In my twenties, in graduate school, I thought a lot about my daughter. She didn’t exist yet, but when you’re studying fiction for a living, this doesn’t matter as much. I had long observed that being a girl in the world was tricky, but in graduate school for the first time I started to look critically at why and to consider what might be done about it. I started keeping a list of what a girl starting from scratch, my someday infant daughter, would need to know to help navigate and advocate from the get-go. They were things like this:
Being a girl is hard but awesome.
Girls are strong, smart, talented, and capable. You can do anything you want. Worlds sit at your doorstep. Adventure is your birthright. There are no paths barred to you just because you’re not a boy.
You are beautiful. Your body, your face, your hair, your skin: beautiful.
So is everyone else. Variations of shape, shade, size, texture? All beautiful.
It’s not your outside that counts anyway. It’s your intelligence, kindness, generosity, curiosity. It’s your strength, your willingness to fight, your insistence on standing up when standing up is what is called for.
I figured that about covered it. Probably more would come up, but that seemed like a good introductory document as far as imaginary daughters went. I was getting a head start after all. But you know what Robert Burns had to say about the best laid plans of mice, men, and graduate students. Years later when the time came, I had a boy instead.
The list is different for a son. He didn’t need me to tell him any of those things. The whole world was telling him he was awesome. The whole world thought he was beautiful, no matter his shape or size. He never imagined there would be things he couldn’t do just because he was male. And he was right. So I went ahead and worried about all the other, non gender-specific things parents worry about. Look both ways before you cross the street. Don’t swallow marbles or really anything you find on the floor of the playroom. The dog is not a ride-on toy. This sort of thing.
But another thing I was wrong about, another difference between imagined children and the real kind, is I had this notion that they were relatively static. The plans I made for my daughter seemed to me at the time to be for all time because I was imagining a daughter fixed in time. But that is not the way either time or children work. Which is why even after things didn’t go as planned, they didn’t go as planned. It is not surprising that the life I concocted at 23 for a not yet extant human did not turn out to apply. But the plot twists that came later were the ones I never saw coming.
One surprising thing that happened, slowly—another thing you don’t realize in your twenties: that sometimes plot twists happen unhurriedly while you’re not paying attention over the course of months and years rather than suddenly with the crashing of cymbals on penultimate pages—was that my son switched from shorts to skirts. He grew out his hair. He changed his name and pronouns. He became she instead. Another surprising thing that happened—also, probably, slowly—was Donald Trump became president of the country in which I was trying to raise my now-daughter, a small transgender human for whom my list seemed woefully and increasingly and heartbreakingly inadequate. My daughter-list was not designed for this sort of daughter. It was not designed for this sort of country. The game was much harder, far more rigged against us, than I’d even feared. We were gonna need a bigger list.
And so we undertook great change. To the topics I was used to addressing with my kid over breakfast—the advantages of remembering to bring home both gloves, the reasons coffee and cursing are allowed for adults but not for children, red or green grapes: discuss—we added gender issues and transgender issues. These are front and center for her, in the first place because they impact her life day to day, because they demand some decision-making and problem solving, but also because they feature prominently in her emerging sense of her own identity. That is, they are exciting, and she is nine and therefore naturally self-involved. But we talk about these, her issues, while also talking about race, immigration, refugees, class inequities, also her issues, and how all those frameworks overlap and fit together and fail to fit together.
I didn’t study intersectionality until graduate school, and I’d have guessed at the time that nine was too young to do identity politics over breakfast, but when my plans changed, so did my age restrictions. I stopped telling my daughter she was too young to read The Diary of Anne Frank. I took her to see The Breadwinner even though it is scary and upsetting and rated PG-13. The world is scary and upsetting, and it makes less sense to me than it did in the planning stages to try to protect her from that fact by hoping she doesn’t notice. She noticed.
In other ways, the change was much more simple, much more predictable. It was me. I am no longer a childless graduate student in my twenties. I am now a mother in my forties. The fierceness that comes with motherhood is beyond imagining from the other side. My point to my child was no longer be who you are. It was more like be who you are, and I will use my teeth to rip the face off anyone who stands in your way.
So it’s less that the list still applies and more that via hard fought, relentlessly fought, tooth-and-nail every day clawed-out persistence, I’ve insisted on it. No matter who’s in the White House. No matter what’s between her legs. When I tell her her body is beautiful just as it is, it means more than it used to, than it would for other girls. I don’t know what you will look like when you grow up, I now admit to her; for her, this question is both fraught and complicated, but this is also true for all parents of all nine-year-olds. Will you be taller than most of your girlfriends? Will your jaw and your eyebrows look different than theirs? Your shoulders and chest? Your legs and your belly? I don’t know. What I do know is this: Some of your girlfriends will be tall and some short. Some will be fat and some skinny. Some will have frizzy hair and some will have thick eyebrows and some will have giant breasts and some will have tiny ones. All will feel awkward about it. All will be beautiful. You will look different in some ways and the same in others. You will feel awkward about it. You will be beautiful.
And that’s just her outside. It has more layers than I predicted and still does not lay bare what matters most about her. What matters most about her, and matters more than ever, is the intelligence, kindness, generosity, and curiosity I promised in the first place, her strength and her willingness to fight. She has had to stand up earlier than I ever imagined she would and doing so has been made harder even in her short lifetime, but she has done it anyway. If bigotry and hatred have gotten louder of late, if they’ve been condoned, handed down, and indeed legislated by the highest condoning, handing down, and legislating bodies in the land, we must note that we are not alone, that in fact we are legion, that we stand taller, that we do so on the side of goodness and rightness.
Or maybe it is just as simple as this: Being a transgirl is being a girl. So it is also hard, and it is also awesome.
Graduate school in my twenties wasn’t trying to teach me how to parent, and it wasn’t trying to teach me how to survive in times of political darkness, but the list I made there and then serves pretty well, in spite of the unexpected and unimagined. Feminist theory and cultural theory and gender theory and queer theory and race theory and, hell, literary theory turn out to be surprisingly good real-life theory. And there’s also this, which even my ever-changing nine-year-old knows: Very little goes as expected, but seldom is that a disaster. Very little stays the same, but we are built to weather change. You cannot keep us down if we will not stay down, and we will not. We guess wrong about so much, but in the end, comparatively speaking, we’re not so wrong after all.