In true Melissa fashion, I’m writing this post late into the evening when I should be headed to bed. But, I know that sleep won’t come until I untangle the knots of emotions that are holding my eyelids open.
We’ve hit the next stage in our journey raising a transgender child. Up until now, our choices and decisions did not require a medical intervention. Deciding if we would allow our child to wear clothing normally worn by females, using female pronouns, allowing our child to socially transition to a female, introducing our child to others as a female. None of those decisions required a prescription.
Puberty always felt a long way off. I swear these children just came out of me yesterday, but this year they have lockers, a school dance, need deodorant, and drink an impossible amount of milk each week. Where did the time go? How have we gone from baby bottles and diapers to a first dance dress and a discussion about personal hygiene?
I was suspicious that we might be getting close to puberty when I saw that some of the kids who were boys last May were suddenly young men in September. And recent lab work confirmed that it is time to start puberty blockers.
Conner was so relieved that she started crying. It is exhausting to constantly be worrying that your body will betray you and that the doctors might miss it until it is too late. Since the labs had been drawn, she’d spent more than one day in bed, overcome by nausea as her anxiety climbed. When we told her that the prescription for blockers was being sent in, her relief was evident by the school bus wide smile she wore for the rest of the day.
What she didn’t see, was her mom break down in tears upon seeing the message from the doctor. Why all the tears from mom? Good question.
That’s maybe a little bit why I’m here tonight typing instead of playing Township on my phone as I wait for sleep to come.
I’ve had to sort out my mix of emotions and that involved reaching out to a few trusted moms who also have transgender kids.
“I’m a mess and I’m feeling too many things,” I cried.
“Yes, we did the same thing too,” they reassured me.
It has helped to list my emotions and I’m hoping this will help another parent in a similar hot mess of emotions.
First and foremost, I’m crazy happy for my child. She feels so validated that her parents and her medical providers recognize that she needs blockers. It confirms to her that we believe her and that she won’t have to go through a male puberty. Her happiness is infectious.
I’m beyond relieved that we can stop wondering when puberty will start. I keep watching her friends show the tell-tale signs of puberty and then I look at both my children to see if I can recognize any of these signals in them. I’ve pestered my husband and his mother about when puberty started for him (to no avail, it’s like he’s blocked it out of his mind). It has caused me so much stress that it only compounds my anxiety about what this has been like for her.
I’m sad. I’m sad that she has to have a medical intervention to be who she is. I’m sad that she carries so many burdens. I’m sad that she had to wonder if she would get the medical intervention she needed to block male puberty.
I’m also angry. Why couldn’t she have been born with a female body? Why does she have to go through this? Why does it have to be so hard for her?
I feel guilty. Did I do something wrong in my pregnancy that put her in the wrong body? Could I have somehow prevented the pain that she feels? Should I be more worried about the long-term effects of puberty blockers than I am?
I’m confused. Is it wrong to feel this way? Does it lessen her identity as a transgender female to wonder if I could have prevented this? Does it make me a bad ally to wish that she has been born into the body she identifies as? Is it normal and okay to feel guilty and confused?
My children are identical twins. Even though one has long hair and a mole on her cheek they are otherwise identical. What will happen when her brother continues with male puberty and she doesn’t? How will they begin to look different? Will it be hard to watch one become what the other feared she would be? How will my identity change as feeling like a mother of identical twins even if it has been years since I told anyone they are identical? Will it be hard to watch one develop while the other waits? Will my relationship with them change as they begin to look different?
Will their relationship change? Will it hurt her relationship with him when she watches him become what she feared?
I don’t have the answers. But I do have the knowledge that we’ll take each day as it comes together as a family. I do know that we are strong and we love each other and we will get through whatever comes ahead.
And I do have the absolute conviction that we are making the best decision for her.
When I last wrote, I was describing the day that I thought we might have to take Conner to the hospital because of how upset he was. It had been building for weeks despite our efforts to assure him that there were all kinds of ways to be a boy. He didn’t have to like footballs and Nerf guns. It was okay to be a boy and like pink sparkly items, to wear dresses, or to play with dolls. Conner would spend a day or two telling the neighborhood children that he was a boy who liked dresses, but then he would go back to telling them that he was really a girl and his name was Lisa.
