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Growing in LLLove

Kate at five years old, standing in front of a door, smiling
Kate at five years old

How La Leche League helped me parent my gender non-conforming child

Valerie Vanderlip

Originally published in the LLL Pines and Palmettos (North Carolina and South Carolina) newsletter “Y’all Means ALLL” in March 2019.

When my middle child was born, one month after I became accredited as a La Leche League (LLL) Leader, the delivering physician said, “It’s a girl!” I took him at his word. When that child was three years old, they told me with tears and anguish that they were a boy and wanted to be called by a specific male name. I didn’t know what to make of it. Nothing in my life experience to that point had given me any information to understand why my child was not feeling like the gender we called them.

But LLL had taught me that feelings just are, and I could see that my sweet child was so sad every time I referred to them as a girl or called them by their given name. I thought it probably was a phase. So we began calling Kate, Steven. At least we did at home. In our playgroup and in the larger family, they were still Kate. Kate began to have very strong preferences about clothing. Kate only wanted to wear their brother’s hand me downs and never any pink clothing or any dresses.

In public, folks would comment on my boys and I’d correct them that my younger one was a girl. After about a year Kate didn’t plead to be called Steven any more. They still wore boy’s clothing as much as I allowed. I let Kate’s hair grow long so people wouldn’t call them a boy so often. I did that because it made me more comfortable. Kate was happy with short hair.

Older family members said Kate was a tomboy and would outgrow it. But age didn’t make things easier. In fact, puberty was very hard, and I continued to see how stressed and hurting my child was. Kate quit using the bathroom at school. They began to bind their breasts. We talked to doctors and therapists. No one had answers that fit. And some things that were suggested were really hurtful and off base.

What I know now and have come to understand and fully accept is that my child is transgender. My baby was “assigned female at birth” but how that child felt inside was masculine. In college Kate heard about the idea of the Gender Spectrum and it made sense for the very first time. Then Kate told us that the term transgender fit. Kate wanted to use the pronouns “they” and “them.’ My husband and I, and our other children, loved that Kate seemed more true to themselves.

Privately, I had a steep learning curve and heavy feelings of loss and guilt. I got support from a therapist who was familiar with the recent growing understanding of gender identity. I grieved that I no longer had a daughter and all kinds of unspoken expectations that came with that, while I tried to celebrate that they would be so much happier and healthier living their authentic life. I felt guilty that when our doctor and therapists had no answers that fit, I hadn’t pushed further and insisted that we find help for our very troubled teenager. I read a lot and gradually began telling folks that my family had changed.

Some people didn’t accept it. Some people didn’t want to hear anything about it. But a few people understood and made an effort to use Kate’s preferred pronouns. I’ve gotten more used to the explanation. When I meet new people I often say “I have three sons” rather than explaining in depth. Or I talk about “my three kids” since even using gendered titles now seems kind of unnecessary. Does it really matter that people know the gender of my grown children? Do I get more or less “credit” or “sympathy” for having sons or daughters? It seems outdated to me now.

Today Kate feels that the term “non-binary” fits them better. If we think of gender as a binary system, that is, there are only two genders, female and male, then Kate feels that neither of those labels really describes them just right. So Kate has decided to stay with their given name rather than change it to something that sounds more masculine. Kate wears only male clothing since that is how they are most comfortable. Plastic surgery to create a male chest has been a necessity for Kate’s feelings of ease in their body. I was honored and validated in my parenting when Kate asked me to be the one to care for them in the week of their top surgery.

All of this is a lot to wrap your brain around. If this is new to you, please consider doing some additional reading. There is a good chance that we may meet parents who have very complex and painful feelings around their breasts/chests and their gender identity. If someone asks you to use different pronouns with them, please try. You will likely miss saying it correctly sometimes, but try and keep trying. It becomes easier with practice.

Or you may find that your own child has feelings about their gender identity and wants to share that with you. Listen with compassion, seek support and educate yourself. There are many good resources. Some are listed below.

The one thing in my life that prepared me in any way for my child’s journey is my affiliation with La Leche League and its Communication Skills. I’m happy to have a strong bond today with my grown child. I asked Kate if it would be ok to write about my experience as their parent and Kate said, “Sounds great.”

Glossary

  • Cisgender: a person whose gender assigned at birth matches with how they feel socially, emotionally and physically.
  • Transgender: a person whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth.
  • Non-Binary: also called Genderqueer, gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine

Affirming Books

  • The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie A. Brill and Rachel Pepper
  • This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question and Answer Guide to Everyday Life by Danielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo
  • Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth
  • Where’s the Mother?: Stories from a Transgender Dad by Trevor MacDonald (Trevor is an LLL Leader living in Canada)

Please send your story ideas to Amy at nbeditor@lllusa.org.


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