We were in bed, my arm around her shoulder, her body warm and soft. I gave my 4-year-old a squeeze. "Night-night, buttercup." So tired, as always, I slid one calf from the Spider-Man comforter, my foot onto the floor.
"What happens when we die?"
There was anxiety. I'm not ready for this. Not now. Then a deep breath. A sigh. "Well, honey..." A long pause.
Then, finally, "No one knows for sure. Some people believe that nothing happens. Others say you go to heaven and are reunited with your loved ones, and then there's reincarnation -- that you are born again as a baby and you start over."
I expected questions that I wouldn't be able to answer: What is heaven like? How does reincarnation work? Isn't nothing scary?
"I believe in reincarnation," my 4-year-old announced, confidently. "And when I come back, I'm going to be a boy, and my name will be Shane."
My breath caught in my throat. What did she just say?
Until that moment, I'd seen my rough-and-tumble girl as a tomboy who loved mud puddles, forts, superheroes, zombies, and Hot Wheels. Brave and true, she was 35 pounds of adorable awesomeness.
Or was it more than that? Didn't she always choose the boy pieces in Chutes and Ladders? Weren't her closest friends boys? Did she ever once play with the My Little Pony she got for Christmas? Hadn't every pink or purple outfit ended up in the Goodwill bag, unworn? Didn't she enjoy it when other people mistook her for a boy?
Did she want to be a boy so badly that she was looking forward to death and a do-over?
It's nothing. I'm just tired. Don't make too much of it.
I gave her a squeeze. I rolled out of her bed and soon I was climbing into my own and falling asleep.
Years ago, when the doctor exclaimed "she's a girl," I'd been thrilled in a way that I didn't completely understand. I've never been a girly girl. I rarely wore makeup. I hated to shop. Most of what society considered feminine went against who I was, and yet I found myself looking forward to pigtails and cute dresses, gab sessions, and female bonding.
By age 2, Isabel refused to wear dresses, but hadn't I when I was her age? I was sure I had. I'd played with Hot Wheels and blocks and Star Wars action figures, too. I'd run bare-chested around the neighborhood. I'd played baseball and football with my brothers, and I'd never stopped being a girl.
She'll grow out of this. It's nothing. It's just a phase. That's all. A phase.
A few months after she'd told me of her plans for her next life, we were shopping for winter clothes. I was deep in the girls' section, in search of the rare brown or black outfits.
"Mom!" she yelled. "Over here!"
I looked up. She was across the aisle, in the boys' section.
"No, honey," I said as I pulled her back toward the girls' section. "Over there."
Isabel sunk her rear toward the floor and turned herself into dead weight.
"No! Here! Here!"
She was loud, insistent, tense, and tight. I knew I wouldn't win this war without tears, screams, and stares from strangers.
I leaned down and quietly hissed, "This is the boys' section. You have a girl's body. These clothes are not made for your body."
She ran to a rack of boys' jeans.
I nervously looked around. Shopping there felt deceitful, wrong, like a lie. But we walked out with jeans, a Transformers shirt, a ball cap, and three pairs of boys' briefs.
Over time, I made my peace with it, even came to admire it. How long had I attempted to conform to society's idea of femininity? How long had it taken me to have the courage to be myself? Her realness, I soon realized, was one of her most endearing and laudable qualities. If only more people had the courage to be themselves, wouldn't the world be a better place?
Still, I worried. I was vaguely aware that some children didn't just express their gender differently; they saw and experienced themselves differently. Years before, a friend had told me about her nephew who'd become her niece. Was that what was going on here? Someday, would she tell me that she was a he? And if she did, would I be loving and open-minded and courageous enough to be the mother a child like that would need?
Months later, there was preschool graduation and a note from the teacher asking for the kids to dress up for the occasion. I rooted through her closet and then through every single hand-me-down pile of clothes, searching for something that communicated "boy" and also "I'm dressed up."
I found a blue polo shirt with a collar. Then I found a pair of pink cotton pants. They weren't exactly what you would call super-dressy, but they weren't sweatpants, jeans, or shorts, either.
"Mommy," she said. "They're pink. I don't wear pink. Pink is a girls' color."
"Hey, at least you're not wearing a dress," I said.
"No, mommy," she said. "I don't wear pink."
She stomped her foot and crossed her arms over her chest.
I said, "You are wearing pink today because your teacher said you are not allowed to wear shorts and I don't have anything else to put on you. If I had blue cotton pants, believe me, you'd be wearing them. Pink is all we've got."
When we got to the school, the other girls were in puffy princess dresses. Most of the boys were in suits, and there was my daughter, straddling both worlds in her blue polo top and pink pants.
Two years later, toward the beginning of first grade, I got a call from the school nurse. My daughter, the nurse explained, had peed in her pants in the middle of the cafeteria.
I rushed to the school with a dry pair of pants and underwear.
"What happened?" I asked.
Isabel was silent.
"Did you wait too long? Are you feeling sick?"
It would be hours before she would tell me, "I couldn't hold it."
"Why do you think you have to hold it?" I asked.
"I can't use the bathroom," she said.
There was anger in my throat. What teacher doesn't allow children to use the bathroom?
"I'll talk to your teacher. This is crazy," I said.
"No, mommy," she said. "It's not the teacher. I can't go because I'm not allowed in the boys' bathroom and I don't belong in the girls' bathroom."
Even as I worked with the school to ensure that she could use a gender-neutral bathroom and even as I found myself saying "she might be transgender," I harbored -- and courted -- doubts. My stomach turned whenever I thought of Boys Don't Cry. How would I keep a transgender boy safe? How would a transgender boy find love? Happiness? Success?
