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.
It gets better.