Trans and the myth of sloppy parenting
Recently in online transgender activist realms, I have been encountering a kind of casual acknowledgement of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) by associating it with sloppy parenting. The message seems to be that if your adolescent child is asserting transgender identity and demanding new pronouns and cross-sex hormones it is the result of your own failure to impose adequate parental control.
To me, personally, this feels like plucking a piano string and hearing it resonate sympathetically in other parts of the register.
It became apparent pretty early in my family’s ROGD crisis that this was going to be a reckoning with how I, as the primary parent, chose to carry out the thousands of small and large tasks that comprise contemporary childrearing. The realization came after a few exchanges with a friend who was directly involved with replacing Gender Identity Disorder (DSM-4, APA, 1994) with Gender Dysphoria (DSM-5, APA, 2013).
Initially, my friend made a sincere effort to connect me with trusted colleagues, each prominent in his or her professional role, to help my child work through feelings of discomfort with being female. When I contacted those highly-reputed clinicians I politely let them know that I could not support affirmation of cross-gender identification and medical transition without a full psychological assessment and at least a year of exploratory psychotherapy. I signed off using my own professional credentials. After all, a parent with a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and many years of experience treating adolescents and young adults would not be someone to dismiss.
The few responses that came told of months-long waiting lists and encouraged me to seek out gender clinics or PFLAG chapters in my area. In the vacuum of the moment, my daughter took her own initiative and found a gender therapist who was fully prepared to recommend her for testosterone shots after just three sessions. That’s when I heard my inner voice whisper: over my dead body.
When I reached out again to my friend, one of the most influential and respected gender and sexuality experts in the world (yes, this bears restating), my frustration was not well concealed. Sensing this, and likely no less exasperated with me, his ultimate advice was this: Maybe you need to become an authoritarian parent.
He was only half joking.
I had been one of those baby-wearing, extended-nursing, co-sleeping moms. I had also read and integrated the parent-child attachment literature from Klein and Winnicott to Ainsworth and Beebe into my parenting philosophy. I had sent YouTube links to talks by Sarah Blaffer-Hrdy to other moms. I was fully versed and practiced in working with rather than doing to in disciplining children. And when my child started showing glimmers of curiosity about dating and sex, I intuitively took a relaxed and supportive attitude rather than prohibiting and shaming (see sociologist Amy Schalet’s insightful work on teen sexual development).
I trusted my gut and my pubescent child as I handed her a smart phone in 2014, not long after the publication of the WPATH Standards of Care (WPATH, 2012) followed by the DSM-5 in 2013. This was during Obama’s second term in a post-racial America that was presumably going to live up to its promise. There was still some optimism to be found. Things were OK and hopefully would get even better with a woman—a mother and grandmother—in the White House.
But that’s not how it went.
I spent most of 2016-2020 preoccupied with US national politics. I knit pink cat hats. I cussed at the TV. I slammed the off button on my car radio. I flicked the bird at lawn signs. Micro-aggression, lived experience, and centering, the language and performance of social-justice wokeness, became my way of expressing outrage that someone resembling my own narcissistic father could be awarded so much power.
So imagine my gender-questioning 17-year-old’s shock and confusion when in 2021, well into the COVID-19 pandemic that was already complicating her process of separating from me, I rolled my eyes at the inclusive LGBTQ+ banner and declared that I don’t speak Intersectional-ish. What happened?
To put it simply, our daughter opted out of a suburban girlhood that prized swingy hair and Barbie-doll legs and decided it would be easier to become a boy. Soon after that, our 15-year-old son put on black nail polish in solidarity, cheerfully referred to his sister as his brother, and became incensed when dad and I refused to participate in the he/him delusion.
Speaking of micro-aggression, I have lately come to understand the transgender announcement as nothing less than an act of micro-terrorism, a psychological bomb set off remotely in the middle of my open-plan house or yours. The force of rage propelling I’m trans builds over time and is commingled with residues of historical, trans-generational, and intra-familial trauma.
Preparations are hidden in plain sight. Trial balloons get floated. There are murmurs that you pick up but decide aren’t worth the trouble of an unpleasant confrontation. Are you going to read your kid’s diary like your mom did? Are you going to carry out surveillance of her connections and activities on social media? It’s 11 PM. The kitchen is a mess. And you have work tomorrow.
Transgender self-identification is and isn’t like prior expressions of fledgeling humans’ angst. At its core it is a way of questioning and devaluing parents’ beliefs and protesting against their expectations and aspirations. Projective identification coaxes loving and loved parents into acting like nagging Boomers, rendering them that much easier to leave behind. But transgender ideology demands that children pledge complete and unquestioning allegiance to its flag and compels parents to cower and comply. RODG converts the already-fraught process of separation into a relational black hole, paradoxically drawing some adolescents deeper into dependence and codependence with their parents.
Every family system has its strengths and weaknesses. Gender-think co-opts family dysfunction and uses it as a vector for its own viral spread. And unlike with other iterations of self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors by distressed teens throughout time and across cultures, the people and institutions that we trust to provide medical and mental health care have committed themselves to amplifying the symptoms rather than identifying and treating the causes.
Transgender medicine is undeniably lucrative for stakeholders of pharmaceutical companies and private healthcare institutions. But also, clinic-based physicians, psychologists, social workers and nurse practitioners are often early-career professionals trying to establish themselves as they pay off hefty educational loans. Some may be carrying their own ongoing transition-related medical expenses. A secure job with good benefits in an echo chamber populated by like-minded people is just that. Why would anyone want that boat rocked?
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Far from being sloppy, parenting with the objective of building mutually respectful and collaborative relationships with children takes place over long years of daily sustained attention and effort. It just so happens that this approach to parenting also dovetails with facets of the economic and cultural zeitgeist, that which gets peacefully transferred back and forth from one party to the other along with political power every few years. Neoliberalism turns out to work at its best in creating markets and life-long consumers when we are atomized, isolated and busy, tucked away with our nuclear families in cul-de-sac mindsets that value grit, self-sufficiency, and high achievement above all else.
American moms function as the scaffolding for the 24-hour childcare and home-entropy-management cycle, some while working full time or defending hard-won careers. And, like me, many do it in the absence of a social safety net or a community of allo-mothers: aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, and older siblings and cousins who can step in without skipping a beat when we inevitably drop the ball.
We are mere mortals pushing our Sisyphean jogging strollers around pretty, manicured American-dream neighborhoods. And attachment-style parenting, with its hand-crafted, fair-traded, and locally-sourced cosiness, helps us feel like we are part of something kinder, gentler, more authentic. And less cynical.
I believed that if I did the right things and made all the necessary and thankless personal sacrifices my kids would traverse the choppy seas of adolescence and emerge as healthy, well-adjusted, productive adults. Being a lifelong idealist, I also thought that if I did it perfectly, we might even avoid the Sturm und Drang of growing up. But Suburbia is very far away from Margaret Mead’s Samoa.
By the time my daughter buzzed her hair and started wearing her brother’s hoodies, I was physically exhausted and mentally depleted. I hadn’t been noticing the putrefying abscesses festering in our home over the soothing scent of wild-caught sourdough starter wafting from the granite countertop.
Now, nearly two years after the trans announcement, my daughter, her brother, and their father and I are still standing, shoulder to shoulder. Maybe despite it all, through the terrible fights and the bitter tears, the white-knuckled days and the sleepless nights, the bond of love nurtured from the moment she came into existence in my body and in my mind is what protected her from embarking down a path that threatened to leave her with a broken body and a captive mind.
In ways that ended up mattering, maybe I had been just good enough.