Goodbye Grumblings

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What I learned from my trans daughter

About a year-and-a-half ago, Thing One told Husband and me she was transgender. How she came to understand that and how she found the courage to come out to us and to the world is her story to tell.

The story I can tell is about how I handled this big change to our family and what I learned (and continue to learn). I hope it will be helpful.

A note about pronouns: I’ve learned that when we refer to Thing One, whether we’re talking about when she was a child or last week, we use her preferred pronouns, which are she and her or they and them. It felt awkward at first, but this adjustment, really just a habit change, is a small price to pay for showing our love, support and respect.

I’ve been wanting to write about the experience since that day in January 2019. I’ve also been avoiding writing about it — partly because it seemed too big to tackle, but mostly because I was afraid. Grumblings the dragon doesn’t like things to change, and this was a doozy of a change. What was I afraid of?

  1. I was afraid of writing the wrong thing, that I’d write something hurtful or ignorant. I’m still learning about being an ally, still new at using vocabulary that supports the LGBTQ+ community. I desperately wanted to be supportive, but I was afraid I didn’t know how.
  2. I was afraid that if I shared the mix of emotions I experienced, Thing One might be hurt.
  3. I was afraid of what writing this post would reveal. Writing helps me go deeper into what’s really going on in my head and heart. It’s hard, and my reward, though satisfying, isn’t always pretty. What if I discovered that instead of being a woke super supportive mother, I really am just a privileged, middle aged woman who is afraid of change and has trouble with these new concepts around gender?

I finally tricked myself into starting this post a few months ago. Just make a few notes, I said to myself, to get the ideas out of your head. No harm in starting a draft. You don’t have to finish it, but at least you can stop the ideas from bothering you. Another way to put this, which makes me look a lot more courageous, is to say I acknowledged the fear and did it anyway.

I keep coming across the idea that naming emotions is a way to start dealing with them. It pops up in books and podcasts about parenting and business, in mindfulness seminars, in positivity podcasts. I know from experience that naming and describing my fears makes them less scary.

It’s related to a technique I have used to handle anxiety. What’s the worst that can happen? If my mind conjured up a fire while I was trying to go to sleep, I made a plan on how I’d get the kids out of the house. If my mind presented the idea of the ferry our car was on sinking, I made a plan on how we’d all get out of the car and float to shore.

I love the concept that naming and describing fear makes it possible to fight them. It reminds me of the magical stories I’ve read in which knowing someone’s true name gives the hero power over them. Naming my fears in this case may not give me magical powers, but it is helpful in gaining the upper hand with my cranky dragon friend.

Another note about pronouns! Did you notice that I just used “they” to refer to “someone”? This is the “singular they.” We do it naturally in speech, but in writing, until recently, we had to write “he or she” or some variation of that, or recast the sentence to make the subject plural. But the singular “they” has become more and more accepted. Even governments and institutions are using it. Turns out we’re actually returning to a usage of “they” that was common centuries ago. It takes a bit of practice to change this habit, and it’s well worth it.

Now, let’s get to the story.

It was January 2019. Something hadn’t felt right between Thing One and Husband and me for months. After moving out and getting a university degree, she had moved back home to go to college, but ease and closeness seemed to be missing from many of our conversations. Thing One was avoiding us, as much as one can while sharing a house. When we tried to talk with her to see if we could get a sense of what was going on with her, she was closed. She would get ready to go out with friends, and would leave quickly. We’d catch a glimpse of her face, but there was never a chance to ask about the makeup we noticed. We were curious. Thing One always had her own style, and it seemed to be evolving. But her body language screamed “don’t talk to me, don’t ask about anything.”

My heart was breaking. I wondered if she was depressed. How else to explain the change from someone who’d talk about anything, at length, someone who enjoyed long conversations with lots of tangents, to someone who barely spoke with us?

Husband and I didn’t know what to do to help this adult child of ours. She was in her mid-twenties, and we didn’t want to try to force intimacy or infringe on emotional space.

We didn’t know what was wrong or how to fix it.

That handwritten note she left us before heading to college one Monday morning was a relief in some ways. I read the note several times. “I’m trans,” it said. She told us she’d chosen a name for herself, since we had never picked out a girl’s name for her.

The first thing I felt was relief. So this was what was going on. This explained the unusual behaviour. This wasn’t life threatening. I knew we could handle this as a family.

I immediately texted her: “We love you.” No answer, of course. The timing was chosen, we found out later, with her phone off for several hours as she wrote an exam. When I think of the courage it took to tell us, to tell everyone, to be herself, my heart fills with pride.

I stayed in the kitchen for awhile, trembling a little, trying to adjust to this shift in our world. This is fine, I thought. We’re liberal parents. We love this person no matter what. We’ve learned lots from her and Thing Two as they talked about their gender studies courses, their Tumblr posts, their stories of friends coming out as pansexual, bisexual, asexual. We knew that the way people understand and express their own identities is changing.

I decided that I would take this in stride. It might not be easy, but I could handle it.

