Mother-Daugh­ter Dresses

When my child told me she was trans, I re­mem­ber the fear: for her safety, for how the world might treat her, for her heart. I hadn’t re­al­ized the joy her rev­e­la­tion would bring us.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY DE­BRA M C GRATH PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY RAINA + WIL­SON

When my child told me she was trans, I re­mem­ber the fear: for her safety, for how the world might treat her, for her heart. I hadn’t re­al­ized the joy her rev­e­la­tion would bring us. DE­BRA M GRATH


Iam a trans woman. I would like she/her pro­nouns and my name is Han­nah.” This is the sen­tence my son blurted out to me over the phone three years ago. De­spite its blunt­ness, the state­ment wasn’t cal­lous or even ill-timed. Truth be told, I had forced the dec­la­ra­tion. My child had called with some­thing im­por­tant to say and wanted to talk to my hus­band, Colin, and me at the same time, but Colin was out of town. Given that I pos­sess a not-in­signif­i­cant panic strain in my ge­netic makeup, I found my­self, well, pan­ick­ing. Was my child in­jured? Ill? Dy­ing?

I con­jured the thin thread of au­thor­ity I had over my then 25-year-old and said, “No, you have to tell me now!”

“I would rather wait,” was the mea­sured re­sponse.

I could feel all the saliva I pos­sessed leav­ing my body for dam­per pas­tures. I couldn’t have this mat­ter hang­ing, so I pushed and pleaded, ca­joled and begged. It was a shameless dis­play— clearly, I wasn’t above that.

Af­ter more back-and-for­thing, out it came: “I am a trans woman. I would like she/her pro­nouns, and my name is Han­nah.”

I paused to take in the sit­u­a­tion— or at least lie to my­self that I was tak­ing it in. Then, re­lent­lessly up­beat, I ex­claimed: “I’m so happy for you, very happy. You know that your fa­ther and I will sup­port you 100 per cent, and it’s won­der­ful and I’m not su­per sur­prised and you are such a won­der­ful per­son and we re­ally don’t care what you do with your life as long as—”

Dear God, I had to find a way to shut up. I was ex­haust­ing my­self.

I’m what I call an emo­tional first re­spon­der—when a loved one is shar­ing some­thing dif­fi­cult or com­plex, I put on my sup­port cape and swoop in to dis­trib­ute ac­co­lades and plat­i­tudes willy-nilly. Breathe, I urged my­self. Breathe.

“So, um, why ‘Han­nah’?” I heard my­self ask.

There it was. Ap­par­ently my takeaway from this huge mo­ment in my child’s life was a name. “Han­nah” seemed to be my is­sue. Shal­low wa­ters run deep.

She re­sponded to my ques­tion in a very calm man­ner.

“Mom, you know how much I loved Ch­eryl’s dog.”

“You are nam­ing your­self af­ter Han­nah the dog? Re­ally?”

“I thought the name was soft and pretty, and I needed my name to be soft and pretty. Does that make sense?”

Of course it made sense. My heart ached with shame. I was of­fi­cially a bad per­son.

Be­cause it had been a few mo­ments since I’d launched into a break­neck run-on sen­tence, I said, “Well, if you love the name Han­nah, I love the name Han­nah, and I am sure your fa­ther will

love it, and I am so glad it makes you feel beau­ti­ful, be­cause you are beau­ti­ful, in­side and out, and I sup­port this choice whole­heart­edly, honey. It’s your life and you are old enough to make your own choices and—”

At this point I was des­per­ately hop­ing some­one would hand me a pill.

Han­nah stopped my run­away train of thought by cut­ting in: “Thanks, Mom. I love you so much and I knew you would sup­port me. Why don’t I come over the day Dad gets home and we can have din­ner and spend time talk­ing?”

“Of course, yes, um, Han­nah. We can do that. That would be great. What a won­der­ful idea, um, Han­nah.”

Mer­ci­fully, she wrapped up the con­ver­sa­tion with “great, love you, bye” and hung up be­fore I could re­spond.