I continually pointed out strong women, like Hillary Clinton and Lady Gaga. I tried to get her interested in lacrosse, because girls who play lacrosse are strong and athletic. She went to one practice and refused to go back. "I'm not like them," she said. "What do you mean?" I asked. She answered, "They're girls."
Toward the end of first grade, she and her father began fighting over haircuts. She wanted a buzz cut, the same one her friends had. My husband wanted to keep her hair longish, in a bowl, the last visible sign of her X chromosome.
"If she had a penis, would you be saying no?" I yelled.
"Yes," he shouted, "I would." He was stubborn, immovable, as if buzz cuts were somehow wrong.
Would this be the thing that led to our divorce?
It wasn't easy to find a psychologist with experience in the kinds of problems our family had. We ended up finding someone more than an hour away.
Before our rear ends had even warmed the couch, I blurted, "I need to know if this is just a phase. If she's transgender, I need to know for sure." I wanted a test, a diagnostic tool like the Beck Depression Inventory, something definitive that would pronounce my child transgender or not. I learned that no such test exists.
Still, my husband and I left the room so the therapist could conduct an initial evaluation.
Twenty minutes later, we settled down on the same couch, my husband on one side of Isabel, me on the other.
"Your son said something interesting," the psychologist said.
I heard the word "son" louder than the "your" and the "something interesting." It was as if the therapist shouted that one word through a bullhorn and bolded and underlined it just before it traveled the distance from her mouth and to my ears.
"He said he didn't think his parents were ready yet."
I looked at the child sitting between my husband and me, the child who was smiling, who appeared so happy, who looked as if someone finally saw him or her the way she or he saw him or herself.
I stumbled over my words, stuttering and switching back and forth between masculine and feminine pronouns. I asked whether kids like ours change their minds. This psychologist had seen hundreds of kids like mine, she told us, and none had changed their minds. The psychologist suggested we start treating him as a boy, give him a boy name, and allow him to do boy things.
I asked, "Are you sure?" He looked confused, as if he didn't understand how I could ask such a question. It occurred to me this was how I would react if someone asked me, "Are you sure you are a woman?"
Despite the therapist's advice, we stalled, scared that Isabel's friends wouldn't accept her as a him, scared of depression and suicide, bullying and discrimination. What if we told everyone that our daughter was now our son, only to have our daughter decide to be our daughter again?
So, rather than abruptly change anything, we tested the waters, literally. One day, at a public pool, with no one around who knew us, I agreed to call him Shane.
There he was, my boy, on the edge of the diving board, in his boy's suit and his bare chest. I treaded water, under the diving board, ready to catch him when he jumped in.
"Okay, Isabel, I'm ready," I yelled.
He knelt down on the end of the board. "Mom! It's Shane! Remember?"
"I'm sorry," I said. "Shane! Yes, Shane! I'm ready!"
He visibly relaxed. It was as if he stepped out of a costume, no longer pretending to be someone he wasn't. He bounded off the board, pulled his knees into a cannonball, and landed with a splash.
Weeks later, while on vacation, a pack of boys found him on the playground. They asked me if my son could play baseball. Fear came over Shane's face. I winked at him. Speaking slowly, choosing each word carefully, I said, "Yes, my son can do that." Shane's face brightened. He looked light. Free. Happy.
We allowed him to be a boy in more places and situations. I told my parents about his gender. Then a few friends. Then his teacher. Then the principal. Then more friends. Then more family. Then the lady who waxed my brows. Then pretty much anyone who asked me about my "daughter."
Over and over again, I fielded the same question. "When did you know?"
There was no single answer because there was no initial "when" of knowing. Rather, there were dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of signs that, together, added up to a knowing. The signs had started in the womb when I'd been convinced I was carrying a boy. They'd continued during his infancy when stranger after stranger mistook the baby in a pink dress for a boy. The signs were in the loud burps he emitted at will, and the farting sounds he and his friends launched from their armpits. They came as I watched him asleep in bed, bare-chested and clad only in boxers. The signs were in the Dude Diary and Doodles for Boys books he begged me to buy. They were the tie he insisted on wearing for his second grade photos, and the WWE figure fours he inflicted on his father in the evenings.
They were visible in his Axe deodorant and Old Spice shower wash, the joy he exuded when I signed him up for boys' soccer, and the buzz cut he never once regretted.
The signs could be seen in all the phases and interests that came and went -- Spider-Man, Power Rangers, Mario, zombies, Beyblades, Minecraft, WWE, Pokémon -- while his boyness remained rooted in place.
The signs grew louder and stronger and more insistent as the days, weeks, months, and years went on.
In isolation, each sign was minuscule and meaningless, easily explained away as normal, as no big deal. As a collection, however, they added up to an unwavering truth: He was not growing out of being a boy. He was growing into it.
About halfway through fifth grade, just before he went to bed one night, I looked at him. Really looked at him. There was that short hair and handsome face, the deep-ish voice and abrupt mannerisms, a bare chest, and arms folded behind his head.
There was no doubt. He was a boy.
He wasn't just any boy, either. He was my boy. My incredibly smart, funny, quirky, kind, just-plain-awesome boy.
A boy I was proud of and thankful for.
A boy I felt incredibly fortunate to mother.
"Goodnight, beautiful boy," I said. I ruffled his hair and pecked him on the cheek.
In that bed was my son, and everything about him was wonderful.
*All names in this story have been changed
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