One year on – a tween ‘transition’
It has been a year since I gave my 11 year old child my consent to change her name.
I imagine that most parents would think changing the name they chose for their baby would feel like a very big deal, but at the time it was the lesser of the many concerns I was desperately working to wrap my mind around. You see my daughter didn’t just want to change the name that was on her birth certificate. She wanted me to see her as she saw herself, and acknowledge that her gender wasn’t the same as the sex that she’d been assigned on the first day of her life, and which had been printed in black ink on that same document, ‘MALE’.
Last year I chose to finally really hear her. I chose to believe that she knew who she was – that she knows herself better than I do, and better than the doctor who looked between her legs at birth and said ‘It’s a boy’. I needed to trust that she knew her gender identity in the same way that her identical twin brother knew his. I had slowly come to the realisation that I never questioned or doubted her brother in knowing that he was a boy, as his sex aligns with his gender identity. There was an obvious double standard in the way I responded to them.
It wasn’t an easy decision – it had been coming for years, gradually building momentum, until the day came when I breathed in deeply and acknowledged that this wasn’t ‘just a phase’ as I’d hoped it would be, that I couldn’t make her fit in a boy-shaped box, and that to do so would be unkind and potentially very harmful for her. But I could love her, support her, celebrate her for the extraordinary young woman she is becoming, and let her know I am proud of her. Over 40% of unsupported transgender kids attempt suicide – studies show that the outcomes for kids whose parents support them are much better.
This year has been typical in many ways – there’s been a range of highs and lows, and a fair bit of time spent in between muddling through the middle. The stuff of daily life kept churning on – dishes still needed to be washed, the toddler & the pre-teens are still leaving in their wake a mess that I still try to get them to clean up (with mixed results).
In the background however this change within our family has felt so claustrophobically close and present to me – for a large part of the year I’ve been in a state of constant alert waiting for something to go wrong, someone to hurt her, us, my family, me. I’m pleased that this tension I’ve felt has reduced significantly as I’ve realised that the worst-case scenarios that my over active imagination was prone to come up with, just weren’t eventuating.
12 months ago the need to change her details on a range of paperwork, from government departments to the local doctors surgery, was enough to have me squirm, sweat, and stutter as I faced an unknown response from a person behind a desk or at the other end of the phone. And then there was the need to notify her school that she would be returning as a girl – how would that news be received?
Despite my nerves I was surprised how simple many of these processes were (once you knew how), and the unconditional support we received, especially from my children’s school. I no longer fear those conversations, as I have greater understanding of how to navigate the systems that can support my child, and am now more assertive when I need to be.
School has been a highlight for my daughter this year – she loves it. It’s a safe place for her, somewhere to learn, explore, have fun with her friends. The kids around her seem to get it without adding the layers of fears/concerns/prejudices that we adults can sometimes contribute despite our best intentions. Any small issues have been dealt with by her peers, or by the school. The school has been outstanding – quickly providing professional development for staff on issues around gender, and letting us know they were going to back us up unconditionally in supporting my daughter. I know we are so lucky in this experience, as for many gender diverse kids school can feel far from safe.
I’ve celebrated with my tween daughter many moments that have been so empowering for her – going to school camp and there being no question of her rightful place in the girls dorm, performing in the school play, making it to her first inter-school athletics carnival. These have all been joyful moments. I’ve listened and tried to do my best to comfort her in the lows – like when she was told by a teacher to change in the staff toilet instead of the girls’ change rooms during swimming lessons. This happened after I had gone to the pool earlier and made sure she would have a private place within the girls’ change rooms to do so, and was reassured that the swim teaching supervisor was supportive of this.
A lot has happened during the year that has left me puzzled. For instance, my daughter has not being invited to a single birthday party since returning to school as a girl, and only found out she was left out afterwards as her friends had kept it secret. I’ve also felt the absence of friends in my life. I can’t say if this is because of the transition around my daughter’s gender. There could be myriad reasons why our social experiences and connections have shrunk over the year – people are busy, or friendships have changed for other reasons. The silence that surround these changes in our life though have led me to speculate at times. I can honestly say there have been moments when it’s felt like one of the loneliest periods of my life, saved by the fact I have a wonderfully supportive mother and extended family, have developed new connections with online communities of parents who have gender diverse kids, and more locally have been welcomed by our local LGBTI support service.
On the plus side I feel like this experience has been a gift to my family in many ways – we are an even tighter family unit than we were before, and I’m very confident that my kids know my love is unconditional. We’ve met new and inspiring people whose paths we’d have never crossed if we didn’t start this journey. On a personal level I’m getting satisfaction from learning how to advocate for my child and others, though I’m constantly having to be mindful of protecting my daughter’s identity so she has choices later in life as to how she presents herself to the world. And it’s forced me to re-prioritise and put family first. Next year we’re packing up and going on a road-trip for three months – it’s a chance to make memories before high school starts.
Something else I’ve noticed when I look back on this year – the way that I think and talk about my daughter has evolved. When I first start communicating with others about what had happened I asked my daughter if I could explain it as her ‘having a girl brain in a boy’s body’. I thought that made it simple for people to relate to and understand. She wasn’t comfortable with that explanation, and said ‘No, I’ve always been a girl’. That took a quite a while to really sink in.
I used to say ‘my daughter ‘transitioned’ from boy to girl – but I now think it’s fairer to say that those of us around her transitioned, not her. She knew who she was – it just took the rest of us longer to understand it.
My response now is more likely to be closer to the truth, ‘It turns out I was really wrong – I thought I had a son but she was my daughter all along’.
It’s been a big year. Would I change the decision I made a year ago. Definitely not. I have a happy, healthy daughter – the smile I see in photos now vs before, the way she seems lit up inside and excited by the potential in her life, and that she’s more comfortable in her body than I’ve ever seen, are all signs for me that it’s been the right thing to do. She’s also less anxious now that she knows that she’s going to be able to access puberty blockers through the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne so that she’s not forced to go through a male puberty that does not align with her gender identity. Last year’s school report showed her behaviour was slipping as she struggled to be seen for who she was – this year she got a perfect score for behaviour and her contribution to her school community. This Mum couldn’t have been prouder.