Learning To See: A Mother’s Journey

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry No.112, Summer 2007
by Tina Marian

In 1997 at the age of 47, when my arms were no longer long enough to assist me in being able to see up close anymore, I broke down and bought my first set of “cheaters”. Since that time, I, like many others my age, depend on these assistive devices to be able to see up close. I hate this fact and often wish that there would be a way, short of surgery, to be able to see clearly again without these annoying glasses perched on my nose.

Not long ago, I came across an interesting piece of information that basically said that when we start losing vision, it is because we are literally “refusing to see something that is happening right in front of our eyes”. I thought back to 1997 to see if in fact there were any issues that I was not seeing clearly.

At the time, I was working full time as a Nurse Manager at a job I loved. I had also gone back to school part-time to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing. I was happily married and had two sons, ages 15 and 12. I had good friends, nice neighbors and family supports. We were all healthy and although life was busy, things seemed fine. So I later asked myself, what was I missing back then?

I was laid off from my job later in the year, as the hospital was forced to restructure, and the unit that I managed closed. Although sad, this was not the end of the world for me. Nurses can usually find employment, and within a short time, I had secured another nursing position, and had moved on. I eventually graduated with my degree, and returned to a management position that I currently hold today. The glasses remain a necessary part of my life. Most people would just accept this and move on, but as a psychiatric nurse, I am acutely aware of the body-mind connection, and I strongly believe that many physical problems have emotional drivers, so to speak. So I remained determined to go back to 1997 and solve the mystery as to what I was “not seeing clearly” back when my vision took a downward spiral. This story is about what I now realize, 10 years later, was what I was not seeing with clarity.

My first child Michael came into this world with high energy and a real vigor for living. He had a lively personality and an eagerness to jump right in to life. He excelled in school and sports and relationships. It was hard not to become enraptured by this child, who could impress almost everyone. Parent Teachers conferences became routine, as we would hear the teachers sing Mike’s praises, over and over. There was no doubt that this kid would not live up to his full potential. His vision was clear, and as he graduated from a prestigious university, he shot out of the gate with confidence and enthusiasm for taking on the world.

We raised our children the same way. We tried as parents to stress what we saw as important: respect for self and others, importance of God, family, relationships, a good education. I made sure they had a solid religious foundation, took them to church weekly, said grace at the dinner table as we ate as a family each evening. We did things as a family often, and appeared very much the normal intact typical family.

My younger son did not follow in the steps of his older brother. Not only did they look like they were from different families, physical opposites in every way, Dave was also different in personality. Never drawn to sports or rough and tumble activities, he was a sweet child, extremely lovable and funny, a beautiful spirit that tended to be more inward and soft, unlike his brother who was so outward and intense. He was a gentle kid who loved magic and fantasy. I knew enough to understand that every child is different, and I knew this about my two sons as well. I enjoyed their differences. In fact there were times when I joked, “I asked God to give me one of each, but I meant a boy and a girl, I guess He didn’t quite get it!” At the time, I just did not realize how very different they were.

In 1997, at the age of 12, Dave began having academic difficulties. This took me by surprise, because he was very bright, and a quick learner, and had thus shown himself to be a good student, so I could not understand why he would be having trouble with things likes reading and math. School started becoming stressful for him, as did getting homework completed. Something was shifting. His easy going spirit seemed troubled at times. He started distancing himself from friends he had previously hung out with, a pattern that continued over the next several years. He started going inward. As mothers, we automatically know when something is “off” with our kids. We may not be able to define it with words; we just have a keen awareness to be on alert. This is our basic maternal human nature.

And thus began the journey to figure out what was going on with Dave. We hired a tutor. We spent money, lots of it, at a specialized learning center that he cried going to. When things did not improve, we did what many parents do, and tried to find out if perhaps there was an underlying learning difficulty. We had him tested for ADD, and when the testing came back in the positive, we started him on medication which seemed to work to decrease the distractibility. And when the grades significantly improved, I was relieved. I thought, “OK, I can handle this. A lot of kids have this, and can be treated both with medication and with learning ways to organize behavior. We’re over this hurdle, and now my kid should be happier.”

