Jey had been living as an out gay woman for ten years prior to her second “big announcement.” She came out to me as a lesbian in her sophomore year of high school. It was Mother’s Day and she said, “I want to take you out for breakfast. I thought we could talk.” Ninety-nine percent of me knew what this conversation was going to be about and I was kind of relieved that the issue would now be in the open—and that she trusted me enough to tell me.
On the other hand, even though half our friends at the time were gay, there was this tremendous fear I had. I had had an ugly and scary adolescence. I had very difficult parents who made my life pretty miserable and were extremely controlling. I had to work hard to gain a sense of self-esteem, had very few friends, and didn’t start dating until late. When Jey came out as a lesbian, I thought, she’s going to have to go through the same things but it’s going to be even more difficult for her. I was just uncomfortable with myself, but she’s going to have to deal with the discomfort of everyone else.
I didn’t know the half of it.
GENDER REASSIGNMENT SURGERY
My daughter had always made good decisions. She was never into drugs or alcohol. She became a vegetarian at twelve. In many ways, she’d always been conventional and responsible. And she had always had incredibly good relationships. When she came to me in 2001 and told me she intended to have gender reassignment surgery, I couldn’t write it off as a bad decision. Still, I wondered if it was a phase—like her commitments to music and karate had proven to be.
This was my only child. My beautiful little girl. She was gorgeous as a girl. (He’s now an adorable boy.) I suffered from intense loss, anger, and confusion at first.
It was four weeks between the time she told the news to me and my husband and when she went through with the surgery. There was no time to say anything about it. Jey was working through her own stuff and I think she knew that if she talked with us too much about it, it might shake her resolve to do it. That was the hardest part. To know your child is out there in pain, going through something difficult, and there’s nothing you can do to help.
WE WENT TO THERAPY TOGETHER
My husband and I really talked about nothing else for a long time after the news. There were conversations every day—any time we could find a way to rethink or re-approach the situation. I insisted that we go to therapy together, to break through that wall. Jey joined us when he was physically and psychologically ready—about two months later.
It took a year of intense therapy to understand that my perceptions of right and wrong, true and false, aren’t necessarily my child’s—and that that is okay. I had to separate myself from him and not blame myself. You can’t only love your children when they go along with what you think is right.
CHANGING MY PERCEPTIONS
As a family, we didn’t exactly come to acceptance simultaneously, in sync with one another; but it has been getting progressively better.
As parents, we went through what a lot of psychologists call a period of mourning. Your reality has to undergo a transition and you have to let go of the things that you thought you had and find your way toward the things that you have in reality.
I thought the reality of having a lesbian daughter was this: I wasn’t going to see my daughter get married and she would never have children. (In those days, gay marriage wasn’t even on the horizon, and gay parenting was not an accepted option.) As a man, Jey is currently married to an amazing woman whom I love dearly. She couldn’t be better and they have a lovely daughter together. These are unexpected gifts in my life that I never would have seen coming.
Open-minded or not, it’s very, very hard to accept your child’s decisions when they differ from what you’d want for them. For instance, when Jey was growing up, I expected a certain intellectual rigor and interest in things. Very honestly, I was disappointed that she really, really hated school. And books. And reading.
My husband is a journalist and I’m a teacher, so naturally we hoped our child would enjoy these things as we did. It’s funny but once Jey really became who he was meant to be, physically and emotionally; he actually began to love these things. Today he is a voracious reader, knows more about politics, current events, and the economy than me, and is interested in learning all the time.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF MOM
But I had made a conscious decision as far back as high school to be a different type of mother than my mom was. I read Betty Friedan and decided I wouldn’t do what my mother had done. She had lived her life through me and whatever I gave back to her was the determining factor of her happiness or unhappiness. A Holocaust survivor, her life was so horrible that she invested in me everything that had been missing for her. While she loved me and protected me unequivocally, and gave me everything that she could possibly give, she also put a whole bunch of burdens on me. The fact that my mother had nothing else to hinge her identity on except her motherhood was a big problem that created a lot of pressure for both of us.
So, when I had my own child, I made a commitment that I’d let my kid be whatever he or she wanted to be and I would just accept it. Now I know: we can tell ourselves that intellectually, but it doesn’t really happen like that. Whether it’s because we’re disappointed that we don’t get what we expected, or we have this inbred DNA, we are plagued with certain expectations we can’t shake.
WHAT I REALLY WANTED
It’s challenging to come to the point where you can say, “What I wanted isn’t really what’s important. What’s important is that he’s happy and safe and content with his life.” I know now that ultimately, his choices are not a reflection of my worth.
I had to ask myself what it was that I really wanted. What I wanted, more than anything, was for my child to be in my life. Was this struggle to accept Jey’s decision to change gender worth losing that? I guess I finally realized that any moment lost to misunderstanding or discord between us would be a huge loss for everyone.
There is an essence of motherhood that experiences a joy in what you gave birth to—that appreciates the special “good” and “uniqueness” of your child. That’s what I came to understand, and it transcends gender, expectations, and everything else.
“Terry Born” excerpted from Momma Love; How the Mother Half Lives. Photo at top of Terry Born and grandchild, Lusa. All photos ©Ali Smith from the book Momma Love.
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ALI SMITH has lived many lives: as a ballet dancer, a touring rock musician, and a photographer whose work is concerned with the quality of the lives of women. She has been profiled on the Oxygen Network, interviewed on television and radio, and featured in magazines, newspapers and galleries internationally. Ali lives with her photojournalist husband and their son in New York City. Momma Love is her second book. Check out her photography at Ali Smith Photography and on her blog.