June 02, 2021
Before you have kids, you are under the impression that your job as a parent is to impart your wisdom and knowledge. That you are there to love them, support them, but also educate them; show them the ways of the world, how things work, why up is up and down is down.
But sometimes a child comes along and teaches you, instead.
This is the story of how much I learned from my kid. About love. About life. And about the power that comes from being who you truly are.
“It’s a boy!” the sheet of paper read.
I looked up at my husband, sheer joy on my face. We were sitting in the same restaurant in which we’d learned that we were having a girl, three years earlier. A fan of traditions, we’d gone to the ultrasound, picked up the envelope from the sonographer, and come here, a burger joint, to get some food and learn our fate.
Was it a boy or a girl?
It didn’t matter to us. We were thrilled to be having a second child, no matter their gender and sex.
But I was secretly thrilled to see we were having a boy. One of each. Perfect. Done and done.
It would take another four years before I realized that the piece of paper was wrong.
We had no clue, at the beginning. We raised our second child as anyone would raise a boy. With boy clothes. Boy toys. Boy haircuts. The colors blue, green, brown and grey.
But our “boy” was drawn towards everything of her sister’s. Tutus. Barbies. Dress ups. And pink. Lots of pink.
She idolized her sister, loved her and looked up to her. So for a while, we thought the draw towards “girl stuff” was due to the fact that she wanted to be like her sister.
Our pediatrician even suggested that maybe it was a form of sibling rivalry.
But it started so young. The first time my youngest said the word excited was when I let her wear her sister’s nightgown to bed for the first time. She wasn’t even two years old. Her eyes lit up, and she spun around, watching the fabric whirl around her body.
Soon she wanted to wear her sister’s clothes all the time.
We allowed it at home. It was just a form of dress up. But once it was time to leave the house, we made her change into her own clothes. The boy clothes.
And the child who had just been twirling in a tutu was replaced with one sullen and slumped over, all the happiness seeped out of her face.
“Oh, but you look so handsome!” We’d say, encouragingly.
“I don’t want to be handsome, I want to be pretty!” She’d reply, indignantly.
My husband and I looked at each other. It was so hard to force her into clothes she seemed to hate. But weren’t we doing the right thing?
It didn’t feel like it. We felt like, as parents, it was our job to cultivate joy, not snuff it out.
Eventually, we stopped making her change.
So many people reassured us that this was probably just a phase as they witnessed our child flounce down the street in a tutu. We weren’t really sure. We just knew that coercing her into clothes that made her sad certainly didn’t feel right.
I mean, why are there girl and boy clothes anyway? It seemed so archaic.
It wasn’t like she expressed the desire to wear a dress one time and we said: Oh, okay, you’re a girl! Great. There was a dance that went on for months, years even, as she tested boundaries, and we drew lines in the sand. And then those lines in the sand began to feel arbitrary and unnecessary.
We had unwittingly given away many of the clothes that her older sister had outgrown, because, of course, we thought our second child would have no need for those clothes. Eventually, we stopped giving them away and set them aside for our younger child to grow into.
The boy clothes were still very much in her drawer.
But she never chose them.
She had one dress in particular that she loved. It had been well worn by her older sister and by the time it was hers, it was already showing it’s age, tears in the tulle and the plastic Tinkerbelle image on the chest beginning to splinter. But it was always the dress she chose. Eventually, we drove to Wal-Mart to see if we could replace it and found something even better: a dress featuring Skye from Paw Patrol. Neon pink and orange, with a twirly tutu skirt, she wanted to put it on as soon as we were in the car. And she didn’t take it off. It was the first time we had bought her a dress of her own. This wasn’t her sister’s hand me down. It was just for her.
Eventually I had to buy another one so that I had a chance to wash the first.
We tried not to make a big deal about her wanting to wear dresses. We found books about boys who like to wear dresses to normalize it. There are all sorts of ways to be a boy, we said, anytime other children asked why she was wearing a dress.
But eventually, we started to notice that maybe being a boy who wore dresses wasn’t quite right.
Kids come home from preschool with countless art creations. But what we noticed about our child’s art is that, rather than drawings of unicorns and rainbows, she had a theme to all of her drawings.
They were self-portraits.
And in every single one, she had drawn a picture of a stick figure, with a skirt. And long, long hair.
I have probably two hundred of them.
Day after day after day, she was trying to say: this is who I truly am.
Oh, the hair. Here was another line in the sand. Was it important to keep cutting her hair short, purposefully signaling to the world who we thought our child was? Or would we let her hold the reigns for once and let her grow her hair long?
