‘You are a boy, hunny,’ I would say to him gently. By age 4, he was flat out denying this could be true.’: Mom reflects on when her daughter ‘was born my son’

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“When my daughter was born I did not get to pick out a feminine name for her. I did not get to wrap her in pink and purple blankets and put bows in her small growing pig tails. I didn’t get to have her christened in the beautiful dress my godmother made for me to wear on my christening day. I missed out on all of this because she wasn’t born my daughter, she was born as my son.

When the ultrasound tech told us we were having another boy I was filled with emotion. I was mostly happy I had another healthy baby growing inside me. I knew the many advantages of same gender siblings as I grew up with two sisters and we were as close as siblings can be. I remember thinking, ok best friends they will be. I let go of the ‘one of each’ American dream. I quickly turned my focus to the idea of dump trucks, soccer balls, pockets full of rocks and little Q-ball heads shaved down to skin in summer. Boys were easier anyway I had heard, and so my vision for the future began.

Baby boy lying on his stomach in navy shirt and khakis
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

We knew early on Matthew was different from our first son. He didn’t play with toys the same, or get excited about the same type of things. Matty always wanted things that were pink and items that sparkled. He loved his cousin’s headbands and dress up clothes. As young as 3, Matthew was constantly asking to watch Disney princess movies. At the time I did not get caught up or worried about gender norms. ‘Kids are kids,’ I thought, and I knew he had no idea what society expected of him as a boy, nor did I really care. I loved my feminine, eccentric son… the problem was, the older he got, the more he did not love himself. He was always angry with an explosive personality beyond that of a normal toddler. He would flip chairs and tables at preschool and be quick to drop to the floor screaming when things didn’t go his way. He was clearly misunderstood, but to what degree I had no idea.

Little boy who wants to be a girl lying on hhis side on couch with head on pillow
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

Around age three and a half was the first time Matthew asked when his penis was going to fall off. It was when he started saying things like, ‘When I grow up and I am a girl…’ My husband and I would correct him and often, he would be sad with the reality. ‘You are a boy, hunny,’ I would say to him gently. By the age of four he was flat out denying this could be true. I walked this extremely fine and volatile line between what made Matty happy and what my family and society expected of me. Things were getting worse by the day for Matty. The anger was growing larger and deeper and felt like it was consuming Matthew and everyone around him into this dark hole. My husband and I, at an attempt to meet Matthew halfway, allowed him to start wearing the dresses he kept begging for at home. We were hoping this would validate some of his feelings and allow him to let some of that deep-rooted anger go.

Little boy who wants to be a girl wearing a princess dress
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

All the while I worried about what the world would think. Was this actually going to make Matty feel worse about himself? Will he feel like we are hiding what feels right and organic to him? Will he feel like we are essentially hiding him from the world by only allowing this at home? If the answers to these questions were yes, was I really ready (and strong enough) to let him parade around head to toe in accessories and pink sparkled everything in public? I laid awake at night and asked myself questions like… ‘How could my 4-year-old know what was best? He thought it was a brilliant idea to have spaghetti for breakfast and run into oncoming traffic because his ball rolled away. He didn’t yet understand the world, how could he understand himself? Aren’t I supposed to parent my kids? Give them boundaries? Set limits?’ Trust me these expectations played over in my head like a broken record for months. When talking to people I heard things like, ‘Well if my child said she was a cat, I wouldn’t feed her out of a dish on the floor and put a collar on her. You shouldn’t entertain Matty thinking he’s female.’ Someone offered to pay Matty $5 to ‘lose the pink shirt.’ It was hard… and we did have some people supporting us, but no one was celebrating this child, not even me. I was sad, confused and angry. With each passing day I was grieving the dreams I had for my two boys. I had envisioned them growing up playing on the same sports teams. I had to let go of the image of these two rugged boys sitting at my kitchen table eating through everything in my refrigerator. I had to grieve while also being an advocate for my 4-year-old. Saying things to people I didn’t even sometimes believe myself.