A week after Operation Tinkerbell Panties (henceforth, known as OTP), we drove six hours to meet with an amazing therapist, Sharon Black, LCPC. She was wonderful and at once made us feel less isolated and confident that all would (eventually) be well. She met with us twice over the weekend for several hours at a time. She confirmed that Conner showed strong signs of Gender Identity Disorder (now called Gender Dysphoria) and wrote a letter with her recommendations to our pediatrician.
We worked together as a group, parents and therapist, to come up with a plan that Mike and I were comfortable with. We decided to allow Conner to lead us while still creating boundaries. Instead of throwing out all the boy’s clothing articles, we simply added in a few girl clothing items to the dresser and allowed Conner the choice. We stopped forcing the issue of calling him a boy and instead reinforced that we loved him no matter who he was.
“Mom-mom, I’m not a boy,” he would say. “Conner, I love you no matter what. It doesn’t matter to mommy and daddy. We want you to be yourself. Be who you are.”
This initially took a lot of pressure off. We were able to maintain things for several weeks. It wasn’t long, however, before Conner began insisting that we recognize him as a girl. He became quite insistent that we stop referring to him as “he.” So, we tried removing all gender pronouns.
I dare you to try it for one day. It is NOT easy.
Again, this bought us a little time, but before the week was out, Conner became quite insistent that we start calling him “she” and “her.” He had been telling us for months that he was a girl, and wanted us to recognize him as such. So, after a discussion with our therapist and our pediatrician, we introduced our daughter into the world two weeks before her fifth birthday. We kept the name Conner for several reasons though she wanted us to call her Lisa Tinkerbell. I was NOT going to call my daughter Tinkerbell. We wanted to move as slowly as we could to see if Conner was going to remain feeling like a girl. And, we wanted to maintain some boundaries. I thought the name Conner was really cool for a little girl. She didn’t push the name change very hard and we were relieved. When I see my child, I see someone named Conner no matter the gender identity.
We crafted a letter to send to our family and friends. I will post it to a menu link (once I find it) so it’s available for others to use. We drafted it from a combination of letters used by other families so I can’t really claim that it’s ours.
Both the kids were excited about their upcoming birthday. Murphy had been giving us a list of desired birthday gifts for weeks. Conner was, as usual, fairly silent on the issue which surprised me. We flopped down on the bed one afternoon to discuss it.
“Conner, what do you want for your birthday?” I asked.
“I don’t know. What does Murphy want for his birthday?” Conner replied.
“He tells me he wants a really big Nerf gun that shoots lots of darts,” I told her.
“That would be okay,” she told me.
“Really? That’s what you want for your birthday?” I asked her.
“Sure, that would be fine, “she said.
I thought about it for a minute trying to figure out why she hadn’t asked for something more, well . . .girly.
“Conner, if you could pick out any toy from any aisle in the store, the boy’s aisle or the girl’s aisle, what would you pick?” I asked her.
“Really, mom-mom?” she asked, her eyes bright, voice incredulous. “Any aisle?”
“Any aisle,” I assured her.
Holy cow. I was unprepared for the onslaught of items. A Barbie, a princess dress up kit, a make-up kit, pretend jewelry, a pink (it had to be pink) electric keyboard, a Hello Kitty doll, a pink bedspread, more dresses, barrettes for her hair. She became so animated and excited that it was completely infectious. I assured her that I would do the best I could and went to break some expensive, though not unexpected, news to my husband.
We actually had a lot of fun buying birthday gifts for the kids. I was prepared for it to be a repeat of The Dress shopping experience, but we had a blast. It was typical for our families to send money in lieu of shipping actual gifts, so we had a nice little collection going to make the fifth birthday a memorable one.
And it was memorable. I have this fantastic photo of Murphy holding a Nerf gun the size of his body, and Conner sitting on the couch next to him dressed in a princess gown, complete with tiara, playing on her pink electric toy keyboard. To this day, it remains one of my favorite birthday photos of them.
