I wish I could say that I saw it coming. I wish that when my son cheerfully asked if he* could wear a dress to school, I was prepared and knew just what to say and do because it confirmed what I already knew in my heart.
That isn’t what happened. I didn’t know my son was really my daughter until she was ready to tell me.
Looking back, I can see some hints. When he was two, the only items on his Christmas list were an Elsa dress (with a cape!) and a monster truck. At the time I praised his independent spirit and happily bought both.
He always identified most with the female characters in any movie or book, saying they were his favorite. He liked trying on my clothes and watching me do makeup. However, even when looking back with the knowledge that he was really a girl, the clues are murky at best. Many boys like dress up, or love the Pink Power Ranger more than the others. No, even with hindsight I can’t claim to have known what was coming.
So when my four-year-old asked for a dress he could wear to school, I did what any parent does when faced with a question they don’t want to answer. I stalled. “That’s an interesting idea! Let me think about that.” Neutral, noncommittal. I changed the subject and hoped it would pass like so many other things kids ask for. A week later, “Mommy, did you buy me a dress yet?” Crap. “No, sweetie, I haven’t had time. You are still thinking about wearing it to school?” “Yes, I want to wear it to school. Please?”
I was trying to figure out what this was. Typical curiosity about clothes and style? Gender fluidity? A need for attention? I wanted the answers before permitting the exploration. I wanted to know what I was getting into before deciding how to respond. It seems silly now, asking a child to clarify his gender identity without allowing him the freedom to explore it. However, part of my resistance to his request was my own guilt. How did I not see it?
I never thought of him as stereotypically feminine or unhappy with himself. Aren’t moms supposed to know these things even before their kids know themselves? The idea that he was struggling with something as big as his very identity without me even noticing haunted me. Did he feel alone in his feelings? Did he wish I could understand without having to ask? I felt guilty that I didn’t know what was in his heart when he finally asked for the dress that he needed.
I’ve had time to sit with these thoughts. The truth is, I didn’t know. Maybe there were signs I missed. Maybe there weren’t. Now that we are a few steps down this road I have stopped looking back in time to decipher hints I might have seen coming. It doesn’t really matter. Moms can’t know everything. It wasn’t the first time I didn’t see a major parenting curveball coming, and it won’t be the last. What matters more is what we do when our child clues us in. I didn’t do everything right after that first mention of a dress. But I didn’t shame or say no. I didn’t panic or call all the therapists. I didn’t laugh (or cry). I made sure he felt loved and safe. I respected the request, and (even though I did delay a bit) eventually took him shopping.
I wish I had seen it coming, but I’m grateful my child figured out how to get me on board. I still don’t have the gift of future-prediction. But on this journey, other gifts (flexibility, patience, and self-forgiveness come to mind) are more important anyway.
*I use the male pronoun when discussing my daughter pre-transition. She speaks of herself that way, and has given explicit permission for us to do so as well. It works for us, but please check with the important people in your life to find out what pronouns to use for past or present.