Child of Mine

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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My Son and Five Strangers

My Son and Five Strangers

By Jamie Johnson

ShadowOne beautiful fall day, when my son Joey was seventeen, we drove through town headed to an appointment we couldn’t miss. As we neared the highway, Joey hesitantly broke the silence. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

I knew that tone of voice: it meant he had something to tell me that I wasn’t going to like. “Is it going to upset me?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, tilting his head to the side, looking right at me.

This didn’t sound like a quick-fix thing. I answered distractedly, “Well, let’s wait until after our appointment. We’re barely on schedule here.”

Joey accepted that for a whole sixty seconds. Then, with a strange, uncomfortable, almost panicky look, he blurted, “No, I don’t think I can wait. I really need to tell you something.”

I pulled over to the side of the road, and waited impatiently.

He tilted his head down, almost as if he was trying to hide from me.

I am sure the look on my face said Okay, if you need to tell me, then out with it. But the moment he said it, I wished he hadn’t.

In a quiet, sort of shy voice he said, “You keep calling me Joey. People have been doing that all afternoon. I take it he is your son? I don’t know who this Joey is, but my name is not Joey.” His face was dead serious.

As I looked at him, my hand came up to my face. My palm rested on my chin, my fingers covered my mouth and nose. “Well…well, who are you then?”

His eyes dropped to his lap and he shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure.”

My son had been battling depression for months. The withdrawal from our family, the sleeping all the time, the mood swings—had worried me more than I can express. But this…this was like nothing I’d ever heard of before. Had his mental condition become too much to bear and his mind was somehow taking a break? I was grateful he had been seeing a psychiatrist for depression so we had someone to turn to for help.

As it turned out that day in the car was the beginning of the most challenging year of my life. My son spent those months sharing his body with five alternate personalities. It was during those crazy, exhausting days that I learned about DID. Most people know Dissociative Identity Disorder by its former name —Multiple Personality Disorder. What most people don’t know is that it is a defense mechanism used by the brain to protect an individual from trauma. When it appears out of the blue in a teen, it is usually caused by a stressful event that brings back old buried alternate personalities. Those old “alters” come back from the teen’s childhood, where they were formed, usually as a way of mentally surviving repetitive abuse.

They are a coping mechanism and resurface when the teen is faced with anxiety he or she can’t handle—a trigger. I wondered if Joey’s trigger had been a day earlier that summer when he’d come home from school to find our dog, apparently dying, lying in a pool of urine and vomit. He had sat there alone with her, waiting for her to die. That had probably been his trigger. It was awful to think that my son may have suffered something horrifying in his youth and I hadn’t been there for him. Not only had he suffered some type of abuse, but it most likely would have been repetitive for this condition to develop. The personalities form so that the child can escape from the abusive situation.

For months my mind ran through terrible scenarios. What type of abuse had he suffered? Had it been at school, while he was with a babysitter, at a sleep-over, in the playground? God, I wished my brain had an off button.

I learned that there is no medication for DID. The key to his full recovery, without risk of his alternate personalities popping up again some year, unexpectedly, was to find that buried trauma and deal with it. I wanted so badly to help my son. I vowed to do whatever was necessary to find the solution. I would walk away from his hospital room for two full months, (yes he was hospitalized for it) the whole while desperately wanting to bring him home, to get him away from the stress of the other patient’s attempted suicides and assorted mental illnesses. I would give our family history to doctor after doctor. When he was released, I drove him to appointment after appointment. I would put aside the fear of what the ominous “hidden memories” were in order to find them and work past them. I wouldn’t give up.

That is…unless I was forced to.

Giving up had not even crossed my mind.  But after a little over a year of therapy, Joey’s DID specialist cut him loose. She hadn’t found the original cause of his condition—the buried memories of abuse. She said Joey had better control over his other personalities since they were beginning to come together. She had done all she could do for him by coaching him on stress management, he would be fine while she left for a six-month trip abroad.

I was in so much shock I didn’t even think to ask for a referral.

We had been deserted. I thought about looking for a new specialized psychiatrist. But Joey was sick of prying appointments. And really, it wasn’t up to me. Joey was eighteen by then, and it was his life.

I tried to convince myself that not seeing a psychiatrist was for the better. Once uncovered, his memories might be horrendous enough to plague him for the rest of his life. Would that be better than learning to deal with stress to prevent a re-occurrence? Definitely not.