I snapped a picture of her the last time we cut her hair like a boy. I didn’t realize of course that it was the last time she would have short hair, but often took pictures of the kids right after their haircuts. I had put her in boy clothes, so the hairdresser wasn’t confused. I though she looked so cute with her spiky hair. I had her smile for a picture before she even got out of the chair.
Now I look back and can see how forced that smile was.
When the time for haircuts came back around again, instead of forcing our way, we stopped to listen. She didn’t want it cut short.
And we agreed. One more line in the sand that didn’t seem so important anymore.
Soon, people began to assume that she was our daughter.
And we didn’t always correct them.
From my vantage point today, there were so many moments when we missed what she was trying to tell us. She did her best. We did our best. But she didn’t have the words to express how she felt. She was three and four years old. She didn’t know what it meant to be transgender. She just knew how she felt on the inside. She wanted her outside to match. She tried to communicate her feelings, not with words, but with actions.
The summer she was four, she refused to get in the pool. It would be 99 degrees out and she’d be sitting in her dress under an umbrella, instead of enjoying the refreshing water with the rest of us. We didn’t understand.
Don’t you want to change?
She shook her head no.
We had yet to offer her a girl swimsuit. Wearing dresses was fine, but a swimsuit switch just didn’t occur to us. We didn’t realize how deeply this identity went. Her swim attire was still swim trunks and a swim shirt with Nemo on it.
Now I recall our spring break trip to Hawaii that year, when she kept wanting to return to the hotel room. At the time, we thought it was because she was introverted and wanted to be somewhere quiet instead of the crowded pool and beach. Now we realize that it was because, back in the hotel room, she could be herself. She could put on her dress, and not have that icky feeling anymore, wearing clothes that just did not match who she knew herself to be.
When we finally offered her one of the swimsuits her older sister had outgrown, she nodded excitedly, changed quickly, jumped in the water and was happy as a clam.
Finally, the April before she was about to turn five (in August), she started a new program at preschool in the afternoons, with some kids that didn’t know her. By this time, her silky hair reached her shoulders. She loved to toss it back in forth as she skipped when we’d walk the dog in the mornings, joy incarnate.
We were driving home from school when she spoke up from the backseat:
“Mom, there’s a girl in my class. Her name is Anna. And she thinks I’m a girl.”
“Oh,” I said, nodding my head, trying to keep my voice even. “How does that make you feel?”
“Happy,” she said quietly as she gazed out the window.
I looked in the rearview mirror, at my precious child, who was so beautiful, so determined, so confident in her choices and who she was. I knew, that in that simple word, she had given me yet another sign. Another chance to accept who she was, or try and mold her into who I expected her to be.
I cleared my throat and tried to keep my voice light. “Well, you know, you can be a girl, if that is how you really feel. It might take a little while for us to always get it right, but we can call you my little girl and sister and daughter and she.” I paused. “Would you like us to try that?”
I kept my eyes on the rearview mirror as she quietly nodded her head.
“Okay,” I said, a lump in my throat, as I turned my gaze back to the road ahead of me, knowing that we had just crossed a threshold.
When my husband got home from work, I told him about the conversation in the car. But I knew he didn’t want to just take it from me. That he wanted his own chance to hear from his child that this was what she truly wanted.
That night, when tucking our youngest into bed, he asked:
Would it make you more happy, the same amount of happy, or less happy, if I said, “Goodnight my sweet girl” instead of “Goodnight my sweet boy”?
She looked up at him with a smile as big as the moon. “More happy,” she said, as she squeezed him tight.
We’ve never looked back.
She has flourished since we’ve changed pronouns. She is happy and confident and radiant and comfortable in her skin in a way that she wasn’t before. Her personality emerged, full force, once she was fully able to be herself.
Her older sister has been incredibly supportive the entire time. Once we read the book “I Am Jazz” and gave her the framework to understand what being transgender was, she never questioned it. A few months ago, she even turned to me and asked: “Mom, do you ever wonder what it would have been like to have boys?” That is how fully she considers her sibling her sister.
We are fortunate that we chose to give our child a gender-neutral name upon her birth, so we were not confronted with difficult task of choosing a new name with our child, a process that I imagine can feel like a loss for some parents. But the truth is, our little girl today is the same little two year old who wanted to twirl in tutus. The same little girl who drew those self-portraits at school. My child hasn’t changed at all through this transition.
We just see her more clearly now.