ask polly

‘My Kid Is Nonbinary, and I Can’t Get Over It’

Photo: Mitch stringer / 500px/Getty Images/500px

Dear Polly,

I am at the age, and of a generation, where seemingly every discussion, every quick hello, every post on social media focuses on the successes of my friends’ and acquaintances’ young-adult children, their milestones (careers, marriages), and their children. We are baby-boomers in retirement or pre-retirement and the central focus is FAMILY. It is a constant litany of gratitude and feeling blessed. A nonstop river of joy and bursting-at-the-seams pride over the kids, the kids, the kids. And the grandkids. Given my unique situation, all I want to do is to avoid family gatherings, dinner-party invites, and the like and eliminate all social media from my life. I want to disappear.

Because, unlike all these folks, my 25-year-old daughter came out as nonbinary about two years ago and eschews all feminine descriptions (i.e., daughter, girl, woman) and feminine pronouns. My darling girl, my only child, is now a “they,” with a very masculine appearance, and a new life that is unfamiliar to all I know. I felt lost, bewildered, and deeply sad when they came out, and I have not been able to recover. What makes it all so much worse is that I feel extremely guilty about my sadness, and afraid that any acknowledgment of it, even inadvertently, will immediately label me a transphobe, which I am not.

The emotional experience of losing my daughter has been brutal. However, it is clear to me that my grief is not allowed. I am a progressive, living in a blue environment, and I wouldn’t be at home anywhere else. Nevertheless, the message from the environment is clear: Get over it, get on with it, and embrace the cause. I also get this message implicitly from my child, who I see about once a month and chat with on the phone. I am who I want to be, Mom, and it is great. About my being a girl, yeah, stop using that word and all similar references, because I am not, was what I was told early on. With that, a huge piece of me was summarily dismissed, and I was supposed to carry on without blinking an eye.

I want my child to be happy. I want them to live the life they were meant to live. But as a nonbinary, they have turned their back on a shared history, a shared female language, a commitment to feminism, a connection that is gender-specific and deep. It feels like a wholesale rejection not only of their life, but also of mine, as their mother. As if giving birth to and raising a beautiful girl never happened.

Please understand: I love my child unconditionally, and always will. I believe to my core in the sanctity of all human beings. Everyone deserves a life of dignity and respect, and the right to live their truth. Any form of prejudice is abhorrent to me. The depth of my grief has surprised even me. I have turned to counseling, prayer, and secret Facebook groups where parents of transgender and gender-nonconforming kids insist that the pain and grief go away. It gets easier, they say, but closing in on two years, it has not.

When I am not with my child, who lives independently, the ability to squelch my feelings becomes exhausting. I keep a smile on my face and an upbeat tone, but I cannot keep up the ruse all day, every day. Despite getting support from friends, a therapist, my spouse (their stepfather), the sadness remains. It robs me of sleep, a sense of well-being, and even a sliver of hope for a fulfilling future.

In fact, it gets harder as friends’ kids get good jobs, get engaged, get married, have kids of their own. It is not that I am chomping at the bit to be a grandmother, I just feel weird and embarrassed. I feel exposed in some strange way, and I do not want people to ask, and learn, and see what is going on here. And I feel guilty for feeling this way at all.

Added to the raw emotion of this life event is the fact that I am now in late middle age, and acutely aware of time passing. I was so excited about the beauty, promise, and potential of my daughter. Rather than looking back with fondness, I feel shame at the realities of my family situation, embarrassment over my child’s odd look and pronouns, and gnawing guilt over how I cannot get onboard with the new reality.

I do not want to waste the rest of my life feeling despair over what I thought I had, and what I lost. I do not want to move through my last years despondent and jealous of all the families not contending with this issue — yes, I will say it — the cisgender families with cisgender children. I do not want to cringe every time I see my child. I want to embrace, to feel bold, fierce, and proud of my child and myself.

However, I do not see a way out of this dark place. Can you help?

Lost and Grieving in a Binary World

Dear LAGIABW,

Because I think the binary world is a little bit worn out and stupid, it’s tempting for me to berate you for your attachment to it. I can’t help but say, “Daughter things, girl things, weddings? This is what you’re mourning? The whole world is burning down, and you want your princess back?”

I was appalled to discover that I had a princess in my own home, when she appeared. I thought I would get a tomboy. Of course I would! I dress like a lumberjack! But that’s not how it works. So I had to meet my princess where she was. I had to get way into princess shit. She was not going to rest until I learned how to throw a tea party. She discovered my wedding dress in a closet and she would not rest until I put the stupid thing on and did my hair and put on lipstick and made some tea, goddamn it!

And when the princess got older, she liked other stuff I didn’t like. I could feel myself slipping away, judging her for her choices. That’s when I remembered: You were a princess, too, you asshole. I have photos of me at age 3, admiring myself in the mirror in a ballerina outfit. I was a cheerleader, for fuck’s sake. So I had to dig up all of my love for feminine things. I had to dig up my long-buried girly proclivities. And I had to sort through all of my internalized misogyny, too. I had to examine my move to lumberjacking. I had to do all of that, just to stay connected to my daughter, just to understand who she is and who I am and who I was and who she might be.