My son never did see another psychiatrist, but today he has only one personality, Joey, and he is studying to become a support worker. I no longer have to worry about what to do with a strange boy that looks like my son, but doesn’t call me Mom. My only worry these days is how many bags of laundry he will be hauling behind him when he heads home from college for the weekend. He has learned to deal with stress and anxiety better. He is a compassionate young man that understands how complicated life can get. His goal—to help people. What more could a mom ask for?

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Loving Kip

Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

Transgender ArtWe’d been watching Oprah the day my 18-year-old daughter, Julia, shared her secret with me: a show featuring transgenders who were transitioning. Frankly, I was surprised. Julia never watched Oprah. Movies: yes. Sports: all the time. But talk shows: not a chance. I thought, It must be pretty interesting if she’s watching. Maybe I’ll watch, too.

All of Oprah’s guests were transgenders or transsexuals. They were born with reproductive organs that didn’t match how they felt in their hearts and souls. Doctors think this phenomenon happens in the first trimester of pregnancy. As the fetus develops, the brain forms as one gender, and the body the other. It is referred to as Gender Identity Disorder.

Each of Oprah’s guests had been bruised by judgment. Some had been disowned by their families, lost friendships, or had trouble finding love. Staying employed was a problem. Being brutally beaten was not uncommon in their stories.

Jul had decided this was the time.

She quietly turned towards me. With a surrendered look, she raised her fine eyebrows and in an almost whispered voice, she said, “Mom, I think that is what I am.”

I remember all the air leaving the room; thinking my lungs had decided that, nope, they weren’t going to cooperate any longer. I fought for air, but life had punched it out of me. Realizing Jul was watching me, I began my persuasion. “No honey … you’re not. You’re just uncomfortable being a lesbian. You’ll get used to the idea.”

With hurt in her eyes, my daughter’s chin quivered as she spoke. “I can’t stand the thought of a girl, or anyone, touching this body; it’s humiliating. It’s not a choice, Mom. I have the wrong body.”

I sat listening, trying not to hear.

Panic. That was the first feeling in a chain of emotions that now seem like some strange twelve-step program. Fear followed. They’re not the same: panic and fear. Panic grabs you, squeezes fiercely; it paralyzes you, the pressure leaving you unable to think. I wanted to hide.

The fear that followed was a different type of weight. It bore down gently, but continuously, dropping a thought into my head every now and then.

What would people say? What if she transitioned and still wasn’t happy? How would hormone therapy change the way she looked? All parents have to adjust to their child’s choices: piercings, tattoos, haircuts, clothing. Even the gradual, natural changes are an adjustment. But the process of seeing my daughter become a man seemed unthinkable.

The fear wore me down for a while. But slowly, very slowly, I made my way through those feelings, and acceptance followed. I felt like I’d just carted a canoe through the drizzling rain for miles, feet wet, finally reaching the river, the sun coming out as I set the canoe down. I felt the warmth. Acceptance has a wonderful warmth to it.

But there, in that feeling of surrender, where I knew it was the love for my child that mattered, I still felt a twinge of something uncertain. How would the hormone treatments change her? No, how would the hormone treatments change him? Would I recognize my child in the end?

I wanted my new son to have what we all take for granted: to feel natural in his body, in his face. I wanted him to no longer wonder whether people were looking at him because he looked androgynous, questioning his role and how he fit into society. At 21, it had been over a decade since he’d resembled someone who could even remotely be called girly, except of course on those dressy occasions when I’d forced it. Since before ten years of age, he’d had our hairdresser chop his hair short, wore a ball cap, and sported either a basketball or hockey jersey with jeans. The jeans were always over boxers. She had always been boyish. Most of her “look” wouldn’t change, but part of me was having a very tough time at the thought of losing Jul’s face.

Once the process of hormone therapy started, a manly stubble would rub against my cheek when we hugged. The hormones would change his bone structure just enough to make him look less like Jul, and more like “Kip.” His facial features and hairline would shift to give him the more masculine look he craved. But just how much would the hormones change the young adult version of the face I’d grown to cherish?

Baby Jul had a beautiful face. I’d peer down at her and love the sweet little thing peeking back up at me from her crib. Her perfect full lips. The Gerber Baby cheeks that were always chubbed up, rounding out her oval face in a big, eager grin. The little button nose. Her squeezable little chin. It was the face of my perfect little angel. How much would I miss it? I couldn’t imagine not seeing it anymore.

