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.