The grades improved, but the going inward went deeper. In high school, Dave was popular, and kids were drawn to him. A handsome boy, and quite talented musically, he did have friends that shared his love of music, but the relationships with these kids seemed superficial at best. He would often turn down their offers to socialize on weekends, and instead choose to stay home, in his room, spending countless hours on the computer. As his peer group hit the usual milestones, and started things like dating, and driving, going out to movies, normal high school activities, Dave chose to not get involved. He was pursued by several girls through the years, I believe they were not only attracted to his physical self, but perhaps to the mystery that he was; he was not easy to connect with, not easy to read. He did not go to the proms, or to school sporting events.

As his mother, I tried with my very best effort to connect with him on some level, to figure out what was going on. I was worried because his level of engagement on a social level was so lacking and that he seemed so not able to enjoy life like the rest of the kids did. He did just what was required of him, and stayed out of trouble. He assured me repeatedly that he was “just fine.” I knew in my gut that he was not, but for the life of me, I could not figure him out.

By the time of his high school graduation, he made straight A’s his senior year, and was accepted at a college not far from home. Because of his seemingly indifference toward working towards independence, I had some anxiety as to how he would fare living on his own at college. At that time, he still did not care to drive, and made little effort to take control of simple things like managing a bank account. But off to college he went. He seemed to settle in to college life, at least which is what we were led to believe. On school breaks and vacations, he would return home, and retreat into his isolative life, which consisted of his spending hours on his computer, playing his guitar and getting lost in movie rentals, movies that were comedic in nature or pure fantasy. He’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning, and sleep all day. Friends would stop over and try to engage him in activities, but he remained eager to stay home, alone. He worked at a few menial summer jobs, but it was without much passion and enthusiasm. I’d watch him walk down the street to go to work, and the sadness that he emitted was palpable. Again, I questioned him as to what I was missing, what was he holding onto? He became a master of convincing me that the problem was with me, that I worried too much, and was making something out of nothing. I tried to believe him, but my motherly instinct kept beating the drum of concern.

As his senior year approached, and he was not working toward putting together a solid plan for after graduation, like graduate school or job, I again wondered if my 21 year old son was going to be dependent on us forever. I took a lot of criticism from my family as to how I should not drive out to bring him home on school breaks, but instead let him find his own way home. My family tended to say that his lack of independence was something that I fostered, and perhaps on some level they are right. But it’s a mother’s motherly instinct to want to protect and defend the child who lacks something, the one who has the tougher time in life, be it a confidence or self esteem issue, learning or physical challenge, it does not matter. We want our kids to succeed and we will go out of our way to make it happen.

One morning, after he returned to school last September, I woke up with that all too familiar and all too uncomfortable lump of anxiety in my gut as my thoughts turned to David. The past 10 years seemed to be connected by a constant thread of hoping that whatever he was going through in his own head would turn out to be just a stage that he would resolve and grow out of. Since I and my husband had loved both of our children all through the years, wasn’t that enough? If you love your kids and teach them well, shouldn’t that ensure a positive outcome? I got out of bed and made a conscious decision to share this burden with someone else.

I often counsel my patients that when they are in a situation where they feel they have no control to actually write a letter to God, pour out the problem, and then ask God to take over. The letter is signed and sealed, and put in what I call “The God Box.” So I followed my own advice. After pouring my heart out to God, I reminded Him that Dave was very much His child. And since I was at my wits end, I was delegating this to God. “He’s your son too,” I wrote. “You love him like you love all of us, so please take over, because I don’t know what else to do, and I trust that you will do just that, because you are God.” As I placed the letter in the box, I “let go,” and decided to trust. When I re-read that letter now, I get goose bumps.

I found myself less preoccupied, trusting that God would somehow step up to the plate. I stopped trying to control what I could not control. I started feeling lighter, and actually felt hopeful that my son was going to have a great life, he just was a late bloomer. One night last fall, right before Halloween, I had an uncanny urge to look clearly at Dave’s bank account on line, as our accounts are linked. I never paid much attention to his account, because he spent very little, and his money would last most of the school year. But I noticed that his balance was going down faster than usual, so I drew in a deep breath and looked closely, again with that old anxiety wrapped around my heart. What was I afraid I’d see?

What I saw was several online purchases to pharmacies out of the country. That was it!! Now I knew!! He had a drug problem, and that explained it. I was determined to get to the bottom of this for once and for all. I dialed his cell phone, and he answered it, which was unusual, as I typically would have to leave a message. I demanded to know what he was buying online. I wanted the truth, no more deception; I needed to know what was going on. I took a deep breath and waited for his reply.

