A Mother's Journey - Is My Child Transgender?
"Mummy, God has made a really big mistake when making me. He was thinking girl and at the last minute made a boy."
When my son Gilli said this to me, it was the moment I truly felt the enormity of despair that he had been feeling even at the tender young age of three. I looked into his tear filled eyes, my mind racing with thoughts of how to respond to such an important statement. I knelt down, took his little hand in mine, held on tight and said, "Darling God doesn't make mistakes, God has a plan for everyone."
So began our family's journey of discovery and continuation of the unconditional love we had always given our son born a boy but identifying as a girl.
From as early as I can recall, Gilli always preferred pretty clothes and delicate fabrics. Having older boy cousins he had many wonderful hand me downs in his wardrobe that were NEVER an option for him to wear. Gilli would simply wear what he termed the "in between" clothes in public and when at home, dresses from the dress up box or a pretty number from the Op Shop that I would buy to avoid a very public tantrum.
It was not only the clothing that spoke of who he was, but how Gilli was developing in the world with regard to play, his preference of equipment/toys and choice of friends.
As an early childhood teacher with over 20 years' experience, I had observed many children and was very conscious of providing Gilli with gender non-specific toys. However, in our household (comprising me, Dad and older brother), they were not always available. Gilli always wanted the "girl" type toys.
My husband and I had no issues with Gilli's obvious preference for feminine things, but as time went on our extended family started to question our parenting. Why were we allowing Gilli to wear 'inappropriate' clothing? Weren't we making it harder for him in the long term?
As a mother I was still learning and found myself thinking: "What's all the fuss? It's just a phase. Don't put all these unnecessary connotations on my three year-old."
Time went on and as Gilli started to mix more with other children at school, it became strikingly obvious to me that he was different, not just because of the clothes he wore.
Our journey as parents has taken two paths:
- The first is the one where we, as parents, are providing support and love to Gilli. We use feminine pronouns when addressing her; we listen to her fears; try to answer questions about her physical body and how to navigate her peers, teachers, family and social settings; and
- The second is our journey where we, as parents, are acquiring the knowledge and understanding about how best to support our child through life so that she can be happy and develop good self-esteem.
My husband and I have had many late night heart-to-heart discussions, questioning and learning to accept that unconditional love is love regardless of expectations and limits on who Gilli is.
A quote from The Transgender Child by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper describes it perfectly: "There is no greater possible source of love in your life than your children. Your children base their world upon your love and acceptance of them. Unconditional love can be the key to bringing you back to the present moment. You can use it as a parenting focus: How do I need to grow to allow me to unconditionally love my child, even when my child is not as I expected they would be? What needs to change in me so that my focus can be on helping to smooth the way for my child to minimise the trauma they experience, to make their life as easy and as joyful as possible?"
In the short space of Gilli's life, I have gathered a lot of information, read a lot and sourced professional help to try to understand how best to negotiate the challenges of a having a transgender child.
In the early years, I sourced a network of professionals that could help give us the tools we needed to support each other as a family. As Gilli's Mum, I continue seeing my councillor where I have the privacy and respect to bring and discuss my thoughts and feelings in response to Gilli's story as it unfolds. I have found this source of support invaluable.
As Gilli verbalised her thoughts more and more, saying things such as, "This mountain to climb to be girl is too hard to climb Mummy. I would rather be back in heaven," we sought the assistance of a paediatrician and child and adolescent psychiatrist. This has been helpful in providing more "technical" information about transgender psychology.
We have come to the understanding now that Gilli is eight that if she continues on this transgender journey then there are protocols that need to be set in place before she begins puberty. We will continue to support Gilli and at this point in time, think that her desire to be a girl will continue; however, if it doesn't, we as a family, will respond accordingly.
In Perth we are fortunate to have a specialised unit at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children called the Gender Diversity Services to support children presenting with Gender Dysphoria. These children have the opportunity with a 3-way diagnosis from a paediatrician, psychiatrist and endocrinologist at this unit to access hormone blockers to ward off the onset of irreversible biological gender changes while assessment of their situation continues.
As a parent I totally understand the necessary view of professionals to err on the side of caution until puberty and apply a "gender fluid" approach. As a mother I also feel it is necessary to accept Gilli as she is and to help her to develop good self-esteem no matter what age. Most importantly to be open, accepting and loving about any changes that maybe ahead for Gilli and us as a family.
We are learning the language and jargon of a transgender world.
Gender identity refers to how a person deeply internalises their sense of feeling of being male, female, both or neither. It can only be determined by an individual and usually is sensed at an early age.
Gender identity is very different from sexuality or orientation, the latter referring to the gender a person is attracted to sexually or romantically. This generally happens later in life.
Gender nonconformity/variance refers to behaviours and interests that fall outside what is considered normal for a person's assigned biological sex.
Gender fluidity is a wider range of gender expression with appearances and behaviours that can change day to day, i.e., a child can feel girl some days and boy on others.
Transgender refers to an individual whose gender identity (what they feel) does not match their assigned biological birth gender.
Our family totally supports Gilli. We have shared her identity journey with extended family and close friends; given a talk to parents of children in her class and with her teacher. Our hope is that they will all show kindness and respect for the journey our family is on, a journey we have invited them to take with us. We hope they will demonstrate understanding so that Gilli doesn't have to feel she has to be a secret - although I feel strongly that some things are private. The most important thing to us is that Gilli leads the journey. By doing so, we think she has the best chance of growing up as a happy, worthy and deeply loved person.
By Bronwyn (mother of Gilli)
Poem by Gilli aged 8
I did not like the form I was put in
I felt sad that I was not who I wanted to be
I wanted to be someone different
I felt sad I was not it
I dream of being someone different
My Mum and Dad help me to be who I want to be
I started to feelmuch happier
I feel that I am loved by all
Note: Gilli is a pseudonym for her real name.
The Cottesloe Counselling Centre in Perth can offer support to families on similar gender journeys if needed.