The Emotional Journey Of Helping My Child Transition

by Joanna Franklin Bell
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Joanna Franklin Bell

My youngest child wanted lavender bedroom walls, which were currently painted bright orange. It would be a big change—from saturated to subtle. From bold to understated. I scrabbled for descriptors that would help me come to terms with the new color, because I didn’t want it. From punchy to peaceful.

But none of the words worked for me, not even the evocative name of the new paint color itself, Monologue, that seemed restful in a murmuring, stream-of-consciousness kind of way. Monologue was a shade of lavender that bordered on grey. While I drove home with the gallon bucket on the seat next to me (with the smudge on the lid reminding me what color was inside), I pictured a fog of evaporated thought inside someone’s mind that condenses into sentences the way a cloud forms raindrops, and the ensuing speech that pours quietly from the speaker’s lips like a late afternoon shower. Monologue. Of course it would be a lavender gray.

But my appreciation for the paint didn’t help me find an apt metaphor—I was trying to understand my child via her bedroom. The room was becoming more feminine; and so was the kid. But her new femininity was far from subtle, or understated, or peaceful. Her femininity was screamingly deliberate. Her femininity required a sequined bow in her hair, a dress with flowers and a fluttery hem, and a high enough speaking voice to border on caricature.

She didn’t really have a choice, she said. If she wanted to pass as female, she had to be as girly as possible.

“No you don’t,” I argued during one of our first conversations after she came out as transgender. For 16 years she was my son, and now she was my daughter. “You’re under no obligation to be girly just because you’re a girl.” I’d spent my life avoiding ruffles and heels, and more recently decided that if women’s clothes don’t come with pockets—adequate pockets—then they’re sexist. If I was going to have a daughter, I didn’t want her bending to societal pressure to appear feminine. Unless she really wanted to.

“Oh yes I do,” she countered in her new falsetto. “And I like looking girly.”

Courtesy of Joanna Franklin Bell

So I shopped for a starter case of makeup, a set of nail polishes, and a bunch of hair clips for her stubby curls while she grew them long. I bought them at Claire’s, the store where I’d gotten my ears pierced when I was young, so I was in familiar territory but simultaneously navigating blind—I had no idea how to do this. I broke down when the clerk asked me helpfully, “Aww, did your daughter get a bad haircut? These clips are just the thing—”

My tears were coming out of nowhere. “No, she’s my son, or she was, and she’s growing out her hair because she’s done being a boy, or maybe she never was, so I’m shopping for her and this is so much harder than I thought, and I’m so sorry—” I tried to stem the flow of tears as well as my words when I realized I was babbling. I am supportive. I am an ally. I believe in the gender spectrum. I am not the parent who mourns the child that is ostensibly lost. I did not lose my kid. She’s right here.

Yet I bawled in Claire’s. It happens.

But the day I painted her bedroom walls, I was back in control. It had been a few months. My eyes were dry. This room was going to be lavender if it killed me. I laid down the tarp and assembled the paint roller, found an old edging brush that was still in decent shape, pried open the paint bucket, and changed into my husband’s clothes to begin the job. Ironically, I was now dressed like a man … but my husband’s clothes were already paint-spattered from old projects. Sometimes decisions are just practical.

I painted the first wall, feeling less like I was going into battle with every brushstroke, and more like I was contributing to something nice. The lavender looked mild but sophisticated next to the orange, and I was pleased; the orange brought out the new color’s purpleness in a lovely, heathery way. Without it, Monologue just appeared gray.

I mused upon keeping some of the room orange.

Courtesy of Joanna Franklin Bell

I mused upon several things, actually.

My kid was now wearing panties fancier than mine, but still told fart jokes and resisted things like baths and deodorant. Her hair was starting to curl prettily around her cheekbones but usually looked slept-on, because it was. She took her time deciding which embroidered lace-edged dresses to wear but rarely bothered to shave. And I don’t mean her legs.

The contrast of the two colors in her room was starting to feel meaningful.

Besides, I had another reason to keep some of the orange: I couldn’t move her desk. It was huge and heavy and I was home alone. I’d thought I could shift it enough to paint behind it, but no dice.

So I fetched a roll of painter’s tape and returned to the bedroom with a new vision. I taped off the remaining three walls in deep diagonal V’s, from left to right, creating a mountain pattern. The existing orange on the lower walls formed the mountain range, and I painted the lavender upwards from the zigzagging tape to the ceiling—and I stood on top of the desk to do it. It looked fantastic. After the walls dried, I found my craft paints and a tiny brush, hopped back up on the desk, and free-handed little silhouettes of mountain climbers planting a flag on the tallest orange incline—stick figures with confidently circular heads who were conquering the mountainsides by ascending into the soft lavender atmosphere. I painted their flag with stripes: pink, light blue, and white—the transgender pride flag.

I took a step back, still standing on the desk like I was the one who’d triumphantly summited something. Orange mountains rose into a lavender sky on three walls around me—two colors that complemented each other. Two colors that formed a landscape. Two colors that created a path—a difficult path, a vertical path full of struggles and pitfalls—but a climbable one. Here was my metaphor.

But I’d created a bedroom that was two colors because, basically, I’d failed at the heavy lifting—I couldn’t move the desk on my own. I couldn’t bear its weight without help. Here was another metaphor.

Courtesy of Joanna Franklin Bell

When my kid got home that night, I promised her if she didn’t like her bedroom, I’d paint over the rest of the orange to create a solidly Monologue room as soon as someone would help me move the furniture, but she loved it—especially the little mountain climbers.

“Thanks mom,” she said in a voice an octave higher than what she probably should have been shooting for. She hugged me, and I felt the silkiness of her dress under my hands as I hugged her back, and the stubble of her beard on my cheek. For the hundredth time that day and probably the millionth since she came out, I cringed at the thought of how challenging this new life was going to be.

I couldn’t do any of the heavy lifting for her.

Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel—they are contradictions of each other. Red and green; orange and blue; yellow and violet. My kid’s room colors weren’t precisely opposites; they were off by a bit. Much like people are.

So this is what I learned: It’s going to take more than painter’s tape to work around immovable obstacles in my kid’s life. And I cannot use her bedroom as a metaphor.

She is more complicated than her color palette.

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