I experienced a lot of guilt, initially, that I had never considered taking my kids down the pink aisles at the store. It hadn’t ever crossed my mind to do so and Murphy never expressed an interest in those items. Conner may have asked once or twice though I can’t remember her ever making a big deal out of it.
Conner was never really a child that demanded a lot of attention in comparison to her brother. She wasn’t quick to anger though once she did get angry it was quite an outburst. She rarely threw temper tantrums. She was infrequently the instigator in twin shenanigans. Our family used to laugh that Murphy was the first one to attempt a new feat and Conner would learn from his mistakes. It’s really hard to have two children at the same level of development and not make comparisons. But, all in all, and for lack of a better term, Conner was my easier child. She was my snuggly little bug who loved to sit on Mommy’s lap and listen to stories, my child who rarely made waves.
So, it was with complete surprise to the rest of us that Conner blossomed into a carefree, albeit opinionated, little diva that summer. We would stand back and watch her go toe-to-toe with her brother over toys, what game to play next, and when it was not okay to touch her stuff. She initially insisted on wearing only dresses and fancy shoes, but she also loved to play hard outside and quickly realized that pink shorts allowed her to express her fashion sense and still play like she wanted to. We joked that the princess had escaped from her tower and she was not going back in.
I won’t go into a lengthy description of how we mourned the loss of our son. To be honest, we really didn’t have a prolonged sense of loss. We missed the Conner we had known, sure. But, we were so blown away by the child that was blossoming before us that it quickly put to rest any doubts that we weren’t doing the right thing. Her happiness was so evident that even her pediatrician was stunned by the transformation. Knowing it was the right decision helped a lot. Yes. I missed my little boy.
But, I would absolutely rather have a happy daughter than a suicidal son.
I want to be completely clear. We were probably on the verge of hospitalizing our child because of how distressed she had become because of her discomfort with her male body. This was not a choice that Conner made. Looking back, Conner had been leaving us clues for as long as I can remember. She did not choose this. We did not choose this. Conner wasn’t’ born a boy. Conner was born transgender. I have the benefit now of retrospection which is why I can say that with confidence. Many years ago, we made the decision to love our child unconditionally and allow her to lead us in the direction she needed to go which was terrifying, but the alternative was worse. The options before us were drugs or a dress. The choice was clear. Not every family needs to transition their child and I usually encourage parents to start with the smallest changes necessary to bring their child out of distress and to be open to following their child’s lead. It looks different for every family and should be done with the help from a knowledgeable therapist and a supportive pediatrician.
I’d like to talk a little bit about Murphy’s response to all of this.
Initially, Murphy seemed to adjust much faster than the rest of us. He seemed unsurprised by Conner’s declaration that she was a girl. It didn’t seem like it fazed him at all. We attempted to give Murphy as much attention as Conner was getting during the time of transition. We didn’t want him to think that it was better to be a girl than a boy, so he got a lot of fun new items too. It was not a cheap summer.
As the months wore on and Conner remained a girl, Murphy began to grieve the loss of his twin brother. He would barter with Conner that he would give her one of his favorite toys if she would turn back into a boy again. She would give him a big hug and tell him that she’d pretend to be a boy for a few hours if it would make him feel better. We had many discussions that it was completely okay to miss his brother. We encouraged him to talk about it, we had him see a therapist for a short time, and we allowed him the room to cry and share his anger and sadness. We discussed how important it was that everyone had the right to be whatever and whomever they wanted to be. But we also gave him the time he needed to adjust. It was a confusing and stressful time for all of us, and I can only imagine how stressful it was for my son to lose his identical twin brother.
About six months after Conner transitioned, Murphy decided to wear a dress to kindergarten. It was during a particularly rough patch for him. We didn’t make a big deal out of it at all and assumed that it was his way of trying to feel closer to Conner. Apparently, several of the classroom girls and a few boys complimented Murphy on his outfit, but by that evening he decided that jeans were more his speed.
Slowly, over about a year, Murphy adjusted to having a sister. It seemed that whenever they reached a new developmental milestone, Murphy had a few days of sadness and grief. These days, however, Murphy is Conner’s biggest advocate at school. They have the type of relationship that I expect most twins have. They yell at each other, then they hug and make up while they scheme plots to overrun the grown-ups.
