I had a daughter who never became an adult woman and a son who never had a boyhood.
Until recently, this scenario would have felt like a riddle, but now many Americans eagerly track the ins-and-outs of Caitlin Jenner’s life or know Laverne Cox made the cover of Time Magazine, so I rarely have to explain that I experienced this as a parent because my only child is a transgender man.
After many hard years together during his transition in high school and college, we settled into a respectful, loving space as a family. At least that’s the story I tell myself most days.
But then a linguistics professor, who has an office across from mine at Central Connecticut State University, called me out on a verbal quirk.
"You always say ‘My Donnie,’ never him, my son, he."
Another riddle, this time with my own personal dictionary. Just when I think at the deepest levels I have let go of my daughter and fully embraced my trans son, I’m exposed.
I confessed to my colleague that I used to refer to my daughter affectionately as “my best girl” when she was very young. Even as a grammar school kid, she caught onto the joke, since she was my only child so of course she was the best. But now that she’s not a she, the phrase hangs in my vocabulary like an old photograph. All that’s left is “my.”
This entire exchange made me reflect on the many ways I play verbal gymnastics when it comes to talking about Donald. When I speak with people I don’t know well or at all, I talk about his childhood and the times he picked blueberries at the lake or won some writing prize in grammar school. But if I am speaking with friends or family, I talk about J., my daughter, and say she picked blueberries at the lake and she won the writing prize at school.
On rare occasions, I might even say “J., now Donald, picked blueberries at the lake.” I actually record the eight-year ordeal and transition that we went through in our family in an eight-word sentence. Of course, if I am speaking to someone who has no context about our backstory, they become confused. Most are too polite to inquire further, but flicker with bafflement.
Donald himself navigates this all more smoothly than me and seems to have firmly replaced the pronouns of his past, even as he keeps the particulars. He went to the lake each summer. End of story. In the collection of essays we exchange in our new book, he comments on how he sees his younger, female self almost like a sibling.
For the first four years of my daughter’s life, I was a single parent living in Baltimore with no support from the biological father. I managed to stay-at-home with my baby—breastfeeding her, going on play dates with other moms, putting her down for a nap each afternoon for years—by freelance writing and editing for hire. Despite my isolating and financially strapped situation, I never gave up on my professional ambition to write books and began a project that explored changing expectations for girls at home in the U.S. based on diaries and other primary source material I found at Radcliff’s library in Boston.
Yes, I wrote and published a book called The Essential Daughter and dedicated it to my J. when I still had a 4-year-old strawberry-blonde, chatty girl in my life.
So what am I supposed to do with these stories from Baltimore, this book, this irony? If I never speak of it, act as though it never happened, put it away in the same way Donald asked me to remove all photographs of himself as a girl in my house, then I am editing my own life story in a way that feels deeply dishonest.
At my core as a mother, I still hold onto my beloved daughter and refuse to erase her past or life, especially in stories I tell. It is through narrative that we all live after we are gone and to fully replace Donald for J. and he for she would be to bury her. I know with certainty that the stories and bond we built during these formative years in Baltimore as a mother/daughter sustained us when we nearly fractured as a family as a mother/son.
Despite being called out in the last year by the linguist, I have really lightened up in general about gender matching pronouns and fully accept “he, she, it or they” as options we might hear in conversation or see in a newspaper, such as the New York Times, which recently sanctioned Mx. for individuals who do not want be identified as male or female. We are all moving along a much more fluid gender continuum and building a vocabulary to match.
My own verbal somersaults have actually led to some unintended lucky breaks. While working with a contractor on a new porch for my 1920 New England home, I chatted about my daughter in college. It was Donald’s sophomore year, so the slip reflected my own muddled state at the time. Aware I was a single parent with a kid in college, the contractor gave me a good deal on the huge job. Later, when Donald came home for the holiday break, the contractor spied him in the car.
“Oh, so you have two kids!” he exclaimed.
Yes, and keep the discounts coming.
Such joking aside, I admit that during our most trying years together, Donald and I had to rely on duty more than love to hang on. Who did I love and want to protect more, my daughter or my trans son trying to realize his true self? Who did he want to honor more, his mother as she asked him to wait, to reconsider, to slow down as he undertook hormones and surgeries or his own personal goals?
No one can answer such things. So you stay together and continue to work together, and, in our case, wrote essays to communicate more fully to each other, because you know you must. Love will and did return, but it was far too evasive an emotion to hold all of this up.
Now, with our collection of essays coming out as a book, with Donald graduated college and about to head off to graduate school, we really are in a much better space. But my friend the linguist showed me how much more work I still need to do to process all that this has meant to my life and the unique type of loss I had as a mother who had a daughter who matured into a man.
I can love them both. Now a five-word sentence captures all I need to know about a mother’s love.
Mary Collins is a professor of creative nonfiction at Central Connecticut State University. In April, Beacon Press released her new book, At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces, which she co-authored with Donald.