Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Standing on Girl Ground

I had breakfast with a friend today and she asked if Allie was having a good year. As I thought about my answer, I thought about what a big year it's been for Allie. A huge year, really. After all, she ended Kindergarten as short-haired Eli, who was toggling between boy and girl and started the year as long-haired Allie, identifying full-time as a girl.

In many ways, this year, as a full-time girl, Allie's challenges have been far fewer. And I suppose that isn't all that surprising. Looking back at photos of Allie when she still identified as "Eli" part-time, I realize now just how short her hair has and how boyish her looks really were. In my mind though, in real time, it had just looked like a cute pixie cut. But now I think how we were just dipping a toe into uncertain waters, mere novices attempting to pull off an elaborate hoax, our inexperience in raising a girl evidenced by Allie's hairstyle and clothing choices. Allie looked like a boy. And yet, we saw her as a girl. I guess we see her just as she sees herself.

But after a summer spent in the sunshine and salt water, her hair longer and her freckles brighter, Allie looks her part. And its oh so much easier for her to be in the world this way.

It's easy for me to forget that it wasn't always this easy and when I look back on our journey together, I am struck by just how much we ebbed and flowed between "boy" and "girl". I sometimes forget how much, and for how long, we fudged it. I often forget how emotionally exhausting it could be for me, for Adam, and I can't even imagine how exhausting for Allie.

And so now, with our feet planted firmly on girl ground, I am just so relieved at how smooth this year has been, at the lack of trepidation I have felt as Allie has broken new ground at her school, has touched hearts and has opened minds.

The first day that Allie wore a dress to school, I asked her if any of the kids mentioned her outfit. And she said, "Well, yes." I held my breath as I pulled out of the parking lot onto the main road and braced myself for a heart breaking story. "What did they say?", I asked. "Well, Whitneytold me she really liked the dress I was wearing today."

And so, with all this in mind, I turned to my friend at breakfast this morning who asked if Allie was having a good year. I looked at her and smiled and said, "Allie is having a great year."

                 Then                                                                               Now

*Name has been changed

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Introducing Allie

We have had an eventful adventure (to say the very least!) while raising Eli. We have had obstacles in our way, but through it, we have locked arms as a family, took each challenge in stride. We have felt brave, yet fearful. Confident, yet not always certain. Faithful, yet not always sure.

And now, we have found ourselves at another step in our steady and slow walk along Eli's path of gender identity. Eli will begin school in the fall following the girls' dress code, will be called Allie and will take on female pronouns. This is a bit of departure from this past year where Eli (Allie) technically followed the boys' dress code (though took an extremely feminine interpretation of that dress code) and still maintained male pronouns.

Those who are close to us are not surprised by this. Eli has been toying with the name Allie for almost a year now and refers to herself as a female. And while sometimes I feel like this has been the biggest step in the process, I actually believe it is also something that feels like it was supposed to happen all along. 

While sometimes this part of the process feels scary, there is a part of it that feels familiar. I feel like we were finally able to crack the secret code that Allie has been using all her life. She is finally able to help us all understand the way she has been feeling for that last six years. She hasn't changed. We have. We are finally able to understand who she is.

This isn't a path that I wished or hoped for. But it is a path I would take a million times over to show my children that they are unconditionally loved by their mother, father, family and friends.

We understand that not everyone will embrace Allie, or the decisions we have made in the way we parent her. But that's okay. Our goal is to do the what's best for her, not for everyone else. However, we have been forever changed by the people that we have chosen to keep dear to us. We have had our highest and loftiest expectations completely exceeded by the love and kinship that has been offered to us by our most cherished friends and family (and some new friends who have emerged throughout this season of our life) and the goodwill that has come our way continues to bring me to my knees. Those who have buoyed us along will never, ever know how their love, support, understanding and acceptance has changed our lives, how it will continue to change our lives and has enabled and inspired us to be brave and pave a path of love for our most special Allie who deserves all of the burdens of her complex life to be lightened.

That doesn't mean that we haven't had to excuse ourselves from forging friendships with those who we didn't deem fit for our family. It also doesn't mean that we haven't walked away from long term friendships with the knowledge, that while it was sad to say goodbye, it was the healthy thing to do. 

When we began piecing together the puzzle of Allie's gender identity, there were times that I encouraged her to leave a Barbie in the car or cringed when she wore a certain outfit out of the house. But that quickly became unacceptable for both me and Adam. When Adam and I discussed what we wanted for our children, we unequivocally agreed that it was more important to teach our children to feel confident and love who they are, rather than bend into society's demands of what they "should" be. Did we want to make our children feel "less"...feel unworthy...feel like something was so wrong with them that we wouldn't let them appear in public in the same way that we let them be in our own home? No. Absolutely and unquestionably, the answer was always no. 

