Here's the Thing: What You Owe Your Mother
THE BIGGEST SWEETIE ALIVE:
I'm a nonbinary trans person (they/them) with a Challenging Relationship with my family. Bit of backstory: my dad is dead, it sucks! I am an only child. I have no relationship with my dad's super Baptist family, and a distantly friendly relationship with my mom's extended family. The real issue is my mom. She refuses to accept my gender.
I've come out as trans a few times, once in college, which went badly, but was eventually smoothed over, because while my mom and I were not speaking I was still talking to my dad. He died shortly after I graduated, and my mom continued misgendering me, and I just sort of accepted it for a while, because she was grieving and I didn't want to upset her. At the end of last summer she came to visit me and I spent the whole time she was here trying to work myself up to tell her, again, that I was trans. I wound up making a cake and frosting "I'M TRANS" onto the cake. She didn't like this at all. There was much yelling on her end, an crying on mine, and she talked a lot about how "it didn't make sense to her" and "she couldn't understand" and how she'd always accepted that I was a tomboy when I was a kid (cool), but that since I hadn't said I was trans then it didn't make sense for me to be trans now. My partner was there for the blow up and said he would send her some resources for parents of trans people, she said she'd read them, she went home. The next day we had lunch, it was awkward, and I haven't seen her since then. A check up after she went back to Georgia informed me that she did not, in fact, read anything that my partner had sent her.
She's sent me a lot of cards in the last year, and emails for a while (and she used to text me but then she kicked me off her phone plan and I changed my number so she doesn't have my new number), and the gist of her letters has always varied between "I love you forever no matter what you'll always be my daughter" and "gender is determined solely by chromosomes." She's said that she's glad my dad is dead because he'd be so disappointed in me. She's told me that BEFORE he died he had expressed to her how sad my gender made him. So like, I guess I'm estranged, but I don't think she like, meets the bar of being abusive, and before this she was a good, if emotionally repressed mother. What do I owe her for my safe and happy childhood? I know that I'm making her incredibly sad, and that feels awful considering that my dad is dead and she has no other children.
My grandmother died last month and at the funeral she uhhhh didn't make eye contact with me or speak to me at all, and then had my aunt give me a blanket she'd sewn out of my dad's clothes that she had embroidered with messages about how sad she is. That was a wild one.
I guess what I'm wondering is: should I have done things differently? Was it fair for me to cut her off without telling her exactly why? Like, should I have given her an itemized list so she had a chance to fix herself? Should I give her another chance? What do I owe the woman who raised me who has been acting like a total JERK about this? I can't seem to make peace with not talking to her again, and not telling her exactly why, but the idea of yet another conflict with her about my gender is pretty unbearable.
Here is a nice, soothing picture of the Italian countryside not because I feel you owe your mother an Italian villa, but because it’s nice to look at and you deserve something nice to look at.
Obviously, I am not trans nor nonbinary and have no idea what it is like to be trans or nonbinary. If anything in this letter sounds like something that will not work for you, feel free to ignore it, or write me back and let me know that I got it wrong, or share it with all your friends with the subject line, “Hahah get a load of this cis lady!!!!!!!! WHAT!!!!”
What I do know is this:
You owe your mom nothing. I guess like a thank you card for giving birth and changing her pelvic floor forever (if she did indeed give birth to you) would be nice if you happen to have an extra thank you card lying around and nothing to do with it, but even that is not really your responsibility.
Parental relationships are weird because, unlike other relationships in your life, you didn’t choose to be in them at all and, in fact, the other person (your parent) very explicitly choose the relationship by forcing you to be alive. (Like jeeeze, chill out, parents!!). Unlike the dynamic between friends, lovers, grocers, teachers, mentors, the kind barista who thinks your order is an extra hot nonfat latte when it’s really just a nonfat latte and now your drink is always way too hot but you don’t want to correct her because she’s so nice, what you “owe” a parent is very fuzzy.
When you have relatively good parents growing up, the narrative often stands that you owe “everything” to them, that the basis for your life and success is your parents. And to some extent, that might be true. They may have helped pay for college, or gotten you a car to drive to your first job, or taught you to tie your shoes, or wiped your ass a lot of times. However, that does not afford them cruelty. Their early-life support is not money in the bank which they can later withdraw in order to buy off their harming you. Your mom could have purchased you a Land Rover with a $250 Target gift card in each cup holder every day from birth til now and it would not—could not—make up for not accepting, not even trying to accept, that you are trans.
Additionally, you being trans is not actually something she gets to accept or not accept. It’s a fact, she learned the fact, and now she has control of how she treats you, just like she did before. You don’t get to decide whether you’re going to accept that water is wet. It is wet. You are trans. Her throwing a tantrum about that fact makes about as much sense as throwing a tantrum about water being wet.
You have not made her sad. Her being unwilling to love you well, to open her heart and trust that loving you is the same today as it has always been has made her sad. Her own bigotry, whether intended or not, has made her sad. Nothing so joyous and wonderful as you living as you actually are could ever be the cause of pain in someone else. That bullshit is hers to carry, not yours. You do not get to carry your mother’s pain. Certainly not her pain over this.
Should you have done things differently? WHAT THINGS? What could you have possibly done? You, in fact, DIDN’T DO ANYTHING. You are trans and nonbinary. You have been trans and nonbinary. You didn’t “do” something. You are you. That’s not an action. You came out (in a hilarious, adorable, lovable way may I just say!) to your mother and she did all the action. Are you asking if you should have iced the cake in a different color? I don’t know, I didn’t see the cake, but I would bet the color you chose was perfect for the situation. I’m being a bit flippant, I know, but I don’t want you to think you did something that your mother (or father) can approve or disapprove of. You didn’t. You gave her the gift of knowing you better and she decided to be hateful about it.