It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced the fear of losing her quiet, natural beauty, though. She had been five the first time. I was home, sick, when the shrill sound of the phone woke me. A car accident. A serious head injury. Danger of internal bleeding in the brain. I was needed at the children’s hospital immediately.

The person on the other end of the phone cautioned me not to drive; she said I might be in shock.

I was.

The scene I arrived to at the hospital instantly slapped me out of my numbed state. First I heard her voice. It was aggressive, tortured, demanding, loud enough for me to hear before I even entered the busy emergency room. “I want my mom. I WANT MY MOM!”

If that familiar voice hadn’t been coming from the little thing stretched out on the gurney, I wouldn’t have had my heart shredded to a million bits when my eyes rested on her. I wouldn’t have known my little kindergartener. Her face was swollen and horribly flat. Tiny little fragments of glass, and some not so tiny, were embedded everywhere. As I walked toward her, I watched as the hospital staff bent her arms, her wrists, and her fingers, in an attempt to locate broken bones, Jul fighting every second of it, her panic increasing. At the top of her lungs, she chanted, “I WANT MY MOM! I WANT MY MOM!”

I stood over her in disbelief. She didn’t know I was there. Her eyes were swollen shut. I took her little hand in mine and cooed, “Mommy’s here, honey. It’s okay, Mommy’s here.”

I only have fragments of memories about that first day, the first out of a week I spent sleeping in a chair beside her hospital bed. But I do remember one question that, somewhere during the craziness of that first day, selfishly passed through my mind. Oh, her beautiful little face. What’s it going to look like when it heals?

What a trivial, stupid thing to worry about then. My daughter had survived a massive head trauma. I still had my child; that was the important part. But as parents, we get so attached to the face we’ve looked at and loved.

Maybe that car accident was a lesson given to me years before, in preparation for the loss of my daughter’s face. I had been a kindergartener then too, I guess; a beginner in the years of parenting classes ahead. I didn’t know then that the body was merely the packaging of the soul I loved.

As I waited for the call to confirm that the first shot of testosterone had been scheduled, marking the beginning of my daughter’s transition, I began my goodbye to Jul’s face. I was grateful that I was at least learning to be a little less absorbed with outside appearances. I might still feel a little twinge when the time came and the changes started, but I was ready to confront letting go. I will admit I was worried, but I would try to love the new face as it came.

To Kip, however, the day of that first shot of testosterone could not come soon enough. Once started, his facial characteristics did transform. His forehead worked its way backward, as the hairline framing it receded, and took on squarer, sharper lines. I noticed something else about his forehead. The bone structure just underneath his eyebrows seemed to change. I could see something that sort of reminded me of a Neanderthal. Now, I’m not saying that the more male hormones kip received, the more Neanderthal-like he became, but really, don’t laugh, it was there. It wasn’t a pronounced thing; it was subtle, but his forehead was different, and in a very distinctive male way.

The other changes in his face were subtle, too. There was definitely something about his cheekbones. They appeared to recede a bit or shift position. His jaw seemed to change, as well. It took on a more squared look. Actually, his whole face seemed somehow squarer than before. He even developed a new, unfamiliar space between his two front teeth—something he did not appreciate; his teeth had been one of the only things he had liked about himself— but it was a small price to pay to feel at home in his body.

The changes didn’t happen overnight, however. In fact, they were so gradual that I didn’t even notice them at first. It wasn’t until I compared a year-old photo to a recent one that I could see the full effect of the injections. His bearded image had become handsome.

It seemed strange. I’d been so worried about how much I’d miss Jul’s face. But I’d grown to love my new son’s face as it emerged, without even realizing it.

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same. His face wasn’t really a loss.

I think about the parents who don’t learn to accept. How can they let their relationship with their children die? Or worse yet, how do they survive the tragedy of suicide that sometimes lands on families who can’t open their hearts to the transition? How do those families carry on? That is loss.

Now, ten years later, I still have my first-born child sitting with us at family dinners. From across the table, I see the same smiling hazel eyes. Framing those eyes is a new man. A man who wears a strip of short stubble from one sideburn to the other, the way his wife loves it so much. I look at him now and smile. This mom has no regrets.

Author’s Note: Seeing a person with our eyes brings such limited results. When we see with our hearts, looking inside, past the surface, underneath what society dwells on, we see so much more. What we are isn’t the most important thing: it’s who we are. My son helped me learn that lesson. The physical changes were not important. My son’s spirit and courage are going strong. That makes this mother proud.

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.

Art by Michael Lombardo