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.
Just as your children have to transition to a new identity, as a parent, you transition to the process of change and letting go can sometimes be an emotional roller coaster, and where you thought things are okay, suddenly, you find that things upset you all over again. Alongside the external changes that you’re going through, you’ve got a lot going on inside you. You’re also having to field other people’s attitudes, and other people’s questions, and sometimes, to be quite frank, other people’s ignorance.
What I talk about in this episode is what gets you through the process. I’m not entirely sure you ever get to the place where your new reality feels like the new normal, because I think it’s a process, and it’s a bit like the old analogy of peeling layers off an onion, because it starts off right at the beginning, and it does feel like you’ve been almost stripped to your core when it first happens, but you don’t realise there’s lots of little minor adjustments that you have to make as you go along. And so all the time you’re adapting, and things come up that can suddenly just send you to that place where you think, oh my goodness, I have to see things differently again. But I think actually, that’s, that’s actually part of the process, and I just love this expression of ‘queering’ really, because you just take things for granted, and in this queering process, you learn that things aren’t as you’d seen them before, and that’s absolutely fine – you just have to adjust slightly.
I found there’s been little bits and pieces along the way, and there’s things that stand out to me, like looking back on the family photos and trying to decide what to do about the family photos. The time where I read this description, this biography of a woman, and it’s said, she’s the mum of three sons, and I had this moment where I thought, oh, that’s not me – that’s how I used to describe myself – but that’s not me at the moment. And so you have these little snippets where you realise that you’ve got to change the way you see things.
I think over time, what’s happened is that we’ve seen our children develop and we’ve seen them transition, and their transition – transition is a good word because it’s not like there’s a sudden, one day you are, the next day you aren’t – it’s a transition, it takes time, and the girls are learning to be comfortable in their new way of being. They have to learn things that we take for granted growing up. For example, I always remember reading someone saying, you make the most terrible mistakes with your clothing as a as a teenage girl, and there’s things you do that you’d never do again, and yet they arrived at being an adult female without having had made any of those mistakes along the way, and they have to go through that. It’s almost like, me as a parent of girls, I’m suddenly accelerated on this journey as well, and I have to learn to adapt and that takes time. So I’m never entirely sure that we’re going to reach some mythical place of this is it, we’ve done the adaptation, but I think you become much more comfortable with it after a while.
You do still have these, like, man-traps that you fall down – suddenly there’s a big … you’re walking along and your life’s feeling okay and suddenly you’ll find yourself down this hole. You just think oh, how did I end up here? And it’s because of something that was said, like, the mum of three boys, and you suddenly find yourself in this hole thinking, oh, you know, I really miss being a mum of three boys. There’s just things that catch you out, and you have to give yourself time, you have to acknowledge that that is hard.
It’s things like sometimes I’ll meet up with friends whose sons are living the sort of lives that I’d expected my sons to have. So particularly with people who had sons about the same time as me and I look at them, you know, going through their lives and doing those things that I hadn’t even realised I was expecting, but I was expecting. So you know, walking down the aisle in a nice morning suit or whatever, those sorts of things that you don’t realise that you almost expect that but you are. And so those moments will just give you a little jolt, where you think, oh, yeah, that that isn’t my life as I expected it to be.
But most of the time, this is this is the way your life is, and what I think it’s so important, is to celebrate actually what you have, and I do celebrate what I’ve got in terms of my beautiful, beautiful daughters, and, you know, the people that they actually are. I always remember in the early days one of my friends saying to me – and this is such a precious thing that she said to me – she said, if you could see them like books, she said, the contents of the book are unchanged, they’re exactly the same, it’s just the cover that’s changing. And at the time I couldn’t really believe it. It felt like their identity as boys was everything. But what I’ve discovered as time has gone on is that is just like a … it is just like that cover, and it’s the same book, but it’s a new edition of the same book; and so the covers changed, but they’re exactly the same.
I think that’s one of the greatest things that we’ve learned through this process is the essential people that they are has not changed at all; we haven’t lost them. People say, well, you know, I’ve lost my child – we really haven’t lost them at all. We’ve lost that gender expression but we haven’t lost who they are. And I think that’s … if I could get that message across to any parents who have transgender children, that’s what I’d really like them to know, that you haven’t lost your child because they are the same person – their personality, it doesn’t change, they’re just freer to express those parts of themselves that’s always been so suppressed in the past.
