We were on a road trip of the California coast heading up from Los Angeles through Big Sur to San Francisco. My daughter was twenty at the time, and on summer vacation from college. This was a chance for me to share my love for California with her, as I had been there many times before.
Since she was 5, Andrea and I traveled someplace wonderful in world every year, usually to big cites like Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv. We traveled well together taking turns as the tour guide for the must see attractions or wandering without an agenda, eating at great restaurants or local joints, and the requisite shopping. This trip, however, felt a little different from the others.
When we arrived in San Francisco, I noticed that shopkeepers and restaurateurs would call us “ladies” when they asked us to follow them to a table or offered assistance. I wasn’t offended; Andrea had long hair at the time and was super lean. It was possible that someone might mistake her for a young woman. I occasionally corrected them thinking I was protecting my child, that was assigned as my son at birth, from being misgendered. I recall asking her if she heard what they said. She told me that she didn’t notice or didn’t mind. I found this a little strange but didn’t probe, and chalked it up to an awkward moment.
As the mother of a high functioning child on the autism spectrum, I had become accustomed to unusual social scenarios. Throughout her childhood Andrea, Andrew at the time, was left out of everything that makes being a kid fun, like parties, playdates and sports outings because she couldn’t identify or relate to others. My heart would break when I learned that she usually sat alone in the lunchroom and furious when she was bullied on the school bus. I felt so helpless, because all the play therapy and counseling I arranged didn’t seem to make a difference. In retrospect I believe that I compensated for what I couldn’t control by being both his mother and her friend throughout the years. I’m not sure that it was the best way forward for either of us.
A year or so after our San Francisco road trip, Andrea and I are in the front yard of our home in a new neighborhood, raking leaves, surrounded by workmen. As we are bagging the leaves she casually tells that I should not call her by his given name because she doesn’t identify as a male any longer. I stopped raking the leaves, and felt a surge of adrenalin, weak in the stomach and tight in my chest. I was speechless and most likely in shock.
When I was able to pull myself together, I asked for clarification. In her typically articulate way she shared her story, telling me how she always felt different from others and it wasn’t the autism. While she was away at college spending most of her time alone, on line in the dorm, she learned that people aren’t always meant to be the gender assigned to them at birth. And a person doesn’t need to identify with their birth gender. I understood that transgender people have a right to be their authentic selves like everyone else. What I had a hard time getting was that effective immediately, my son Andrew did not exist, and I was now the mother of a daughter, Andrea. In the moment, I wasn’t sure what to say because I wasn’t thinking clearly. When I pulled myself together, I told myself that this was only a phase, that my young adult child was experimenting with new ways to connect with others, and that I need only be available, listen and empathize, and we’d get through this together. How naïve I was at the time.
I soon learned that I was deluding myself to think that this was a phase. Andrea had told me not to talk with her father, my ex-husband yet because he wouldn’t understand. I’m not sure that I understood, and after an extended period of disbelief, my heart was filled with fear. Fear that she would be ostracized and threatened and treated in all kinds of horrible ways. I’ve always considered myself to be an open-minded and empathetic person. What I learned about myself during the first few months of the transition, our transition, is that my acceptance and understanding of other peoples life and family struggles, does not extend to my own challenges. My perspective was different now that it was my child, not someone else’s. I knew that I could be there for Andrea, but I didn’t know that I couldn’t be there for me, to find self-compassion and embrace my own loss. I felt a sense of guilt for creating this new challenge for Andrea by being the mother who didn’t conform to typical societal norms as a single, independent self-sufficient woman. So I went through the motions of accepting Andrea’s transition, and ignored my own.
Within a short time after Andrea and I started therapy at the LGBTQ Center in the West Village, I learned to get my pro-nouns right, attended a few support groups and immersed myself in transgender studies. Andrea was now shaving and taking hormones. As she navigated her new identity she would ask me for advice on what kind of women’s clothing to wear, on occasion sending me photos from a store while she was trying things on. As a self-proclaimed fashionista, I was delighted to have the chance to help her present herself in a way that would be comfortable for her, and me. I envisioned gender neutral clothes that would fit her slim body, but not shout out her identity. I had a very hard time seeing her wearing skirts and jeggings even in the privacy of the fitting room and security of my IPhone when she called me from a store. I told her to hold off, maybe turn some old jeans into cutoffs. But when she showed up to meet me at my office one afternoon in cutoffs that were way too short for anyone to wear anywhere, and particularly in the city, I almost had a heart attack, I was so ashamed, then incredibly angry. I could not handle this transition. I didn’t want to walk through the streets with my daughter. I wanted my son back. And my view of the of our future was filled with uncertainty and painful images.
Since that day, Andrea has recruited me to shop with her and we have found great outfits, mostly gender-neutral clothes that fit well. When we shop she often glances at the skirts in the women’s section skirts, and tells me that there is nothing there that appeals to her. I take a breath of relief, because I am not sure I am ready for her to wear skirts, but I know the day may come when she choses skirts and skorts and dresses. I need to take many, many breaths to prepare myself for that day, and help her present herself to the world in the way that will make her confident and secure in herself.
With the exception of close friends and some family, I’ve been very private about telling others that Andrea is a transgen woman. Her father and I, who are now divorced for twenty years, rarely speak about her gender identity struggles, but more often about inappropriate behaviors tied to her Asperger’s. It is unlike me to talk about my feelings, as I am very open, however, our transition is not a topic I freely discuss with anyone.
I’m not quite sure why I don’t feel comfortable talking about Andrea’s transition, but I believe it is because I am concerned that people will misjudge and ridicule my beautiful, kind, atypical daughter. She presents as an oddly tall, skinny, somewhat androgynous person, that typical people look at with curiosity. Perhaps they will even misjudge me when we are together, because they don’t understand. There are times that I hate myself for these shallow feelings and insecurities.
It has been almost four years since she and I transitioned, at our own pace and in disparate ways. She from my son to my daughter and me from being a mother of a special needs young man to a special trans woman. In truth I have grieved, moving up and out of the cycle of denial and grief at the loss of my son to acceptance of my beautiful, smart, compassionate daughter. Our journey has only begun, but I now feel strong enough to carry us both through these uncertain times and the myriad challenges that we’ll most certainly encounter.
I love Andrea now as much as I had ever loved my son, Andrew. Maybe even more. When this pandemic is behind us, we will travel the world together again with pride and dignity, exactly as we are and need to be, our true selves.
#californiaroadtrip #gendertranstions #genderdiversity #autism #lifestranstions