When I was pregnant with my first, a girl, I was both ecstatic and terrified. I suppose anyone could have written these words, about any child. But I had craved motherhood, mothering denied me in youth, the trust of having it magicked upon me now – this great big gift that followed miscarriages and period after period, cramps of monthly arrivals, cramps of sudden departures.
She came to us awake and seemed to stay so from that moment on. I was exhausted, heady with anxiety and a sort of motion sickness that comes from being alert more hours in the day than is sensible. We walked the mall in loops, milk drunk and heavy.
When she walked, she beelined for stores I’d never set foot in – specialty dress shops glowing with sequins and beauty shops heaving with pallets.
“Dis,” she’d squawk, proffering a platform ruby slipper.
“Dis,” she’d whisper, curling her hand around a tube of gloss.
Sometimes I’d find squares of drugstore eyeshadow she’d tuck in her palm, nestled in the back corner of her stroller, tacky with crumbs.
“Not dis,” she’d whine, pulling at the leg of my overalls, trying to undo the lace of my sneaker. She was so unlike me that I marveled at it and we’d make dates. Mama-daughter dates when she’d pick my clothes from my closet – golden blazers and tropical skirts she’d found in our walks to the thrift store. She had taught me to mother, so literally, to be both the love of her life and the story book idol of red-lipsticked woman in apron and musk.
“We will have another,” I thought, “and she will teach me even more.”
Our second child was born when our first was 2.5 years old. Laid upon my chest, coated and milky with me, pronounced “a girl.” She was rounded where her sister was lean – curved like her chuckles in the way her sister moved sylph like through a room, quietly observing. She pulled in dismay at her sister’s hand-me-downs – bloomers we thought pinched her thick legs, tights we thought squished her perfect for raspberries tummy, lace we assumed itched.
“I no no no!” she cried, when I unfolded pink leggings. “I not no mine,” she cried, when I held out a velvet red sweater.
When she was 18 months and I said, “Where is my nose?” she giggled, “Der” and booped me.
“What color is this,” I rolled a lemon toward her. “Yeyow” she triumphed.
“Is sissy a boy or a girl?”
“Dirl,” she replied.
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“Boy,” she said.
I laughed and corrected her and so it began. A slow shift, like a giggle, as we explained bodies and parts. As we confirmed choice and rights – you can be a girl in pants, a truck driver in pink. A raised eyebrow as we whispered to one another, my husband and I, over sit-coms and reassurances – perhaps she thinks it’s a pattern – one dad, one son, one mom, one daughter?
Perhaps she thinks because she is so different from her sister she must be a boy. Perhaps she has read up too much on the nuclear family and we should get a dog and a cat and a white picket fence and why won’t this stop.
Eyes wide open in alarm as it did not cease – there were tantrums whenever she was called “girl,” red faced rigidity at compliments on my beautiful daughters. She’d try and tear her clitoris from her perfect toddler folds – trying to make her penis get out, be long, be right.
She’d pull her hair from her head, these perfect ringlets like golden spirals. I slicked it into a ponytail, the end hidden from view, behind her sweet smelling neck. “Ooh, I is me!” she grinned.
Once, when she was nearly three, she asked me in the car if I would like her to pretend to be a girl, if it would be better. But also, would I try and know, that all the way in, she is a boy?
“Don’t worry,” friends reassured me. “I wanted to be a cat when I was her age.” But for two years? I’d scream in my head – were you pretending to be a cat for two years? Did you shit in a litter box and loll on the top of a newspaper, in the sun – did you sniff at all offers of food but tuna? Did you lick yourself from head to toe – shying from all contact? Because that is really being a cat. My daughter is really aching to be a boy.
“Yes,” said doctor after therapist after psychologist after specialist after consult after phone call after money thrown hand over fist into the wind with some plea it would blow back something that made sense. “__ is a boy,” they said. “With a vuvla.”
They implored me, “Just ask them what they want to be called.”
My sweet baby, who had now taken to hiding under a blanket for hours of the day, refusing play dates and affection and books. “What should we call you, love bug?”
“Well,” said my husband, “what do you want me to call you?”
And this still face, whispered, “I just want you to say, I love you my boy.”
So we did. And we haven’t stopped.
Within a week he had toilet trained, gotten rid of his hiding, drawn his first picture of himself, and smiled. All our anecdotal stories, all our proof looked shoddy and plaintive and bland beneath his grin. His smile, his laugh, finally back and louder and open – if a sound could be open – his laugh was. And this is what it was like for us.
There was no European intention of eschewing gender or left wing politicking or meditating on the banality of gender norms while we rubbed our ze in essential oils and allowed him to claim a self. He pulled us through a vortex, tipped over everything we thought we got, turned our minds and our hearts and our ideas of enough inside out.
We rose from weeping, Googling, terrified heaps and found ourselves holding our son’s hand and with each step away from dismay — our feet, his actions, his happiness, his confidence, stomps down, “This is right. This is right. This is right.”