Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

Last summer when my son came home from college, he told my husband and me that he is trans. He said he is a girl, and I am having trouble with this.

My son and I were always very close. I struggled to get pregnant and when it happened, it felt like a miracle. He is my only child, and I was a stay-at-home mom while my husband traveled and worked a lot.

Now she has a new name, one I had no say in choosing. She confides in my husband more than me, which leaves me feeling like an outsider. Although I’m assured that I’ve gained a daughter, my input on clothing and hygiene is no longer solicited.

I expected some loss when I sent my child to school. I knew I couldn’t be his best friend forever, but I didn’t think I’d lose everything. It feels like a death. I don’t know how to process the grief. It sneaks up on me, and I have to hide in the bathroom to cry. It’s overtaking everything.

I’m not conservative. I love and accept her, but I’m worried for her. I ache when she doesn’t eat or drink during the six-hour drive back to school, because she’s avoiding public restrooms.

My husband works really hard to nurture me. He doesn’t pressure me to meet his emotional and sexual needs, but we don’t talk about what’s happened either. He doesn’t share my sadness.

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.

Ann
Illinois


Dear Ann,

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?

As you work through these feelings, though, you’ll need to tease out another strand of your grief. Your daughter’s revelation happened to come at a time of transition in every parent’s life: your child becoming an adult. While you’re losing whatever the experience of having a child you assumed to be a certain gender meant to you, you’re also losing what every parent eventually does—your role in your child’s life, which changes dramatically when kids leave the nest and head to college or begin to live independently.

Typically, this process of separation from one’s parents begins during adolescence, but you might not have been prepared for it, because of the nature of the relationship you two had. You describe being very invested in every aspect of your kid’s childhood—staying home to provide care, giving “input on clothing and hygiene” well into adolescence, even using the phrase “best friend”—and maybe this investment had something to do with your difficulty getting pregnant with your only and long-awaited child. But there’s a difference between being friendly with one’s child and taking on the role of best friend. What kids and parents both need are best friends their own age. When a parent takes on the role of best friend, that parent may feel abandoned by the child who is doing what she should be doing as she launches into adulthood, which places a huge burden on the child and leaves the parent with a tremendous sense of loss. It might be helpful to consider that you would experience this kind of loss in your life as a parent at this point in your child’s development, regardless of whether your child came out as transgender.

This leads to the third strand of your grief—loss of yourself. I get the sense that you put so much energy into being a mother that you lost other aspects of your life a long time ago—for example, your friendships, your interests outside of parenting, and a strong connection within your marriage. You say that your husband traveled and worked a lot while you were focused on raising your child, and now, while your child is doing the work of young adulthood—creating a life of her own—would be a good time for you to find meaning in those potentially neglected aspects of your own life. You might rekindle friendships, explore your passions and interests, and connect more deeply than you have in a long while with the person who could truly become your best friend—your husband.

For instance, instead of asking your husband to meet your needs by abdicating any of his own, which probably feels lonely to both of you, you might explore why you two aren’t talking about what’s going on. You say you know how he feels—that he isn’t experiencing the grief that you are—but I don’t think you know how he feels about you and your grief. Maybe he feels helpless or frustrated or sad. Or maybe he does share some of your experience but believes, as some husbands do, that he needs to be the “rock” of the family, and therefore doesn’t feel comfortable sharing his true feelings with you. The point is that as you develop a deeper connection with your husband to meet some of your very human need for closeness, you’ll be able to welcome your child’s move toward becoming her true self separate from you.

Working through your feelings may take some time, but by detangling the various strands of your losses, you’ll get a gain in return—a sense of peace with yourself, your husband, and, of course, your daughter.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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