Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Car Talk

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Photo by Literary Mama social media editor, Rudri Patel. See more of Rudri's work at www.beingrudri.com

The cars whiz by, tires hissing on the wet asphalt, headlights cutting through the fog as I prepare to enter the freeway.

"Mom," Margaret says. "I lied to you."

"Lied?" My 14-year-old daughter is in the back seat. I strain to hear her voice.

"I'm not gay. I'm a boy. I'm transgender."

This must be coming from the radio, not from my daughter.

The entrance ramp to the highway curves after a strip of commercial buildings. Cars continue to speed by. I see an opening in the traffic and accelerate.

Once in the middle lane, I say, "What did you say, Margaret?"

My daughter's voice is barely audible. "I'm not a girl, I'm a boy. I want to become a man."

A feeling of terror rises in me. Heat shoots up my back and neck and travels into my arms and hands. I brake hard. The car jolts. The rear wheels squeal like a dog being hit. The pickup truck behind me nearly smashes into my rear bumper. I speed up again and my heart palpitates.

"You mean—you want to change yourself? Turn yourself into a freak?" I immediately regret my words. They hover like an invisible wall, further separating the back seat from the front, like Plexiglas in a taxicab.

"I knew you wouldn't listen." Margaret's tears come in a rush. I can see her through the rearview mirror. Her chest heaves. Why couldn't I have kept my mouth shut?

The angry driver in the pickup pulls up beside us, glares at me, and screeches past. A smell of gasoline hangs in the air.

My body tenses. I feel pain under my left shoulder, an old injury flaring up. Margaret huddles against the car door, her breath fogging the glass. One of my hands clutches the steering wheel. With my other, I stretch back toward my daughter. Restrained by the seatbelt, my extended arm can't reach her.

I want to curl into a ball, too, but I'm the mom and I've got to get us home.

I try to calm myself. We cross a bridge into a residential neighborhood, still very far from home. This must be a new phase of Margaret's depression, I think, another issue to address with the therapist in this year-long journey our family has been on.

I fill the silence with more talk. There are many ways of being a girl, I say. Her new spiky haircut is just fine with me. Boys' clothes. Why not? I repeat myself over and over. Occasionally, I meet her frozen, staring eyes through the rearview mirror. In a streaming monologue, I'm saying all the wrong things:

Why can't you be a masculine girl?

You aren't a boy.

You're confused.

It's too dangerous.

Have you thought about the rest of your life?

What if they bully you at school?

I never saw any sign of this.

This came out of nowhere.

You don't know who you are.

The 30-minute trip feels like the longest car ride of my life. In the circular conversation, I'm beginning to understand that Margaret truly believes she's a boy—and has suffered with this thought for a long time.

"Mom," my child says, "my name is now Noah, not Margaret. I want to be referred to as 'he.'"

"Okay," I say. I look at the road to steady myself. I feign acceptance because I don't want to further upset her. "Noah. That's a good name. Why Noah?"

"I don't know. I just liked it."

"Okay." It feels like we're in chapter one of some science fiction story. At any moment I'm going to drive off the road to our deaths, then we'll wake up on another planet.

Slow down, go easy, I think. "Is that the name you want to go by at school?"

"Yes. Tell them that."

And then I see it. For the first time in months, my child smiles.

* * * * *

I tell my husband, Robert, about "Noah." He appears stunned but says nothing, his typical response when he needs to process something.

I have no idea what Robert's thinking over the following days. I notice we're moving toward acceptance, though; we both start to say "Noah" when addressing our child. We use the new name, not only because the family therapist recommends it, but because we can see before our eyes that our child's depression is lifting.

Robert takes Noah shopping for boys' jeans, button-up shirts, and plaid flannel briefs. He teaches him how to knot a tie. Bolstered by his new image, Noah starts attending school again one or two days a week. Up from zero, at least.

Yet, I obsess, brood, ruminate, overeat, and gain weight. I sob into the phone to friends. I don't want to go along with this gender change, but for the sake of my child's well-being, I need to try.

Lydia, Noah's twin, knew of his forthcoming announcement months before Robert and I did. Our twins do not keep secrets from each other for long. Lydia's ability to adapt is remarkable. I'm astonished when she tells me, "I always wanted a brother."

One night, on the way back from family therapy, all four of us in the car, Lydia says, "Noah was always a boy. We just didn't know it."

"I did say it a few times," Noah says. "I said it to Dad when I was four."

Robert jams on the brakes for a speed bump. The car jolts. "Yes, he said that."