But most of all, with my oldest daughter and my younger daughter, I’ve had to say to myself over and over again: They will not become what you want. You do not own them. They are not you. They will do whatever the fuck they like. They will reject who you are. They will dislike you, even. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Let them become princesses, aliens, man-children, superheroes, layabouts, rebels, shy apologists. Let them become whatever they are.

My kids are still pretty young, so I don’t know that much, obviously. All I know is that I need to stay open and accept and connect as much as possible. It won’t always be easy. Sometimes it will take a LOT of work.

In order to stay open and accept and connect with you, I have to question the ways you privilege conformity and tradition over self-determination. Why does your kid being a girl matter so much to your memory of them? What’s so good about girl stuff and woman stuff that it could become more important than having raised a human being with the confidence to define themselves outside of strict boundaries of gender? Have you ascribed some motive to their choices and ideas and tastes and desires independently that makes them look weak or ill-considered to you? Do you experience these aspects of your child as rigid or unlikable? Do you have some overarching concerns about what these traits and wants and interests mean about who your kid is, personality-wise?

I’m curious about your own attachment to gender, and what it means to you. I wonder why the relatively small identity shift involved here would drown out your pride over having raised a child who has the courage to say what they will and won’t accept, who has the bravery to forge their own path and describe their own experience in a whole new language.

And why do you find your friends’ offspring so compelling and worthy of their pride? What’s so precious about following the herd into steady jobs and steady marriages and childbearing and predictable hairstyles and fashions? Why is there special pride to be taken in the son who finished med school and found a nice wife, who mimics the sounds and behaviors of the herd perfectly, who may not have dreamt up a single original thought in his entire life and who may not know who he is or why he’s living the life he’s living even once he reaches the age of 75? Why is there a special shame inherent to raising a person who knows, at least, what they do not want, what they have never wanted, what they reject with every cell of their being?

But if I start from the position that gender is an arbitrary construct and feeling attached to gender is absurd and pathetic, then I’m demeaning you for something that’s close to your heart, that matters to you, that makes you feel heavy and grief-stricken. I’m judging you for the things you just happen to want. You just happen to want your daughter, your girl, your SHE, your princess, to be here now. You miss her. You want her to be like you, a woman, a feminist, a part of the female tribe. You want her to be close. You are sure that your child is rejecting you now. You feel rejected. You feel like everything you are and everything you have ever been is being rejected.

You want what you want. It’s not logical. You want your girl.

I want to give you the space to want that. That doesn’t mean, “Hey, call your kid and tell them that you want them to be a girl again.” But you need space. Sometimes in life we want things that we can’t exactly justify or defend. We’re embarrassed by things that we can’t explain, and it’s even more embarrassing to realize that. We want to be better than we are. We want to rise above our bizarre, irrational desires, but it feels impossible. I have empathy for that.

I have empathy for it and I also want to scold you a little. I’m going to try not to scold you because that’s not really fair, any more than it would be fair for you to scold your kid for becoming who they want to be. It’s not your place to tell them what they should be, and it’s not my place to judge you for being where you are right now. You are where you are. My judgment won’t change it. I believe you when you say it hurts. I believe you when you tell me that no one will let you be confused or upset. I get that this isn’t just self-pity on your part. Your pain is real.

And just as I have compassion for your pain, you need to indulge yourself a little and cultivate your compassion for yourself in this moment. Because until you shower yourself with compassion, you’ll never spread that compassion to your child. You have to give yourself some room to feel bad. You have to allow yourself some space to understand why you feel you’ve lost something big. You have to feel, in your heart, the shape of this experience, the weight of it. You have to acknowledge that whenever these feelings come up, they take the shape of rejection for you. When you think of your child now, what you imagine is a body and hair and a voice that all say the same thing: You are not enough for me. You were never enough. I am done with you. All of the time we spent together is lost. All that you gave me has been thrown away.

That’s what you hear. But that’s not what they’re telling you. That’s not all of it, anyway. Part of what you shared with them and taught them lives in their current choices. Their strength is a reflection of your past together. Their independence is an echo of what you taught them. They’re very young, still, and they can’t explain these things to you. It’s not their job to explain it. You’re the old, wise adult here. You need to learn these things on your own.

It’s been two years. If you had just been told about your child’s identity, we’d be having a different conversation. But right now, it’s truly time to move forward and confront what this experience means to you. Because your anxiety and your shame around your child are loaded. And in part because no one wants to hear your anguish anymore, you’re getting stuck in a rigid, stubborn place about all of it. Instead of looking for growth and wisdom, you’re reverting to a childlike state. There’s something about the sound of “Everyone agrees, this is a good thing, it’s fine, you need to accept it or YOU’RE BAD!” that triggers some trauma from your past. You don’t like being told how you should act or what you should feel. You’re just like your child that way, aren’t you?

