A mother reflects on her long journey of reconsidering her child’s gender
We have three girls. Once, we had a boy.
The day we finally let him go, my husband consulted YouTube instructions for a tinfoil origami boat, like what our little boy had exuberantly sailed down street gutters on rainy days. We exhumed the Matthew Memories box from beneath the stairs, lingering over school papers, handprints, photos, Pokémon, poems, sports ribbons, college acceptances. Finally, at the very bottom, we found a small blue card. It’s a Boy. That went into the boat, along with ashes remaining from my older brother, who’d shared Matthew’s middle name, Jefferson, like multiple generations of our family. My brother, an avid traveler, would take one last trip.
Our plan was to launch the boat from a favorite family spot at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Pace Bend is a cactus-studded rocky peninsula carved by the Colorado River, with limestone cliffs, beach meadows and pocket coves shaded by oak, mesquite and cedar. As Tom and I left our home in Austin with the boat on my lap two summers ago, Tom started a playlist, a long-ago gift from Matthew, filling the car with beloved tunes, from Odetta’s “Midnight Special” to Townes Van Zandt’s “Flyin’ Shoes.” The music lasted all the way to Pace Bend.
We stopped at a waterside campsite. A mockingbird relentlessly whistled a melody resembling the Westminster chime. We lit a fire. In turn, Tom and I read aloud letters we’d each written for Matthew, love letters he would never read. Then we set the words aflame, placed what remained into the boat and put it in the river. Wind kept slapping the little craft back to shore, but eventually it bobbed into the current, and we turned away.
Our ride home was quiet.
To be clear: We’ve seen dear friends suffer through the death of a child. This was nowhere close — we still have our child. But we have lost our son.
Three decades earlier, our daughters, Mary and Caitlin, had transformed us from couple to family. Days were interesting, fun, urgent and exhausting. Gluttonous for this version of life, we wanted more. One more baby. We understood the odds: With two kids of a particular gender, you’re statistically likely to get more of the same. Three girls would be great. That’s what we said out loud, and it was true enough. But in secret, we definitely wanted a boy. Especially Tom, an only child whose parents’ death just before we met left him yearning to preserve and extend his family name. When the doctor shared the news, Tom whooped with joy. I moved through the remainder of my pregnancy already loving the unseen being floating beneath my skin, studying the cloudy black-and-white ultrasound image in the frame of our dresser mirror every morning.
“I get it, Mom,” Maisie said. “If you decided to transition, I’d feel terrible. I wouldn’t have a mother.”
From birth, Matthew was mellow yet watchful in the way of a sage elder. His first sentence was “read book,” and I was happy to oblige. Mary and Caitlin sometimes adored their youngest sibling, sometimes endured him, sometimes ignored him. With Tom traveling frequently, Matthew was closest to me, maybe a “mama’s boy,” Tom fretted. But Matthew loved dinosaurs, Lego bricks, choo-choo trains, swords, Transformers and Build-A-Bear. He played lacrosse and obsessed over a girl named Leah. In high school, he studied the Bible and translated Chinese poetry. Necessarily or not over the years, I sometimes behaved as a buffer between Matthew and Tom as one explored his gender and the other worked through his own expectations of masculinity from a child he believed to be male.
Change was both gradual and sudden. Gentle-natured and anxious, Matthew identified as straight, gay, then bisexual before dabbling with makeup and swirly skirts in his 20s. Finally he wanted — needed — to transition. First, the names. No more Matthew, no more Jefferson. Maisie. Sweet and quirky, like our child, who was no longer a child, no longer a boy.
Legal documents and hormones followed, plus psychotherapy as Maisie explored options and banked sperm, in case someday she might want to be a parent. Those are chapters in Maisie’s story. I can only tell mine. It’s a love story, as true as I can make it. And like all true love stories, it’s also a blind odyssey.
My evolution was slow. When you break an egg into a hot skillet, it spreads out, the yellow eye wide open before slowly cooking from the outside in, transformed into a shape that holds. In the process, food scientists say, proteins in the egg unravel and become “denatured,” losing their structure while maintaining their essence. That’s how it has been with me as a parent during this process.
A newspaper factoid niggled my mind: Intersex fish had begun showing up in the Potomac River, possibly linked to a class of runoff chemicals called endocrine disrupters. Could humans be following in the wake of smallmouth bass? Or had gender-fluid individuals populated humanity forever?
Forever, Maisie said during one of many heart-to-heart discussions, and she cited ancient historical references. Still, I thought, or hoped, it was a phase. And to me, it felt dangerous.