“Hormones, Mom, I’m buying hormones.” For a brief second I pictured his purchasing some type of steroid or muscle building product that enhance athletic performance,and felt a relief. That was it, he was going to the gym, and pumping iron. Kind of expensive, but OK, great! I attempted to verify this with him, and his reply was something that rocked my world. “No mom, it’s not that. I am a transsexual.”

I tried not to faint, held on to the wall, took slow and deep breaths, and attempted to ask clear and cohesive questions, like “What does that mean? I don’t understand. Are you sure? Perhaps you are just confused, or it’s some silly college idea.” But as I listened carefully to his answers, I knew in my heart of hearts, that we were all embarking on a strange and difficult and life altering journey that would not be easy for any of us. My son was totally of the conviction that he had the brain of a woman. He had started the transition hormonally several months before. My husband was out of town on business, so there I sat all alone as our phone call ended, now having to face the truth in front of me.It would be days before I gradually was able to come out of the emotional shock I went into that night.

As a nurse, I had encountered a few transgender people in my care, but I must admit, despite being a nurse, I really did not know what it meant. I felt mildly curious about them, and wondered why would anyone ever want to do that to themselves? Beyond that, there was no reason for me to explore the issue. Why would I? These people did not affect me, and were not part of my life, so it never seemed important to learn.

Well, now this was affecting me and my family, big time. This was our kid who was telling us that from about age 12, when puberty hit and the testosterone started flowing, he knew that a big error had been made. The testosterone contributed to a dysphoria,or unhappiness, and for the next five years as his body started becoming more masculine he would struggle to try to identify what the problem was. The onset of puberty was when the sullen behavior started, the preoccupation, the distractibility, the retreat into his own world of trying to figure out what made him feel so different from everyone else. In retrospect, it explained so much. The big clothes he wore, a way of covering his body up, the constant preoccupation with hair styles, the nail polish and necklace, which I did not attribute to anything, because many musicians did that sort of thing. The sad soulful music that I would hear coming out of his room as he played his guitar, which always tore at my heart, the avoidance of dating and proms and social activities that are normal for other kids at that age.

It also explained why as an adolescent he would often get almost obsessive about his desire for something that he thought would make him happy. He would ask incessantly for the new bike, or the new skateboard, or a dog, anticipating that perhaps the joy of the new object would hopefully be enough to cover up the underlying hideous feelings that only got worse as time went on. It breaks my heart when I think of the dark and lonely nights that he spent wondering and worrying how to deal with it all. It never diminished, it never resolved. How alienating it must be to feel so radically different. It explained his taking college courses in neuroscience, endocrinology, philosophy, and psychology. He was trying to figure it all out. For nearly 10 years, Dave traveled down this emotionally painful journey all alone. And I, the mother could not see!

I went through a myriad of emotions, including shock, sadness, guilt, loss, confusion, anxiety, fear, just about all of them I guess. I decided to educate myself about the subject, and dove into all the books I could find. I looked up who the experts were, and sought out their help. I was fortunate to find several gender specialists in my area and got us involved. I got proper medical supervision for him so that we could do this “above board.” I prayed to God for strength, and then when I was able, I started telling friends and coworkers, only a little at a time, as my comfort level would permit, and would be fortified every time I could say the words “my son is really my daughter” and the world would not end. I found an on line support group for parents of transgender kids, and found a tremendous amount of support and advice there. I was amazed that there were literally hundreds of moms and dads riding the exact same emotional rollercoaster as we were. Most importantly, I vowed that I would be there for HER as a loving and supportive parent, leading my family with an attitude of acceptance.

In my reading, I learned that no one decides or chooses to become a transsexual. Think about it, why in God’s name would anyone ever choose to do something as unusual or as difficult as change their gender? No, this is actually a biological condition that these kids are born with. Despite attempts to forge ahead and try to be the gender your body says it is, like join the military to be more “masculine” or marry and have babies to be more “feminine”, there are countless transsexuals whose stories all say the same. That the body and the brain just don’t line up, despite attempts to will it away. A transsexual has but one of three pitiful options: to painfully go through life pretending to be someone they are not, or to end the torture by ending their life, or choosing to transition over to make things match. Given these choices, which would you want for your own child, or for yourself?

