Parenting Their Body, Themself
My child casually peeled their T-shirt off; I was the one who felt exposed.
It was unseasonably warm for winter in Maui, according to our guide, and surprisingly dry. We’d hiked an hour through what had been advertised as a rain forest, although I’d been picturing more of a lush-dense-overgrowth-covered-in-moss situation as opposed to the modest, ginger-infested private farmland it turned out to be.
It was a beautiful day. As we approached our first stop, a frigid pool with a rushing waterfall and a cliff just the right height for diving, I felt something a bit short of awe come over me. The sun glistened through the treetops, the water danced at the base of the falls, and our guide was about to find out that my child—the child he’d assumed was a boy—was not a boy. Not exactly.
I hadn’t thought much of the transition my child had gone through, which had become a simple and natural part of our lives over the past year. It started with wearing more masculine clothes. This was more than fine with me; I was a tomboy at that age, too. Then came a request for a cropped haircut. Again, I’d had short hair before, and I have never been one to police my children’s aesthetics. My deep anxiety about lice infestation, borne of my own childhood experiences, actually made me welcome the choice. Yes, I thought. Give them no safe harbor.
A little while later came the pronoun switch. That was not something I’d experienced before, but still I knew it had become more common, and detaching language from gender seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Why not divorce the language with which people identify you from your genitals? You go, human, I silently applauded.“They/them/their” took some getting used to, of course, and involved a bit of grumbling about poor grammar from my fastidious older daughter, but get used to it we all did.
To my mind, all these choices represented a natural and normal part of my growing child’s identity exploration. They dated a girl, which in seventh-grade terms meant they texted a lot and hung out on Sunday at one or the other’s house. Once they asked if the two of them could have a sleepover at our apartment, which I denied on the grounds that I wasn’t going to allow any twelve-year-old child to have a sleepover with their significant other under my roof. I patted myself on the back for the equanimity with which I handled the situation, and generally believed myself to be a model of progressive twenty-first-century parenting.
Then came the discussion about hormone blockers. “I’d like to talk to the doctor about it,” they said one afternoon. “You know, just to get information.”
“But you like your body,” I said. I knew this was true—I often caught them checking out their butt in a mirror or referring with fondness to their “strong thighs”—but I also heard the defensiveness, the fear in my voice. I was defensive and afraid because I liked their body: I had created it from nothing, I had nourished it and helped it grow, and I didn’t like the idea of them wanting a new one—a supposedly better one, one they deemed more “proper” or “correct” than the one I had made for them inside my own.
The conversation also evoked another feeling, one I’d felt five years earlier as I blinked back tears in the corner of a Claire’s Boutique while I watched them get their ears pierced. (My child didn’t know how strong an impact this experience made on me until they read this essay prior to publication. How many such moments, I wonder, do we as parents keep to ourselves to protect our children from our own persistent and irrational anxieties about the ways the world might hurt them?) Something about irrevocably changing this pristine physical specimen made me feel complicit in a sort of defilement.
Watching the needle pierce their skin, I remember thinking about Odysseus’s nurse when she went to bathe the disguised warrior and discovered his scar, the giveaway that marked him as the boy she’d raised into a man—how seeing that scar caused her to launch into a visceral flashback of the day he got it, gouged by a boar on his first hunt. I remembered reading Erich Auerbach on how Homer makes time slow in this moment, makes the narrative pause as the nurse recalls the moment when Odysseus’s body was changed forever. Watching my child’s ears speared through that day like Odysseus’s arrow through the axes, I think I finally understood and felt what Auerbach meant—the slowing of time—as I contemplated the inexorable passing of it. The moment suspended as I watched my child receive a sharp physical reminder that to live in this world means to suffer damage, and that no one makes it out of here alive, or unchanged.
The conversation about hormones kept cropping up with my child. I desperately tried to maintain a casual stance regarding a topic I had come to deeply dread. Sometimes I asked whether they felt “at home” in the body I’d provided for them and braced myself for the answer I didn’t want, but hoped to ultimately accept. Instead, they continued to maintain ambivalence. They were a late bloomer, anyway, so aside from the beginnings of breasts that they could easily hide with a sports bra, they could pass for a ten- or eleven-year-old boy if and when they wanted to.
Anyway, they would often say, “Penises are weird.” (“Totally,” I’d say. “They’re so weird.”)
And so my child lived mostly happily inside their body for a year. The school respected their pronoun preferences and let them use the gender-neutral faculty bathroom. The school nurse and social worker even reached out to me at the beginning of the year to make sure my child felt safe and comfortable at school.
When the nurse called to say they’d had a team meeting about them, I was a little shocked—I hadn’t thought of my child’s gender-queerness as something that required meetings or strategies or intervention, probably because I was still categorizing it in my mind as “Undetermined So Could We All Just Be Chill About It Please?” Still, I thanked her for the school’s attention and assured her I would speak up if anything changed or my child needed further accommodations. I was sure they wouldn’t.
This was not a big deal, I told myself and everyone else. This was just some clothes and a haircut, a pronoun here or there. Were these the things that make a person who they are? I was sure they were not.
Then came February break. This year we were planning an extra-special trip: Hawaii—four days on Maui and four days on Kauai. For the trip to the rain forest we had to decide between a helicopter ride and a hike, and my older daughter pushed for the hike. “Helicopter seems scary,” she insisted.
There were about twenty of us altogether on the hike, and as we stood in line to use the portapotties near the start of the trail, everyone chatted and tried to get their bearings on the people they’d be spending the day with. One woman smiled at me as we waited outside the toilets. “He’s adorable,” she said, nodding her head at my younger child, who was back by the vans and out of earshot.
“Thank you,” I replied. Then, after a brief pause, I heard myself continue. “Just so you know, when we go swimming, you’ll see, they’re actually biologically female.”
