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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high heels and lip gloss and a nice structured pant

It may take a village to raise a child, but not every child in that village is the same. I certainly appreciate the support of my village as I (sometimes) struggle to raise four very different kids. There are days when a kind word on social media from a friend I haven’t seen in twenty-five years is the only thing to keep me going. A self-deprecating joke, an “I’ve been there” anecdote, an encouraging “You got this!” – these lifelines from my fellow villagers give me pause and remind me to breathe before I go back out to do battle.

Every child is different. My kids are adopted. At the time of their adoptions they were 5, 7, 11 and 12 years old. This means someone else – or because they were shuffled from house-to-house, more accurately, several someone elses – influenced and shaped the persons my kids are today. It also means that I’ve spent a considerable amount of the past five years undoing the questionable parenting styles and choices of other people. Because of this I’ve been called a meanie, a meanhead, a jerk, fat, stupid, a fat meanhead, a stupid jerk, a stupid mean fat jerk meanie meanhead stupidface, and if I checked my kids’ text messages after an argument probably several more colorful expletives followed by the ever serviceable asshole.

But I’m okay with that because it means I’m doing my job and I’m doing it well. I, or rather my husband and I (with considerable outside support), have made incredible progress with our three sons. For example, it’s common for kids in foster care to be a few years behind in their emotional development. Our then-seven year old was emotionally a five year old. Our then-five year old was emotionally a two year old. Our then-twelve year old guarded his emotions. But today they are smart and kind and well-spoken and light years ahead of their peers.

Seriously, my kids will one day rule the world.

I remind myself of their successes as we begin this journey once again with our most recent addition. Number Four, as we call her, has lived in foster and group homes for the better part of the past six years. She has also experienced an interrupted adoption. As a result of this instability she is an eleven year old with the emotional development of a three year old. Every moment of every day feels like a challenge. Complicating matters is that she is transgender.

An eleven year old coming to terms with her gender identity while going through the physical and chemical changes of puberty filtered through the emotional skill set of a three year old.

Oy.

I recently made a humorous post on social media about Number Four walking in heels. She loves heels. Wearing heels are part of her little girl fantasy of what it means to be a girl. She wants so much for others to see her as a girl. It’s important and because it’s important to her we are very mindful of how she presents herself to others. My husband calls it the illusion. People believe what you tell them so tell them what to believe.

A few weeks ago Number Four was looking in the mirror lamenting, as she calls them, her “boy features.” My husband bought her some tinted lip gloss. Tell them what to believe. Last week she was at the salon getting her hair done and the stylist gave her some tips on how best to maximize her more feminine attributes. Tell them what to believe. Yesterday she and I talked about why a more structured pant that keeps everything in its place is a better choice than leggings which leave nothing to the imagination. Tell them what to believe.

Some of you may be reading this thinking that we should just let her wear leggings and clomp around in high heels as if she were hiking up the side of a mountain during a snowstorm while having a seizure, because that’s what you do with your daughters and after all high heels are anti-feminist and down with the patriarchy! And you know what, if she were just some boy who liked to wear girl’s clothes or if she hadn’t expressed repeatedly how important it is to her for others to see her as girl, then I would agree with you.

But she doesn’t have the luxury of your daughters. Your daughters can murder the floor in high heels and dress down in baggy jeans and a t-shirt and cast aside the shackles of gender stereotypes because when they do no one will think, “What’s that boy doing in those high heels?” For my daughter, walking correctly in those heels and embracing those gender stereotypes you knock (but also embrace, by the way) are her ticket in…it’s how she’ll pass and no matter how much that might offend the privileged white cis-gender humanoid in you it matters to her.

Oh sure, I hope one day she doesn’t feel the need to conform and I will certainly encourage her to write her own rules, but right now in this moment she has enough on her plate. She already has to fight to be black and fight to be trans, so maybe the fight to not conform to society’s standards of being a girl will just have to wait for another day.

So glide in those heels and tell them what to believe—your tinted lip gloss awaits!