The interesting thing is that now that she has decided to finally come out with the truth, my daughter seems happier, like a huge burden has been lifted from her shoulders. Yes, it is difficult to start referring to your son as your daughter, and using different pronouns. But, after several months into it, it finally dawned on me when I realized that I don’t have a son who wants to be a daughter. I have a daughter who is trapped in the body of a boy, and needs help in getting out and over. Her father and brother struggle with this, but overall remain loving and supportive, doing the best they can in their own way.

Sadly, in many cases, transsexuals are dismissed totally from their family systems, judged by them to be too much of a perverse oddity to be supported. These are the trans folk who are driven to the streets in a cold cruel world that at this juncture remains largely ignorant and thus fearful of this population. Horror story after horror story abound as trans folk try and integrate into society, in pursuit of basic needs for survival, like gainful employment or a place to live. Most disenfranchised minority populations have experienced severe and debilitating discrimination and at worse, vengeance, but many groups have successfully fought for and gained legal rights to protect them. Anti-discrimination laws are now on the books, and that means people cannot be excluded from jobs or housing based on race, sex, age, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. Unfortunately, these equal protection laws do not apply to transgender people, except in a handful of states and some individual counties and municipalities. As my daughter seeks to find a summer job, she is beginning to face the harshness of the world, as she gets turned down repeatedly, job after job. She is educated, smart, and sweet and kind, yet no one is rushing to embrace her strengths or appreciate her talents, or to just give a kid a chance.

What most people are not aware of is the hundreds of transgender people who live amongst us who successfully transitioned at a young age, and are living “in stealth.” In other words, they had the means and support in many cases to get to the other side, and integrate into society. Sometimes they move to a new area, and start a whole new life, often times successfully, integrating a multitude of professions. The transgender person you see on Jerry Springer is the exception, and unfortunately this kind of tabloid style exposure tends to create an unwarranted negative false perception of what a transsexual is. Recently, a daily soap opera featured a character that was transitioning from male to female. The show did this with dignity and served to educate its viewers. In April, MSNBC did a documentary about transsexual college age kids. It too was done well, and served to bring this mystifying issue to light. And Barbara Walters did a wonderful show on 20/20 dedicated to the personal stories of three transgender kids and their supportive families. Newsweek had a featured cover story on Gender Identity. This is a refreshing sign that perhaps the time has finally come to remove the cloak of secrecy and shame for this population of people who just want their constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For far too long, society has ignorantly pigeonholed people into a rigid binary male/female system with no room for variance. I truly believe that there is a growing momentum, a sea of change if you will, that has recently begun, that will serve to expand our awareness and lead to a day in the future when society includes and appreciates all gender types. Perhaps the image of a “gender spectrum” will become clearer, with the feminine female on one end and the masculine male on the other end, and everyone else falling out somewhere along that spectrum. Bigender and intersexed individuals falling out in the middle range. Like flowers, we humans come in an assortment of varieties, each with unique and individual talents, skills and qualities. As science continues to study the gender issue, I believe we will be able to break out of our current and limited social construct which only serves to separate and exclude.

Right now, picturing that day in the future seems so far off from where we are at. People fear what they don’t understand, so as a mother, I will do my part to pave the way to a better world for my daughter and all of the others who share her condition. This means talking openly with others, and not trying to hide our kid. For if I deal with this with an attitude of shame or embarrassment, I remain part of, and therefore perpetuate the problem. It means becoming politically active in trying to push through legislation here in my own state, where there is an actual bill that will be voted on in the near future that seeks to end gender-based discrimination. It means trying to find speaking venues where education can take place, perhaps in school systems. Of course, there are days still when I wake up and tell myself that I am not strong enough to take on this battle, but then I think, “If it’s hard for me, how difficult must it have been and still is for them?” I think of her and her future, and then I find the courage.

It could have been radically different for our child. Perhaps she could have been born into a family that would be unsupportive, unloving. She could have gone down a different road when deciding upon which of those three lousy options that she had to choose from. People I have met and told our story to all say one thing, “Thank God you are the mother.” That always strikes me as odd, because I cannot imagine any mother who would disown or reject her own child for any reason. So I am just doing what I vowed to do as both of my kids were put in my physical charge: love them unconditionally. My daughter knows she can count on her mother to shed light on the truth, educate others and work to make the world a better place, one person at a time. I see this now very clearly.


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