In the beginning, it felt like gender issues were a constant and demanding presence in our household. As the months slipped by, however, life returned to a new normal. Gender issues are a quiet background hum underneath the hectic tune of our busy lives. Issues crop up, but they aren’t always gender-related. Life moves forward and sometimes we seem downright boring. I say this to all the parents out there who may have found this blog in their search for answers with a child who is gender non-conforming or transgender. The beginning can be terrifying and uncertain.
Did that take you back to the Sound of Music? You’re welcome. How can anyone be unhappy singing songs from the Sound of Music?
But, honestly, I was just using the catchy start of a song to introduce the beginning of our journey. Our family story starts with the birth of identical twins which were brought into this world as undramatically as a twin birth can be. So, you know, 16 people, two incubators, and me cursing in a surgical suite. All of which is completely worth it when the end result is this magical combination.
We dubbed the first year of their life as “The Sleepless Year” and while I wish I could give you details of their growth and development, I just don’t remember it. We might have been the inspiration for The Walking Dead except we were happy zombies covered in the human gore of spit up and baby poop rather than blood and brains.
As toddlers, Murphy was pretty happy with balls, trucks, and firemen. Conner would play with those things too until my (very fashionable) sister walked through the door. Then, Conner was pulling off my sister’s bracelets, necklaces, and high heels and clomping around the house dressed to the nines. I have scads of photos for proof. My husband and I both thought it was cute and interesting in that what’s-happening-here kind of way, and decided not to make a big deal out of it. We were striving to gain progressive parenting street cred after all. Open book honesty, I began wondering if Conner would grow up to be gay. He took so much joy out of beautiful sparkly things and in my ignorance, it was the only connection that I came up with.
Right before the kids turned three we moved to the Twin Cities for my husband’s job. It was about six months later, on a visit back home, that my children learned that girls and boys have different bodies. I was changing the diaper on my four-month old niece and Conner came over to help. His little eyes bugged out when he realized that my niece was missing a very important piece of anatomy that he had. Actually, his favorite piece of anatomy. It was a delicate conversation explaining to my three year-olds that girls did not have penises. Yes, it was okay to feel sorry for them. No, it was not okay to show them yours.
What followed were months of Conner quizzing every person we met about the anatomy in their pants. It was horribly embarrassing. He also started asking daily why he had a penis and asking when it would go away. Everyday I told him that his body was perfect just the way it was because he was a boy. This became a ritual on the way to the babysitter’s house every morning for months. I’d never heard of this happening to any of my friends and didn’t know what else to do. I was hoping this was a phase all the while ignoring my mommy “spidey sense” telling me that something more was going on.
It was a few months into four years old when Conner asked for a dress. I immediately felt a clenching sensation in my chest that had become more and more familiar over the preceding months. When I asked him why he wanted a dress he explained that dresses were pretty when the skirt swirled out like a princess. We had spent the past several months seeing a soft blanket made into many different versions of a glamorous dress but the skirt could never swirl. My husband and I had a lengthy conversation about The Dress. My husband occasionally wore a Utilikilt and he wondered if this was Conner’s way of being like daddy. We were a little apprehensive but decided to go with the flow and not make a big deal out of it. I asked a few of the mother’s I worked with if their son’s ever asked to wear a dress. A few said their boys would try on a sister’s dress every now and then so I tried to tell myself not to worry. But, deep inside, I suspected this was related to the questions about being a girl and I began to worry.
It was a hard day looking for a dress. For my son.
I decided to be open and honest with you here at Non-Conforming Mom. It’s been tough to write about this. I sailed through the part about their birth, The Sleepless Year, and early toddler days. But I’ve been staring at the computer screen for hours trying to write about the next few months. I don’t want to over dramatize it, but at the same time, I want to convey how we felt as honestly as possible. I know many parents will read these words and I want to be genuine.