Adam and I knew we were starting to wage a war against the norms of society, but the alternative was to risk damaging our children beyond repair and we were not going to let that happen. Not on our watch. Other people may turn their backs on Allie because of her gender identity, but it sure as hell isn't going to be one of us who turns their back on her. I have always said that I can't control what others will say to her and about her, but I can do everything I can to help build her confidence...and most of all, I can give her a soft place to land.

For Allie, it isn't about playing dress up, putting on a skirt and liking how it looks and feels. It's not about wanting to look like a girl; it's about wanting to be a girl. It isn't about wanting to play with the girls; it's about wanting to be one of them. Allie wants to be a mom when she grows up. Not a dad. Not a parent. A mother. She told me tonight that she likes having so many shoes "because real women have a lot of shoes". 

She is who she is, and my job is to let her be just that.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Winds of Chance - My Messy Beautiful

About two years after we had our first child, I became pregnant for a second time. I lost that baby. After a devastating year-long battle with infertility, I became pregnant for a third time (with Eli). I was elated and overjoyed, my nausea and fatigue no match for the amount of gratitude I felt for this life growing inside of me.

Four months later, we received word that my husband would require open heart surgery, a cardiac bypass graft to repair a complete blockage of his left aorta descending, or as its more commonly known, the widow maker.

As the surgery date loomed, I feared the future. I feared being left alone to raise our two children alone. I feared that the stress I was under would hurt my baby. But despite my fear, the surgery date arrived. As I felt my baby tumble and hiccup and kick, my husband had his chest sawed open, was hooked up to a machine that pumped blood through his veins and was attached to a venthilator that pushed air through his lungs.

His recovery was neither smooth nor speedy. But recover he did.

During this time, a dear friend of mine also learned she was pregnant. Together our tummies grew. We shared maternity clothes. We planned for playdates. The future was bright.

And then Eli arrived, perfect in every way. Healthy. Chubby. Alert. He slept, he ate, he snuggled. I fell desperately in love.

A couple of months later, we celebrated as my friend birthed her baby boy. Tragically, he was born with an unforeseen brain hemorrhage. He was brought home on hospice and died almost a month later in his mother’s arms.

I spent many nights during his time at home by my friend’s side, holding my friend, holding her dying baby. And then I’d come home and hold my healthy baby. I’d cry, my teardrops falling into his hair, until I was breathless, wondering why her? How did I get to keep my baby, but she didn’t get to keep hers?

What’s the point of all these sad stories? It’s simple.

After being in such close proximity to tragedy, I now understand that having a beautiful, healthy child (and a wonderful, healthy husband) isn’t an absolute. If the winds of chance had blown a different direction, that could’ve been me burying my baby. Or my husband. I lose my breath thinking about how easily that could’ve been me.

So now, many years later, I find myself raising a transgender child. He has the physical make up of a boy, but the emotional make up of a girl. He smiles all the time. He is beautiful. And perfect. And his father and I love every single feminine feature that he possesses. Fiercely.

My son wants to wear a skirt? He likes to take ballet and play with Barbies? Fine by me. I get to kiss him and hold him and tuck him in every night. And truly, that is all that matters

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

Friday, March 21, 2014

It Isn't About the Backpack

I am glad to see that the world has indeed NOT gone crazy. It appears that the North Carolina school that had previously banned a little boy from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school, has decided to allow him to bring it and also take measures to prevent bullying.


While I am glad that the school made the right decision, it seems to me a bit too little, too late. From what I understand, there was a petition that was signed with thousands of signatures and then the school changed its tune. But takes some signatures to show school officials they need to do the right thing? Since when do we teach the victims that it's their fault!? How about we teach kids to stop being little taunting turds!?

Really, it isn't about the My Little Pony backpack. It's about learning to be yourself. It's about being able to feel safe at school. It's about not tolerating bad behavior. It's about telling crappy kids to stop being crappy and telling crappy adults to stop being crappy. It's about the kid with autism. Or the kid with a lisp. Or the little boy who can't afford a new pair of shoes. Or the little girl with two dads. Or no dad. It's about teaching kids to be kind (or at the very least, respectful). Schools and parents need to have a collaborative relationship on how to take care of kids and teach them about being confident and to advocate for their safety, but to advocate for their safety by not tolerating threatening behavior, not by telling kids to hide or be ashamed of who they are. When I first read this story, my heart sank for that mom and little Grayson, but then it sank for all the kids in that school who don't have the people in place to help them learn about how to exist in a world where no one person is the same as anybody else.  How can kids learn to advocate for themselves when the adults in their school won't advocate for them?

