“I am transmasculine, which is to say I understand my body even less than I understand my mother.”
I recently found a journal entry I wrote in February of my sophomore year of college that was a question directed to my mother: “What do you need from me?” A year later, I had added underneath: “Can you even see me?”
Even as a child I don’t think my mother and I understood each other. I was temperamental, sensitive — the most anxious toddler she says she had ever met. I was afraid of almost everything: going to sleep, doctor visits and vaccines, throwing up, food that was not white or beige.
Until I was 13, I slept almost every night on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, next to our dog. I couldn’t bear to be in the dark by myself. Most of my behavioral education was conducted through bribery, because I couldn’t be convinced to be “good” otherwise. If I slept in my own bed, my mother would sing me lullabies. If I sat still for a flu shot, she would let me pick out a Playmobil toy from her closet.
I am transmasculine, which is to say I understand my body even less than I understand my mother. I have always felt unsettled about my appearance. I envied the way girls I knew seemed to float in their bodies as if they knew they were supposed to be there.
Trying to be a girl for me felt like gathering sand in my hands: there, tangible, but not something I was allowed to keep. The turbulence settled in my chest, and grew, through fifth grade training bras to seventh grade A-cups to 10th grade and what my mother called a “va va voom” figure.
I hated this chest that marked me as so horribly wrong and began wearing a binder, a compression shirt, to flatten it. When I was a child, my mother showed me the scars from her breast reduction at age 20. When I saw what her genes had ordained for my body, I realized that I was destined to uphold her surgical legacy.
Whenever I came home to Bend, Ore., from college to visit, my mother and younger sister and I would drive to the grocery store after dinner to get dessert. On one of these trips, during my second year of college, I drove us to the fancy grocery store on the far side of town.
My sister knew about my gender first because I told her everything first. At a restaurant during Thanksgiving, I had blurted it out to my father, asking him not to tell anyone, which had gone better than I expected. My mother was the last to know but also the one whose opinion mattered most. I needed her to understand, and I was terrified she wouldn’t.
Now, as I drove, a lump rose from my bound chest and settled in my throat. I swallowed hard and said, “I’m not a girl.”
My mother said nothing.
“I don’t want you to call me a ‘she.’”
“I want to go on hormones, and I want to get top surgery.”
Finally, she spoke. “I don’t believe you. You’re just saying this to get a rise out of me.”
I raised my voice. “Not everything is about you!”
“How could this not be about me?”
“So you want to be a man?”
I couldn’t answer that. “Man” felt grotesque. All I had ever wanted — and all my mother had wanted for me — was to feel pretty, to feel right.
My mother and sister went into the store, but I stayed in the car in the parking lot and stared ahead into the night, blinking through hot tears.
I didn’t bring it up again for a long time, or rather I didn’t bring it up in ways she had to address. I already had changed my name to her father’s name, August, which I think was tolerable to her because of the familial ties. When I shaved my head and called myself “they” and butched myself up, she pretended not to notice.
I let her. I never corrected her when she referred to me as her daughter; I rarely corrected her when she called me the wrong name. She would buy me tight fitting V-neck shirts, and I would smile. Neither of us wanted to, or could, acknowledge how I was growing into someone who wasn’t her daughter.
Finally, though, the pain of being in my body exceeded my fear of changing my relationship with my mother, and I scheduled a consultation and then a surgery date to get a gender-confirming bilateral mastectomy. In March, when the surgery center called me to schedule the procedure, I called my mother right after.
“I have my surgery date!”
“That’s far away.”
“It’s only a few months.”
“You’ll have to buy a lot of stuff. Surgery is a huge deal, hon. I don’t think you’re ready.”
I sometimes wonder if she felt like my surgery was a criticism of her and her body, a rejection of her genes. Once, over the phone, she wept that she had birthed a perfect child and couldn’t see why I would ruin that. When I was little, my mother, a painter, would take me to the art museum, and whenever we saw a painting of a woman with a baby, my mother would say, “That’s you and me.”
A few weeks after I called her with my surgery date, she texted me an article about X gender markers on passports for nonbinary people, with the accompanying text, “Traveling transgender.”
“Omg, cool!” I texted back.
“I know,” she wrote, “it’s worrisome if you don’t look like the gender on your passport. I have short hair, wear jeans, sometimes no makeup. At a Mexican restaurant, a waiter called me ‘sir.’”
I think it was her way of saying: “Your body has not been kind to you. My body has not always been kind to me either.”
In July after my junior year of college, my mother came to my city to take me to the hospital. In the prep room, I put on the gown, and the surgeon drew marks on my chest with a blue sharpie.
“What are those for?” my mother asked.
“Those are where we make the incisions,” the surgeon said.
“Oh,” said my mother, and began weeping.
A nurse entered my cubicle to insert an IV but couldn’t find a vein, and by the sixth or seventh poke, I had begun to cry. My mother held my hand, rubbing circles into my palm, and sang to me while the nurse wriggled the needle around in my arm.
When I woke up after surgery, my first thought was how thirsty I was. My next thought was that my mother was there beside me, rubbing circles on my hand, crying but smiling. “Those idiots didn’t call me when you got out of surgery,” she whispered. “I thought you’d died.”
I don’t remember my mother taking photos, but there’s a picture of me with the bandages unwrapped, fresh bloody scars in curved lines across my chest, the remnants of blue marker. I’m holding a cup of grape juice, the straw in my mouth, and I’m flashing a peace sign.
It’s the happiest I have ever seen myself look on camera.
On the car ride back to my place, I vomited grape juice. As I leaned out the passenger door gagging, my mother held me up and brushed my hair and repeated that I would be OK. At home, she took off my shoes, folded me into bed. Days later, when my wounds were healed enough that I was able to lift my arms above my head, I showed her how far I could stretch, and she exclaimed, “That’s amazing! You’re amazing!”
I don’t look like my mother. She has high cheekbones and a tough jaw. My face is soft, round, but I have her reddish hair, freckles. We both have surgical scars on our chests. In photos of us together, you can see exactly where I came from.
The May before I got top surgery, I went home for the first time in almost a year. My mother and I were in the kitchen. I already knew I wanted her to be the one to bring me to the hospital and take care of me after, but I was almost certain she would say no, that she didn’t want to be a part of it, that she would come to terms with this but couldn’t bring herself to help me through it.
I asked anyway: “Hey, Mom. Would you drive me to the hospital? For my surgery in July?”
A long pause. She glanced at me, her daughter-son, over the top of her reading glasses. “You know, after it happens,” she said, with a nod toward my torso, “you’re going to look great in tight shirts.”
August Singer, a senior at Reed College in Portland, Ore., is a finalist in the Modern Love college essay contest.
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