Shopping for a dress was really difficult. Much harder than I had anticipated. I went by myself expecting to cross it off my to-do list between running to the post office and picking up something for dinner. You know, no big deal. But I went from one store to the next feeling like every eye was on me-that woman who was buying a dress for her son. Obviously everyone in the mall knew I had two boys and had no occasion whatsoever to be shopping for a dress. What would they think? Then, there was the actual finding of the dress. Is this dress to pink? Too frilly? Not frilly enough? Does the skirt swirl? What if this starts something? And, then I would tell myself how silly I was being. Who cared if someone saw me buying a dress? Why shouldn’t I buy a dress? Screw you for judging me for buying a dress. Why was I even self-conscious about this? It was just a dress.
Yes, I was just a paragon of the freedom-of-gender-expression movement right there, folks.
I ended up buying two dresses; one for each of my children. I thought if I bought them each a dress it would somehow lessen the significance associated with giving Conner something so feminine. I was equal parts nauseous and anticipatory about how it would go over. I knew Conner would be thrilled about the dress which both scared and touched me. We want to make our children happy and I knew, beyond anything, that Conner would love this dress.
When I got home, I casually tossed the dresses to each of them. Why make a big deal, right? Murphy threw his on right over the jeans and long sleeve t-shirt he’d spent the day in. It was off in less than a minute; no exchange of conversation.
Conner took the dress and, as fast as his little hands could manage it, whipped off his jeans and shirt. He ran upstairs in his underwear and came back down wearing a sparkly headband I didn’t even know he had. He put the dress on and twirled. And he twirled. And he twirled. And he twirled.
It was in that moment that I realized how unhappy my child had been.
This beaming child twirling in the living room was not one I recognized. I didn’t know this happy carefree child. My child was quiet, pensive, a bit of a wallflower. He didn’t dance with glee. If you saw him with his brother you wouldn’t have remembered him. If you saw his picture, he’d be the twin without the smile. He wasn’t sad, per se, but he certainly wasn’t this. This bright glowing wisp of happiness dancing through my living room.
That day marked a change in how Conner dealt with his boy’s body. Over the next several months, we watched as Conner became more and more unhappy. He wore the dress every evening with a towel on his head like long hair. He asked more insistently when he would wake up and be a girl. When we talked about how great it was to be a boy, he cried. He drew pictures of himself in a puffy pink gown with long blond hair to the floor. He stopped touching his penis, even in the bathtub. He hated to be seen without underwear. He told the neighbors that his name was actually Lisa Tinkerbell.
And, then one day in early spring, I was on the way to Target with both of the kids. Murphy was talking about being a grown-up and getting to make his own rules. He wanted to have a goatee like daddy and work for the same company. Conner chimed in that he couldn’t wait to be a mommy and have a baby in his tummy. When I reminded him that he was a boy and would make a great daddy someday, he started to cry and told me (again) that he was a girl. I told him (again) that he had a penis which made him a boy. And then he told me that he wished his penis would go away. He was crying. I was crying. And I realized that I didn’t know any gay man who didn’t love his penis. This was something else.
I went home to Dr. Google and searched “my son wants to wear dresses” and “my son tells me he’s a girl.” I read terms like gender variant, gender non-conforming, transgender, transsexual, pink boys. It scared the shit out of me. I sat at the computer screen and sobbed as I read stories about boys who wore towels on their head like hair, wrapped blankets around their bodies like dresses, and told their parents they were girls. I watched a 20/20 interview with a transgender child named Jazz Jennings.
And, then I kind of freaked out. In my head, the whole ugly path of my child’s future unfolded. Teasing from peers, getting beat-up by bullies, dressed in drag and made fun of for the whole of his life. And I sobbed. The big ugly wracking sobs that shake your body and leave you with a horrible headache for days. I was literally nauseated at the thought that my child was transgender. I told you, I’m giving you the truth. I wanted to throw up. I was effing terrified. I recalled every death of every LGBT teen that I’d ever heard of. Every suicide. Every kid on drugs. Every drag queen.
I saw my child with long hair and a beard and I sobbed.
My poor husband was at a loss. He told me to stop looking at the computer because what I was reading was clearly upsetting me. He told me that Conner was going through a phase and we should just ignore it. He dove deeply into the farthest recesses of his man cave of denial and set up camp there.
