Lisa Marchiano is a writer and therapist in private practice.She has been in contact with hundreds of parents of trans-identifying young people.You can find her on Twitter @LisaMarchiano. Lisa creates monthly audio content on Patreon for parents of gender-questioning youth.
by Lisa Marchiano
Say you’re a mom.
Maybe you’re also a lawyer. Or a doctor or nurse. A biochemical engineering professor at a research university. Or maybe you’re just a mom. You never wanted kids, or you always knew you wanted them, but when they got here, your life was turned upside down. They became the thing that mattered above all else. You had a baby girl. You chose her name carefully. Maybe something traditional, with a family connection. Maybe something unusual, to communicate how special you knew she would be. You adored her.
You nursed her on demand, carefully attending to her cues. For two years running, you didn’t sleep eight hours straight. She was colicky, or she wasn’t. Maybe she had inexplicable crying jags after you nursed. No one believed you that anything was wrong. Your pediatrician was dismissive, but somehow you knew. So you researched it. You read articles and asked questions of other moms. And you watched her. You paid close attention to what happened whenever she nursed, the way she pulled off the breast and arched her back and wailed. It turned out that she was allergic to the dairy in your breast milk. There was a test that proved it. So you gave up dairy, and things got better. For the next two years, you ate no milk, no yogurt, no ice cream. You made your own baby food. You bought only organic.
Maybe she had serious medical issues right from the beginning. Maybe she was a preemie, or had a rare disease. Or maybe it all went smoothly. She spoke her first words. She walked. You delighted in her smiles, talked to her, sang to her. You were diligent and attentive, reading research about infant-parent attachment. You wore her in a sling. You co-slept with her. Or you didn’t and she slept in a crib.
As she grew, you learned the intricacies of each cry. You struggled to understand what she needed, and to do your best to provide it. You knew she had a fever before the thermometer registered it. When she vomited for eight hours, you wondered if you should take her to the emergency room. Your husband said you were overreacting but something didn’t feel right. You insisted on taking her. She was admitted for dehydration.
You bought educational toys. You read to her extensively because you knew the research about language development and how important parental interaction is. When it came time to send her to pre-school, you chose carefully. You read the reviews, talked to other moms.
You didn’t care about your daughter being girly. You didn’t paint the nursery pink. You never pierced her ears or put a headband on her when she was a baby so everyone would know she was a girl. You were proud she liked dinosaurs. You made sure she knew that girls could do anything and be anything they wanted.
Maybe your husband was a great dad. She adored him and he adored her. Or maybe he wasn’t in the picture. There had been a divorce. Maybe he was angry, or even violent. Maybe he was just passive. Whatever the case, your top priority was your daughter. You wanted her to have a good relationship with her dad.
By the time she was five, you knew she was a little different from other kids. She was more intense. She would read chapter books at lightning speed. Teachers loved her. They always gushed about how bright she was. Or, they disliked her. She could be difficult, moody. Maybe she had tantrums, or had difficulty reading social cues. She could be disruptive, with her passionate feelings about things.
You taught her to eat well. You wanted her to be healthy, and to take good care of her body. If she was a little heavy, you gently encouraged her to be more active without shaming her or drawing attention to her weight. You knew the dangers of eating disorders. You bought organic meat, or at least the kind raised without hormones. You limited refined carbohydrates and processed sugar. Sodas were not allowed in your house. You were careful about what she put into her body.
She obsessed over bugs. Or ballet. She was tall and lithe – a dancer’s body. She went on pointe a year early. Or she was always heavy. Kids teased her. She was happiest playing at the creek with the boys next door. She was a talented singer. When music played, she saw colors. Or she played ice hockey. You watched her grow and were proud. She was the most important thing.
She was a girly girl who always wanted to wear dresses and loved the “gown” she got to wear at her cousin’s wedding. Or she was a tomboy who wouldn’t wear a dress even at her kindergarten graduation. You didn’t mind at all. You admired her fierce, independent spirit.
When she seemed to struggle with reading in the third grade, you sensed something wasn’t quite right. You did hours of research on the internet. Why was your bright child struggling? Teachers said you were being ridiculous to suspect anything. They implied you were one of those moms. She was just lazy and needed to apply herself. Had you considered putting her on medication for ADHD? She’d always been a classroom management challenge. But you knew. You believed in yourself – that you knew your daughter better than anyone. You weren’t going to shame her or give her unnecessary drugs. You found the top specialists. You got the learning disability diagnosed. You paid thousands of dollars for specialized tutoring to remediate the difficulty, and the struggles ceased. You were relieved and proud of yourself that you listened to your gut.
Then puberty hit. She withdrew. You didn’t understand at first. She spent more time in her room. She was moody and distant. You listened outside her door. Was she okay in there? You knew she needed more independence. You gave her some space, but you were vigilant, watchful. You did what you could to know her friends. You talked to her teachers.
You gave her a smartphone for her 12th birthday. This was how kids communicated, how they stayed in touch. Not having one would make it difficult for her to have friends. She kept her computer in her room, and sometimes you discovered her on it in the middle of the night. You worried about how much time she was spending online, but this was what kids did. And she needed it – all of her homework was done online.
She went to public school. Or private school. A small, progressive school for the gifted. The teachers had face piercings and were called by their first names. Or maybe you homeschooled. You allowed her to follow her own lead, crafted a custom curriculum that reflected her unique gifts and challenges.
She became more withdrawn. She stopped talking to you. Maybe she gained weight. Or lost weight. Or started cutting. You saw the marks on her arm. You didn’t hesitate. You found a therapist. She had depression and anxiety. Maybe talking to someone would help.
