The cars whiz by, tires hissing on the wet asphalt, headlights cutting through the fog as I prepare to enter the freeway.
“Mom,” Margaret says. “I lied to you.”
“Lied?” My 14-year-old daughter is in the back seat. I strain to hear her voice.
“I’m not gay. I’m a boy. I’m transgender.”
This must be coming from the radio, not from my daughter.
The entrance ramp to the highway curves after a strip of commercial buildings. Cars continue to speed by. I see an opening in the traffic and accelerate.
Once in the middle lane, I say, “What did you say, Margaret?”
My daughter’s voice is barely audible. “I’m not a girl, I’m a boy. I want to become a man.”
A feeling of terror rises in me. Heat shoots up my back and neck and travels into my arms and hands. I brake hard. The car jolts. The rear wheels squeal like a dog being hit. The pickup truck behind me nearly smashes into my rear bumper. I speed up again and my heart palpitates.
“You mean—you want to change yourself? Turn yourself into a freak?” I immediately regret my words. They hover like an invisible wall, further separating the back seat from the front, like Plexiglas in a taxicab.
“I knew you wouldn’t listen.” Margaret’s tears come in a rush. I can see her through the rearview mirror. Her chest heaves. Why couldn’t I have kept my mouth shut?
The angry driver in the pickup pulls up beside us, glares at me, and screeches past. A smell of gasoline hangs in the air.
My body tenses. I feel pain under my left shoulder, an old injury flaring up. Margaret huddles against the car door, her breath fogging the glass. One of my hands clutches the steering wheel. With my other, I stretch back toward my daughter. Restrained by the seatbelt, my extended arm can’t reach her.
I want to curl into a ball, too, but I’m the mom and I’ve got to get us home.
I try to calm myself. We cross a bridge into a residential neighborhood, still very far from home. This must be a new phase of Margaret’s depression, I think, another issue to address with the therapist in this year-long journey our family has been on.
I fill the silence with more talk. There are many ways of being a girl, I say. Her new spiky haircut is just fine with me. Boys’ clothes. Why not? I repeat myself over and over. Occasionally, I meet her frozen, staring eyes through the rearview mirror. In a streaming monologue, I’m saying all the wrong things:
Why can’t you be a masculine girl?
You aren’t a boy.
It’s too dangerous.
Have you thought about the rest of your life?
What if they bully you at school?
I never saw any sign of this.
This came out of nowhere.
You don’t know who you are.
The 30-minute trip feels like the longest car ride of my life. In the circular conversation, I’m beginning to understand that Margaret truly believes she’s a boy—and has suffered with this thought for a long time.
“Mom,” my child says, “my name is now Noah, not Margaret. I want to be referred to as ‘he.'”
“Okay,” I say. I look at the road to steady myself. I feign acceptance because I don’t want to further upset her. “Noah. That’s a good name. Why Noah?”
“I don’t know. I just liked it.”
“Okay.” It feels like we’re in chapter one of some science fiction story. At any moment I’m going to drive off the road to our deaths, then we’ll wake up on another planet.
Slow down, go easy, I think. “Is that the name you want to go by at school?”
“Yes. Tell them that.”
And then I see it. For the first time in months, my child smiles.
* * * * *
I tell my husband, Robert, about “Noah.” He appears stunned but says nothing, his typical response when he needs to process something.
I have no idea what Robert’s thinking over the following days. I notice we’re moving toward acceptance, though; we both start to say “Noah” when addressing our child. We use the new name, not only because the family therapist recommends it, but because we can see before our eyes that our child’s depression is lifting.
Robert takes Noah shopping for boys’ jeans, button-up shirts, and plaid flannel briefs. He teaches him how to knot a tie. Bolstered by his new image, Noah starts attending school again one or two days a week. Up from zero, at least.
Yet, I obsess, brood, ruminate, overeat, and gain weight. I sob into the phone to friends. I don’t want to go along with this gender change, but for the sake of my child’s well-being, I need to try.
Lydia, Noah’s twin, knew of his forthcoming announcement months before Robert and I did. Our twins do not keep secrets from each other for long. Lydia’s ability to adapt is remarkable. I’m astonished when she tells me, “I always wanted a brother.”
One night, on the way back from family therapy, all four of us in the car, Lydia says, “Noah was always a boy. We just didn’t know it.”
“I did say it a few times,” Noah says. “I said it to Dad when I was four.”
Robert jams on the brakes for a speed bump. The car jolts. “Yes, he said that.”
I turn to Noah, trying to disguise the irritation in my voice. “I don’t remember you ever saying that. You were always boyish. Lydia, too. Neither of you ever played with dolls or wanted to wear a dress. But actually saying you were a boy, that’s news to me.”
We’re revising family history, and I’m the only one who can’t get with the program.
* * * * *
Oddly, I look forward to driving Margaret—Noah—back and forth to his many appointments, up to five a week, because he talks to me more in the car than at home. He. His. I am evolving. Noah curls up small in the back seat, always in the opposite corner, to avoid me. Or at least that’s the way it feels. He puts on his headphones. I hear faint, tinny sounds coming from his iPod. Occasionally, he takes off the headphones and wants to talk.
One day, on our way to a therapy session, about six weeks after his gender change announcement, Noah says, “Mom, can I have a binder?”
I stiffen. “What’s a binder?”
“It compresses your chest,” Noah says. “You know, so I can look more like a guy.”
My voice rises. “Like an ace bandage? That doesn’t sound safe.”
“It’s not an ace bandage. It looks like a tank top. It’s stretchy. It provides support, if you’re going down stairs or running. So your breasts don’t bounce.”
“Yours aren’t large enough to bounce.”
“Yeah, but they still hurt if I don’t wear a bra,” he says.
We keep driving. We stop at a light. Then another. He tells me about ordering binders online, how all the trans resources say they’re safe, how others in his trans teens support group wear them. There are binder bathing suits, too.
“Isn’t it dangerous to your breathing?” I say. “If you’re swimming in it, you might drown.”
“Mom, it’s just a shirt.”
“I’ll think about it.” What’s next? But I’m grateful we’re talking.
* * * * *
One day, looking chipper and boyish in a new button-up shirt and jeans, Noah opens the front seat passenger door and slips inside. He closes the door and fastens his seatbelt.
I sit up a little straighter. “I’m happy to see you up front,” I say.
He shrugs. “I felt like it.”
We drive on. How has this change happened? After a few months of us going back and forth to his various appointments, we’ve traveled enough miles that we could have gone halfway across the country by now. I think of all the things we’ve talked about: binders, the transition back to school as a different gender, an official name change, a hormone blocker to stop his periods. Over time, the dialogue has helped my child come back to life again.
Noah flips channels on the radio, half of a song of this, half a song of that, rolling down the window, letting his short spiky hair blow in the breeze. An uncertain future looms. I’m terrified of him making changes to his body and almost equally afraid of what others might say in response. We still have lots to work out about his being transgender and what I will, or will not, allow. But we chat now, too. Noah talks about his upcoming band trip. He talks about his teachers and his assignments. He muses about where he wants to go to high school next year. He’s happy. It feels like a miracle, along with the tips of the tree branches turning pink, as they prepare to unfurl their new leaves.
* * * * *
This is the first essay in my monthly column, Transformation, in which I share heartfelt moments of parenting identical female twins, one of whom discovers he was really meant to be a boy. These essays cover the twins’ last year of middle school and first year of high school, which become all the more challenging when one sibling undergoes two puberties, female and male. Although wary of the medical aspects of my child changing gender, I nevertheless encourage his mental health and emotional well-being by supporting his choices. As he creates the life he wants to live, I recreate my own.