You can tell yourself that everything you’re feeling right now is about your kid, that they brought this pain to your life, that their expression of themselves is hurting you, but there’s so much more to this situation than meets the eye. You are mourning much more than your child’s “lost” gender identity. You’re grappling with much more than their rejection. You aren’t just facing your own old age and decline, you aren’t just grappling with your own identity, you aren’t just questioning your own choices. You’re going through a huge life transition, one that’s layered and complex and incredibly difficult to parse emotionally.

Your child is a tiny paper flag on top of a giant mountain with seemingly infinite layers of soil and rock beneath it. You’re staring at the flag, but the mountain is the real problem. The mountain is all you. The mountain was formed decades before the flag even existed. You have to dig through the mountain to understand where you are. You have to dig through the soil and hit the gravel layers and then blast through the granite. None of these things are related to your child at all.

What does it mean to be alive? What are you here for? Do the words of your friends and neighbors matter more than your role on the face of this planet? Does the self that’s reflected in their eyes matter more than your real self? What would it mean to have a child who mimics you and is always an echo of who you are? What does it mean to have a child who refuses to reflect you in any way? Does the self that’s reflected in your child’s eyes matter more than your real self?

What is your real self? What is it made of, as the planet heats beyond recognition? What should you be doing, as your child faces an uncertain future on this doomed sphere? What do you believe in? Where is the child that you loved? Are they gone the second they take off the princess dress? How do they feel, underneath their carefree words, when you seem unable to move forward with them? How do they feel about how much you love who they really are, underneath the princess dress? Who are you that you can’t see the person beneath the princess? Were you paying close attention to their words before? Are you listening to their words now? Do you make the time and space to really listen, without fear, without need, without anger, without judgment, without a vast sea of assumptions, without projecting, without grief? What would it take to enter a space where you might hear their words clearly?

I don’t want you to take this as further rejection. I want you to see me as a friend in this. But this is what I would do, as your friend. I would say, “Let’s reshape our reality and see how it feels. Let’s experiment. Let’s alarm the people around us. Let’s dress like Teletubbies and see how it feels. Let’s shave our heads and see how it feels. Let’s wear blue face paint and see how it feels.”

Are you with me yet? Let’s imagine being 15 years old and feeling like everything is wrong. Let’s imagine growing up in this overheated world. Let’s imagine that we are loved for who we are by friends of ours who have already rejected gender wholeheartedly, and let’s imagine that those are the wisest people we know. Let’s imagine that the texture of our experience as children is completely different than it was. Let’s imagine that there is something tragic in the air as we grow. Let’s imagine that there is a despair to the proceedings, punctuated by this obscene cheer, this perverted delight in forward motion at all costs.

Let’s step outside our experiences and step into other experiences. Let’s try on someone else’s life for size. Let’s get to know some nonbinary people. Let’s read some books about this. Let’s sign up for some newsletters and follow some blogs and read and learn and open our hearts as wide as they’ll go.

If I were your good friend, I would want you to become SOME FORM OF MISFIT out in the open with me. That’s feminism, after all: making room for something other than the twisted world we endured. A nonbinary identity isn’t a betrayal of feminism. It’s perfectly in step with the spirit of feminism. It’s not rejection. It’s a model for casting off what doesn’t fit.

Most people don’t examine who they are and what they need that closely. You need to try to slowly move away from this place of shock and sadness and start to recognize how thoughtful your child is, and how hard they’ve worked not to look away from this world, in all of its pain and its disappointments. You need to realize that their independence is an echo of yours. Everything you ever wanted for them is happening, right before your eyes, and you’re mourning instead of celebrating. Lose the opinionated voice-over that plays in your head when your child is talking. Listen to THEIR ACTUAL WORDS instead.

You could use some of your child’s thoughtfulness and self-awareness right now. Maybe you also feel out of step with the people around you. Openly manifesting how out of sync you are with your friends scares you, but it might just feel like salvation if you tried it. Maybe you’re a tiny bit envious of how brave your child is. Maybe you’ll realize that the uncomprehending looks of your conventional friends with their conventional children are not actually BEWILDERING, they are ENLIGHTENING, a gift from the gods above, a gift from the planet. You might taste a new kind of freedom for the first time.

Or you might become even more conventional. You might decide that you love being in step with everyone around you.

But you will also see that even though this is about you (your child IS REJECTING you, because all children reject their parents, always, and as a mature, balanced adult parent, you must prepare for that and even embrace it), it’s also not about you at all.

And then you’ll ask, “What is about me? Where the fuck am I? What am I doing with my life? What do I really want?” That’s when your recovery will begin.

And that’s when you’ll pick up your phone and you’ll call your child and you’ll say, “I understand now. And I love you and I miss you. I think I get it now, more than I did before, anyway. But most of all, I really, really miss you. I need to dig for who I really am, too. I’m sorry if I’m saying the wrong things. I just want you to know that I’m trying harder now. I have been living in the past. I’m sorry for that. It’s hard not to live in the past. I hope you’ll understand that part. Thank you for helping me grow.”

This world is asking a lot of you. I know that. It’s asking for the hardest things. It’s saying, “You have to surrender these.” It’s saying, “You can’t go on with these in your hands. You need to put these down.” So stop clinging. Let go. The path is easier from here. It’s time to surrender.

Polly

Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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