An Open Letter to my Mother on Mother's Day

Subject: An Open Letter to my Mother on Mother's Day
From: Kat
Date: 2 Jun 2015

Mom, I know you read my work, so I'm writing you this letter here to say many things I have said before, but probably not all at once, and perhaps a few I have never said. It all basically boils down to this: you were, and are, a good mother, and although I am not what you expected, you didn't let that stop you. I think sometimes you have trouble believing that.

You were born and grew up in a different time, in a different world. The world of the last fifteen years must seem very strange and very complicated to someone raised as a little girl in the 1950s and grew to womanhood in the 1960s, entering the workforce in the 1970s. Although you never mentioned it to me when I was a child—you were far too busy—you have since told me how much you truly desired what society told you was your proper role. While your peers grew to adolescence, college age, and beyond and became strongly attached to the civil rights movement and women's liberation movement, all you really wanted was a nice house, a good husband, two point five (cisgender, heteronormative, although you would only recently learn these terms from me) children. You were told if you did everything you were supposed to do, this is the life you would have in return. A life you wanted.

You did everything you were supposed to do. You didn't get the life you wanted.

In the beginning it seemed to go well enough, I guess. You married a good man, from everything I have heard about him. I wasn't there of course, but you seem really happy under the tents of your wedding reception in the increasingly faded photos. You had your first and only child, a child you planned for and wanted. You had a small and beautiful yellow house, even if it was in a sketchy neighborhood, and you probably would have had to move eventually. But then, I guess things started falling apart. Your husband, born with a congenital heart defect, and always sickly, became increasingly ill. Confined first to a wheelchair, and then to a hospital. A hospital with the ugliest orange beds. By that time, I was there. I remember. And even while this was happening, your child showed signs "he" wasn't the average child you had wanted. Then your husband died. And I think you realised your life would never look like you imagined.

And so it would not. You picked up and moved to another state where you could continue your career. You would work hard over the years. You would pull long hours and work nights. You had to do so. There was no one else, although your parents would sometimes help. You were now a single mother, and your child was proving to already be unique... and difficult, at least in comparison to your own childhood. You realised yourself quite early that your child would not fit in the box "he" had been placed in. And despite how often you put down your own intelligence and perceptiveness, you already knew, even if you were not ready to believe, that you didn't have a little boy, you had a little girl. You are so much smarter than you will allow yourself to think, and it makes me sad when you say otherwise.

You hoped it was a phase, you hoped it wasn't true. It wasn't what you wanted. It wasn't what you were promised. But here was this little person, so certain of her identity, even if she never strictly verbalised it, that it was clear from actions and associations who she was and somewhere deep inside you knew you could never change her. So you opted for a middle path. Gender neutrality would be your watchword, even if you wouldn't have termed it that. You might have occasionally argued when she asked for certain clothes or toys, trying to frustratedly explain that she would be a target for those who would not validate her identity. And as she got older and started elementary school, she would face bullying, and at an extreme, violence. Sometimes not just harassment from other kids, but complete failures to be truly recognised by teachers and authority figures.

And I have to imagine it was very hard to watch her come home afterwards. Hurt and alone, as she could never make any friends—at least not for any length of time. And there was damn all you could do to fix it. So, you did what you could. You supported her when she joined ballet—the only "boy" to do so, you supported her when she tried sports, despite being so much smaller and weaker than "other" boys. You recognised how much she enjoyed jewellery and was endlessly fascinated by baubles of all types. You supported her with music lessons, tap dancing, acting. The list goes on. You always made sure she grew up around books and music. She certainly never wanted materially. She would always have a roof over her head and food in her stomach.

More than that, you let her pick and choose the elements of her identity without vocal judgement, whether it was something society approved of or not. Even if you didn't understand it then, and you don't really understand it now, you recognised it. In a world which made her feel terrible about her invisibility, the recognition meant more to her than you can ever possibly know. There were periodic attempts to have her see therapists, as she was not a happy child, but she rebuffed these attempts. She was not ill and not crazy, and she refused to take medicine being prescribed, hiding it. She was unhappy for very good reasons, but she didn't tell you. You eventually gave up, but not until her trust in mental health professionals was exhausted.

You remarried. Another good man, at least I think so. He tried very hard to make a connection with your child, a connection he maintains. That's another story for another time. This is not that story. For your child, however, having a father only helped continue the supportive nature of the home. It did nothing for environments outside of it. The bullying and violence was worse when she was in junior high school. In some cases her fellow students were outright vicious. It was at its worst when she was picked up by two bullies and dropped on her chin. It could have killed her, instead it left her merely with a scar. A scar I still carry, although it is much smaller now. Almost unnoticeable. You pulled her out of the public school and put her in a private school. A Catholic school, like the one she attended in elementary school. One somewhat like the Catholic school you attended. You thought she would be safer there. Or maybe you just hoped that she would be.

And marginally, she was. There was still violence, and there was one particular bully who was so bad that when she finally fought back, the school secretly told you they were cheering. You wouldn't tell me that for years, but I wish you had. Already distrustful of authority figures who could not or would not protect her, it might have made a difference. She tried to fit in, but she didn't succeed. Not in an environment which was even more overt about gender roles. She still had no friends, not really, and although she was friendly with the other girls, they did not go out of their way to include her. Even when they were nice, it was obvious she would always be an outsider. And there was a further complication, because that year, she realised something she was surprised to find out: she was attracted to girls. Interactions with other girls were already difficult, her identity unrecognised. It had just become more complicated and at the same time, she was becoming increasingly unhappy with her growing body.