I turn to Noah, trying to disguise the irritation in my voice. "I don't remember you ever saying that. You were always boyish. Lydia, too. Neither of you ever played with dolls or wanted to wear a dress. But actually saying you were a boy, that's news to me."

We're revising family history, and I'm the only one who can't get with the program.

* * * * *

Oddly, I look forward to driving Margaret—Noah—back and forth to his many appointments, up to five a week, because he talks to me more in the car than at home. He. His. I am evolving. Noah curls up small in the back seat, always in the opposite corner, to avoid me. Or at least that's the way it feels. He puts on his headphones. I hear faint, tinny sounds coming from his iPod. Occasionally, he takes off the headphones and wants to talk.

One day, on our way to a therapy session, about six weeks after his gender change announcement, Noah says, "Mom, can I have a binder?"

I stiffen. "What's a binder?"

"It compresses your chest," Noah says. "You know, so I can look more like a guy."

My voice rises. "Like an ace bandage? That doesn't sound safe."

"It's not an ace bandage. It looks like a tank top. It's stretchy. It provides support, if you're going down stairs or running. So your breasts don't bounce."

"Yours aren't large enough to bounce."

"Yeah, but they still hurt if I don't wear a bra," he says.

We keep driving. We stop at a light. Then another. He tells me about ordering binders online, how all the trans resources say they're safe, how others in his trans teens support group wear them. There are binder bathing suits, too.

"Isn't it dangerous to your breathing?" I say. "If you're swimming in it, you might drown."

"Mom, it's just a shirt."

"I'll think about it." What's next? But I'm grateful we're talking.

* * * * *

One day, looking chipper and boyish in a new button-up shirt and jeans, Noah opens the front seat passenger door and slips inside. He closes the door and fastens his seatbelt.

I sit up a little straighter. "I'm happy to see you up front," I say.

He shrugs. "I felt like it."

"I'm glad."

We drive on. How has this change happened? After a few months of us going back and forth to his various appointments, we've traveled enough miles that we could have gone halfway across the country by now. I think of all the things we've talked about: binders, the transition back to school as a different gender, an official name change, a hormone blocker to stop his periods. Over time, the dialogue has helped my child come back to life again.

Noah flips channels on the radio, half of a song of this, half a song of that, rolling down the window, letting his short spiky hair blow in the breeze. An uncertain future looms. I'm terrified of him making changes to his body and almost equally afraid of what others might say in response.  We still have lots to work out about his being transgender and what I will, or will not, allow. But we chat now, too. Noah talks about his upcoming band trip. He talks about his teachers and his assignments. He muses about where he wants to go to high school next year. He's happy. It feels like a miracle, along with the tips of the tree branches turning pink, as they prepare to unfurl their new leaves.

* * * * *

This is the first essay in my monthly column, Transformation, in which I share heartfelt moments of parenting identical female twins, one of whom discovers he was really meant to be a boy. These essays cover the twins' last year of middle school and first year of high school, which become all the more challenging when one sibling undergoes two puberties, female and male. Although wary of the medical aspects of my child changing gender, I nevertheless encourage his mental health and emotional well-being by supporting his choices. As he creates the life he wants to live, I recreate my own.

 


Katrin Grace has served as a freelance writer for the National Geographic Society, Scholastic, and Reader’s Digest Young Families. Her personal essays have appeared in Episcopal Café and Motherwell Magazine. Katrin, her husband, and two teenage children live in the Pacific Northwest.


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Rudri Bhatt Patel is a former attorney turned writer and editor. She is the co-founder and co-editor of the literary journal, The Sunlight Press. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Role Reboot, ESPN, Mothers Always Write and elsewhere. She writes her personal musings on her website, Being Rudri, and is currently working on a memoir that explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces.


