The other night, my mom and I were looking at old photos of my child when he was young. His second birthday, his trains, his ripped-up blankie he wore like a superhero cape. It was too much. I told her to put it away, and I feel awful for that.
Please guide me.
What you’re experiencing is a deep sense of loss, and one reason you might be struggling to process your grief is that several strands of it have been tangled into one. Some are related to the loss of your child’s assigned gender, some to the loss of your child more generally as she grows away from you and into her adulthood, and some to the ways in which you may have lost important aspects of yourself long before you heard this news.
Let’s start with the first one—the revelation that you have a daughter. Transgender young people, like all young people, do better emotionally when they have the love and support of their parents, especially because out in the world, they face intolerant people and governments that want to take away their rights. They can also experience a sense of isolation along with many logistical challenges, such as your daughter’s dilemma with using public restrooms on her drive back to school. Until cultural and systemic change happens, having the safe landing place of loving and supportive parents is especially important to trangender people’s well-being. I noticed in your letter that you toggle between male and female pronouns, and part of this support includes respecting your child’s identity by using the pronouns that reflect who she is.
This doesn’t mean, however, that parents who are loving and supportive won’t also experience their own emotions as they take in this news. Parents can be loving and supportive and also experience loss or sadness or fear or confusion and need some time to process these feelings. Just as transgender kids need compassion and support to navigate what lies ahead, so do their parents.
The key here is to be mindful of separating your feelings from those of your daughter. While for you, there are elements here that at this moment feel like the death of the child you knew, for her, this is a time of celebrating the child she has always truly been, and it’s important for her that you see her that way. Remember that your grief belongs to you, not her, and not only does she not share your sadness, but it’s not her job to soothe or be exposed to yours. That’s why you should reach out to the many adults who can talk with you about what you’re experiencing, whether that’s your close friends, a therapist, or a support group of other parents with kids who are transitioning.
Unfortunately, many parents instead choose to isolate themselves and hide their range of feelings because they—or, perhaps worse, others—believe that sadness or loss signifies rejection of the child, when what the parent is grieving is largely the loss of an imagined future. In your case, for nearly two decades you likely had a picture of a certain kind of future for your kid, and now that future will be replaced by a different one—one that may feel foreign to you. It makes sense that you’d need time to let go of the future you had imagined for decades in order to make room for a new one that you’ve just recently begun to contemplate. It also makes sense that you’d need some time to work through other feelings many parents of transgender kids have: How could I not have seen this when my kid was younger? Is it disloyal to mourn the memories of the boy I thought I was raising while also loving the woman she is?