I am so abundantly blessed to have my children in a school system that is willing to learn about how to serve kids like my little Eli, who want to carry the backpack they like, or wear the clothes they feel comfortable in and who don't want to draw attention to themselves, but to just BE.

Because, really, it isn't about the backpack.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When did you know?

Someone recently sent me a message asking me when it was that I knew for sure that Eli truly identified as a girl. It’s both an easy and a difficult question to answer. The truth is that while there never was a moment where it hit me that he could be transgender, it is something that (once he was old enough to begin expressing himself) Adam and I just started to know. At first, we thought it was possible that he could be going through a phase, or just simply liked playing with traditional girls’ toys, but day after day, he showed us more and more clearly the beautiful girl he feels like on the inside. If I had to put Eli’s journey on a timeline, I’d say it began when he was two and requested pink cupcakes at his birthday. Where the timeline ends, I just don’t know but, with the support of his family, friends and school, the outlook is exceptionally good for him to have a bright, happy, healthy future that will last far, far into the future. But in between this beginning of pink cupcakes and a far-reaching future, there have been oh so many events that have punctuated his journey and have served as turning points for him, for his dad and I, for his family, for his peers and for his school community. Sometimes we are able to recognize them as turning points as they occur, sometimes we aren’t able to understand their significance until time passes.

Something we heard often early on in Eli’s transition was the suggestion to just give him boys’ toys and stop giving him dolls, tea sets and princess stuff. While I don’t really know what that would have looked like, I have an idea that it would probably would have gone as smoothly as the time that I attempted to ban Ethan from playing with toy guns. I never had bought him a toy gun, but he quickly learned to fashion them from bendy straws, from sticks, even from crayons. The toys we want to play with is built out of an innate desire. I can no more force Eli to play with cars and trucks as I could force Ethan to play with Barbies. Think about an activity that you really enjoy doing. Often. Now, if someone told you that you couldn’t do it anymore, would that make you stop liking it? Of course not. It would just make you feel frustrated and maybe, eventually, depressed. And here’s the catch. Eli had (and has) access to all sorts of boys’ toys because of his big brother. Guess what? He’s never been interested in any of them. Like, never.

The closest Eli has ever come to an affinity for anything remotely “boy” was during his (short but meaningful) love affair with Thomas the Train. He loved those darn trains. We had tracks and stations and all kinds of Thomas paraphanalia. Want to know his favorite train car? Rosie. And guess what color Rosie was? Yep. PINK.

To our collection of pink cupcakes and a pink train, we added a baby doll dressed from head to toe in pink, affectionately named “Bubba” and countless Barbies, Disney princesses and Bratz dolls. And now, I couldn't possibly come up with an inventory of Eli's pink playthings.

But those are all things to play with. Eventually, Eli’s identity as a girl became so strong that he needed a way to express it, other than through play. He needed to look like a girl, too. The first interest he showed in wearing a girls’ outfit, was when he picked out some adorable little girls’ pajamas. He saw them on the rack and begged me to buy them. I complied. After all, if Ethan saw a pair of pajamas that HE loved, I would’ve bought them for him, too. Eventually, I was washing those pink pajamas on an almost daily basis because they were the only pair that Eli was interested in wearing. And eventually, without my really even noticing, I’d purchased enough “girl pajamas” to have a full week or two’s worth and unceremoniously, Eli’s “boy pajamas” were phased out of the rotation. 

And then came the day that I realized wearing pajamasjust wasn’t enough, that it would have be regular clothes, too.

People often want to know “why”. Why do we let Eli dress like a girl? Why don’t we just tell him he can’t? I used to say “It’s because it makes him happy.” But that’s not true. I have since learned that it goes MUCH deeper than making him happy. Dressing like a girl makes him feel comfortable. It makes him feel equipped to deal with the world. The closest I think I can come to understanding it is this: think of how you feel when you show up to an event completely underdressed. Doesn’t it affect the way you hold yourself? At least, it does for me. If I showed up at a black tie party in jeans, all I would be thinking about was how much I wanted to go home. I wouldn’t feel confident talking to anyone. I would feel….obvious, uncomfortably conspicuous. Imagine how cruel that would be if I forced my child to feel that way everyday by refusing to let them wear what he felt like themselves in.  One day, when Ethan was asking me why Eli “had to wear girls’ clothes ALL the time”, I asked him, “How would you feel if I made you wear your craziest pair of pajamas to school (in this case, it was a pair of blue pajamas with sock monkeys wearing Santa hats).” His eyes grew wide and he said, “That would be awful! I’d feel awkward.”

Awkward. That’s how Eli feels in boys’ clothes. And when I explained it that way to Ethan, he got it.

Now, if only I could figure out a way to make everybody else get it.