The woman kept smiling.
I continued, “You’ll see. They’re wearing a bikini.”
More smiling. Silence, which I felt a compulsive urge to fill. “They don’t mind if you think they’re a boy. But just so you know . . . you know . . .”
Mercifully, that’s when the door to the portapotty opened, and I slipped inside. I hovered over the toilet seat and did my business out of my own biologically female body, shaking. Why had I gone on like that? Rambling like a fool. Everyone would see my child soon enough, and they’d be free to draw their own conclusions, string together their own narratives.
But “soon enough” clearly wasn’t soon enough for me, and a multiplicity of narratives silently constructed by strangers felt somehow unacceptable. I wanted to choose how the story of the day unfolded; I wanted to control the moment of the reveal, to slow time and explain on my terms. I wasn’t going to be taken by surprise like some silly nurse. Anyway, how had she not recognized Odysseus until that very moment? Was it that easy to lose a person to a disguise?
Perhaps I had grown manic simply because I’d never confronted a situation like this before, I offered to myself as consolation as we waited for the rest of our party to empty themselves. Strangers who we’d encountered only briefly—a dressing room attendant trying to shepherd them to the men’s side at T.J.Maxx; a restaurant server playfully calling them “sir”—hardly needed an explanation from me. And everyone else we knew was either aware and supportive of my child’s transition or, in the case of my Orthodox Jewish parents, blissfully unaware (or more likely, suspicious but choosing to seem unaware to avoid an awkward conversation).
This, on the other hand, was a scenario in which people we didn’t know were going to spend the day with us and watch my child visually transition from one gender representation to another. If I wanted to keep my child from becoming a sideshow before strangers, would anyone blame me?
Our guide hadn’t heard my conversation with the woman near the portapotties, and as the hike started and conversation turned to the species of various trees and bushes, my child sidled to his hip like a happy puppy. The guide was delighted to have such an engaged, charming kid at his side, and my child, as always, enjoyed the attention from an older, cooler person. Our guide started affectionately calling them “dude,” which could be a gender-neutral term but which I knew he meant to indicate maleness. Then the male pronouns came. “This guy’s a hoot!” the guide would say, backward-thumbing toward my kid as he looked back at my husband and me.
This time there was no way to explain the nuances of the situation without involving and potentially embarrassing my child. And yet I found myself wanting to explain before everyone, including our guide, learned in another fashion. As we neared our first stop at the waterfall, I felt a tightness in my chest. It’s no big deal, I tried to tell myself. Other than potential and momentary confusion, what tragedy would be avoided by my intervention?
Yet in spite of what I kept telling myself were the extremely low stakes of what was about to happen, the lack of control I felt as we came closer and closer to the waterfall controlled me. Why couldn’t I slow time down now, give myself a few more moments to think and process and plan?
Soon I heard rushing water ahead of us. Oblivious to my worry, my child grasped at the corners of their T-shirt and, in one motion, casually peeled it over their head and tossed it onto a nearby rock. As they stood next to the frigid pool in a black bikini top with a laser-cut design on the back like a child’s paper snowflake, I was the one who felt exposed, suddenly ashamed—not of my child, but of how I’d spent the hike agonizing over and dreading this moment.
If our guide did any sort of double-take, I didn’t see it. He glanced around at the group and then down at my kid. “You ready, buddy?” he asked them, before splashing into the water himself.
My child looked at him tentatively from the edge of the pool. “Should I take off my shoes? Won’t they get dirty? And wet?” they asked.
The guide smiled. “Oh yeah, they’ll definitely get dirty and wet. But that’s what you’re here for. To show ’em a good time.”
And so they did. The two of them, followed by a few more people from the tour, swam out toward the base of the falls. They climbed to the top of the falls. First our guide jumped, then a couple on the tour.
Then it was my child’s turn. They stood peering out over the falls. “Go for it!” yelled our guide. They plugged their nose and leaped, bikini, shoes and all, into the icy water.
“Woo hoo!” cried our guide. “Way to go, buddy!”
The guide avoided gender pronouns for the rest of the hike, but—and of course this was the case, despite all my anxiety—seemed completely unfazed by what I had feared would be a moment of existential crisis. Other than a possible brief concern over whether or not my child had been bothered by his use of the male pronoun—something I couldn’t even be sure he felt, and would certainly never ask him about—nothing had changed after my child took off their top. The two of them walked on together through the rest of the hike, jumping off two more falls, keeping in lock step, as I trailed behind.
That day I saw how much it mattered to me not that others accepted my child, but that I could do so. Not privately and begrudgingly, not holding onto a tiny sliver of hope that they would eventually find a way to reconcile the body I’d given them with their identity—but publicly, unabashedly, unreservedly, without apologies or explanations or fear.
And I wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t. I was worried, like most people are at their core, about myself. I was not being a “good mom,” a “progressive mom,” a “cool mom”; I was being a self-preserving creature. I was worried, not about their identity but about mine. I didn’t want a moment I couldn’t control. I didn’t want to look up one day and see a person I didn’t recognize. I didn’t want to lose my child. No parent does, but that’s also not the point of being a parent. Being a parent means, at some point, being able to look on as your child writes their own story, a story in which you play a role but which is ultimately not about you.
When we got back from the hike all our shoes were soaking wet, muddy, smelling of moss and damp wood. I wondered if they’d be wearable once they dried. “I wish they’d have warned us we’d trash our shoes,” I complained as I slipped mine off and placed them on the hotel balcony to dry.
“We didn’t trash ’em,” my child said to me as they joined me, laying their shoes out next to mine on the glass-topped table in the sun. “We just showed ’em a good time.”
“I guess so,” I replied. I wanted to believe it.