Hi, welcome to the Gloriously Unready podcast, all about being unready for anything.
I’m Josephine Hughes, and this series is about becoming the mum of transgender children. Everyone’s agreed to me sharing my story, but I’m mentioning no names. And sometimes I use clumsy language – please bear with me, I’m still learning. I don’t mean any harm by it.
Earlier in the year, I unexpectedly became a TikTok viral videographer. I’d only been on TikTok a week, and I had no idea what I was doing, but I decided to share a little video I’d made looking at the dust on the photo frames of my children from when they’d been dressed as boys, and this caused a lot of hoo-haa. On Trans TikTok, people were saying that I was transphobic, people were saying that I was being unkind, people were saying that I was making it all about me.
What I’m talking about in this episode goes a little way towards explaining the process that I was very inexpertly trying to explain on TikTok. That’s when you’re the mum, there’s lots of ways in which you’ve seen your children. That has to change, and you have to let go of things. It may not seem very important to anybody else, but some of those things are representative of so much of your life; it’s about who you are, who you are as a mother, and whether or not your identity should be in relation to your children, or whether or not your sense of identity can be in relation to yourself.
So on the first day, when you’re first told that your child is transgender – and remembering that this was back at least seven years ago, 2015/2016, something like this, it was a long time before a lot of the transgender focus was there in news events, so I didn’t really know a lot about what it was to be transgender. I didn’t know of any transgender people, not very many, there was a couple of celebrities, but apart from that I didn’t really know anything about what it meant to be transgender. And of course, it’s similar to, I think, the surprise, the reaction that many people have, which is, your first thought goes to what’s in people’s pants. And, you know, really, it’s, it’s none of our business. But as a mum that was almost my first fear. My first fear was, ‘oh, my god, does this mean that they’re going to have an operation where they have their penis removed’. I don’t know how to put it politely – and there’s probably politer ways of putting it, but that that was where my head went.
The other place my head went was my child as a baby, because I knew when I had my youngest that this was probably going to be the last baby, and so what I tried to do was, I really tried to treasure every moment, because little ones grow up so quickly, don’t they? And I’ve always felt that she’s been this huge extra blessing in our family, because, as I said, they were born really close to each other – I had three in five years – and so it was really busy, and it was really difficult to keep up with the changes and then growing up so quickly it seemed to me, and then along came my littlest one, and it was just so lovely to have this beautiful little baby. One of the things I remember doing is – and I hadn’t done it with the others – was trying to take photos every month, and when she was really tiny, I suppose, a month or two months old, I’d lain her on the bed in all her nakedness and just taken a photo of her. I think because I was lucky enough to be able to breastfeed as well, you know, there’s such a connection, I think, when you’re a mum and this child has come from inside you, there’s this real physical connection with them, and that was what I felt on that first day. I was thinking about holding this glorious little body, which to me, as a mother, still is absolutely perfect, and why would it need to change.
I think this is some of what parents can go through. I don’t know if it’s the same for dads because I don’t know how dads feel, but I know as a mum, that this beautiful little body that I had and held, to me was absolutely perfect and I couldn’t imagine that it needed to be changed in any way. And there’s, I think such pride in being a mum and having that baby and seeing that person grow up, and seeing them grow into their adult selves, and I think – particularly I noticed this with my oldest child, who was 21/22 when they came out – was that they’d grown into this absolutely ruggedly handsome man, and they would never accept that about themselves, but believe me, they turned heads. And yet, that is not the right body for them, that’s not the right person for them. That body doesn’t express who they really are inside. And I think, you know, you have to let go of what that means and let go of that pride almost, in that being that representation of who you think they are. And almost, well, it is – I’m not going to say almost – it is an egotistical pride and having a handsome son, and that’s something that you let go of, because that isn’t part of who they are any longer, and so that’s something you have to let go of.
Part of what you’re letting go of is history, and it’s that sense of what you’ve grown up with, and what you thought you had, and it’s often represented in terms of photographs. And I really struggled recently, when all the children had graduated, and we had graduation photos, and we had a graduation photo of my cisgender son, we had a graduation photo of my transgender daughter, but we also had a graduation photo of my eldest as a man – and that isn’t how she identifies, and it isn’t how she dresses now, and it isn’t how she presents, and I really struggled to know what to do with the graduation photos, because do I put them all up, and then I’ve got this photo of her as a man, do I leave her out, and yet, you know, I’m as proud of her and her degree as I am of the other two. So, what do I do? I don’t want to put it up because it might disrespect her, because I think people don’t realise that people say, uh, well, you know, just put it up, it doesn’t matter, and yet for people who’ve got gender dysphoria, seeing themselves in the way they were can actually be really upsetting. So it can be really difficult to know what to do. I don’t want to disrespect her, and I don’t want to upset her, but also I don’t want to leave her out.
But then the other aspect of that is that it can be quite painful to look at the photos, and so you have this difficulty in looking back over the past because it’s different now, and you have to let go of what you thought you knew, and it’s painful in some ways to let go of what you thought you had.
I think it’s that loss of what you’d expected and who you thought your child was. And I think it’s that vicarious pleasure that you take in who your child is, and you have to let go of that, you have to let go of your feelings around that.
To a certain extent it’s painful because you’ve built up an identity around it, and you’ve made it your identity, and actually, you have to just let go of that, you have to let go of that identity. And it feels kind of shallow to admit that you do build up an identity around how your children are and how they look, because you think, oh, you know, beauty is more than skin deep – which of course it is – but you don’t really realise you’re doing it until it gets taken away. And then you realise that that’s what you’ve been doing. And that’s a letting go that you have to do, and it’s not easy and it hurts, because it’s a pride thing, and you’ve just got to let go of that.
