By Melissa Brand
Before S., there were three miscarriages. Zoe, Oscar and Lucy. Lucy made it the farthest, just to the cusp of the second trimester. I heard her heartbeat a week before it stopped. We’re going to give you a fresh start, the doctor said just before I drifted off and he performed a D&C. After that, I didn’t think I could try again. Part of me thought it was cruel to conceive over and over when they kept dying inside me.
But I longed for a child more than anything. More than I longed to live. I went to my miscarriage group and listened to stories more heartbreaking than my own. I journaled. I lit purple candles and wrote online tributes. I sobbed, held between the arms of an overstuffed chair, until I could bear to try again.
Once I was pregnant (for the fourth time) long enough to be hopeful, this is what I dreamed:
Having just seen the dinosaurs, the two of us are having lunch in the basement cafeteria of The Museum of Natural Sciences, sitting at a round formica table. I packed us wholesome sandwiches on sprouted grain bread with fruit for dessert. I can see his hands wrapped around the sandwich, his legs, which swing with joy beneath the table, but not his face. I will not allow myself a face, not even in a dream.
I dreamed the baby might be a he, because I thought I would do better with a he. When I was a child I wore Toughskins. Dolls creeped me out. I had a rock collection and played with yellow metal Tonka trucks in a pile of sand. I told my friend Christine that I wanted all the boy toys in the world. That I could push nails into wood with my bare hands.
This is story I told myself: I did not know how to be a girl. I would not know how to raise a girl.
I rented a heart monitor. I rationed the moments when I would listen to the sound of the baby’s heart, like tiny galloping horses inside me. When I heard that reassuring sound, I only allowed myself a thin beam of hope.
At 37, I was a geriatric primipara. We went for genetic counseling. I was told I could have an amniocentesis, if I wanted, to rule out any chromosomal abnormalities. There was a 1% chance of miscarriage. No way, I said.
At my 20-week ultrasound, I nearly swooned at the sight of the baby’s glowing bones.
I told the technician I didn’t want to know the baby’s sex. I didn’t care. Any baby would be a blessing.
The baby I gave birth to at 40 weeks and two days had a vulva. It’s a girl! the nurse told me as she set her on my breast. She rooted and suckled and did what a baby instinctively does. Any baby. My baby.
We only had a boy name at the ready—Holden. There was a girl name that we loved, but so many of our friends had already used the name, we were afraid of her being one of many. But when we saw her, we knew we had to call her S.
S. watched the world with her large gray eyes. A sociophile, she wanted to know everyone. As I pushed her stroller down the street, she pointed at people and demanded, Name! At two, she donned a yellow Belle dress, a choker of pearls and wore them daily. She grew her hair down to the small of her back. She played with dolls. She had little interest in her cars and balls and blocks.
But in ballet, she hopped like a kangaroo while all the others were sashaying. At home, S. shimmied up the doorframes naked. I showed her the sea, and she drank it. At five she took off the Belle gown and renounced dresses altogether. S. wore whimsical combinations of whatever struck her fancy. Striped shirt, striped pants, striped shoes. Motorcycle boots and a fedora. In school, when they had to dress as centenarians, S. transformed herself into a little old man. Parenting, I came to realize, was not about raising a boy or a girl, but a process of learning who your child is and then clearing the path for them to be themselves.
Entering middle school, S. cut off all that hair and donated it to Wigs for Kids. She joined the Gay-Straight Alliance, though as an ally or for herself I wasn’t sure. Then, over dinner one night, when it was just the two of us, her leg bouncing under the table, she told me she was pan and non-binary. What’s pan, I asked?
I love people regardless of their gender, S. told me. Gender is just a social construct. I’m not a boy or a girl.
Call me they, she said.
I stumbled over the they. It felt clunky in my mouth. Unfamiliar and grammatically strange. I bought them a pride flag to decorate their room and a binder to compress their chest. I called the principal and asked her to please have the teachers use S.’s preferred pronouns. Please call them by an androgenized version of their name.
Please make sure they are safe.
Gradually, unconsciously, I began to refer to everyone as they. While checking out our books, the town librarian, who had known S. for years, said, I didn’t know you had a son! Unsure how to navigate the assumptions of others, as I was still shedding my own, I said simply, I don’t, this is S.
I wondered in therapy, am I sad about this? What did it mean for me to be a girl? To have a girl? To no longer have a girl? I had no earthly idea. I did not feel sad. Well, maybe I did a little, when I looked at the pictures of S. when they were young, their long hair blowing across their face. But it was more of a nostalgia for all things that have passed and cannot be recaptured. Their babyhood. The sweetness of their hand in mine. Reading storybooks together side-by-side, under the covers.
At 13, their hair is still shorter; their clothes are baggier. They are taller than me and growing. But S. has not changed at the core. They are still the ebullient human being I had waited so long for. They are my golden egg. The one who survived. My child. I haven’t lost anything, there is nothing to mourn, just a construct that I never fully understood myself. They are who they always were.
Melissa Brand (she/her) is writer and psychologist in Philadelphia and is passionate about supporting parents and providing services for kids who are neurodiverse, have experienced trauma, or are struggling to cope. When not engaged in telehealth or working on a memoir in her attic, she can be found in the kitchen, having dance-offs and playing theater games with her teen “enby.”
For families looking for support/more information related to gender, visit https://www.genderspectrum.org/.
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