I SPENT THE NEXT few hours pac­ing up and down the stairs of our Toronto home, our two cairn ter­ri­ers at my heels. As I at­tempted to sort out why I was up­set, the dogs kept their gaze trained on me: Walk? Are we go­ing for a walk? Walk?!

Af­ter re­ally an­a­lyz­ing my re­ac­tion and my feel­ings, it came down to one thing. I was fine with my child’s tran­si­tion. I wasn’t in­vested in her gen­der, just her hu­man­ity. But there was so much fear: fear for her safety, fear for how the world might treat her, fear for her heart.

The two fol­low­ing nights were fraught with night­mares. I dreamed our son was lost. Our son was dead. We never had a son. I gave birth, but when I looked for my son, they told me at the hos­pi­tal that I was mis­taken and had


sim­ply had my ap­pen­dix re­moved. Our son had joined a tiny-house cult and was never heard from again.

Once I woke up, I was a zom­bie, the de­spair of those hor­ri­ble dreams cling­ing to me like pos­sessed dryer sheets. I had made peace with our child’s news and had no is­sues with the con­cept of her tran­si­tion, but I was still mourn­ing the loss of our son. I didn’t get a chance to say good­bye.

She is a woman. As much as I thought I was pre­pared for that, I guess I wasn’t.

I had to re­mind my­self that this shouldn’t have been a huge shock. A few years be­fore our daugh­ter came

out to us as trans, she had bro­ken up with her girl­friend of four years. She told us she was bi­sex­ual and wanted to ex­plore that. Then she be­gan, as she put it, “ex­per­i­ment­ing with my fem­i­nine side.” Af­ter al­most a year of see­ing her in­te­grate more tra­di­tion­ally fem­i­nine looks into her wardrobe, we be­came used to this new bi, fluid, femme, butch, male/fe­male per­son. LGBTQ+ wasn’t all-en­com­pass­ing enough. It’s like she was rock­ing the whole al­pha­bet with her iden­tity.

And then she landed. THE DAY AF­TER Han­nah’s call, her dad came home. He was fine—no anx­i­ety, no night­mares, just a lov­ing par­ent in a re­laxed state of ac­cep­tance. Show-off! As a re­sult of my con­stant anx­i­ety, I re­sem­bled an 80-yearold with dirty hair who had lived hard. Hav­ing no con­trol over much else, I opted to shower. An all-around good choice.

The fol­low­ing af­ter­noon, we were in the kitchen mak­ing pasta pri­mav­era— our daugh­ter’s favourite meal—as we waited for her to ar­rive. We were also spend­ing the time dili­gently prac­tis­ing pro­nouns. I was busy “she”-ing and “her”-ing it up with zeal, but ev­ery time I said “Han­nah,” the name came out gar­bled, like I was drunk and wear­ing my night guard.

At some point, we heard a key turn in the front door, and in she walked. To my ela­tion, no one was lost or miss­ing. They were all here in the hall: the hes, the shes and the thems, in one beau­ti­ful pack­age. No one had left us. The same hu­man we first met 25 years ear­lier was stand­ing right in front of us. We all started to cry. (Thank God it



was all of us—I was tired of be­ing the loopy one.)

We moved into our sun­room, wine in hand, to chat. The three of us talked all the talks there were to talk, and Colin and I asked all the questions we could think of. Over the course of an af­ter­noon that can best be de­scribed as an acro­nym-o-rama, we lis­tened and learned. We so wanted to re­spect and un­der­stand what she was go­ing through. We could see that she was ex­plor­ing, too, tak­ing time to lis­ten to her heart and her mind.

At some point, the con­ver­sa­tion moved into more fa­mil­iar top­ics: her work and so­cial life, Ja­panese films. It was as if noth­ing had changed. And noth­ing had, re­ally. It had al­ways been the three of us, our tight lit­tle unit, and to­day was no dif­fer­ent. We ate her favourite meal and then our lovely daugh­ter went home to her apart­ment.