Here is where some stodgy person is going to say, “You can’t expect her to be on board right away!” And I will disagree with them, most ardently. I have little siblings that I helped raise. I took them to school, I picked them up, I helped them with homework, I made them meals, I changed diapers. I’ve been shat on and thrown up on. With all of that, I still don’t have any idea how much love I will have in my dumb heart if I’m ever a parent; I can only imagine. But what little I know is this: the natural response when someone you love THAT MUCH tells you about themselves is to listen and then love and support the shit out of them. Any response short of that is, to me, unfathomable. An itemized list of how to be good to your child should not be required. What you sign up for when you have a kid is strong, deep, irretrievable love, not judgement and control and hate. I think it is waaaaaaaay more natural when your child comes out to be like “Holy shit this is a bit of a surprise but has not changed my love for you which is way bigger than the Pacific Ocean!” than it is to be like, “I will not accept you.”
But let’s make space for the ingrained hatred that a lot of people are dragging around with them like a wheel-less suitcase because society fucked them up. Let’s make a teeny-tiny corner of space to admit that even if the reaction to “I’m trans and nonbinary” SHOULD be “Tight! I love you! How can I support you best? What are your pronouns?” maybe it IS more like a quiet, whispered, “Oh,” followed by three to five months of someone “adjusting” to you being trans (lol even though it changes nothing for them). Even if we make some space for people to “get used to” the idea of you as trans (which you, of course, were before you told them), that DOES NOT include your mother’s behavior. That allowance that trans people are asked, unfairly, to make for people to “adjust” does not cover quilting you a weird blanket to make you feel bad. It does not cover misgendering you on purpose. It does not cover saying hateful things. Ok?!?!? You say that what she’s doing is not abusive, and I am not the decider of what is or is not abusive, but what she is doing is most certainly cruel and self-centered, and if one day you wanted to call it abusive, we would all agree with you.
Now, let’s get to your dad. Your dad was not disappointed in you or your gender. Your mom does not get to ex post facto stain his memory with her bigotry. If it is important to you to imagine what he would think, YOU and YOU ALONE get to decide how you think your father would react based on the relationship you had with him. I don’t know your father, I don’t know your relationship with your father, but I would again humbly suggest that any parent who loves loves loves looooooooooves their child might be a bit surprised and then go, “Of course you’re trans and I love you for it. Want to go get some frozen yogurt and you can tell me what support you need?”
Because your dad has no way to contradict your imagination of how the conversation goes, YOU get to decide how he would take it. Maybe you jazz it up a bit. Maybe you whisper, “Hey dad, I’m trans and nonbinary” into the dark sky one night and you wait to hear back and the heavens open up and he says, “FUCK YES YOU ARE!!! WHAT GOOD NEWS. I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS!!” Maybe he says exactly what you needed to hear, even if in real life, he may not have. You do NOT need to make up a painful, hateful reaction from him simply because it might be what he thought when he was alive. You have control. If you want to feel love and support from him, you are allowed to, regardless of your mother’s weird, shitty re-write.
If, however, you sincerely feel he would have cared and not been great about it and you want to do some internal work on the pain of that, that’s ok, too. If, alternatively, your imagination of how he would have responded changes frequently, that’s ok, too. It is IMPOSSIBLY unfair that you don’t get to know what he thought. What a fucked thing. What a truly fucked thing. I’m sorry.
Will your mom ever come around? I don’t know. Do you need to wait around for her to treat you with love and respect? No, you do not. You are far too important and hot and brilliant to subject yourself to that agony again and again. You also don’t have to cut her out of her life forever. If not talking to her again hurts too much, that’s ok. But please, give yourself a break when it gets hard. Give yourself permission to take a few months off of trying to change or fix this shitsack situation she created. Walk away for a bit. Don’t think about it or not think about it. Don’t try to guess what will make her “get it.” Don’t ask anything of yourself in terms of your relationship with your mother. This mess will still be there when or if you’re ready to dive in again.
I would strongly recommend that you go to therapy if you can (and if you can find a therapist who is actually trans friendly—let me know if you need help finding one and I will gladly help work on this!). I suggest that because I think you have some grieving to do. Grieving over the relationship that you should have had with your mother. Grieving over the absence of a good reaction from her. Grieving over your feelings around family in general. The bullshit-but-still-good news is that, ultimately, grief is survivable. It’s terrible and no one should ever have to do it. I wish I could take away everyone’s grief and hide it in the aisle of a grocery store where all the jars of weird olives are—no one is looking there—and then we all wouldn’t have to deal with grief for a while. But people, overwhelmingly, survive it. And you will.
Some other reading, which may or may not be helpful:
Here is Samantha Riedel on not being able to tell her father that she is trans: https://www.them.us/story/trauma-grief-and-coming-out-trans
Heather Havrilesky has a wonderful column that she wrote to a mother of a nonbinary child here (Fair warning: Heather, like me, is a cis person and we cis people can be real dolts): https://www.thecut.com/2019/09/ask-polly-my-kid-is-nonbinary-and-i-cant-get-over-it.html
Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter, she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tries to write about Fleetwood Mac for GQ, avoids writing by tweeting at @1followernodad, works full-time as a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. She’s also working on a book and at least five TV pilots at any given moment. (But for real, there will be a book soon). You can reach her or yell at her at email@example.com.