transcendent transitions

I have been a parent for almost six years and if I have learned anything it is that being a parent is never easy. Every day is a challenge and the older our children get, the greater those challenges become. I can remember thinking there would never be anything more difficult than convincing my five year old to eat vegetables…how wrong I was.

My husband and I have the added challenge of parenting adopted children who spent the majority of their early years in the care of someone else, so not only are we tasked with the everyday challenges of being a parent, we must also undo some questionable (and often harmful) parenting choices made by those caregivers who came before us.

Our eleven year old daughter is transgender. She is a pretty remarkable kid and even when we lock horns, which is frequently, I find her courage and strength inspiring. It’s one thing to be true to yourself at age 35, it’s another thing to be true to yourself at age 11. The courage to live her truth means that she has not had an easy road. For example, when she shared with her birth family that she was transgender, they told her she was possessed by the devil.

Yes, the devil.

Prior to coming to us, she lived in a series of short-term foster homes and, despite identifying as a girl, she was placed in a group facility for boys where she lived for more than a year. Even now in phone calls with her caseworker and lawyer, they still refer to her as “he”…and though these adults tasked with representing her best interests quickly correct themselves, the damage is done.

One of the first questions my daughter asked when I met her was, if she came to live with us would we allow her to live as a girl. When she asked me this question she was living as a boy: boy clothes, boy haircut, boy group home. Today, she wears the clothes she wants and has the long hair and braids she dreamed of and even though she still lives in a house full of boys, she is the princess.

But there are struggles and challenges so much bigger than vegetables. She has been taught to hate her body and to feel unpretty. We’ve invested considerable amounts of time talking about the need to love the body you have, even if it isn’t the body you want. Recently I’ve assigned her an exercise: she is to look in the mirror every morning and say, “I am pretty.” It sounds silly, but she does it and it makes her smile.

I know these platitudes and body-positive pep talks won’t fix the negative voices in her head, but it’s a start.

Parenting a trans girl means we’ve had our share of awkward talks, such as, explaining the need for body maintenance and cautioning her to sit, not stand, when using the girl’s bathroom. Last week we talked about crushes and how liking a boy is totally normal for a kid her age, but that sometimes those crushes can be complicated because how we identify can be difficult to process and understand for those who identify differently; and so we need to respect those boundaries and know that we will eventually find someone who appreciates us for everything we are, including our gender identity.

Some days I think I have a handle on it all and that, in terms of parenting, I am firing on all cylinders. But then my daughter comes home from school and tells me that one of her classmates has started to call her thing and all those awkward talks and platitudes and body positive pep sessions go out the window and we are right back where we started.

And even though my daughter needs me, in that moment my first instinct is to find this classmate and her family and destroy them. In my mind I entertain grand scenes of public humiliation where I take them all down, starting with the transphobic parents and ending with the little bitch who made my daughter cry…and I know that I cannot actually take anyone down and that calling an 11 year old girl a “little bitch” is insane, but for a moment it makes me feel better and it takes me out of my sadness and it gives me the strength to hug my kid because what she really needs more than anything in the world is that hug.

Later, we’ll talk about the incident and the word. Eventually we’ll try to understand that the girl who called my daughter thing is coming from a place of hurt too. In the end, I’ll remind her that in a world full of bullies and cowards she has the courage and the strength to be true to herself, and that no small-minded person can ever take that away from her


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband, three sons, and daughter. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym (but not really).  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

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