You moved again, to a safer area in a different part of the state. She was back in public school. It was better than the previous year, but only because the violence had decreased. The sophistication of the harassment, however, increased. And she was less and less likely to tell you. She knew you could do little to nothing, and that it wasn't your fault. So she only told you that which was too big to hide. It would become a pattern, and you would find it surprising later when you found out how much she hid, because you always had such long talks with her, you believe she told you everything. She would periodically work up the courage to ask you for something, but it wasn't like when she was younger. She had, in some ways, been beaten. She would compromise on how much she asked for, aware in how much danger she would put herself. Yet, she was also worried about in how much danger she would put you.

As she entered high school and it all really went to hell, she would refuse to tell you how often she felt the eyes of others as she stole moments of asserting her true identity. She finally found friends, outcasts like herself, although for other reasons, and she clung to them even if they were all boys. You sighed in relief and thanked God. At least she wouldn't be alone. Still, peers mocked her, and authority figures thought the worst of her. They became extremely concerned about her expression in creative writing, one of her few outlets for self-expression. At the worst, a rumor was started about her intention to engage in a school shooting just after Columbine, something which should have seemed completely unreasonable to anyone who knew her. Instead, the school isolated her, and the principal called your husband informing him that he believed she fit the type. The principal could not look past "loner, white, middle class, male." He never even tried. Already wary of authority figures and adults in general, she decided then it was completely impossible to trust them. They would not only fail to protect her, they would continue to harm her. Even as her identity would shine through in action, she would keep silent about it.

As the situation got worse you tried to have her see therapists again. The school continued to be concerned. She became more depressed and as puberty continued soaking her in testosterone neither of you knew she couldn't process correctly. It made her moody, angry, and increasingly violent towards inanimate objects. Fundamentally, she was a good person, with a strong moral ethic. An ethic she learned from you, and unless under direct threat, she would not harm others. Her violence was controlled as best she could manage, but she was trapped inside of it. The core of her personality increasingly buried by a body in open rebellion against her. And sometimes, she took her depression, sadness, and anger out on you. Sometimes by saying horrible, terrible comments. You didn't deserve it. You had done nothing but your best with your own worldview and your own lack of information. There were times when she really hurt you. It wasn't your fault, you were a handy target. The world was much too large for her to take on, so she vented at you, even though it wasn't fair.

She also became increasingly paranoid by this time. She could be no one else but herself, and she recognised that even if she didn't speak about it, that there was no way she could hide it. She knew even then you had done a pretty awesome job, and so she began to hide everything from you. She became terrified that if her identity was ever explicitly stated, you would be considered a bad mother, and she would be taken away. Probably institutionalised. In hindsight, I now know that would never happen, but she didn't. You really can't blame her. Teen logic. So when you finally admitted to yourself what was going on and asked her if she wanted to be a girl, she mumbled something about that not being it and hightailed it back to her room. And she wasn't lying, because it wasn't that she wanted to be a girl. She was a girl. She was just convinced no would believe her. And in her own way she thought she was protecting you. You didn't push, even if maybe you should have, and certainly I have questioned your decision not to push, but you had kept a middle ground policy, and it had worked well enough, so you kept to it.

She finally made it through high school and into college. Your job was not over. Her first university was a bad choice, based on bad choices she had made in high school. And you would further have issues with her decision to transfer to schools in Austin. Especially because it cost so damn much. But you paid the tuition and you watched her make a mess of her financial situation even while doing her best to keep her identity and her various interests and goals meshed. It was an impossible task. She confronted her identity, speaking to the university's gender and sexuality center. She made an appointment to see a psychologist and was diagnosed with what was then called gender identity disorder. The first time any mental healthcare professional had actually gotten it right. When she finally was able to verbalise it to you and her step-father, you told her you already knew. But it wasn't about you, it was about her. She needed to say it aloud.

She gave up her goal of being a naval officer, despite being only six months from commissioning. She had already been harassed for perceptions of her identity. She wouldn't tell you the full story on that for years, but it would end in sexual assault. She knew enough now to know that LGBT exclusionary policies would fall years down the line, and even then, would she be safe? When she finally finished college, you were unconvinced by her decision to work in politics. Again, you supported her when it became obvious that she could not support herself at the bottom of the totem pole. Especially when she opted to begin being her real self. You were understandably worried and you two fought. A lot. You were relieved when she moved to Korea, at least now it seemed like she could put her financial house in order. Of course, she was miserable, and that worried you, too. She prioritised fixing her past mistakes over her identity. It was the right decision.

By the time she got to Japan, she had pretty much gotten her life on track. She would go on to build a life in Japan, she would go to graduate school, making sure to carefully protect her life in Japan even while she was outside of the country. Although you still sometimes fought whenever she stayed in the house, it should have been impossible to ignore that you'd done pretty well as you've gotten to know her as an adult.

Now that she is me, I have to say, you have done pretty well, Mom. I'm smart, educated, politically active, I'm generally healthy, and I'm successful at what I do. I think I'm a pretty good writer. I have a pretty strong moral/ethical compass. And although I had various fictional role models, I think I had a damn good one in the house. You are smart, you are educated (and have the degrees to prove it), and you were strong, even when you didn't want to be. You tell yourself, and you tell me, this is not the case. Well, I'm telling you, that's bullshit. You may not have considered the way you approached the disappointment in your life as particularly feminist, but I certainly think it was. And don't think I didn't notice and draw lessons from it.

We're still going to fight. You still have unresolved issues around the person I am. You're going to say inappropriate things. I'm going to sometimes take my disappointment out on you in inappropriate ways. Could you have done more? Probably. Could you have done things differently? Sure. Would I have wanted that? Yes. Maybe. I don't know. What I do know is this: you were and are a good mother.

And I love you. Happy Mother's Day.

Your daughter,