Maisie drew unwanted attention that made me want to lash out. People turned to stare as we passed. In restaurants, waiters sashayed behind my child’s back, making kissy faces. Once she began presenting as a woman full time, binding her lower body and undergoing hormone treatment, she seemed more relaxed. Still, life wasn’t easier. She was ridiculed by public servants, leered at by strangers, kicked off a bus. Workers at airport security checkpoints gleefully and loudly announced an anomaly in her lower regions. She carried on. I broke out in hives.
Begging has never been my mothering style, but the prospect of a scalpel reshaped me. “Just wait two years,” I said. Having read that the brain isn’t fully developed until 26, fearing Maisie might change her mind once her frontal lobe was baked, I pleaded with her to hold off. And there was the unthinkable: Trans individuals attempt suicide at alarming rates, I learned through late-night Googling and support-group meetings with PFLAG (formerly known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). It can be a rough life. Many on the street, many turning to sex work. Discrimination in every sector, seen as freaks.
Apart from raw worry for my daughter, there was something else. What also clenched my gut and pushed me daily to the verge of tears was the part of her story that was about me. For a middle name, Maisie chose mine: Louise. The honor ballooned my heart. But it had a somber corollary. Besides my name, she’d taken my very identity as the mother of a son.
“I get it, Mom,” she said. “If you decided to transition, I’d feel terrible. I wouldn’t have a mother.”
Grief flickered across her face as she held my gaze. I reached up to touch her cheek, and she pulled all five feet of me close, so my head rested against her chest.
In a different climate, Maisie might have agreed to wait, but after the 2016 election, a conservative swell loomed. Gay couples rushed their marriages, and the trans community moved faster on surgical transitions. That was Mae’s situation. I understood. Freedom, history teaches us, is not unidirectional.
Begging had failed. All that was left was to cheer Maisie on. “I’ll still be the same person,” she’d promised.
But I wasn’t. Transness was a foreign concept. At first, I forced the word out of myself. My trans daughter. I had to try it on, like when I changed my name upon marriage. By surgery day, I was somewhat prepared. You may not be, so consider this your trigger warning.
Imagine a penis as a finger of a gardening glove. Now imagine turning it inside out. That’s basically how you fashion a vagina. It takes a good six hours, I learned by researching “gender reassignment” procedures at Mount Sinai, a national LGBTQ health-care leader in New York City. Luckily for Maisie, her surgery there was planned well before the coronavirus crisis delayed such procedures.
On the big day, the temperature outside hit 95 degrees. Inside, there was good news and bad news. The good news: Maisie’s surgeon had assisted in 75 procedures alongside leaders in the field during the past year alone. The bad news — to me, anyway — was that Maisie’s vaginoplasty would be the doctor’s debut as lead surgeon. I learned this in the hospital lobby, with its harsh greenish light, shiny waxed floors and “Keep Your Germs to Yourself” posters. Phones bleeped, and on the TV a bald man in a striped tie was saying something inaudible under the whoosh of a hand dryer from a nearby restroom. I made Maisie repeat herself while my heart flapped its wings.
We sat together, yet each in our own worlds. Maisie tapped a foot. The receptionist apologized for the delay. “Staff hasn’t arrived yet.” A little ha-ha. “You’ll just have to wait — unless y’all want to do your own procedures.” Weak smiles from us.
Uptown, our scrubbed and sanitized apartment awaited its role as recovery center. Latex gloves, blue mattress protectors, moisturizing wipes and amber-colored pill bottles lined our dresser. Maisie would take the one bedroom; Tom and I would use the foldout couch in the living room, far enough for privacy but close enough to help. She’d need plenty of TLC — from her parents, her girlfriend, a visiting nurse and her sisters, who cheered her on via FaceTime. She’d be able to walk, gingerly, in a few days, but no sitting upright for a month. I’d need to bathe my newborn daughter, feed her, empty urine bags. But first, the scalpel.
No one wants to imagine their child’s options foreclosed. I forced myself to contemplate others who’d chosen paths of no return. Our ancestors, for example, who’d crossed an ocean, forever abandoning the only home they’d known. And yet they survived, even thrived. I held my daughter’s hand, the fingers so much larger and longer than mine, but more delicate. Finally, we were beckoned into the pre-op area. Looping the strings of Maisie’s hospital gown, I remembered lacing her tiny sneakers for baby steps.
Tom and I live with the reality that our daughter Maisie lacks a girlhood and our boy Matthew lacks a future manhood.
The surgeon arrived, the beautiful Bella, with long, dark hair, red earrings, a stunning red gemstone on a finger and a broad smile. She knelt bedside to speak with Maisie, then shook hands with me and Tom. This doctor was about to cut away my child’s privates, and my reaction was visceral. I squeezed the muscles between my legs in a giant involuntary Kegel.