Little boy who wants to be a girl wearing princess dress and red headband with bow
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

When we finally made an appointment with the gender unit at Boston Children’s Hospital and had a therapist in place, I was ready to face what was next. It was when the doctor slid across the table to my husband and me a sheet of statistics. I remember hearing the words she spoke as if she was 100 miles away echoing each sound as it made its way to me. 1 in 2 kids are at a risk of committing or attempting suicide if not supported with their gender nonconformity. I vividly remember my husband turning to me and saying it felt like a death sentence for our son if we kept on like this.

I never stopped loving my child. I did carry with me a guilt for wondering if Matty was doing all of this for attention. I wondered if he liked when people noticed him in his buzz cut, soccer shirt and Nike sneakers with a tiara and arm of bracelets. I questioned if there was a draw to everyone making a big deal about the boy who loved to dress up. I questioned if he just liked being quirky and different. I also wondered if he ever sensed me doubting him… if I was a bad mother for wondering if my child was being genuine. I woke up each passing day as I struggled to understand, and I told my baby I loved him just how he was… and even with all the doubt and questions, I meant it. My love for him and desire to understand him rose above it all. Matty made me realize that I didn’t have children so they can be what I expected or hoped they would be. I had children to nurture, love and support the people they chose to become.

Little boy who wants to be a girl sitting in classroom wearing birthday crown and cake in front of him
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

Matthew became Madison one February day only months before she started kindergarten. We never told her classmates about the change. The classroom teachers and administrators at Maddie’s preschool changed pronouns and the kids all eventually followed suit. Some kids asked questions and the teachers simply stated, ‘In Maddie’s heart and brain she is a girl.’

Little boy who became girl sits on couch with older and younger brother
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo
Little boy who is now a girl sits on ground outside with older and younger brother
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

At dance class her first week in a leotard (versus her typical boy uniform she had been wearing for years) she headed into class equal parts nervous and excited. As we entered the waiting room a little girl in Maddie’s class gasped… I thought, ‘My God, here we go.’ The little dancer proceeded to tell Maddie for a solid 3 minutes how much she loved her boots… her boots! No one in class worried about what she was wearing… she was just Maddie to them.

Little boy who became a girl smiling in black and white polka dot dress and boots
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

Kids have proven to be far more resilient than adults. Our rigid expectations around gender are being shattered by the upcoming generations. Maddie is lucky to be growing up in the world today and not a world years ago when it seemed no one made space for kids that felt like this.

Maddie is 7 years old now. She is not explosive, she doesn’t not throw chairs in her classroom or act angry and misunderstood. In fact, her teachers describe her as sassy, caring, passionate and… Happy. It’s hard for me as a parent to think about the hate my daughter will receive regardless of how progressive we are becoming as a society. It is hard to think about the struggles she will face and the path that won’t be easy to walk. But I know I am giving her the pride and strength to stand up and walk it as her true authentic self… and for that we are both holding our heads high.

Little boy who became a girl on stage for dance recital
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo
Little boy who is now girl in leotard and skirt doing a ballet pose
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

I recently wrote a children’s book that tells our story. It is written with a children’s audience in mind. I believe it is a good tool for kids to understand gender non-conformity and unconditional love. I want to share my feelings and talk about my struggles around trying to accept my daughter. I want parents who are also struggling to understand their children, to feel my vulnerability and to send the message to never stop trying to understand, love and accept your kids. I spent months researching online and looking for support. I spent so much time being overwhelmed and sad. I was grieving the life I had imagined for my child and family, and came to learn later on that was a normal feeling many parents in my situation feel. This subject is real and relevant in today’s world. I want to give back with my experience in hopes that others will find knowledge, comfort and direction with my story and experience.”

Little boy who is now a girl stands smiling with mother, father, and her two brothers
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo
Close up of little boy is who is now a girl smiling
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo
Little boy who is now a girl posing with hands rested on her cheek in dance recital costume
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Adrienne Anzelmo of Massachusetts. Her book about her family’s journey with Maddie is called “No Matter What.”  Do you have a child who is transitioning? We’d like to hear your journey. Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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