. So proud of his accomplishments, hobbies and drive. He has accomplished a criminal justice degree, a forensic psychology degree and now his law degree. This person amazes me daily. I have realized that I have not yet mourned the loss of a child, we had an amazing bond during his transition.. finances are not an issue to fulfill who my child was born to be. Yet after 11 years I do not know how to mourn my baby girl who is now a very handsome, smart young adult. I cannot find an outlet to talk about this. I feel very confident yet very alone with no one to talk to.

    5 likes
    1. Hi Janelle
      I can totally relate to you. My now son is 36 years old. He is transitioning now in 2020. I totally support him and yet I’m crying because he just accused me of not accepting his transition because I slipped once using his female name when talking to my husband. It hurts that he can be so unforgiving for something that is a habit of 36 years. I love him more than anyone in this world and he knows that. Yet the accusation hurts so much. So many articles on how to apologize to a transgender person and very little is said to show compassion for the parents as if we have no feelings.

      2 likes
  9. Our 21 year old daughter has recently shared with us her non-binary status and my wife is heavily grieving. The unfortunate thing for her is that no-one else in our family see it as a loss so she desperately wants to talk to like minded/feeling parents, preferably mom’s. “misery loves company” so to speak. She’s done all the reading and education but desperately craves to talk to someone that feels like her!!
    Any assistance you can provide would be a tremendous help!
    thank you so much!

  10. Our 21 year old daughter has just shared with me that she is non-binary and I am having a really difficult time understanding & accepting this. I have educated myself with all kinds of resources & information so I do not need more explanation on non-binary or how to parent. What I do need is to align myself with other grieving parents who are struggling with their thoughts & emotions. I feel a tremendous since of LOSS – it’s as if the daughter I knew for the past 21 years has died. I just can’t get past my sense of loss. I have searched high and low for a grieving group or online platform. All I find out there are groups “promoting” the gender spectrum. It’s as if they want to give me a pair if rainbow pom poms and have me join their club. I’m supposed to be an accepting supportive parent with unconditional love for my daughter – “just get over it and love your daughter unconditionally as “they”. I am unable to do that right now. I want to cry. I want to share my confusion and sorrow with other people who are feeling like me. I am looking for some empathy! I hope that with time, validation and support for my OWN thoughts and feelings, I can reach a place of acceptance for my daughter. Please don’t tell me to just LOVE her…. That is a given!!!! And I have told her over and over how much she is loved. I have also been honest in sharing with her how much I’m struggling with this. I didn’t even know what non-binary was – I had to google it! She is being patient with me and now giving me some grace and allowing me to learn in hopes that one day I will understand and be able to accept. In the meantime I desperately need to find a place where I can relate with other parents who are struggling. Do you have any suggestions for a group, blog, website, or other? This culture, isn’t very prevalent in my small town here in northern Idaho. PLEASE HELP ME!!!!

    3 likes
  11. Hi Shelley,
    Have you found any resources that have been helpful and you can recommend? My son is almost 19 yrs old and just announced he has been taking hormones. I am struggling and would like to connect with other parents having a similar experience.
    Thanks,
    Julie

    4 likes
  12. When I wrote this article, I didn’t anticipate the outpouring of love that has come from this post. It warms my heart to see moms come together in their comments to share their stories, offer support to one another, and allow themselves to feel their complicated feelings. Love to you all. ❤️

    2 likes
  13. Thank you so much for sharing this I felt so alone in my grief for my daughter and the non-binary way he sees himself is hard as well. It’s so refreshing to hear that my tears for my daughter are not a horrible thing. I love my child as they are now but with the full transition only completed via surgery it cemented the fact my daughter is gone. It hit me out of no where hearing he was out of surgery and male pronouns used to tell me he was ready for pick up struck me hard and fast. I sobbed in the car and barely got it together before the after surgery care kicked in. I still feel this sorrow and the guilt of it was weighing on me. I am not sad to have a son I am sad my memories of my baby are different now. I am also coming to terms with how this may affect grandchildren for the future. I have been advocating for him and helping the rest of the family learn as well but no one seems to think how their questions affect me. I only hope as it did with you, time will help.

    1 likes

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