From the moment when the ultrasound technician told me my second pregnancy was a girl, I was so happy, dreaming of my daughter, who I imagined would be a strong feminist leader. Arriving in the world at close to ten pounds, Lucy was never a delicate flower and I reveled in how powerful she was. On her first Halloween, I dressed her as a baby professional wrestler, “Lucy the Liberator.” She talked so loudly, and so much, at 18 months that we joked she needed a volume control button. As she grew older, Lucy always spoke up when she was angry or sad. She let go of her temper or tears as soon as she was done feeling them, as easily as changing her t-shirt. She contorted her small features into silly faces, imitating monsters, bears, or her dad. She threw herself in the pool, into a game, into our family, always demanding for all three of us to be present. “Mommy, Daddy, Owen,” was her constant call. This is how I remember her: a powerful, determined little girl.
When she started middle school, Lucy wrapped herself in large sweatshirts and hid behind long uncombed hair. I thought she was going through the normal, awkward, adjustment to puberty, but in 2017, when she was 15, Lucy informed our family that she was a boy, not a girl. He chose the name Leo soon after. His brother, Owen, started using the male pronoun for him that same day. In what Leo felt as a bitter betrayal, I wasn’t able to change quite so fast. When I think of my children, I see them almost as Russian nesting dolls, each containing within them all their prior selves. Simultaneously, I see them learning to drive, to read, to talk. I see their first smiles. With Leo’s announcement, I wanted to draw a connection, a clear through line, from the chubby, happy baby Lucy to the person Leo wanted to be. But I couldn’t see it.
I sat on Leo’s bed one evening in December, the same year he first came out to us, after he had cut his long hair short and banished all girl clothes from his closet. The dark winter afternoon sat against the windows and I tucked my cold toes under the edges of his blanket. “I do love you, I always love you, but sometimes I feel sad about this. I was looking forward to sharing things with you as a woman that won’t happen now.” I knew I was having more trouble accepting this than his dad, and I thought maybe talking about it with Leo would help.
“Like what?” he asked, his voice low and angry.
“I don’t know.” Most of what flashed through my mind now seemed trivial and stupid, like shopping for a prom gown? Like talking about our experiences with sexism in the workplace? Like commiserating about period cramps? “Like maybe sharing the experience of being a mother,” I finally said.
“What if I never became a mother? What if I have a child with my partner as a dad? What’s so different? Why do parents even have to have expectations for their kids?” He turned away to his desk, facing his computer instead of looking at me.
The room was thickly quiet. I knew he was angry with me. I knew that it was hard to explain the grief I felt about no longer having a daughter without making it seem like I didn’t love the person he was now. I got up from the bed and put my hands on Leo’s shoulders and rubbed his neck. I kissed the top of his head. He did not relax into my touch.
“Go away,” he growled.
“I love you,” I said.
He mumbled back, relenting a little bit, “I love you.” He was furious at me for not being immediately supportive of his transition. He’d worked so hard to understand this about himself, and to unravel all his social conditioning and shame about being transgender to come out to us. He thought I would be fully supportive because I had always been so fiercely liberal; when I didn’t want to let go of having a daughter, it made him feel scared and alone with his new emerging self. I know this now. At the time, I only knew he was more angry at me than he’d ever been in his life, and I couldn’t understand why he wanted to become a boy when he could be a powerful, masculine woman.
“How do you know for sure you want to do this? Maybe you’ll change your mind?” I asked Leo as we finished dinner one night.
He grimaced. “It’s not like that. I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Why do you want to be a boy?” his dad asked.
“How do you know you’re a woman, Mom? Why do you think you’re a man, Dad? I can’t even have this conversation!” Leo slammed his chair into the table and rumbled down the hall into his bedroom. It was like living within a thunderstorm all the time. Every conversation could turn into a lightning strike.
After several months of this constant tension between us, I knew I had to find another way to develop my understanding about what it meant to be trans. That’s when I emailed Ethan, an acquaintance who I knew was trans, and asked him to meet. As I headed into the quiet cafe, the scent of coffee like a remedy for the cold February weather, I looked for the young man with the buzzcut. He was not normally the type I’d turn to for parenting advice, but I hoped Ethan might be able to answer some of my questions from his own experience. Questions that just caused arguments between me and my newly determined son.
Ethan joined me at a small round table after he’d gotten his coffee.
“Thanks for doing this,” I said.
He sighed a little and rubbed his short blond hair across the top. “I would do anything to help a young trans person.”
I winced a little, it probably didn’t feel good to talk about your gender identity with a practical stranger. “Please let me know if I ask anything too personal.” When he nodded, I opened my little notebook where I’d jotted down my questions and dove in. “How did you know you were trans?”
“It isn’t just the obvious things like having breasts or no facial hair. My wrists looked wrong to me, my voice sounded wrong. It is like your brain believes you are male and every time you look at any part of your body it looks like a mistake. The brain’s gender identity and the genitals develop at different stages in utero. Scientists now think for some of us, they also can develop in different directions.” Ethan also told me about the healing impacts of seeing his body change to become more masculine as he began hormone treatments.
How do we develop our internalized gender identity? I had never really thought about it before Leo came out to us. I remembered always wanting to do boy things, myself. I wanted to build with blocks in preschool, I wanted to be an astronaut in elementary school. In high school, I wanted to become a great writer like Emerson or Updike. But wanting to do things men do in the world is not the same as wanting to be a man.
After talking to Ethan, I came to understand the raw pain Leo felt existing in a world that didn’t see him for who he was. I understood, finally, that going around looking like a teenage girl when he knew he was a boy was as embarrassing as if he had to walk around naked every day. Soon after, we started working with Leo to help him change his body and his legal documents so they would align with his identified gender.
These days, it’s jarring to glimpse a photo of Leo’s long hair and blue striped dress from eighth grade graduation. Now I can see how the bright and powerful little three-year-old Leo who had tantrums and sang at the top of his lungs and demanded attention with infectious joy is a direct line to Leo the young man. He is a young man who changed his own destiny to be his true self. This person and the child I remember are one vibrant being and always have been. I was the one that had to adjust and realize that parenting a person all the way through, from infancy to adulthood, meant letting go of my imagined future daughter and opening my heart to the son I have.