Beautifully written and heartfelt.
Thank you, Jon Cross. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
I'm a parent of a transman. Why do parents like Katrin Grace have to make such drama about gender? There are MANY of us parents who facilitate of kids' transitions with REAL grace and full acceptance. We don't need to write about our tortured psyches because we are too busy doing ordinary parenting of kids we wholeheartedly love. Authors like Grace do a disservice to our kids by spreading the stereotype that parents must grieve, adjust, mope and whine when kids come out as transgender.
I look to Literary Mama for progressive parenting viewpoints. The narrator of this piece - who tells her child that he's a "freak"! - hardly fits that category. There is already enough trans-bashing in the "real" world. I don't understand publishing such archaic attitudes here. Likely the author intends a "journey" piece, revealing her eventual enlightenment into loving her "special" child as-is. That genre has been done to death, from "Expecting Adam" through "Raising Henry," and often errs towards the noble savage cliche - the "savage" being the "different" child who educates the parent. I am not interested in reading about mothers who say they "feign acceptance," "sob" and "don't want to go along with this" for any period of time. Grow up, mom. Stop staring at your own navel. Practice loving your child, not your own words.
Really, Anonymous? What Katrin describes certainly mimics my own experience. We want our children to be readily accepted, loved and successful. It is natural for us to be afraid/cautious/ questioning despite the very real fact that our children have chosen a path less traveled. A path that will bring both joy and pain. We love our children. Try practicing tolerance to those that are different.
Katrin, as a mother of two, my heart goes out to you. What a terribly difficult situation your family is facing. It is not an easy decision to let a teenager change her or his life in such a dramatic fashion and in ways that may be irreversible--and in ways that you know will create more challenges for her or him as they undertake these drastic changes. Who would wish that difficult journey on anyone? You are in territory that is for the most part still uncharted. We applaud your honesty in describing the emotional roller-coaster you have all been going through and forgive any imperfection you may have exhibited on this journey. There is not a soul on earth, IMHO who could make it through a situation this challenging who could do it without some human response. Kudos to you for your honesty. Bravo! Wishing you the best possible outcome as Noah continues on his new-found path, with you at his side every step of the way.
Dear "Anonymous" (I'm pretty sure that wasn't your given name, but I'll be progressive and call you by the name you want to be called): The top of the page clearly states that Literary Mama provides "writing about the many faces of motherhood". Katrin is a face. It is not the face that you see when you look in the mirror, but, just the same, it is a face. It may not be a face that you want to look at right now, or at all, but it is a face. The parental experience is by no means a "cookie cutter" one; we all walk our own paths, and every step, every contemplation of a step, is unique. While my path is by no means similar to Katrin's, I have had similar reactions to different circumstances, and learned that while my child had a journey, my journey involved offering whatever support I could, despite my reaction to the matter. And that support including understanding what they were going through, or at least trying. I wouldn't mind "seeing" your face on here on here once in a while so as to hear your perspective. Surely someone brave enough to adopt the name "Anonymous" must have a life history that I can learn so much about. Come to think of it, "Anonymous", I may have read comments and posts from you from time to time on other pages. Yes, I'm sure of it. And I always know that when I see that byline, I'm going to find perspectives and viewpoints that will be thought provoking, even challenging. So keep up the good work you do, "Anonymous". We salute you; your bravery inspires us all.
To Anonymous, "That genre has been done to death?" Really? Has life been "done to death?" Because denial, fear, and sadness are part of life and growth. Have you had a child face such a transformation? Have you had a child diagnosed with a life-altering illness? Were you perky Pollyanna and accepting from the first moment? Because I would say you would be lying. That genre has been repeated because that is life. That is how we come to terms with something that shakes us from our comfortable path. I am learning to give others compassion on their journey because I certainly need it on mine. Please find some for others.
We see a mother transforming along with her child. Beautifully done.
Cheryl, you ask "Have you had a child face such a transformation? Have you had a child diagnosed with a life-altering illness?" Yes, I am the parent of a trans child who also has several permanent, life-altering medical diagnoses/disabilities. Yes, I've been angry (usually at health insurance companies or the school system) and sad (at my child having more challenges than many of his peers). But I haven't felt this about my child's personhood - how crazy! Yes, I was immediately accepting of his diagnoses, his coming out (as gay), and his coming out as trans. Maybe some parents feel "denial, fear, and sadness" (your words); maybe some "feign acceptance," "sob" and "don't want to go along with this" (Katrin Grace's words). But that's not a universal or even majority parent response. Certainly, Katrin Grace has to be in a very small minority to have told her child directly that he is a "freak"! Shudder. No, I don't have compassion for a parent who can say that to someone she claims to love.