I started calling specialists from one coast to the other. Children’s National Health Center, Gender Spectrum, TYFA, I called them all. I told them what was happening to our child who was getting more and more distressed by the day. I heard the same message from all of them: your child needs to be seen by a healthcare professional and evaluated for gender identity disorder.
In my relentless online search for what we should do while I searched for a therapist, I found two main options. The first, was to reinforce to my child that he was a boy. Be firm. Take away the pink, the dresses, the traditionally feminine items that brought him so much joy. Tell him how great it was to be a boy, downplay my part in family decision making, and make daddy the central figure in our home. Well. . .that was bullshit. We’d been telling him he was a boy for almost five years and clearly things were getting worse. His only joy were the girl items and I was supposed to take those items away?
The second option made me only slightly less uncomfortable. Your child says he’s a girl? Make him a girl. Change his name, throw out all the boy clothes, call him by female pronouns. Whoa, I wasn’t sure we were ready for all of that either.
Was there a middle ground? Something individualized to our family? I mean, my husband was still telling himself that this was a phase. I couldn’t find anyone close to us who specialized in gender issues, and I was ready for CPS to come knocking down the door any minute. Our very conservative babysitter was freaking out and all I could tell her was to stop talking about gender until we figured out what to do.
I’m not sure how we came by our therapist’s name. She was six hours away but I didn’t care. Her approach was something we could live with because it allowed us room to work with Conner. These were her three principles:
First, do no harm. Loving your child is never the wrong answer.
Second, everyone deserves to be who they are.
Third, make the smallest changes as possible to bring your child out of distress.
We had an initial phone consultation since we lived so far away and made an appointment to see her in two weeks. It was a few days later that I came home to find my puddle of a husband in front of the computer searching for “boys who want to wear dresses.” He had also come to the realization that this wasn’t a phase and Conner was getting worse. He felt the same way I did that there had to be a middle ground that was right for our family. We were hanging on for our appointment to arrive. We had purchased two girl’s t-shirts for Conner because it seemed to help him not be so upset.
A week before our appointment, Conner had an incident at the babysitter’s house where a child was teasing him about wearing a girl’s t-shirt. The babysitter made things worse by telling Conner that he could never actually be a girl, he could only pretend. When I came to pick the kids up that evening, Conner immediately told me what the babysitter said. It was the last time the kids ever went to her house.
I had never seen Conner so upset. He was agitated. He couldn’t sit still. He was babbling over and over, “Take me to the doctor to make my penis a ‘gina like a girl.” He was pacing through the house. My husband came home and we decided to spend the weekend as a family, go to the park, go out to lunch, shower the kids with love and attention, try and distract Conner from focusing on his body. When my husband ran to the chiropractor Conner asked if the doctor could turn his penis into a ‘gina. When we got in the car to go to the park, Conner asked if we were going to the doctor. When I picked up the phone, Conner asked if I was calling the doctor. When we were at McDonald’s, Conner told a child there about his concerns and was told that he should cut his penis off. So, we had to hide knives and scissors to keep our child from hurting his body.
I was ready to take him to the hospital when I thought I’d place a call to our therapist on the off chance that she answered on a Saturday. She did, and immediately suggested that we go and buy pretty sparkly panties to put that offending body part in. She gave us the words to say to calm Conner down. She offered to clear her schedule with her family the next day if we needed to drive to see her emergently. Instead, I told her to give me a few hours to see if we could get Conner to calm down.
I went to Target and bought the sparkliest Tinkerbell panties, pinkest shorts, and glitteriest top I could find. I bought a pink nightgown and pink frilly socks. I bought pink sparkly shoes. I bought Murphy something cool that I can’t remember so he wouldn’t think that being a girl was better than being a boy. I bought a bottle of wine. It was not a cheap trip. But, it did the trick. Conner immediately calmed down after a discussion and a change of clothes.
Let this be a lesson to us all. Sometimes, all you need are some kick-ass Tinkerbell panties to make it all better.
I need a break after all of that. So, I’ll continue with our story in the next post. Time to open a bottle of wine.