I was struck by the fact that for people who are gay and transgender, there’s this whole, many occasions where they feel the need that they have to come out again, and you don’t come out once – you come out again, and again and again – and what I was struck by, is that that actually is quite true for me as a mother of transgender children. Because for a while, I might have said, yeah, I’ve got three boys, but two of them are transgender women, and that stopped feeling right to be honest because I’d moved to this place where I accept them as transgender women, and I might have moved to saying, I’ve got two transgender daughters. But then I started to think, but that’s really not right, either – they’re my daughters. But then what you’re met with is assumptions about your daughters. And I certainly had an occasion where someone was thinking about giving my daughter some work and said, I’d really like to support women, and she didn’t get that particular work. I don’t know, I don’t know if this is the case at all, but you sort of wonder if perhaps the person actually ended up being a bit surprised because my daughter actually turned out to be my transgender daughter and not my, what I suppose, assigned female at birth daughter.
So you’re constantly thinking, well, how should I address this subject? Do I tell people? Do I not tell people? Do I only tell people when it’s appropriate? I’ve began to land, much more now, of just saying, I’ve got two daughters, and unless people want to talk more about my children and I’m getting closer to them, I usually won’t disclose that they’re transgender. Because also, you know, it’s not my thing to disclose – that’s for my daughters to disclose, if they want to tell people that they’re transgender, that’s up to them.
So there’s that sort of side of it, but then there’s also, when you do tell people that you have transgender daughters, you’re usually then met with quite a lot of questions, and honestly, the first question that many people will ask is whether or not they’ve had bottom surgery – which is an incredibly personal thing to ask someone, isn’t it? But that’s where people are curious because I think people are … it’s such a new subject for people, I think they’re just trying to get their heads around it, and they don’t necessarily realise that that’s actually quite a personal question. There still comes a lot of assumptions along with that question, as well, so handling these conversations can be quite difficult. People often ask, you know, do you think one influenced the other? Is that why they’re both transgender? That’s just not the case at all, there was absolutely none of that going on at all.
There’s often a lot of conversation, and it can be a bit awkward as well, because you don’t want to make the conversation about yourself, you know. If you were to sort of announce at a dinner party or something that you’ve got two transgender daughters, suddenly, the whole focus of the conversation becomes around transgender issues, and you can be exposed to quite a lot of people’s uninformed comments, I think, and people want to let you know what they think about the current transgender debate, and what their opinions are. And to be honest, that can be a little bit insensitive. Actually, if you begin to read up quite a lot about the debate, there’s a lot that isn’t necessarily obvious to people, and so that can be quite a difficult conversation to have, and you can be reduced to this place of just nodding politely, because you just think, I don’t necessarily want to go down this route of having an argument with you about this.
But people are very sort of keen to tell you what they think about it, or they just want to ask quite a lot of questions, and that can be a bit awkward, really. And then sometimes people come out with things that would seem to be helpful but aren’t necessarily helpful. So a lot of people said to me, particularly at the start, well, you’re a counsellor so that means it must be so much easier for you to cope with it, and I found that remark in a sense invalidated a lot of my experience, because it’s sort of like, well, you know, you’re able to cope with it, so it’s not important. Whereas it was the biggest thing that I was dealing with at that point in my life. And so I needed people to understand that actually, this was a big thing for me to be coping with. I’m sure people say these things to try and make you feel better or to show you that in some way they empathise with you or they want to help, but actually, no, being a counsellor didn’t make it any easier, I don’t think, not in dealing with the sense of loss that I experienced at the time. Being a counsellor doesn’t protect you from your feelings, it just means that perhaps you are more aware of them, you process them more.
And then, you know, people say things like, oh, it must be so nice for them to have each other. And, again, it’s really not really relevant, and it’s often that that when people say that to me, actually, I can end up feeling guilty because they don’t necessarily talk to each other about that side of things, and I sort of think, well, is that something that, you know, I’ve, I’ve not encouraged them to talk to each other enough or something. But you know, really it’s up to them how much they speak to each other and if they don’t feel the need to speak to each other, that’s okay, too. But I can often sort of feel as though there’s almost like a should there.
I’m sure people aren’t, you know, they’re really not saying it to be awkward, and I’m sure they want to help but it’s just some of those things that it just doesn’t sort of land very well. I know people are trying to be helpful, and the most helpful thing I find is when people just ask me what my experience is and how I’ve found it, and give me the space to tell them how I’m feeling, as opposed to telling me sort of, in a sense, maybe what I should be feeling.