Cute, right? Just decide, and it’s done?

A few minutes later, I was leaning on the kitchen counter, sobbing. It seems my emotions weren’t quite ready to take it all in stride.

I thought of grandchildren, and that my chances of having any had decreased by a lot. That selfish thought gave way to fear for Thing One and for the dangerous, difficult and isolated (so I thought) path she would be on. Maybe there was a risk to her mental and emotional health after all. How could we help her with this? Then I thought about the shift in our family identity. I was used to us being a family of a mom and dad, a son and daughter. I had no idea how much of my identity was wrapped up in being the mother of a son and daughter.

That day was a work-at-home day, so I had work to distract me — but I didn’t have to try to look like everything was normal while my view of the world and my place in it wobbled.

Husband had his own emotional reaction, and handled the news with calm rationality, with love, as he does. It was big news for him too, of course. I don’t want to minimize that. We cried together a little, and I was grateful he was working at home too so we could share a hug when one of us needed it. The details of how he felt is his story to tell.

Thing Two was unsurprised, and came home from university that day with a card. “Congratulations on your new baby daughter!” On the inside, she’d written, “Now you have two daughters!” At supper time that night, she informed us that her role in all of this would be comic relief.

Over the next few days, I focused on being supportive of Thing One. I got teary often, at odd times, for reasons that felt surprising. Because I was no longer the mother of a son and a daughter; because it hurt to change the family’s and my identity; and because I didn’t like that this change hurt. I thought I should be able to adapt faster, and I felt like my identity had been cracked open to reveal that I wasn’t as flexible and liberal as I thought. I cried because change is hard and I needed to adjust my identity. And I cried because I was afraid I didn’t know who Thing One was anymore. I cried because I loved my son, and suddenly he was gone. I felt very, very sad. All of this sadness existed alongside the pride I felt for Thing One’s courage.

A day or two after we learned of Thing One’s new identity, I went to the library for stack of books about families with trans kids, fiction and non-fiction. I skimmed through them, flipped pages, read selections. I confess I didn’t read any of them cover to cover. I kept them until they were overdue. It wasn’t the contents that helped me, it was knowing they existed, that other families, other parents, had gone through this big change — had acknowledged that it was a big change. Having this stack of books made me feel less alone.

I reminded myself that the name was not the person, and we still had the person. I told myself to focus on supporting and loving Thing One. I didn’t want to talk with Thing One about my sadness, and I read a couple of things in that stack of library books that made me think my own sadness could be painful to her. I wanted to focus on supporting her, so I tried to keep my sadness to myself.

My emotion came out frequently over the following days and weeks. It helped to talk with close friends and colleagues. Saying it out loud made it feel more real and gave me a chance to practise accepting the situation. They were surprised, but supportive. Their matter-of-fact acceptance meant a lot.

A good friend of mine talked with me about her own experience when one of her close friends came out as trans in the seventies. She had to say goodbye to her male friend and welcome her friend as a woman. Same person, but different. She rejoiced for her friend, supported her wholeheartedly. The process of acknowledging the sadness, of mourning the old person and welcoming the new one was important. Hearing her story early on helped me understand what I was feeling, and helped me feel less alone.

I did find this change fascinating. Would I treat her differently? Would her father treat her differently? (The answer is no to both, from what I can see a year-and-a-half later.) Her sense of humour, talkativeness, enjoyment of understanding how things work hadn’t changed. We were still the two gullible ones in the family. She still talked an incomprehensible meme language with Thing Two and laughed helplessly, incomprehensibly, over Tumblr posts and cultural references that made no sense to Husband and me. She was still bike mad and on track to be a paramedic. I was incredibly tickled the first time she asked to borrow a necklace.

I have always enjoyed learning things from our children. As they’ve progressed in their own growth and education, they’ve taught me all sorts of things about social media, pop culture, feminism and psychology. They helped me wrap my head around gender as a spectrum, about what it means to be non-binary. They helped me understand that gender identity is one thing, and who you’re attracted to is another. I’m grateful for all those conversations. In some ways, they prepared to understand her transition better.

It was a relief to discover my church listed on a website of inclusive Anglican churches that welcome lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people. I talked with my priest on a retreat, and he was loving and kind, and referred me to the Ottawa Pastoral Counselling Centre. There, I met with a kind psychologist who helped me put a name to and accept my feelings. She helped me to see that humanity’s understanding of gender and sexuality is changing, and that my family’s experience is a small part of a larger picture.

Stories helped me work through things too. I read Soar, Adam, Soar, by Rick Prashaw, late into the night, crying my way through most of it. Later, I listened to Amanda Jetté Knox’s Love Lives Here. Both of these stories have love in common. In the end, that’s what it all comes down to.

I love my children fiercely, absolutely, helplessly and by choice, so if this transition is what Thing One needed to be happy, to be fully herself, then I would support that no matter what. I am grateful that she came out while living at home with us, so that we could all support and learn from each other.

In the early summer, Thing Two sent an email out to family and friends to tell them about her new name, providing links they could follow to get more information. It was thoughtful and well written, and I know that several people shared the information in it with others.