I suppose in some ways, it’s good for you, in that it really brings you back to what’s important, and actually, you know, what is the most important thing, and that is, is that, you know, my daughters are happier in who they are, and they’re actually, you know, they’re living the lives that they want to live. And, really, and truthfully, that’s by far the most important thing. So you have to just put those feelings to one side. I say ‘just’, it’s not a ‘just’ though, it’s a process and it’s hard, and you have to do it, but it’s a whole recalibration of the way you’ve seen your life, the way you see yourself, and so you just have to let go of it, and it’s not always easy.
I hate this bit. I just feel so shallow talking about it, but if I don’t talk about it, it’s not going to help people. But I feel so shallow. I feel so shallow to say, you know, all I cared about was the way they looked.
I was somebody… I distinctly remember, I was around six, and I even remember where I was, which was standing in the family bathroom, and thinking to myself, when I grow up, I want to be a mummy. And that was my ambition. And I think sometimes, your six-year-old self really does know yourself quite well, and perhaps before everybody tells you what you should be doing, your six-year-old self knows what they want to do. And I knew that I wanted to have children.
I was so, so, delighted and thrilled, and I can remember when my oldest was born, I still think the best days of my life were the days my children were born, and there was such happiness in me to have my children. But I think the other thing to say alongside that, is none of us come to parenting as blank slates; we all come to parenting with a whole lot of other stuff that’s gone on in our lives. And for me, I’d had quite a hard time growing up because I was a really sensitive child, and I was in a big family, and there wasn’t a lot of time for any sensitivities to be attended to. I grew up consequently without a great deal of self-confidence and my own inner security, and I think when you’ve grown up like that, with all sorts of other things going on as well, like I became very perfectionist as well, and took on a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, and when you’re like that, if you come into parenting like that, you maybe haven’t got a strong sense of who you are. I think when that happens, what tends to happen is you begin to take on an identity that’s very tied to who your children are, and in particular, if you’ve been brought up in, perhaps a family where achievement is valued, you can begin to make your value around the subject of achievement, and you extend that to include your family, and it too includes your children. And I think that very much was what went on for me.
Even though as a counsellor I have had a lot of therapy, it’s always work in progress, and we talk nowadays in counselling about trauma with a little T, and trauma with a little T, all these little things that happen to us in our lives, that sometimes we don’t really process very well at the time, and we carry these things through our lives, and they become problematic to us. We talk nowadays about how we can get triggered, and if you find yourself reacting very strongly to things that can often be because there’s some sort of little T trauma there in your life. I used to be very reactive – it’s got a lot better, life has got easier, it’s much easier to be calm when you’ve got adult children than it is to be calm when you’ve got little ones – but this is a very long winded way of saying, I think that what happened with me is I placed a lot of who I was and what my identity was, in terms of who my children were and what my children look like and how they performed and how they behaved.
I’ve really tried to move away from that as they’ve gone into adulthood because I want them to know that they don’t have to do anything to be loved, that I just love them for who they are, and I hope that – and they tell me I have – that I was able to always let them know that they were loved no matter what happened, but I think possibly many of us who have this experience of our children coming out as transgender and other things that happen that take away our own self-identity that we create vicariously through our children, we have to learn that our children are not us, and that we need to be us in our own way, without our children defining us.
The funny thing is, I’ve been thinking about this recently, because to a certain extent, I’ve gone from being the mother of three boys, which was an identity that actually made me quite happy, and now I’m transitioning, and I’m beginning to describe myself as a mother of two transgender daughters. I’ve had to sort of stop myself in a way and say, hang on a minute, you know, I don’t have to define myself by what I do. I define myself by who I am. But as I say, it’s a continuous process, it’s a journey, and you have to move and give yourself grace. I think that’s the thing, you have to give yourself grace to know that this is a long journey, it takes time. But, I’m actually really grateful that, in a sense, my children being transgender has enabled me to see with clarity what I was actually doing. And I think this is, you know, one of the gifts of this whole experience has been to enable me to not put my sense of self in my children, but to locate it more firmly in myself and who I am, and knowing that I’ve got values and that my values, I can live according to my values, and that’s okay, and that’s given me a lot of confidence, I think as a result. I’m more confident now than I was before they came out, because I’ve let go of having to be defined by who they are, and I define myself by who I am.
What I’ve tried to discuss in this episode is that when my children transitioned, it led to a letting go of some of those things that perhaps aren’t important, and that in the grand scheme of things shouldn’t really define our relationship to somebody, and shouldn’t be the thing we love them for, such as their looks.
I’ve also told you about how part of the process is a rewriting of history. It’s difficult to let go of things that you thought you knew, and because you’re letting go of those things, for a while, it feels like your world is shaken. But what I discovered through this process is a greater sense of my own self, because I came back to the values that were really important to me. Just as I always wanted to be a mummy, I’ve always wanted to have kids, I discovered within myself that my love of my children superseded those external things such as the way they looked, the past, my definition of myself as the mum of three boys. And actually, however important those things seemed at the time, the more important thing is that when the chips were down, when I was called upon to love my kids, actually, I was there to love them. And that’s been my guiding light throughout this process, and it’s given me so much more confidence to be who I am, and to stand up for them, because I have that internal Guiding Light, and that’s not dependent on things that can be taken away. It means I’m dependent only on what I choose to be, and I like myself because I know that I can choose those things that are important to me, that I can stand firm, and I can stand true to my values.
Thanks for listening. Parents of transgender young people, download my free guide, Help! My child is trans! at the website www.gloriouslyunready.com, where you could also find out more about me.