I think one of the most difficult things that people say to you is a complete invalidation, and this is where people say to you, it’s not about you – it’s about your daughters – so why are you feeling like this, because, you know, they’re going through so much more than you’re going through. And absolutely, yes, I don’t suffer with gender dysphoria. I don’t really know what they’re going through. I know, it’s massive, and I suppose what I find hard about that comment is that it doesn’t acknowledge what I’m doing. It doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I have been as supportive as I’m able to be, that is just completely wiped out. And it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that if you’re a parent, that you might have an opinion about what your children are going through. And that, in a sense, the massive things that they’re going through, yes, it is absolutely massive, so of course, parents are going to have feelings about it, and so to tell parents, it’s not about you – yeah, it isn’t about us, but it also is about us. And I think that’s so important.
I think any parents that are listening to this, not necessarily all parents, because some parents, they’re able to adapt to it and they accept it, and they’re happy for their children, but there’s other parents who perhaps do find it more difficult to adapt to. And I think, for us – and I’d include myself in in that demographic – for parents who perhaps do find it difficult to adapt to, we’ve got feelings about it. And it’s not selfish – you can’t help but have feelings about it. You spent a long time thinking of your child as a particular gender and then you just have to turn it all around and you have to face all these different changes. And of course, that involves a lot of thought and a lot of processing, and a lot of upset and to just brush that under the carpet and tell people well, it’s not about you, I think is really quite unfair, actually, and I don’t think it’s helpful to the parents of transgender children at all.
I think when you’re faced with something as big as this – and it really did feel enormous – what you don’t know is actually these times in your life, although they’re really challenging, can be the things that can be a huge, huge blessing to you, and that they can really stimulate such personal growth and development. When I look back at myself as I was then, I would love to say to myself, it’s going to be okay, it’s going to work out. Yes, it’s going to be difficult, and yes, life has changed, and it will never be as you expected it to be or as it was – but there are great things for you to experience and make the most of, and that actually, you are far more capable of coping with this than you give yourself credit for. This is actually going to be really helpful to you, because you’re going to grow so much as a person because of this, and it’s going to take away that fear that you’ve always had, that you’re not good enough for your children, because your children are going to know that they matter. You’re going to know that when you were really tested in your love for your children, what was it really about, that actually you’re going to come through and you’re going to be stronger because of it. Your family relationships are going to be stronger because of it. Your relationship with your husband is going to be stronger because of it.
In a funny sort of way. It’s all good, which is an expression my friend uses, but it is that it will work out and to have faith that you’re going to be able to surmount the obstacles that come your way. And yes, there’s going to be things that worry you and frighten you, and perhaps in terms of your children’s physical body, there’s going to be decisions that they may make, that perhaps are going to affect their body in the longer term, and you might not have chosen that for them, but sometimes in life, you can’t choose these things, but to be grateful for what you have got, and that whatever happens, that you’ve had this time with them, and it means so much to show them that you love them. And that in a sense, that’s, in a funny sort of way, that that takes a big box in your self-doubt.
I think what this experience has shown me is that I have a lot to be grateful for. And I want to say here that shortly after our children came out, some friends of ours, very sadly lost their daughter to a drug driver, and we hold her memory very dearly, but it really made me appreciate the fact that I’ve still got my children. And actually, that’s the most important thing. And so I wouldn’t want to talk about my experience without bringing this young woman to mind because it’s such a terrible tragedy that they went through, and it really makes me appreciate what I’ve got. I think for many of us who have transgender children, it’s so important to remember that having your children is such a gift, and if it’s just their cover that’s changing, why is why is that important? The most important thing is that they’re here, and you’ve got them, and you can love them.
And so I think, in terms of what this experience has taught me, it is to be grateful, it’s to really appreciate what you’ve got, and to see that, even when things are difficult that you can grow. I think what this experience has given me, I am grateful for it, because it’s changed – just as my children have changed their lives – it’s completely changed mine, and it’s helped me so much as a person, I think, to be more confident in myself. I’m grateful for it, and grateful to them, and in a sense, you know, it was a testing experience, but I think as long as you use that experience and see what it is that you can learn from it, you can be grateful for it. Certainly, that’s what applies to me. I don’t know if that would apply to every situation, but it’s certainly applied to my situation.
So what I’ve talked about in this episode, is how helpful it is to hold on to what you’ve got with your children, and the most important thing is that you do have your children, and whatever anybody else says, they are your kids and you love them.
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.