Then the anesthesiologist entered. It’s hard to describe my relief in learning he was transgender, a professional who exuded confidence and empathy. Hope washed over me, but not just from his kindness. It was his very existence. He was comfortable in his skin. Maybe Maisie will be okay too, I thought, or prayed, as I clutched her bag of clothes.
“I’ll be stalking your daughter while she’s here — not only her brain and heart and lungs. I’ll be making sure people watch their pronouns,” the anesthesiologist said, then winked. “Anybody stalking your daughter when she leaves here, that’s not me.” That was 90 percent comforting, 10 percent not. Tom and I couldn’t protect her. She’d have to protect herself.
As for us, we’d have to adapt. Back at the apartment, I soon found myself breezing past the dresser where three multicolored dildos — tall, grande, venti — stood at attention, necessary to maintain a new vagina. If Mae expected visitors, I’d secure the dildos in their ribboned pouch, which resembled a case for expensive Japanese knives, as casually as if I were tidying away children’s toys.
One day early into Maisie’s healing, as I shuffled papers at the dining table, I heard, “Mom?” I tapped the bedroom door and slivered it open.
“Is this how my vagina’s supposed to look?”
Yes, sweet girl.
Tom and I shared our journey freely, ignoring others’ discomfort, and our own. Mostly, we’ve been amazed at our child. You’re such good parents, dear friends said in person and on Facebook. Occasionally, because of context or tone, we understood them to mean, Thank God it’s not me. We wanted to hear: Yay, Maisie, what a courageous move! Mom and Dad, you must be proud. Glad your family has each other.
At night, Tom and I clung to each other on the sofa bed. When Maisie moved back to Brooklyn, emptiness moved with us to Texas, our primary home. Tears came easily. Tom and I sometimes couldn’t think what to say to one another.
For me it resembled what I felt after miscarriage, a private and lonely grief, but far more intense, burdened by guilt. And yet, wasn’t our sadness unfair to our daughter? Our marriage counselor advised a ritual, some way to honor our feelings. Thus our afternoon with the memory box, the playlist, the tinfoil boat.
We weren’t done, though. Beyond grief, another step was vital. It felt important to celebrate Maisie. We printed invitations to extended family, no matter how conservative they might be, in our conservative home state. “New name, new clothes, new pronouns … same extraordinary person,” the flowery announcement declared. We rented the book-filled Writing Barn, fitting for our literary daughter, then a master of fine arts student in creative writing. We arranged a photo booth, costumes and a huge spread for brunch, with help from Mae’s sisters. We figured anyone who couldn’t cope just wouldn’t come.
They all came, from miles around, ranging in age from 1 to 90, and most managed to remember she, not he. Kids ran wild; my brother’s mother-in-law (a Presbyterian minister) blessed Maisie’s journey, and we all raised a glass, laughing. Moving on.
Moving on, though, like all real life, is a constant tide of highs and lows. Highs have included the publication this summer of a short story by Maisie in Zoetrope: All-Story, a high-end literary magazine. Opening phrase: “When I was what you might call a young man, I lived in a small West Texas town.” Another high: Elle Pérez’s photograph, “Mae (three days after),” a portrait of Maisie, appeared in the Whitney Biennial, and in Aperture magazine, themed around Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando.” And now Tom and I have a grandchild, the firstborn of our firstborn. When new acquaintances ask, “Boy or girl?” sometimes I take a risk and shrug. Well, the little one has a penis.
But there has been tragedy, too. On the New York subway this past February, a man slashed Maisie’s beautiful face, leaving her with blurry vision and scars, both physical and psychological.
Some days remain a charade of happiness. Many nights I lie awake in the dark. At a party before the days of social distancing, a friend I hadn’t seen for ages embraced me, murmuring the word Matthew into my ear. When we pulled apart, my friend’s eyes were full of tears. Part of me resented this, and part of me wanted to climb back into his arms.
Still, our family looks forward more than we look back. Tom and I live with the reality that our daughter Maisie lacks a girlhood and our boy Matthew lacks a future manhood, but beneath gender, our child remains the “same extraordinary person,” as our invitation proclaimed.
Maisie likes to wear my late mother’s gold earrings. I can’t imagine what my mother would have thought about that. She was disinclined to offer advice. Perhaps in her time, she worried as much as I do. Perhaps, like me, she sometimes stayed awake at night with her hands propped in a prayer clasp above her abdomen. Perhaps she wanted me to live on my own terms, same as I wish for Maisie. With that thought, sometimes I sleep peacefully. And that’s how I know Maisie isn’t the only one who has undergone a transition.
M. Boone Mattia, a writer and editor, divides her time between Austin and New York City.
Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.