“Did you get a picture, Mom? Did you get a video? Airdrop it to me.” LJ’s smile could stop a caribou in its tracks. “That didn’t hurt a bit.”
“That” was an injection of testosterone, LJ’s first, administered at a downtown Vancouver clinic by a young nurse, who patiently explained the process before wiping an inch of exposed skin with alcohol and jabbing a tiny needle into tender teenage flesh. Testosterone, or “T” as many trans youth call it, is a masculinizing hormone. It lowers the voice, changes patterns of fat distribution and hair growth, stops menstruation. T is the stuff that makes men of boys—and boys of girls.
The prick of the needle may have felt insignificant to LJ, but it wasn’t as painless for me. Invited along to document an important milestone and determined to support my only child—a smart, funny, and talented nineteen-year-old—I hoped I performed my part with grace. But my head hadn’t throbbed as much since my own teenage misadventures with powerful drugs, and I can’t pretend this was my easiest parenting hour.
I wasn’t surprised when LJ, adopted from China as a baby girl, came out as gay. Nor was I taken aback, a few years later, when they said they thought they might be nonbinary. Ever since they turned five, they’d made it clear they weren’t a “girly” girl. They didn’t like dresses. Didn’t wear pink. Cuddled a vast collection of stuffed animals, but never played with dolls. And they balked at the instructions for the fairy-tale themed birthday party, where each guest was supposed to dress as her favorite princess.
“I don’t want to go as Snow White or Cinderella,” LJ said. “I want to go as a wolf.”
“A wolf?” I had to admit, I liked the kid’s attitude.
“Sew me a costume. Please?”
The prospect of crafting usually makes me meaner than Maleficent, but LJ’s gap-toothed grin persuaded me. I sewed the costume. Or, rather, I patched it together with the help of a glue gun. While the other mothers hunted down crinolines or tiaras, I stalked our local thrift stores in search of a small gray sweat suit and embellished it with fake fur. Considering my lifelong ineptitude in the womanly domestic arts, I thought it was a decent effort. In the photos, LJ’s bushy tail stands proud against a dozen gold and purple and crimson skirts.
Throughout LJ’s childhood, I tried to support their less conventional choices. I never—or almost never—pressured them to act or look more stereotypically feminine. I introduced them to my queer friends. Sent them to a camp for LGBTQ+ kids. Filled their room with books and music by gender variant people. Learned to call them by a new, more androgynous-sounding name instead of the one I’d oh-so-carefully chosen. I even got used to plural pronouns.
Still, the mom in me was struggling. LJ said they were nonbinary. Female didn’t fit, but neither did male. Why, then, did they want to look more masculine? And why inject themselves with strong chemicals to achieve that result? Especially when potential side-effects include aggression, infertility, liver damage, weight gain, diabetes, heart trouble. What if they lost their health? And what if they changed their mind? Some of the hormone’s effects resolve if a person stops taking it. But some effects are permanent. There’s no going back.
LJ couldn’t answer these questions. In their more reflective moments, they even confessed to some of the same concerns. When it came right down to it, they weren’t a hundred percent sure testosterone was right for them. But they’d researched. They’d given it thought. Some instinct told them they were on the trail of something important, something true. And now, as they buttoned up their shirt after the injection, they shared their rising hope.
“Did you get a close-up, Mom? I’m so excited!”
Despite my apprehensions, I had to stifle a laugh. After all, the person who claimed the T injection “didn’t hurt a bit” was the same person who at the age of three had crawled under a doctor’s examining table and stayed there for almost an hour in a desperate bid to avoid a vaccination.
