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Child of Mine

By Jamie Johnson


They say there’s nothing like a mother’s love. But, just how far can it be pushed?

I wondered how to tell my 81-year-old, very religious mother, our family secret. It had taken me so long to get through the tough initial stages of adjustment. But, my mom, well, she thought in very straight, defined lines.

I had pictured myself going to visit her, talking distractedly about the weather and then, with a burst of courage, handing her the family letter Julia had written to explain her private suffering—and then I’d run.

I couldn’t do it. We had to tell her in person. Though imagining the look of confusion she would wear as we tried to explain this haunted my thoughts.

When Julia and I headed to her seniors’ home, I wished the corridor leading to my mom’s room was longer that day, so I would have more time to somehow come up with just the right thing to say.

There have been times when being Julia’s mom has been challenging. During her youth, we’d meet people I knew, and they’d say, “This must be Joey?” Joey was her brother. I’d search Julia’s face, but she looked… well, content. It bothered me, especially when it still happened at sixteen. Her butch look suggested she would eventually announce she was gay.

The truth was much more complicated.

I couldn’t imagine how complex that truth would seem to a reserved, small-town grandma, one who had lovingly taken her granddaughter to church every Sunday for years.

*   *   * 

My mom greeted us with a loving smile. I hated having to take her happy look away.

I stalled with idle chatter, but it couldn’t wait any longer.

Timidly, I began, “Mom, we have something difficult to tell you about Jul.” I had done it: I had replaced her contented look with fear. I quickly continued, “She isn’t terminally ill or anything, but it might be something you’re not going to be happy about.”

I took the letter out of the safety of my handbag. She lowered her eyebrows suspiciously, glancing quickly at Jul to see if this news was something she could recognize from across the room. I softly said, “This is a letter Jul wrote for our family.”

The day my daughter had told me, in 2003, I had come home to find her watching Oprah. Jul hates talk shows, I thought. Must be pretty interesting. Maybe I’ll watch a little.

All of Oprah’s guests were transgenders. They were born with reproductive organs that didn’t match how they felt in their hearts and souls. Each guest had been bruised by judgment. Some had been disowned by their families, lost friendships, or had experienced trouble finding love.

Jul had decided this was the time. She looked at me apprehensively and quietly said, “Mom, I think that is what I am.”

My initial shock went almost straight to denial. “Oh no, honey, you’re not. You’re gay. Not this.” Fortunately, after several months, I finally arrived at acceptance and support.

I held my breath. And hoped Jul’s letter would be a much gentler way of sharing.

*   *   * 

As my mom opened the letter and began to read, I looked at Julia, or Kip, which was my new son’s chosen male name. Kip appeared as frightened as I felt. No matter what happened, though, I would be there for my child.

My eyes returned to my mom. She was reading with intense concentration. Then it happened—our worst nightmare. She glared a fierce look I can only describe as “how dare you” straight at Kip.

I didn’t have to look at my son to know his horror; I could feel it. My mom’s piercing stare emitted raw anger.

She looked back down to the page. Then time stopped.

It couldn’t have taken her more than a few minutes to finish reading, but those few minutes seemed to last a lifetime.

Finally, she slowly stood up. God, what is she doing now? She took a few awkward steps toward Kip, then put her arms around him. She quietly said, “Honey, I hope you don’t think we would ever stop loving you?”

Those words will be ingrained in my memory for life. Big, heavy tears rolled down my cheeks. I had worried for months about this moment.

It’s estimated that as many as a third of people who want to transition, like my child, end their lives, or attempt to. The anguish of trying to live the role of the wrong gender is excruciating. And many have said that telling their family is the hardest part in the whole process. Kip had expressed his worst fear in his letter—that he would lose the people he loved so dearly. Those words must have connected with my mom.

As we explained, my mom’s eyebrows softened. She told us she had always thought this sort of thing was a choice, maybe she’d been wrong. After a temporary moment of passion, my mom had received this difficult information with grace and an open heart. I learned that she could have a mind much more open than I had given her credit for.

Kip and I left my mother’s room feeling half like we were in shock, barely able to believe my mom’s reaction, and half like we had been injected with pure love.

A mother’s love can certainly surprise you—if given a chance.


Jamie Johnson is an antique/gift show owner who enjoys writing about her fascinating children. Her full length memoir Secret Selves: How Their Changes Changed Me won an IP Book Award for Best Nonfiction in Eastern Canada and was a finalist in the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Her short pieces have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Homemakers Magazine, Families in TRANSition (a resource book for transgender families), and the anthology, Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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