I promise, I will always be on your side
This essay is translated from Italian. The original version can be found here.
A few months ago, my 12-year-old daughter—the classic tomboy in her choice of games and clothes, but typically female in her relationships (friendships with girls and crushes on boys)—confessed to me that she is a trans boy.
Several years of psychotherapy, and motherly sixth sense, allowed me to keep calm and have a quite balanced reaction, like: "ok, I'm really happy you're telling me about it, I imagine it's very difficult for you, I'm here for you, I love you a lot, I'll do whatever it takes to help you find your way and be happy. I promise I will always be on your side."
From that moment on, I started researching the topics of gender dysphoria, gender identity, transgender, etc. in search of information, scientific articles, luminaries, experiences, data, statistics, parents in the same situation. I never stopped.
In the first few weeks of incessant searching, I always found the same answer: Parents, you need to do as your kids wish—follow their inclinations and requests.
Already well accustomed to buying unisex or masculine clothes and typical "boy's" toys (which we always considered just toys), for the first time we found ourselves in difficulty: Our daughter was asking to change the name we had chosen for her and the pronouns we had always used to address her.
Helped by her older sister, B. had recently chosen a new name, sweet and melodious, ending in A, but traditionally masculine (in Italian most male names end in O, and most feminine names end in A, only a few male names end in A). My elder daughter and some friends of her were already calling B. by the new name and pronouns.
The therapist, who had been following B. for a few months for episodes of intense anxiety, knew nothing about her project; questioned by us, she suggested that the best thing would have been to go along with it (i.e., using the new name and pronouns) "if that’s OK with you".
OK or not OK, our one and only concern was: Will this be good for her?
I promise I will always be on your side.
For a few weeks we choose to wait. We talked to B. and asked her to give us time to figure out the best way to help her. We comforted and cuddled her, we reassured her that nothing has changed for us, that we love her no matter what happens, that no matter which path she will follow, we will be there for her.
When you become a parent, you learn the power of rules and NOs. Doing the right thing is often the opposite of fulfilling your kid’s every wish (which would be easier and much less tiring). Instead, we have the responsibility to set limits for them, to raise capable, autonomous, and happy children, rather than unsatisfied, anxious and fragile ones.
Suddenly, the same professionals (doctors, teachers, psychologists) who used to support our authority as adults and parents, helping us to be lights to guide our children’s road, have completely changed their approach.
When B. was a little girl and asked for boyish clothes, I remember a psychologist telling me that, while compromises could have been made, it was very important to make B. understand that we had no doubts about her being a she. For example, she said we should always start shopping in the girls’ clothing department.
I remember her doctor intimating that I should get rid of B's favorite cookies given her tendency to gain weight. No slushies or popsicles at the beach for her: I had to make her unhappy, make her cry, isolate her from her friends at snack time, make her hate me; but then again, mothers are willing to do anything if it's for their children’ sake.
Could it be that now, suddenly, taking her side means doing what she asks, refraining from any opinion or judgment? "Parental support is crucial." If not what? "They get too sick; they have very high suicide rates."
I happened to find this horrific concept online—complete with chilling percentages—reported by an article very well positioned on Google search. The most distressing thought assailed me that, just as I am reading it, B. has surely read it too, repeatedly, in her crazy attempt to find her place in the world. If you’ve ever been creeped out by possible increased risk of suicide that you read about in the package insert of a sedative, think how can feel a confuse young kid when she reads an article that predicts the famous 41% (or even 50%) chance of attempting suicide because of her self-diagnosed condition (being trans), unless she is allowed to transition right away, at least socially. Later on, I found out that these statistics are highly controversial (let’s say untrue) because they are based on unverifiable self-reports.
I feel myself sinking. I wonder about her childhood and my mother's instinct tells me that YES, B. does not look like most girls, but NO, this does not necessarily mean that B. is in fact a boy. Her sense of caring for others, her ability to empathize, her hypersensitivity are very feminine traits; she has profound relationships with her “besties” and infrequent ones with boys , just like other girls. After long months of lockdown, B. suddenly brought up the belief that not being the same as everyone else is like a curse, that she was born in the wrong body. To my plea for help, the only answer I find is that she is probably right.
One day, typing "TRANS" into the Amazon book search, I found a book titled exactly that. I assume I’m going to read 320 pages that will convince me to make peace with it: I have no alternative, I will have to affirm her decision to change name, appearance (and body?) to pass as a male.
After a few pages, author Helen Joyce has already made it clear that she doesn’t follow the mainstream: I can’t believe it, I think I’m getting this wrong, have I stumbled upon a strange cult pamphlet? I looked into it and found that the book is well known and cited within major UK and US publications, with many positive reviews. I googled Joyce’s sources and the professionals she interviews, and they do exist, and work in this field. All of them suggest that affirmative therapy at all costs, accepted by parents persuaded by the most terrible of threats (the death of their son/daughter), does not free gender variant people from gender dysphoria—instead it actually makes it worse. Many trans people suggest the same.
I promise I will always be on your side.
After a few weeks, B. asks us (via WhatsApp and notes left on my pillow) for a haircut: a popular boyish cut, not too short, already approved by her sister. I accompanied her to the hairdresser. Before starting, the hairdresser widened his eyes and repeatedly asked us if we were sure; the assistant refused to assist; two ladies in the shop had glazed eyes and covered their mouths. B.'s hair is wonderful: thick, very long, light brown with ash tones. The faint-hearted bystanders covered their eyes, and after one last confirmation—he cut. The hairdresser handed me one of the thick braids. "A keep-sake for you," he told me.
It seems to me that I left my daughter in that shop, and I came out with a brand-new son: all it took was a haircut, and the beautiful out-of-the-box girl, admired by men and women for her coolness, became a boy. Those who look at “him” think “he is too good-looking to be a boy." Those who have been loving her for a while say she is “even more beautiful and sweet, who could mistake her for a boy?". B.’s professors, for example. On the first day of school after a long summer break, when pupils faces were still covered by masks, B’s professors took a while to realize that the new boy in class is in fact well-known B.
For her “social debut” on the first day of school, B. secretly bought a binder to compress her little breasts: a trans influencer she follows on TikTok sells those items online and organizes very discrete shipping.
As my searches continued, primarily for a therapist to begin an exploratory journey with B., more and more opinions urged me to resign myself and accept her self-made diagnosis, or at least to strive to accept the new pronouns to give us a chance to re-connect. Every sentence I say awakened my anxiety of being wrong: when I call her I feel I am annoying (or hurting?) her, when I call him, I feel I am telling a lie.
One night I happen to watch an episode of a TV series, where a mother confesses to her daughter, who has recently declared to be a son, "I always wanted a son." I imagine applause for this mother roaring from the viewers, and I say to myself "right now, I would love to tell B. the same thing and see her happy”. Yet, as it was for those ice creams and cookies denied, my instinct tells me that this affirmation will only give her validation that she was born wrong, and in the future, should she find that she can live well in her body, it may weigh on her like a burden.
I promise that I will always be on your side.
Every day, we oscillate between her adolescent mood swings and my premenstrual ones, her anxieties and mine, her feeling of not being worth enough and my consciousness of not knowing enough, her delusion to know everything already and my fear that I cannot do much.
One thing is sure: we are all training our ability to live in complete uncertainty, knowing less than ever about the simplest things, such as "you are male, and I am female." This is one of the hardest and most valuable skills to conquer, especially on a lonely journey as ours is, in the absence of friends to share the journey.