I was also conscious of a deeper irony. LJ was born female in a country with a traditional preference for boys and a ruthless system for regulating women’s fertility. During the years of the one-child policy, many girl babies, like LJ, were abandoned to make way for hoped-for sons. If LJ had been born male, they would probably still be living in a village somewhere in Zhejiang Province. They would never have been abandoned, would never have wound up in an orphanage, would never have been adopted. And they’d never have come to North America, where gender variance, although often derided or suppressed, is far better tolerated than it is in China.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for LJ’s birth mother to relinquish her baby, to wrap her in layers against the November chill, set her down near a hospital gate, and walk away. Surely, as the beneficiary of this woman’s loss, I hold my adopted child in a kind of trust. But what, I wonder, would LJ’s birth mother say if she could see her baby now? Would she embrace the “son” she’d longed for but never known? Or would she scold me for raising such an unorthodox daughter? Had I failed to honor the terms of our implicit contract, or was LJ’s persistence in pursuing their divergent path a sign of how well I’d succeeded?
If psychologist Erik Erikson is right, the search for identity is a teenager’s most important developmental task. Adoption muddles the work, especially transracial adoption, like ours. When you’ve never seen your features reflected in your parents’ faces, the question of who you are becomes especially acute. I knew that. I’d expected LJ’s path might include some rockier patches and some extra steps. I thought I’d prepared myself. But I hadn’t bargained for the onset of a second puberty, the chest binder in the wash basket, the sharps container in the bathroom. And it’s hard for a parent to stand serenely to one side while her already-complicated teen makes decisions that only seem to multiply those complications.
Hard for this parent, anyway. Maybe anxiety is baked into my DNA. My late mom had many admirable qualities, but no one would claim adaptability to change was one of them. Throughout my teens and young adulthood, her face seemed set in a permanent frown–and I was the cause.
At sixteen, I experimented with drugs. At nineteen, I withdrew all my savings from the bank, packed a bag, and set off for Europe with my boyfriend. I started and left jobs and educational programs the way some people flirt with diets, and every time I did, my mother forecast a future for me in debtor’s hell. She never warmed to my first husband, but when I started an affair and divorced him, she acted as if she were the one I’d betrayed. For years, she barely acknowledged my second husband, and to her dying day she never developed a relationship with my stepchildren. As for my fertility treatments–for, in yet another irony, LJ is not the only person in this family to have injected subcutaneous hormones–my mother didn’t want to talk about them.
When hormones failed to help me get pregnant, my husband and I visited Mom to tell her we were adopting a child from China. I don’t know what reaction I was hoping for, but it wasn’t the one we got. She changed the subject. She lit a cigarette and turned away.
“Mom? Did you hear what I said?”
She ignored me. I sat across the room on the floral-patterned couch, paralyzed with confusion, disappointment, fury. Smoke wafted upwards, clogging my throat and obscuring my view of her icy eyes, but the frown lines on her face had never looked more definitive. Even when my husband confronted her, she wouldn’t congratulate us. That’s how deeply she distrusted the unpredictable future.
Now that she’s gone, I don’t blame Mom for her instinctive fear of risk. She only wanted to protect me. Occasionally, she was even right. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt me to pay more attention to her warnings about illegal drugs and two-faced friends and men with oversized egos.
But the choices my mother feared most for me–travel, marriage, divorce, career changes, remarriage, step-parenthood, adoption–these have led to my most enduring joys. Has my life been easy or simple or free of pain? No. But taking those risks–whatever their costs–taught me how to read my inner compass and trust in where it pointed.
If there’s one thing I want to bequeath my child, it’s that kind of confidence. When I’m gone, I don’t want LJ to remember me for my frown lines and my fears. I want them to remember how I believed in them.
After the injection, we took a bus home. LJ put on their headphones and closed their eyes. I looked out across the water. It was a cloudy spring afternoon. I couldn’t see the towering Coast Mountains for the mist. A tourist new to the city wouldn’t even guess they were there, would have to take their existence on faith.
LJ’s path isn’t mine, any more than my path was my mother’s. But I can stand beside them and honor their intuitions in the face of our shared doubts for as long as they want me there. Maybe their choices will bring them unbridled joy. Maybe those choices will plunge them into deeper confusion and despair. More likely, a bit of both. Either way, they’re an alpha wolf, leading us toward a wilder place, where people are free to defy rigid stereotypes, free to imagine. I don’t know how long it will take for this new, more open and generous world to emerge from the mists. But I trust in young adults like LJ to guide the way.