Or maybe she just seemed insecure, more anxious. She had just started high school, and her friends were changing. The “alpha” in her friend group cut her hair off and came out as nonbinary. You saw that your daughter worried about not fitting in. Then three more friends came out as something, you found out later. One said she was a demi boy. Another announced she was pansexual. Another said she was really a boy. They all got the same haircut. They were fourteen.
She started spending time on DeviantArt when she was 11. She was always a talented artist. How great that she had a place online to share this interest. Or maybe she opened a Tumblr account. Or Instagram. Her other friends were on there too, and it seemed like such a female-friendly space. Maybe she watched a lot of YouTube videos. She liked ones about cooking and funny reaction videos. All of these platforms were somewhat unfamiliar to you and they seemed harmless enough.
Your daughter comes out to you.
Maybe she said she was gay. Maybe you weren’t surprised. You have kind of always known. You tell her you are glad she told you, and that you love and accept her no matter what.
But a few weeks or months later, she told you she got it wrong. She wasn’t actually a lesbian. She was pansexual. She was gender fluid. She was trans. She told you this one night while you were fighting over her slipping grades. This was the reason, she explained. She’d been depressed because she couldn’t be her authentic self.
You found out that the idea first occurred to her after a school assembly on transgender issues. Or after her guitar teacher came out as trans. Or after spending hours and hours online watching YouTube transition videos. She’d been going to the GSA meetings at school. You were relieved to know she was receiving support while coming to terms with her sexuality, but then you found out that all of the kids in the GSA identified as trans.
Or maybe she wrote you a letter. The style was unlike hers. You suspected she may have copied it from the internet. The letter announced her new male name and asked that you use male pronouns. It mentioned that she wanted to start testosterone right away.
You told her you love her, that her happiness mattered, that you didn’t want her to suffer. Then you started researching. Because that is what you do. It’s what you’ve always done. You paid careful attention to her. You’ve known her as well as one human being can know another. But you also researched.
You looked up the effects of testosterone on female-bodied people and learned that long-term risks are unknown, but that a hysterectomy is indicated after five years on “T” because of the increased risk of cancer. You discovered that there is a growing community of detransitioners who felt that they weren’t helped by transition. You read reports of other parents who also had smart, quirky teen daughters who suddenly decided they were a boy. Their stories were remarkably similar to yours. Some researchers spoke of social contagion.
You learned that there were few therapists who would help your child explore these questions in an open-ended way. You heard stories about children being greenlighted for hormones and even surgery after one, two, or three visits to a gender clinic.
Meanwhile, you could see that she was suffering from anxiety. Or an eating disorder. Maybe she was diagnosed a while ago with ADHD. Or autism spectrum disorder. It’s a complicated picture. The doctors at the gender clinic told you there was only one problem with only one answer, but you knew it wasn’t that simple.
Your child came out at school. She went to the principal and asked that her name and pronouns be changed, and the principal complied without consulting you. It was a small school, maybe 100 kids, but there were at least fifteen who identified as trans. Your daughter’s teachers were eager to support her. Her English teacher chose her essay to be read aloud at the school-wide literary salon. The essay was about being transgender.
You couldn’t speak about this to anyone. Your extended family reacted to her coming out post on Facebook with “likes” and encouragement. When you tried to talk to your cousin about your concerns, she said you were being old-fashioned, that things were different now and you just needed to support “him.” When you called a meeting with the guidance counselor and the principal, they were condescending. It was clear they thought you were a bigot.
You were living in a progressive neighborhood that featured Hillary lawn signs in the fall of 2016. There was a small independent bookstore and a food coop. At your Unitarian church, fellow parishioners who’ve known your daughter since she was a baby came up to you and squealed their congratulations. They were so excited your son had found his authentic self!
You couldn’t say what you were really thinking. You couldn’t let them know that this wasn’t your child’s authentic self, that your child was in fact doing this to fit in, to claim an identity. You couldn’t say this because no one would understand. They would think you were one of those parents, the ones who couldn’t accept their trans child. Your loneliness and isolation were crushing.
You had to bear this alone. If you were lucky, your husband saw things the same way you did. You and he were a team. If you were unlucky, he accused you of overreacting, of being hysterical. Maybe he even undermined you. Maybe your marriage ended.
You weren’t close with your daughter anymore. You knew that it was normal for teens to have conflict with parents, but this felt like something more. You walked on eggshells. She seemed unhappy and irritable all the time. Identifying as trans was supposed to be the answer, but she only became more depressed, more difficult to reach. She blamed you for not being supportive. She called you transphobic. If you really cared about her, you would help her transition, she said.
The activists characterized you as an anti-trans hater who didn’t care about her son. But you knew your child. You’ve known her since she came out all tiny and perfect. You’ve been there every step of the way, encouraging her, striving to understand her unique challenges. You knew that her belief that she was trans came about only after friends declared their trans identity, after hours of watching trans YouTubers. You knew your child.
You tried to walk a line of supporting her as a person without supporting her belief that she was a boy, but family and teachers affirmed her, so your efforts to help her keep an open mind were undermined. She became deeply invested in the belief that she was trans. You found out that she had a transition pact with on online friend. They were planning on moving into together when they were 18 and starting “T.” You knew this wasn’t an idle threat, because your daughter would be able to access “T” as soon as she turned 18 without any therapy or assessment at an informed consent clinic.
So you wait. You wait for the mainstream media to start covering the story, so that people realize what is going on and you can speak about this without sounding crazy. You wait for the lawsuits to come, for reports to surface of the rising tide of detransitioners. You wait for therapists and doctors to realize that we are living through another mental health contagion such as we saw with multiple personality disorder in the 90s.
Say you’re a mom. A good mom. A mom who is fighting for her daughter.