Dear Anonymous and anonymous, I can well understand that you felt shocked and angry at seeing the word "freak" in this essay. Likewise the mother's feigning acceptance for her child. These were my thoughts and behaviors at the time, three years ago, along that stretch of rainy highway. I am not proud of my initial reaction to my son's news. I have grown a lot since then. My son and I often talk about that fateful car ride. He has vetted this column, by the way. Every word I write is with his permission. By now, he has taken driver's education and knows what it is like to battle freeway traffic. Once, on a panel with other transgender teens at a conference, he announced to a room of several hundred people: "Let me give you all some advice. When you have an important announcement to make, don't make it when your mother is about to merge lanes at rush hour." That brought some laughs. He forgives me for saying the word "freak." I try to forgive myself. I am a mindful person, and a good and loving parent. It is with mindful intention that I put my lived experience on the line. I share my own gaps of empathy in order to show to readers the tremendous spiritual and psychological shift I was able to make over time. I seek to bring readers along on my journey. So in the writing of this piece, I tried to go back to that moment of shock and what it felt like. Probably at the time, I had about a twenty percent acceptance of my son being transgender. For another year I hovered at fifty to seventy-five percent. I am now one-hundred percent accepting of my child as transgender and one-hundred percent behind the choices he has made for himself. In this ten-part essay series, I want readers to understand my emotional trajectory, and hopefully I can reach readers in whatever place they might be in their own journeys. This kind of writing, the personal essay, as opposed to a "how-to" or a journalistic piece, comes with certain risks. One of these is that the reader might react to one emotional phrase or another, and not understand the author's overall intent. On the other hand, the personal essay is a powerful tool for opening minds and hearts (and ultimately shaping polices) if both reader and writer can establish a trust and find common ground. In the personal essay venue, readers know that I put myself into the story, that I have a stake in the material, and this is what I think people respond to, ultimately—much more so than preaching or posturing or rational, intellectual discourse. I'm learning that the more complicated and abstract the issue, the more personal experience matters. As someone I know likes to say, "There is magic in authenticity."
Katrin, You are my hero. You are my hero because you are honest, real and one of the most compassionate people I know. Bravo to your response to the morally superior "anonymous." Your essay was heartfelt and authentic. As parents and as humans we all say things or think things we later regret. Those of us who are brave enough to share our fears, and our hearts are able to teach, relate and to help others. Thank you for sharing your heart. I am blessed to know you. Nameste. Renee
Thank you for your comments, Anonymous, Karen, Nan, John Chasse, Cheryl Blinston, Cindy, and Renee Davis.
Here is a quote for you all from "The Mindfulness Survival Kit" by Thich Nhat Hanh: "Yesterday, we may have produced an unkind thought. Today, we can produce another thought that can modify and transform the thought produced yesterday. As soon as today's thought of understanding and compassion is produced, it can counteract the thought of yesterday. With mindfulness we have freedom to change ourselves and to help change the world."
Ah, Anonymous,how easy it is to judge. But it is in judging that we often find our minds opening, hopefully with some compassion. I so admire Katrin who was brave and courageous enough to tell her story about how her daughter's revelation actually happened and how the family reacted. The words spoken that day on the highway have been long overshadowed by the loving acceptance of that child's gender transition by the entire family. The writer's goal is to help other families facing similar difficulties. As for the rest of us frail humans let our compassion and empathy grow for all with special needs and those who love and care for them. Theirs is a difficult journey and unless we walk in their shoes we have nothing to say but "our love and thoughts go with you."
I totally can relate this story. having just gone most of the same events the past year, now be middle school and hs. I look forward to the next chapters
Thanks, Sue. Thanks, Sharon McCormack.
It's sad that by opening up and revealing the truth, with all of it's thorns, Katrin has to suffer the judgement of others. Life is a flower grown in soil, nourished by nitrogen, sometimes produced by manure. That Katrin is willing to show us the manure that grew the flower is a testament to her love for her son, even if as she dealt with her own issues. Bravo, Katrin, I look forward to reading the rest of the story. Manure, warts, thorns and all. (Remember, life, like a good story, is about conflict. If there had been cotton candy acceptance of Noah's statement, there would be nothing to say).
Thanks for your comments, Daria and everyone. Thought for the day: If we practice mindful parenting individually, imagine how powerful it could be if we all practiced mindful parenting collectively.
Katrin, you beautifully captured what has to be a difficult journey for your family and most especially for your son. Society has been a mixed bag when it comes to acceptance of our LGBT community and your son is lucky to have such a strong mother and an accepting family where he can thrive as the gender he was meant to be. Kudos to you and thank you for sharing your journey with us.
Katrin, thank you so much for your honesty. Had it been me, I'd have reacted much the same. Not only that, I'd probably insist that the offspring give the notion more time for consideration. Non-progressive parents love their kids, too, but not necessarily the same way as Anonymous dictates it.
As the parent of a transgender young adult, I appreciate the beautiful voice you have given to your personal story. It is tough to initially have the language to describe the journey or to even know the options available to explore as a family. Your child is yours to love, support and cherish as he catches up to outwardly expressing his gender that he identifies with. The candor of telling your story helps us all to traverse the unknowns on our individual journeys. Kudos to you for your strength and resilence!
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