The Beautiful Non-Binary of Parenthood

By Joelle Spiegel

The day I gave birth for the first time, my oldest child emerged into the room, into the world, and into my arms, pink and blonde and perfect. “It’s a girl!” the doctor announced somewhere beyond my haze of shock and exhaustion. “You have a girl.” My husband and I gave our brand new baby the sweetest name we could imagine and got down to the business of becoming a family. With every bath, every bottle, and every entry into the pastel pink baby book, we cemented our identities as parents – parents of a daughter. Before too long we brought home another beautiful baby, dark and determined, and this time we understood our identities as parents – parents of daughters.

Fast-forward through childhoods marked by all of the typical milestones. At every turn, my children amazed me and I embraced my identity as a mother of daughters. Did I know what I was doing? Sometimes. Did I have fears and doubts? Daily. Did I (and do I) love my kids without question or hesitation? Yes. And then something changed. My beautiful, strong, funny first-born began to change. At first there were anguished and angry refusals around clothing choices, and in time, my once amiable first-born became withdrawn, insular, moody, and sad, eventually refusing to acknowledge the sex assigned at birth with anything other than ambivalence. I began to question whether I really was the mother of daughters.

Anxiety and intuition brought me to a place where I instinctively knew I belonged but where I wasn’t sure that I was ready to settle down. I was not the mother of two daughters.

My son, that perfect pink bundle the doctors assigned female at birth and whom I raised as my “daughter” for 18 years, came out as transgender in October of 2013; he identifies as male and uses he/him/his pronouns. By that time he had gone off to college and found a community of peers and role models – something that I had desperately wished for. Alongside the flood of relief that I felt that my son was finding his way, I was shocked to find myself wrapped in anxiety, grief, and isolation. I questioned my capacity to adapt, and I struggled to understand my fear. Lots of processing, lots of learning, lots of growth, and lots of reliance on community have helped me to continue to adapt every day.

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned on this journey is about the concept of binaries. “Binary” is an adjective that describes a system wherein there are only two categories, like good and evil, hot and cold, day and night, male and female. We live in a society full of binaries, and we may never stop to question or challenge them.

That day in the delivery room when the doctor announced “It’s a girl,” he was ascribing to a binary notion of gender based on my newborn’s visible physical anatomy. Because my husband and I had never thought of gender as anything other than a fixed binary, we accepted the idea that visible physical anatomy necessarily determines gender identity. We were wrong. The fact that gender identity is in the brain and is determined by one’s own personal sense of whether they feel male, female, some combination of both, or neither, is borne out by my son and every individual who identifies as transgender, non-binary, gender fluid, and agender. This may be a new concept for some, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

The tricky thing about binaries is that they completely ignore the infinite and beautiful possibilities that exist between the extremes. This is true when we attach binaries to just about everything, including our loved ones and the concept of gender. My family is living proof. My son came out five years ago, and in that time I’ve gotten to know my child all over again – the spectacular man he is becoming and the impish little kid he used to be – and I am still his mother.

Published on January 11, 2019