A girlhood is a delicate thing, a shimmering web through which we see the world, a way of being seen. One of the challenges of motherhood is letting go of our preconceived notions of who our children will be and seeing them for who they are; seeing them as they see themselves. This becomes especially important when it come to a child’s gender identity. The threads of gender identity woven through the memoir A Girlhood: Letter to My Transgender Daughter arise from several sources. The book surveys the biological, social, and spiritual elements of gender, but most fundamental to the story is the idea of gender as a sense, one of those basic, ineffable factors that defines who we are. In this way, gender becomes a spiritual facet of the self, something to honor in your child. Author Carolyn Hays write that this is “a sense of self, a sense of gender, truly a sense, as in one of the senses.” Gender is part of the fundamental basis for who we are. Seeing her child for who she is, born male but identifying as female, and protecting this identity becomes a sacred part of Hays’s mission as a mother.
Hays writes in a direct second-person address to her daughter who, born with “all the exteriors and blunt framework clear” as male, asserts from age three that she is a girl. While the story begins with a dive into the “biology, genetics, neurology, and endocrinology” of gender, it’s quickly evident that none of this really matters; what’s important is honoring the sense that is her daughter’s selfhood. When her daughter starts to talk, she refers to herself as female. Hays and her husband have a conversation about this, wondering if their child learned to talk just to let them know they’d gotten her gender wrong. “This was a kind of flowering, a bloom of language,” Hays writes of her daughter’s burgeoning ability to describe herself, adding, “You were telling us who you were.” The most important part of mothering this particular child is giving her the girlhood she deserves.
Hays writes under a pseudonym, indicative of the fierce love and protective energy that simmers in this book. Carolyn Hays is a critically acclaimed, bestselling author. But for this work of memoir, Hays does not use her recognizable name. She writes under a pseudonym for the privacy of her daughter, and for her daughter’s protection. In this way, the use of a pseudonym intertwines with plot and structure. The pivotal turning point in the narrative, the dividing line between before and after, is not the discovery of, grappling with, and acceptance of her child’s gender identity; instead, it is an ominous knock on the door. The need for pseudonym and privacy is one born of necessity.
Hays describes her family as busy and active, fun and loud. She and her husband are northerners with four children; they are living in the Bible Belt when the book begins. The transition of their daughter in the first part of the book entails some wrestling with the inevitable transphobia we all carry, but all in all the family accepts their daughter’s identity and supports her fully. In an interaction between Hays and her daughter, her daughter asks Hays to use the pronoun she when referring to her beauty. “In this moment, talking about your beauty, I knew that you were talking about your divinity, your soul, your deepest sense of self,” Hays writes. There’s a spiritual element of acceptance in Hays’s mothering, a sacredness in seeing her child for who she is. The book’s focus isn’t on grappling with gender identity, or even acceptance of it, but instead pivots to a knock on the door from the Department of Children and Families, which heralds an investigation of the family and the very real possibility of losing their daughter.
Tipped off anonymously, social services open an investigation into the Hays family. It readily becomes apparent that a judge in this conservative part of the country could remove their daughter from the home because of her transition. Calling on their friends, family, and community, some of whom are lawyers and activists, they quickly create a binder of evidence that transitioning is their daughter’s wish and that they’re a stable family. “We listed everyone we thought would be helpful in an investigation,” Hays writes, adding:
Our friends, it turns out, had jobs that were applicable. We reached out to one of the nurse practitioners who attended your birth, a city commissioner, a social worker, a well-known psychologist, a minister and his wife, a religious studies professor. There was my Catholic mother, my legal-minded father, friends who’d known us for ages, a few of the babysitters who’d known you since birth. We got a note from your pediatrician, a letter from the founders of your school.
A local trans person in a support group Hays attended shares the universally applicable principle that “They always blame the mother.” Hays decides that “in order to maintain the structure of men and manliness at the highest power,” (thanks, patriarchy) she would take the blame and leave the household if that’s what was necessary to keep their daughter at home.
The family calls an expert who has a checklist to assess their risk of losing their daughter; it is a “checklist of privilege. Are you white? Yes… It started there.” They’re married, straight, and have enough money to hire a lawyer. Aware of and interrogating this privilege, Hays addresses her fear and concern for the families that don’t check all the boxes, as well as the fact that her family participates in the injustice of this system to protect their daughter. Their privilege and preparedness hold; the judge rules their daughter can stay. The book circles back in the end to the pivotal moment of using this privilege, using everything they had, to keep their child. “I was haunted by what would have happened to us if we were Black or brown or poor or not married and gay, lesbian, transgender or queer… I was haunted by the stories I didn’t know—of those who had to fight harder to keep their children or who ended up losing custody,” Hays writes.
The family decides that living under the constant threat of another knock at the door necessitates moving to a liberal state. While the book doesn’t specifically mention where they lived and where they moved, Hays writes that at the time of the knock on the door they lived in a “southern state with Republican-appointed judges.” Their daughter chooses not to out herself as trans in their new home (described as a liberal New England college town) and lives as the girl she is. While they’re able to breathe a bit in this location with its statewide institutional protections of trans people, the family faces insurance difficulties, awkward new social situations, and brushes with lack of acceptance of the ways in which femininity is expressed. Of note is a section in which Hays lobbies to get her daughter accepted to a Catholic all-girls school, launching an exploration of Catholicism, spirituality, and transness that was highlighted in an article about spiritual books on Oprah Daily. “Because of you,” Hays writes of her daughter, “I see God everywhere. […] It’s because you make love so easy. Looking at you—your deep abiding grace—has changed the way I look at others.” While the Catholic school does not accept their daughter, Hays uses theology and logic to attempt to make headway in changing how the church views trans children.
Throughout, Hays shares stories of trans people in cultures around the world and throughout history. She draws on the history of the queer community and trans activism. The overall effect is one of interconnectedness, of past and present, science and spirituality, of the world that arches over her daughter. This book resonates with warmth and love the author shares with her family. I found the second person address created a sense of intimacy and connection. This you is the writer’s daughter, but it’s also all of us who are here to listen and learn. The structure, pivoting around the knock at the door, generates a narrative tension for the themes and nuances to hang on. A Girlhood addresses the sense of erasure when transness is superficially accepted and seen as unremarkable; I don’t want to contribute to that by over-emphasizing other aspects of the story. This book is absolutely about being transgender, as well as a love story, a portrait of a family who fill each other’s lives with comfort and support. “I’ve promised to protect you so that you can have a girlhood,” Hays writes. “But there is nothing simple here. Girlhood isn’t simple. I won’t sugarcoat what has always been sugarcoated by our culture. Girlhood isn’t sweet. It requires vigilance, toughness, and a clear sense of your own power.” A Girlhood is a luminous example of feminine power, of the protectiveness of motherhood as your child finds their place within our interconnected world. This story of a transgender child and the fierceness of a family’s security, acceptance, and radical love will appeal to all those with wildly beating mother-hearts.