“Can you stop using my dead name?”
This request from my daughter came as a bit of a shock. She’d already started using a nickname instead of her actual one, but her view of the beautiful name my husband and I spent months deciding on after having rejected dozens of other choices as being offensive to her ears was a little painful.
Before you argue that not being your authentic self and hearing a name you can’t relate to anymore is more painful, stop. This isn’t going to be about accepting my kid, which I do without hesitation… this is about a parent trying to adjust, especially when the kid in question is 14 and changes their mind constantly about who they are and who they want to be.
And to be honest, I’d expect nothing less from a 14-year-old. It’s a great time to be questioning and experimenting, which is exactly why I don’t take it as a permanent change (but still treat it with respect).
Both of my kids, at one point or another, came to me with questions about being gay or bisexual, confused by the feelings they were having. Both kids knew there would be no stigma in our family; we have plenty of gay relatives (nearest and dearest, we’re not talking distant cousins here) and don’t consider it to be an issue, let alone a problem.
I told them that there’s no reason they have to decide now, unless they felt strongly about it, and my oldest was happy with that. My daughter decided she was bi, then gay, and is now back to bi. I’m happy for her … being bisexual just gives you more options, which sounds pretty good to me.
But my daughter spends a lot of time on TikTok, and she loves a good label. When I was a teenager, the very last thing we wanted was to be labeled or put into a group: We were individuals!
This generation, or at least the members of it in my daughter’s circle, they all want to be called something, put into a group with shared characteristics. Some grumpy adults tell me it’s because they want to be victims; I think maybe it’s just that they want a simple explanation for the confusion and angst they feel, which in my book is pretty normal for that age.
Anyway, a few months after the “I’m gay” announcement (and the subsequent arrival of various flags and T-shirts), we got something new: “I’m non-binary.”
I tried to get to the heart of it. What was she feeling? It wasn’t something she could explain in a way I could really absorb. She asked me to use “they/them” pronouns, and I mentioned that her father and brother might not be terribly sensitive about it. She informed me she’d already talked to her brother, and he had zero issues, having also agreed to use the nickname she’d—they’d—asked for.
I switched to the nickname easily enough, as it was a familiar one from childhood, but the pronoun thing was hard to accept. This is my daughter! My girl! My… non-binary offspring? Really?
The truth is, it didn’t matter what I thought. I was out with my son one day and he had a heart-to-heart with me about accepting the new pronouns. His point: It didn’t matter whether this was a temporary change or a permanent one.
It’s hard to feel accepted when you’re a teenager, and if this could make it easier, why not do it? And if it WAS going to be permanent, we’d better start getting used to it. His logic was sound and compassionate. I agreed.
I then had that same discussion with my husband. We’re working on the pronouns (and our kid is forgiving about it when we mess up), sometimes going through twisty verbal gymnastics to avoid pronouns altogether. But neither one of us can bear to hear that beautiful name we chose so carefully called a “dead name” and treated as something reviled. “Can you not call it your dead name?” I asked. The answer was a definitive no.
There’s more. My kid has also claimed to have various psychiatric disorders they heard about on social media or from their online friends (all of whom seem to have one syndrome or another).
They have a therapist now to help them sort through… well, everything… and I’m hoping that will end the self-diagnosis without the perceived parental judgment. (Truth be told, I have none: My mother was a therapist and I think everyone benefits from it; I know I did.) And when I gently suggest that some of the feelings they have are actually normal, and that turmoil is part of life, they think I don’t get it. I DO get it, my child; I had a shitty time too.
At their request, I told the extended family. They’re not the first with the request. Then I called the school and asked their guidance counselor to adjust my kid’s name and pronouns, and he was lovely about it; this is 2021 and it was one of many such requests. Great. Non-binary child, new name, they/them: We were all set.
And then the next thing I heard, it WAS okay to refer to my kid as a “girl” again, and while they prefer they/them, she/her is also acceptable. Sometimes.
So now I don’t know where we net out. I don’t want to be that parent who dismisses her kids’ deepest emotions as whims, but I also have a healthy dose of skepticism about any major decision made by a 14-year-old.
Wherever they net out, I’ll be there, but it’s an awfully bumpy journey, and I confess that despite my open-mindedness and my desire to go along with whatever they choose, leaving that name behind is a bitter pill to swallow. I had a daughter. Whatever gender this teenager wants to be, I will love them unconditionally. But the accoutrements that go with such things aren’t getting any easier.
Still resistant to labels or following the crowd, I don’t fit into the prevailing parental categories. I don’t think I should treat this as a permanent future, nor do I think it should be dismissed. My only goal is to make sure my kid feels loved and accepted at every turn, and save my doubts and theories for conversations without them. I’m allowed to have feelings about this too, you know.