When my daughter was four, she started insisting that she had to stand up to pee. By second grade, she was dressing only in her brother’s hand-me-downs and asking me to buy her boy’s underwear. I told her that if I loved Star Wars as much as she did, I’d be wearing boys underwear too.
Around this same time, my daughter also started to have severe stomach aches which led to repeated trips to the doctor. Eventually the doctor recommended she see a therapist, citing stress as the cause of the stomach aches. The therapist saw her several times then told me she had no concerns.
In third grade, she insisted on wearing a suit and tie for her school picture, and begged me to let her be on the boys basketball team. I started asking my friends if they thought her behavior was extreme, but they all focused on the positives — her adventuresome nature and confidence. They told me not to worry, reassuring me that they also knew lots of tomboys growing up who turned out to be very feminine adults. But deep down, I was skeptical.
Shortly after she started middle school, my daughter started to slide emotionally. In addition to the continued stomach aches, she felt frequently (and acutely) sad, and her older brother told me that she was always alone at school. Later that year, she started to become ill more often, not only with frequent stomach aches, but also headaches and sore throats. Most alarming were the tremors she developed. Resembling those of someone with advanced Parkinson's, they would start in the evening and keep her up most of the night.
So I did what I could: I scheduled more doctor’s appointments. Though I decided that this time I wasn’t going to let myself tell them it was in her head. Yet test after test came back inconclusive. And even though my daughter showed up to each and every appointment dressed as a boy, none of her health care providers suggested that she may be transgender.
I knew she was dreading puberty and it made me so sad to see my daughter rejecting her body. I tried to talk to her about how wonderful it is to be a woman, the miraculous things our bodies can do. She looked deeply embarrassed and closed her eyes every time I brought it up. So I finally just backed off.
Then, one day, I walked out of a meeting, looked at my phone and there were multiple texts from her:
Did you get my email?
Can you read my email please?
Mom, can you call me as soon as you read my email?
Mom, are you mad at me? I hope you're not mad.
I quickly opened her email and the first line read: “Mom I know you think this is a phase, but it’s not. I’ve always felt like I was a boy. It’s so hard for me to live in a girl’s body that sometimes I want to die. Almost every day I think about hurting myself. I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long, long time. I hope you’re not mad at me, but I’m a boy. I’ve always wanted to be a boy.”
I felt completely disoriented. I picked up the phone, put on my most reassuring voice and called her: “Sweetie, thank you so much for telling me. I love you so much, I’m so proud of you and I just want you to be happy.”
The next few weeks were spent learning more about what it means to be transgender. I talked to teachers, physicians and found a psychologist who works with transgender people. I learned that as a fetus develops, gender identity and biological sex develop separately. My child's brain literally was telling him that he's a boy. After several appointments and discussions with the school, we decided that it was best to support my son in fully expressing his gender identity in all areas of his life.
Our school district has clear policies for transgender kids: children who consistently express their gender identity are allowed to live as that gender at school. That means they are referred to by their preferred pronouns, they are included in the appropriate sports teams, and that they use the appropriate locker rooms and restrooms.
The thought of my child using the boy's locker rooms and boy's restrooms terrified me. It took several meetings with his therapist to finally get me to understand the importance of allowing him to fully express who he is. We were weighing the risk of severe depression or suicide versus the risk of bullying. I had to let go and trust that the kids would respect my son's right to express his gender identity and so far they have. In fact, they gave him an award for having the courage to authentically live as who he is. One of the kids even asked why the adults were making such a big deal about it.
Eighth grade has been an incredible turn around for my son. He's started to become "one of the guys," and has a group of rambunctious and sweet friends who love to make films and skateboard together. His friends have tried to help him get a girlfriend, but he's shy and keeps wondering why the boys always have to do the asking. His grades are back up and he's hoping to be a physician someday. He is so happy.
I have to be honest: I'm still wrapping my head around all of this both intellectually and emotionally, Our culture is, and always has been, very fixated on gender, especially the gender of kids. While many of us encourage fluidity in gender roles, the idea that you're either a boy or a girl is still very prevalent. But it's not the truth.
The truth is that there are a variety of hormones that go into creating our physical biological sex and a variety of hormones that go into determining the gender inside of our brain.
For parents of transgender children, the grief is profound and confusing: one on hand you have to let go of what you thought to be true, on the other hand there is the beauty of seeing your child thrive. I've lost my daughter. That's hard. Yet, at the end of the day I've got a happy, healthy child who is engaged in life and exploring his passions and that makes my heart soar.