Excerpted from Love Lives Here by Amanda Jetté Knox. Copyright © 2019 by Amanda Jetté Knox. Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
“Honey, you need to read this. Right now,” my spouse said.
I was sitting at the desk in our bedroom after the pink-shirt escapade, trying to finish up a school project – my school project. Grade eleven English – Shakespeare Analysis, to be exact.
After moving back to Kanata, I had enrolled in an online program through a local adult high school. The fact that I didn’t have a diploma was keeping me up at night. I didn’t feel independent or accomplished, and I wanted to fix that. So now I spent my days writing parenting articles to pay the bills and my evenings writing essays on the symbolism in Hamlet. It was short-term pain for what I hoped would be long-term gain.
I pulled my eyes away from my large screen and focused on the smaller one on the phone being handed to me. On it was an email from our eleven-year-old, sent a few minutes earlier. All thoughts of Hamlet immediately fell away.
Please don’t be angry.
Please try to understand.
I am a girl trapped in a boy’s body.
My vision narrowed to a point and fixed solely on the words in front of me.
More than anything, I want to be a girl.
Please help me.
Don’t come into my room until you’ve had a chance to calm down and think about it.
I love you. Please help me.
I immediately flashed to a day a few years before, when my mom and I were cleaning the playroom at the old house. It was as messy as a playroom for three kids could be, and I was grateful for the help. I put the TV on in the background while we dug in, and in short order, we both found ourselves captivated by a talk show featuring a family with a transgender child. The young girl was in a dress, her hair long and shiny, and she was truly indistinguishable from other girls her age. The large screen behind her kept flashing “before” photos, where she sported a more masculine haircut and clothing.
“I’ve always known I was a girl,” the child said to the talk show host.
The audience members were not quiet in their judgment. People spat comments into the microphone like “What you’re doing to your son is awful!” and “You’re confusing him!” All the while, they were glaring at the mother. (It was always the mother.) The rest of the audience clapped, growing louder and angrier with each statement.
The host, while making a show of calming the audience, was demonstrating clear biases against the family. I felt for the mother, and especially for the young girl.
“This is so sad,” my mom said.
“I don’t really understand it,” I replied, not taking my eyes off the screen. “I mean, is that kid old enough to know? Is it some kind of chemical imbalance? I just feel bad for the whole family.”
“I knew a boy who was absolutely a girl,” my mom said. “Everyone knew it. I think his parents even knew it. But those were different times. There was no way he could be anything but a boy.”
In raising a child like that, and being advocates for her so publicly, the parents on the talk show exhibited a level of strength and self-confidence I couldn’t imagine.
“You know,” I said, going back to sorting toys during a commercial break, “I’ve been through a lot with my kids. But I don’t know if I could handle that. It’s too much.” I was glad that girl had those parents instead of us. We wouldn’t know what to do.
And now here we were, and as predicted, I didn’t know what to do. I was still taking in the words on the screen, my thoughts coming faster than I could process them.
I had a son, didn’t I? That’s what I had believed from the moment the ultrasound technologist showed us what was between our baby’s legs. I thought it was that simple. I thought we were raising a boy.
How did I miss this? How did I not see it coming? What kind of mother overlooks the clues that her child doesn’t feel like the boy she thought she had?
I was in a parenting situation I had no clue how to handle. I was completely out of my depth. My head was spinning, and I found it hard to breathe.
I flashed back to the week when my son – or perhaps, my daughter – came home upset after school.
“They said the game is for girls only,” my heartbroken child cried, pulling off a camouflage-patterned hoodie and slumping into a kitchen chair. It was spring, and the Japanese lilac in the front yard was in full bloom in the window. “I don’t understand why they don’t want to be my friends anymore.”
“Sweetie, I’m sure they still want to be your friends,” I said, taking a small hand, which was rough and dry from a hard winter. Eczema had always been a problem. Rubbing lotion into the rough spots was an easy way to soothe the pain. But I didn’t know how to soothe this kind of pain. How could I explain that grade three is usually the time when kids who used to play together start to split by gender, and that the line in the sand would only continue to widen? Having nearly all girls as friends, my child was going to feel this division deeply.
The next day, I got a phone call from a neighbour. “My daughter asked your son if they could just hang out after school and not at recess,” she said. “She wants to play with the other girls, and he keeps trying to join them.” Apparently, it wasn’t going well. “It’s nothing personal,” the neighbour added. “My daughter likes him. It’s just that the other girls are giving her a hard time, and it’s affecting her friendships at school. Maybe he has some other boys he can play with?”
My heart had hurt that day. Now it hurt even more as I held my son’s – no, my daughter’s – coming-out email in my hand. I was still in shock, running a million thoughts through my head as I tried to sort out what else this stay-at-home, parent-council, motherhood-is-the-one-thing-I-do-well person had missed all these years. And what incomprehensible damage had been done to my child because of it.
“What are we going to do?” my spouse asked.
I handed back the phone with the email on it and took a few purposeful breaths to try to steady my thoughts. We looked at each other with concern.
A transgender child. My head was stuffed so full of questions I couldn’t think. Can kids even be transgender, I wondered, or is it something else? How do you find out? What’s the parenting protocol for this? My anxiety was flaring up and making me physically ill. This was big. Too big.
Anxiety and I go way back, and I’ve learned a few tricks for when I start feeling overwhelmed. One is to remove all the unknowns causing stress and brain clutter so I can examine what I do know. And here’s what I knew for sure in that moment:
• Our child had just told us something critical.
• Our child needed our support.
• The love we had for our child was unconditional.
Stripping it down to the bare facts didn’t make the issue any less complicated, but it did make clear what we should do next.
“We love our child,” I replied. “And we figure the rest out later. Let’s go in there.”
We got up and walked across the hall to a bedroom containing one very frightened – and very brave – kid.
“Hey, sweetie,” I said. “Can we come in?”
The only answer came in sobs.
We opened the door and crawled into bed with our middle child, who was shaking and inconsolable.
“We love you no matter what,” we said again and again. And when tears were the only replies, we filled the spaces where words should go with more reassurances. “We don’t care if you’re a boy or a girl,” we said. “All we care about is that you’re happy. We’ll figure this out together, okay? We’re so glad you told us what’s going on.”
We told our child that things would be okay. That she would be okay.
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