When my mother died I wasn’t sure how I felt. Yes, grief was there. And also, for someone who is usually able to speak coherently and defuse emotional situations with a quip or well-turned phrase, I found myself totally speechless. Even more—trying to open my mouth to talk about it, to talk about how I felt, just resulted in a total shut down, like I couldn’t breathe.
Unsurprisingly, I declined to speak at the funeral, knowing that I would not be able to get past a sentence or two, and not wanting to subject people to that. When I sat in the pews and listened to my siblings and her friends and their elegant words, I was able to process it all, except when my cousins, sitting on either side of me, touched me. A pat on the back, a squeeze of the arm, and each time the waterworks came on.
This was something that I had not experience before, to be so out of control of my own emotions.
The irony was that my mother and I mainly fought. That was the essence of our relationship since I was little. She picked at me, and I resisted. It was incessant. How and why this was the essence of our relationship is another story. Or many.
She wanted a daughter. I was not a daughter. I was a son. Was I dysphoric before I knew that? I am pretty sure I was, and modern medicine is showing that trans children were subject to a different cocktail of hormones in the womb, much of it induced by stress in the mother. So, not your fault, mom. Stress was certainly going on in my pre- and post-birth household.
But I also grew up with constant reminders of her disappointment that I was not the daughter she needed to help her cope with her own grief and broken relationships. She told me all the time how she wished I was a girl, and for years she dressed me like one, until first grade. My hair stayed long, for years after, and the comments never stopped. As if she wanted to say, ‘if you were a girl, everything would be easier.’
But when she found out that I owned girl’s clothes of my own , when I was in my early teens, she was far from happy about it. “I don’t want you to be a fag,” is what she said. Sorry everyone for the use of that word. “I’m not,” I told her, and in truth have always been relentlessly oriented towards all things female, both for myself but also for my desires. Being gay, however, seems somehow easier and more acceptable than being trans…
A lesbian woman gave me a great gift recently in telling me that many lesbians can’t decide if they want to be “her” (ie the woman they are attracted to) or want to sleep with her. That’s always been my problem. It was nice to hear that lot’s of people feel that way. I guess that men are supposed to want to “possess” a woman, to conquer her. I just want to lie down next to her and cuddle and make out.
But the fundamental dynamic in my relationship with my mother, as it probably is with any parent, was a desire for her approval. Because she wanted a girl, and I wasn’t one, and that’s pretty fundamental, I must have felt I would never get her approval. And because gender identity is very close to how we define what we really are, that kind of stuck in my unconscious craw. To know later that she was “disgusted” by my gender identity didn’t help.
I guess I sought her approval in other ways, and sometimes I got it, and sometimes not. Lurking underneath it all was this chasm of disappointment, but I think I never stopped trying.
So why did I cry so much when she died? Because no matter what, a mother’s approval is the most cherished thing, even when you can’t have it. I could always keep trying as long as she was alive. But now that she’s dead, who can I try for?