Thing One at the Pride parade with her sparkly hat in the trans flag colours

I had always supported the idea of the Pride parade, but this year I felt that I needed to go. A friend and I staked out our spot along the route, enjoying the sunshine and festive atmosphere. When I saw Thing One in her sparkly pink and blue cap, I was overwhelmed with pride. I could barely see her through my happy tears as I ran over and gave her a hug.

I have started to see how I can be an ally. I can share our story and talk with people about our experience as a family. I explain about pronouns and refer people to stories that will help them empathize.

Almost a year and a half on, our family dynamics haven’t changed much. Everyone has the same personality they had before, the same interests, the same level of talkativeness or sass. Conversations naturally come around quite often to issues relating to trans and LGBTQ+ people.

And as for those fears I mentioned at the start?

  1. I was afraid of writing something hurtful or ignorant when I wanted to be supportive and helpful.
    • I know that when I ask Thing One to read through this post to help me understand if I’ve used supportive wording, she’ll help me adjust my words so they’re helpful instead of hurtful.
  2. I was afraid of hurting Thing One by being open about my own feelings.
    • Thing One is an adult and can handle knowing that her mother has emotional reactions. (In fact, she may have noticed some emotional reactions once or twice over the past twenty-something years. Ha… haha.)
    • Understanding the impact of this change from my perspective may help her to be more empathetic with others. My first urge was to protect her from my emotion. But she’s a adult and she deserves honesty. She deserves to know that I choose to support her wholeheartedly, parallel to whatever strong emotions I’m dealing with.
  3. I was afraid of what writing this post would reveal.
    • Guess what? I am a privileged, middle-aged woman, a product of a time when conversations about gender revolved around Annie Lennox dressing in an androgynous suit (Who’s That Girl?) and Boy George in full makeup and women’s clothing. I do have trouble with change sometimes, and I’m still learning about gender. With all that, I am as loving and as super supportive as I know how to be.

At a book signing event for Love Lives Here, I looked with my new understanding at people I couldn’t easily categorize according to gender. I finally understood that it didn’t matter. Whatever their identity was — trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, male, female — it didn’t matter. They were all simply people who deserved kindness, respect and love.

If you’ve read all the way through, thanks for sticking it out for the whole story! Let me know in a comment if there’s anything that needs to be clearer. Has this been useful? You can also reach me privately by sending an email to susan at goodbyegrumblings.ca.

Here are some definitions that may be helpful, as well as some additional resources:

Gender identity: A person’s sense of themselves as male, female, a blend of both, or neither.

Sexual orientation: Who someone is attracted to.

Presentation: How someone chooses to appear (what they wear, how they style their hair, whether they wear make-up, etc.) — distinct from both gender identity and sexual orientation.

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About GrumblingSusan

Word lover. Story addict. Daydreamer. Optimist. Ottawan. Treehugger. Scouter.

16 Replies

  1. Carole Simpson

    Beautifully written piece.
    How lucky you are to have each other, to continue your journey of parenthood. May Things one and two continue to thrive. ❤️

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Yes, we are fortunate, and I am grateful. Thank you for reading and for your kind words.

  2. Noëlle

    Reading this truly put into prospective what my family must have gone through and may go through still.

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Noëlle. I appreciate it!

  3. Kathleen

    I’m not at all afraid to point out that this yanked out a few emotional reactions from me: I laughed, I cried, I learned, I wanted to know more.

    You have illuminated, a little, the life of your family – a lovely, loving bunch I truly admire, both collectively and as individuals. They shine as always.

    Thank you for having the courage to put the words out there.

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thank you for reading and for your kind words. Happy to know about those reactions. (-:

  4. Anonymous

    Thank you Susan for sharing your beautiful pain…your process with us. It is clear that Thing One comes to her courage honestly. Beautifully written. Love to you and your family.

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thank you for reading and for your kind words! You’re very welcome. I’ll take that love, even though I’m not sure who’s comment it is. 🙂

  5. Renée Bellehumeur

    Thanks Susan for sharing. It helps me to better understand a friend/colleague who is going through this process.

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Hi, thank you for reading. I’m very glad it is helpful! Lovely to hear from you.

  6. Lise G

    Thanks Susan for this beautiful life story (including the links). I have always loved and admired you. You are a very beautiful person. xx

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thank you for reading! I’m glad to hear from you. (-: And thanks for your very kind words. You are welcome!

  7. Bradlee

    Hi Susan, wow, thank you so much for sharing this. It was so beautiful, heartfelt and real. I have learned so much from you and your family and I am grateful for that! Big hugs to all of you, I am very honoured to be a part of your family! Love lots!

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thanks, Bradlee! We’re lucky to have you. Xox

  8. Chris

    Susan great understanding and supportive view..
    It is difficult to get your head around the change
    Happiness is being accepted for who you are.

    unconditional support of family is utmost during this transition.
    Kudos

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thanks. We all support each other during the change and learning.

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