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first person

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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I am a mother in my 40s and I have two beautiful children.

Today, I want to tell you about my eldest.

My daughter is amazing: she’s smart, sassy and geeky (like me) but this is tempered with kindness and empathy. She has the kind of tranquil wisdom that cannot be taught. I want to say that I taught her the things I admire most about her but that would be false.

This is an important story to tell, especially by someone like me, a single parent, an immigrant born and raised in a conservative society, and especially during a month celebrating Pride. There are places in the world where people are thrown in prison for being different. I come from one of these places. My children, both born in Canada, grew up not knowing the darker side of exclusion. Before COVID, I used to take them to the Pride Parade and explain that we should all be proud of being ourselves.

Like everyone during the pandemic, our world became just the three of us, living in a small apartment in downtown Toronto, which felt much smaller as the days became weeks and the weeks became months.

In the second year of the pandemic, my eldest graduated from elementary to middle school – but more in abstract theory than in any meaningful way. By then we had gotten used to our solitude, even though tempers grew shorter and cabin fever grew stronger by the day. They said, “Stay home!” on the news, so we did. Every day the numbers grew, and then we stopped watching the news. The stress was palpable. The days passed, an endless string of monotony and isolation.

Then one day my daughter got her period.

I celebrated that milestone. She didn’t.

I was irritated by her lack of enthusiasm. As the same-sex parent, I was thinking, “Next, she will ask to borrow my bags and shoes.” I would teach her about being a woman. And yet, as her body changed, her discomfort increased.

While this was gradual, I noticed it suddenly. Like how you notice when a glass falls off a counter; you look and it’s in midair, but only for a second, then the crash happens, and shards of glass are everywhere. And you are barefoot in the kitchen. Surrounded by glass. Blood trickling out of your foot.

That’s how it felt.

She stopped taking care of her waist-length hair. It went unwashed for days. I would say, please take a shower; but just in passing. It wasn’t a conversation, just a comment. Then she stopped wearing dresses. Even in the summer when it was hot. As a parent, you wonder whether it’s just teenage angst. She wore oversized hoodies, large T-shirts. My daughter was swimming in her clothes.

One day she hovered at my door. So, I asked, “Is there something you want to talk about?” She said no. Two days later, she hovered again.

In the place where mothers know things, I knew something was wrong.

The next time she hovered, I asked her to come inside. Sitting across from me, she burst into tears. I felt like something bad must have happened, but we were at home all the time, so what could it be?

Then she cried out, “I hate my hair, I hate it. I HATE IT. I HATE IT. I hate how it looks and how it makes me feel. I was afraid to tell you because you always loved my hair and took care of it and all the hair stuff I have in my hair box, and I didn’t want to tell you, but I CAN’T STAND IT.”

I looked at her. I thought, “Be strong, be strong, stay open, don’t look disappointed, don’t react, don’t ask questions, let her feel welcome, stay open, don’t show you’re terrified, keep your face neutral, STAY STRONG.”

She sobbed.

I realized this wasn’t a conversation about hair.

I said three words: “Let’s cut it.” She looked up and smiled. “Bring the kitchen scissors,” I said, since all the hair salons in Ontario were closed at the time.

The first haircut my daughter ever got was at an uber-chic hair salon in Yorkville, I think it was just before her second birthday. I sat her on my lap. I was pregnant with my youngest. I remember thinking there are three people sitting here on this chair. As I saw her baby hair fall on the ground, I cried. It was her first haircut. I am silly that way and sentimental.

But this haircut.

This felt like I was freeing a sea animal caught in plastic debris.

I held a strand of hair. I cut.

I held another strand of hair. I cut.

It made a strange crunching sound. I kept cutting. She sat up and ran her hand over her (now) short curly hair. She smiled. For the first time in days, maybe weeks.

Later, I reached out to our pediatrician and asked for help. She spoke to my child. She agreed we need to bring on a care team, and we are referred to a specialist.

At home, while we waited, I suggested my daughter make herself more comfortable. I suggested that she switch off the light during showers. I suggested we buy clothes from the boy’s department. We shopped online and sent many things back.

Through all this, I cried quietly into my pillow.

I told no one. After all, if no one sees us and no one knows – is it really happening? What is even happening? Who do I tell and what do I even say?

There is no one to tell.

I told my child I love them, no matter what they are – I mean it. It doesn’t take any effort to say that. I ask her if she wants me to stop referring to her as “her,” and she says, “I don’t know yet.”

It’s okay to not know things; we are all figuring this out together.

We meet with the specialist. My child is diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria. Depression. Anxiety.

In the shower, I sob while the water is running. At night, I cry quietly. In the morning, I looked for a therapist specializing in transgender issues.

I read. I teach myself what this is all about and it becomes less daunting. The doctor says 97 per cent of positive mental health outcomes are dependent on the acceptance of the child’s family. I am the child’s family.

I accept.

I love.

I’ve stopped crying.

Mona A. Barr lives in Toronto.

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