How can I give her relationship advice?
Being a parent isn’t easy, especially when your children struggle. Some struggles are organic — they’re born with a physical disfigurement or mental illness. Others are self-imposed, like making impulsive choices or behaviors. Regardless of where the challenges originate, watching them unfold is painful.
This week marks the third anniversary of my child’s announcement that she is a girl. She lived her first 13 years as a boy. That pronouncement brought with it a host of challenges for both of us. I confess that I’m still wading through and trying to understand most of them. It comes down to an understanding that my child has both organic and self-imposed struggles as we all do, and it’s my job to love her and help her navigate those waters.
My daughter is now 16, that sweet age filled with the torment of discovering who she is in the context of how others perceive her. We all want to be accepted and to be loved. The trick is figuring out how to do that. Do you know? I don’t know. And yet, my daughter looks to me for guidance.
When your child doesn’t fit the norm
My heart broke when she asked, “Who could love a girl with a penis?”
My immediate response was to quote the late Kenny Rogers lyric: there’s someone for everyone. With over 7 billion people on this planet, there will be those who like what she has, but more importantly, appreciate who she is. The trick is finding them. The second trick is not succumbing to the pressures of those around her and the media.
I wanted to approach this question with grace, but I’m not sure a quadruple divorcee has the credibility. I came of age in the ’80s when women were offered unprecedented opportunities in education and employment but still faced daunting misogynistic sexual harassment.
We could often never measure up. We weren’t smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, blonde enough. We just weren’t enough. We bumped our heads on glass ceilings. We tried to fit in and lost ourselves in the process. I admit, my decision to join the US Marine Corps probably skewed my perspective.
I didn’t want my daughter to fall into the same trap of feeling the need to be someone else’s definition of “more” to feel adequate or to appreciate herself in her wholeness. There was an essential relationship she needed to cultivate first in order to find love eventually.
Cultivate the most important relationship first
“You will find people who will love you, all of you, exactly how you are,” I told her, brushing her long, golden hair. “But they can’t love you if you don’t love yourself first.”
When we think about those people we find attractive, and I mean not just surface attraction, but a deep connection and interest, they aren’t always what Ed Sheeran calls “beautiful people.” They have that je ne sais quoi, that “it” factor. How do we define it? I believe it’s an interest and engagement in life. The charisma they exude is from their comfort in their skins, confidence in their purpose, and their enthusiasm for life. They are interesting and interested.
The plain woman who lights up a room with her smile and laughter is much more attractive than the stunning model posing with her wine glass as if expecting the pop of camera flashes. The unremarkable man listening intently and participating in a lively discussion with his date, to the exclusion of his phone or others in the room, is the most handsome man in the world to his partner. I would love to see the media redefine beauty to fit these parameters.
The point I want her to understand is she needs to love herself. By being interested in herself and her own life, she becomes attractive to others, and her body parts become less significant. She is doubly-blessed to live in today’s world. Not only is she physically stunning, but her generation is much more relaxed about gender and sexuality than mine is.
In the ’80s, the gender binary was real, and anything else was an outlier. Today, I struggle to wrap my 50-something mind around the concept of gender being more social construct than a personal identifier. Regardless of genitalia, much of today’s youth embrace individual perception and presentation. I have to relax and remind myself of this. My generation won’t be around forever, causing my daughter distress for existing outside the few gender boxes we comprehend.
It was a horrible moment when I realized that many of my daughter’s struggles to define herself and to find love were imposed by me and my limiting beliefs. Her journey isn’t my journey. She won’t face the same social criticisms I did that shaped my perceptions of the world.
My child has a choice now to seek the tribe that gets her and that understands her. They are a tribe who will allow her to express herself in whatever manner she wants to fully. I hope that when she runs into those folks who don’t appreciate her, she dares to walk away. I think she will.
My daughter has a keen intelligence and drive to understand that could change the world. She also has the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard. When she can shed the cloak of insecurities that dims her personality, she will illuminate the world. Those she meets will see, as I hope she does, the magnificent soul currently inhabiting the body with a penis, which is ultimately irrelevant.
I’m proud of my genderqueer child, and our individual journeys of self-discovery. I wouldn’t have understood this new reality without the gift of her in my life. My parting advice to her was simple.
“Just don’t be an asshole, and people can’t help but love you.”