Since that day, we have some­times slipped up on pro­nouns, and she has al­ways pa­tiently, gen­tly cor­rected us. We’ve gone out in pub­lic, and peo­ple have been mostly sup­port­ive, but there have been looks. Stares. Our daugh­ter says she’s of­ten fine with that—peo­ple are just try­ing to fig­ure her out.

She’s a more gen­er­ous soul than me.

AS TIME PASSED, I re­al­ized that I was some­how still stuck on the name. “Han­nah” was lovely, yes, but not nearly unique or pow­er­ful enough for my girl. But I knew I had to let it go.

Then, in a sur­prise turn of events, our daugh­ter told us that many trans peo­ple come out us­ing a name they don’t end up keep­ing. She said she had been think­ing about it and she wanted a new name and would love for us to be part of that process. She asked us to pitch names from our Scot­tish and Ir­ish back­grounds. I was elated and set to the task as soon as she was out of our sight. What a glo­ri­ous priv­i­lege to get to help name her! I know it sounds silly, but it was like she was be­ing born all over again.

Af­ter co­pi­ous re­search, Colin and I pre­sented our daugh­ter with 40 names. She de­cided on Kin­ley, from the Ir­ish side. Kin for short. It fits her. It be­longs to her.

What is more dif­fi­cult is fig­ur­ing out how to move through the world such as it is. One day a year or so ago, Kin­ley and I were at a lo­cal fair. As we passed by a woman and her twen­tysome­thing daugh­ter, they shot a look of such hate and dis­gust that it left me breath­less. The ob­ject of their ire was Kin­ley. The daugh­ter, mouth agape, had ex­claimed, “There’s a trans­ves­tite!” and the mother then wheeled around to spew, “Where is it?”


She said “it.” I was gut­ted.

The younger woman cir­cled my daugh­ter, look­ing her up and down. We were stunned, frozen in place. As she walked away, I stum­bled over to her on legs sud­denly made of rub­ber. Cir­cling her the same way she had cir­cled Kin­ley, I looked her up and down, then moved close to her face, ut­tered “uh-huh” and stalked away.

In an at­tempt to re­cover, I said to Kin­ley, “This must make you so an­gry.”

Her re­ply: “Mom, I can’t af­ford to be an­gry. I just get fright­ened.”

Fright­ened for just liv­ing her life. Fright­ened for ex­ist­ing.

I came home and, weep­ing, told Colin what had taken place. But af­ter think­ing about it, I re­al­ized that my re­ac­tion, al­though pos­si­bly war­ranted,

was also ag­gres­sive. That didn’t sit well with me.

So I had cards made up. If things got ugly again, I would hand out a sim­ple state­ment, em­bel­lished on one side with a lovely pink flower, that reads: “My daugh­ter is a trans woman. She is a lov­ing and kind hu­man be­ing. Please join me in sup­port­ing her and ev­ery per­son who is try­ing to live their au­then­tic life. Peace and love.”

I re­mem­ber the day the pack­age ar­rived in the mail. Colin laughed as I opened the box of 250 cards. “Wow, you’re ex­pect­ing trou­ble!” he told me. What can I say? There was a spe­cial if you or­dered in bulk.

I am happy to say that I have not handed out a sin­gle card.

In­stead, I get to fo­cus on Kin­ley, my lovely, brave, poised, bright daugh­ter. I have a daugh­ter! There should be a newer, more pow­er­ful word for pride. As for our fam­ily, life as a trio con­tin­ues as be­fore, filled with old favourites (like watch­ing movies) and new ex­pe­ri­ences (like buy­ing bras).

A lit­tle while ago, Kin­ley and I were out shop­ping for clothes. As we ex­ited our sep­a­rate cu­bi­cles in the change room, we re­al­ized, laugh­ing, that we had tried on the ex­act same dress.

I ended up buy­ing one dress for me and treat­ing Kin­ley to hers. At least that way I know she won’t be raid­ing my closet—be­cause that’s what daugh­ters do.

McGrath hold­ing one of the cards she had printed up.


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