In 2012, my kid West came out as genderqueer and now identifies as non-binary. Although assigned a gender of female at birth, West does not fit inside binary gender categories and uses the pronouns they, their, and them. For West, gender is fluid; sometimes, they move between male and female, and at other times, they are outside the binary altogether.
My reactions to West coming out were complicated. My main response, of course, was to support my kid. I never doubted for a moment that West was talking about a real, valid, lived experience of gender. It never occurred to me to question that experience. I wanted them to know that they had my complete support and unconditional love. And I did.
But it took me a while to get up to speed on many things my kid asked me to do – like calling them West rather their given name, like calling West my kid rather than my daughter, like using plural pronouns to refer to West when it was drilled into me in grammar school that You Do Not Do That!
So much of my learning curve had to do with never having thought about gender outside the binary. And so many of my difficulties getting acclimated to my kid being non-binary had to do with letting go of my own past.
When I was pregnant with West, their father and I had had a very hard time coming up with a name. All the names that he liked, I disliked; and all the names that I liked, he just couldn’t abide. Finally, we brought the whole question to our roommate, who was Irish and suggested the name Ashlynne, which means a dream in Gaelic. We both fell in love with the name. I had dreamed of the baby I was carrying for many years, so the name resonated very deeply in me. The story of that name had become family lore. It was difficult to consign that part of our family lore to the past.
And then, there are my memories of the sonogram when they told me the sex of my baby. We used to joke about how happy we were to be having a girl. West’s dad was a very mischievous kid, while I was very cooperative, so he would often say, “Oh! I’m so glad we’re not going to have the kind of kid I was!” When I think about our ideas about gender – that boys were little hellions and girls little cooperators – I rather cringe. But that’s where we were then, and I looked back on those times with nostalgia because they were a part of my younger self.
My whole identity as the mother of a daughter had to undergo a sea-change. I hadn’t realized how much saying my daughter was a feature of my identity until I stopped. I’d dreamed of having a daughter since I was in my early 20s. I gave birth at 34, and I’m now 55. So the sense of myself as the mother of a girl goes back thirty years, and it was difficult to make the transition.
Much of the sadness had to do with letting go of West’s childhood. Like many parents in mid-life with adult kids, I began to face the reality that my dreams when I was pregnant were projections, and that kids become who they are going to be, whether it matches our expectations or not. I’d always understood these truths in my head, of course. I grew up to be quite different from what my parents had wanted or expected. But in mid-life, when I was already letting go of West’s childhood in a myriad of ways and feeling the emptiness of empty-nest syndrome, I felt a conflict between my nostalgia for the old with the reality of the new. There was sadness in letting go and changing. There always is – even when the letting go is necessary and the changes are good ones.
So I just let my sadness be. My sadness was not my kid’s problem.
One of the ways in which I allowed the sadness to pass was to stay in the present and to look at all the ways in which my kid was happier, more confident, and more empowered by coming out. I thought about how difficult high school was for them. I remembered all of the high school pictures of West in dresses, striking poses with different hair styles, and always looking so awkward and uncomfortable. At the time, I had just chalked it up to adolescent awkwardness about becoming a woman, but now I realize that my kid was just uncomfortable in their gender altogether.
I didn’t see it then and I didn’t understand it then. But I’d never want to go back. I just want my kid to be comfortable in their own skin.
What good parent wouldn’t?[Headline image: The photograph shows a young white non-binary person of 21. They are standing against a fence, with the trees and rocks of Yosemite visible in the background. They are wearing a black cap, turquoise scarf, black jacket, and black pants. Blond hair is visible from under the cap. They are looking off into the distance with a slight smile on their face.]