Sunday, May 8, 2016

Other Ways to Be a Mom: Lessons for a Transgender Daughter


"When I was a child...
there was something in the water, 
now that something's in me...
 it's in my roots, in my veins, it's in my blood"

The River Lea
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Our mothers are often mysteries to us. For those of us lucky enough to have a mom who raised us with care and love, we may still know them best simply in the capacity of that care. We know our mothers as moms. Getting to see beyond the vocation of being our parent, especially when we are young, gives us glimpses at who our mothers are when otherwise we aren't looking. And these moments, when we step outside the role of mother and child, we are often called even deeper into the mystery that is motherhood. The door to their other worlds open and what we see enriches the world that we share with our parent because we better appreciate all that is beside, beyond, or behind how they mother us. 

For me, I got a chance to see into what my mom did and was when she wasn't being my mom during a period of time in the 5th grade when I was being taken out of school on a regular basis for safety reasons. It was at this time that the process of taking me away from my fellow girls and placing me in the company of boys was amping up. At school, as my schoolmates and me approached adolescence, parents of the other girls at school weren't arranging play dates with me much anymore. Instead, I found myself being introduced to the boys at school to find friendship and a common identity. I was increasingly being told, "you are a boy," which had all sorts of connotations including who I was and who I was supposed to play with. The problem was that I did not feel comfortable doing the things young boys do in the way many of them like to do it. I didn't feel an affinity for the boys or a belonging among them. It's hard to say whether I felt like I didn't belong because I really wanted to be with the girls or else because I was made to feel like I didn't belong by the boys. In any case, among these young men, I stuck out as different and so I became a target.

This may have been one reason (who ever knows the reasons) why I soon began to be bullied. I would be verbally mocked and used by other boys to show off their strength. I would be grabbed, shoved, and smacked as the young boys demonstrated to the other boys at school that they were strong and were not the bottom of the pack. I would come home with bruises on my arms and neck. I was asked why I didn't fight back and do the same to them. I said that I didn't want to be a part of competition. I wasn't going to gain acceptance by hurting others and I didn't want to be a part of a community (or norm of gender) that required this kind of initiation. The further problem was that the school system wasn't going to do anything about it, especially if they didn't catch it happening in the moment. The school said to my parents the same suggestion: your child should just fight back. In the end, with few options, my mother made the decision to keep me out of school on a regular basis. This was the circumstances that put me in the position of following along as my mother went to her job visiting children as a home healthcare nurse.


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What I saw my mother doing in her work taught me lessons about who she was as a woman and the kind of person I wanted to be. My mother is a registered nurse. She jokes that her job often feels like being a professional mom for strangers. In her job, she would go on daily drives to different houses and schools where children of all kinds needs depended on her for assistance. On these drives, I would sit in the back seat on a blanket and read or do homework. Sometimes as she went inside to offer healthcare to patients, I would stay in the car and continue to devour books. I most loved reading mystery books at this time. The authors and characters would keep me company while I was out of school and my mother worked. We would sit together during lunch time when I would tell her about what I read and she told me about work. She liked reading by didn't always have time to do as much as she wanted. She enjoyed finding out about books through me. In fact, years later, as I read for my job, she still calls me up (sometimes while having lunch) and ask me about what authors and characters I've made friends by reading.

During this time traveling with her on her job, I began to want to be more involved. If I was going to come along with her on her home visits, I wanted to see her do it and help if I could. And so, with permission, she started bringing me inside more and I got to see my mother being a nurse. When she arrived, my mother would change I.V.s, change bandages, or administer medicines. Sometimes I would ask what was going on in the bodies of the patients. Sometimes she would tell me what she was doing and why. But most often she would just introduce them and start chatting. She knew the medicine of what was going on and what needed to be done but that wasn't what was most important for me to know. Instead, she would insight conversations where I got to learn their names, how old they were, what they liked to do for fun. Other times I would just be silent and watch her world. I would listen to her listen, hear her sooth their anxieties, and answer questions they or their caretakers might have. 

What I was most struck by was how quiet she was. She would do her vocation as a nurse in that peaceful, silent way that made me recollect the Polish nuns in our community in obtrusively doing their devotions. I saw how she would hold the kids who couldn't hold up their own heads. The gentle way she would take their hands. And when there was conversation, especially when they were discussing the needs of the child, I recalled how quiet she was then too. In these dialogs, she would mostly listen. "It is their health," she would tell me. "I am there for them. They are in charge." And I saw how her silent but affirming presence made people feel. They would open up to her even though she was practically a stranger. She cared for them, not as a mother to a child but in another way. She made them feel like they were in this together. That she shared their hurt and frustration as well as their goals and excitement. And this is how I learned the real meaning of compassion: sharing our passions, the good and the bad. And from this a community grew out of compassion, shared hurts and hopes, rather than by blood or competition.


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By studying and waiting at my mother's side, I learned that there were other norms and other ways to do community. When raising children, mothers can exercise that special power of helping to define what is normal for the child. Other people can say  or do things that effect children but there is a quiet consistent world-making that a mother (mother-figure or other parent) uses to set what the day to day expectations are and how a child is trained to react when expectations are surprised. What my mother showed me by allowing me to see her as a nurse and not only as my parent was who our wider family and community could be. Our days were full of people who recognized the need for care and wanted us to be on their team.  It wasn't explicitly said but I silently learned through this new routine to identify alongside those with whom we spent our days. I saw myself among kids with chronic suffering, people who needed special ongoing care, and children with various disabilities who couldn't go to school with others their age. 

In a way, by taking me out of class to going along with her, my mother was caring for me as a parent but also in the way she cared for these other kids who couldn't find a place in the current education system. To us both, she gave the message that we weren't alone and that outside of the norms other people set we could form our own community of compassion. Together, queer, trans, and crip kids could sit with nurses, moms, and caretakers in a world of our own. My mother was showing me that these could and would always be my people if I ever stepped outside the usual routines of school. My mother showed me another way to respond to violence without reacting in violence. When an environment gets too harmful or dangerous, sometimes the best thing you can do (if you can) is leave. Outside the doors of the normal there was communities of care. My mother was showing me that there are and could be other ways of doing and being normal. This community and compassion was the normal she offered me. She offered it without preaching or lecturing or trying to put it in terms a child could grasp. She offered it to me because she had a power greater than words: she was my mother and by opening who she was to me, it was through her that I learned about the world and about myself.

Years later, I am now a mother myself and engaged to another mother who through compassion daily shares lessons and hurts and hopes and frustrations and excitement about motherhood with me. My community and family has grown to include two gifts, two children who I couldn't have planned or imagined and are better people because they are so radically themselves. And these children make me a better person, a better scholar, a better partner and a better mother because I get to parent them. All the while, especially on Mothers' Days like today, I am so grateful that I live in this world and in this community because my mother gave me the gift of herself that showed me that showing compassion can save us, that those we give care to can care for us in return, that the rejects of society have places where we are welcome and celebrated, that there are other ways of being normal. In so many ways, I am alive today because of my mother. And now I get the honor to follow in her footsteps as a woman, as a mother, and much more. I hope and strive that I can offer the same compassion to my children that they might share in the diversity of who I am so that together we all may venture further into the vocation and mystery of motherhood.


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