The Son I Didn't Know I Wanted

The most shocking thing about having a transgender teenager? At the end of the day, you're a sock washing, recital-attending nugget-nuking mom like any other.

Stephanie Dolgoff and Son Courtesy of Stephanie Dolgoff
When I chat with people I haven't seen in awhile, they ask, "And how are the girls?" They're referring to my 14-year-old twins.

"Well, both kids are fine," I answer. "But we've learned that one of them is actually a boy." Then I offer up a little half-smile half-shrug to show that I'm aware my reply was not what they expected.

It does nothing to blunt the awkwardness. You can almost hear the record-needle screech sound effect, followed by stunned silence. Then the person says something like, "Well, OK then! I know that that can happen!"

Then the subject shifts to, well, pretty much anything else, which is fine with me. Casual acquaintances squeezing avocados at the supermarket aren't signing up for the long version of Leo's 18-month evolution from as-far-as-anyone-knew-a-girl to neither gender (he asked be referred to as "they" instead of she) to full-on boy. But I correct the record because to leave the impression that Leo is a girl feels like a lie, that I'm embarrassed of my beautiful, goofy, blue-eyed child who loves playing the ukulele and potatoes in any form. The opposite is true. After his sharp wit and strong will, I'm probably most proud of his sense of self.

Closer friends ask of Leo's transition, "Is that weird for you?" It's well-intentioned—they know that when kids are going through something major, the parents are as well. And truth be told, if it had been up to me to pick what the Dolgoffs and the Kardashians had in common, it would have been their immense wealth and fantastic hair, not the sometimes-stressful whole-family adjustment. Leo's is the biggest, obviously. But when someone you love reveals that they're transgender, everyone has a transition to go through.

And the answer is, yes, sometimes, that transition can be weird. Bra shopping for your son is no fun, especially for the elderly sales woman who looks at your short haired, plainly dressed kid and just blinks at you. Instead of reminding the grandparents not to give the kids too many sweets, I have to remind Leo's 76-year-old grandmother, who used to change his diaper, to try not to use the pronoun "she" because despite what we were taught about which body parts makes a person a boy or a girl, Leo is a not a she. And I have mixed feelings about Leo using a communal men's room, though it is his right. Most boys his age have been taken by their dads hundreds of times, are well-versed in urinal etiquette, and probably have had a chat about how to avoid creepy dudes. It was an awkward conversation for Leo's dad to have with him, but they powered through it.

But it's not at all weird for the reasons many people wonder about. I've been asked if I miss Leo as a girl, am I sad that I won't be doing "girlie" things with him, like getting our nails done and watching him walk down the aisle someday in my wedding dress? That stuff has never been important to me, "girlie" though I myself am. (Besides, if his sister Vivian decides to get married and that my taste in bridal attire isn't too hopelessly 2001, she'll have dibs.) The gender of my child, even though I was used to Leo as a girl, is as unimportant now as when I was pregnant. Back then I didn't care whether they were boys or girls. That's how I feel now.

But if I sound like I have it all together, some days I don't. When Leo preferred "them" and "they" pronouns (as in, "Vivian, please tell them dinner's ready") the amount of conscious energy it took for me to speak in a way I find grammatically awkward exhausted me. Vivian had no problem making the shift—in fact, she was my corrector-in-chief. But because my getting it right was so important to Leo—it signified acceptance of him as he is—I felt like I was walking on eggshells; over time, he saw that I was doing my best not to "misgender" him, and he became more patient.

Dolgoff Twins Courtesy of Stephanie Dolgoff

Then, just as I got the hang of it and wrapped my brain around the idea of Leo's being non-binary (neither male or female), he expressed that he felt more male, and that we should use "he" and "him" pronouns. My first thought was, please, can things just stay the same for awhile? I'm not ready for this! The ground I was standing on felt once again unstable.

But the next morning Leo ate his usual home fries with cheese, asked for the millionth time if we could go see his favorite YouTubers speak at the bookstore, and argued with his sister yet again about which actor best portrayed the Doctor on Doctor Who. Things really weren't much different and in a few weeks, I calmed down; this was part of the same, larger sea change. And at least his gender is easier to talk about: thanks in part to highly visible trans people like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, people "get" that some folks have bodies that don't match the gender they know they are; It's harder to explain what it is to be nonbinary, or someone who doesn't feel that they're fully a girl or a boy, which may be more common.

Day-to-day linguistic gymnastics and unpleasant underwear shopping trips notwithstanding, my worries about my kids are basically the same as other moms. We want our kids to be loved and included and treated fairly by the world. We want them to get the attention they need —I sometimes worry that Vivian doesn't have room to have her own center-stage moments. We want them to have the minimum dosage of friction and failure, the kind that leads to their becoming wiser, stronger, more compassionate people—but not the kind of obstacles that make them feel alienated or discriminated against or worse.

So far, so good in that regard—Leo has a supportive school and wonderful friends who, when his gender shift first began, mostly shrugged and moved on to more interesting topics. But having a heart-to-heart with your son about not making the basketball team or watching the girl he likes fall for some jerky senior sounds downright blissful when I think of some of the conversations I've already had with Leo. The night I told him that he might not be allowed to be in the boys' bunk at camp was harrowing—he loves the camp, but didn't feel he could sleep with the girls. (In the end, he had an amazing summer in the boys' bunk and made some dear friends). And I was livid when he told me a family didn't want him hanging out with their son because they thought him a bad influence. I almost cried with relief when Leo rolled his eyes and said that he knew it wasn't about him.

To never take things personally, of course, is impossible for either of us, and Leo has always been a kid who cares a lot. He has a giant, idealistic sense of injustice, defending those who don't fit in—if he can make the world as he feels it should be, he will try, and be frustrated until he sees movement in the right direction. If he were less engaged in life, he might have an easier time when a boy calls another kid "trans" as an insult. Right now it upsets him. It's hard to watch him so upset. If you're a mom, you know what I'm talking about. No matter why your kid is struggling—even if it's momentary and you know they'll be fine—you want just wipe it all away and see him smile again. Luckily, Leo smiles a lot, and I hope that perhaps Leo's not being like other boys (or like a girl, for that matter) will give him the perspective and the wisdom he needs to stay as happy with himself as he is now—and maybe someday raise a kid as cool as mine.