Daddy's becoming a woman!

How do I tell our 8-year-old daughter that her dad is having a sex change?

Published May 10, 2007 10:54AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband of nine years just told me last Christmas that he's a transsexual and wants to transition to living as female full time. This wasn't actually a huge surprise to me, and while I'm sad our marriage has dissolved, I'm also relieved -- we're still good friends and good parents, if we do say so ourselves. Proof: Our amazing kid. Problem: Amazing kid is wrestling with the divorce (also her grandmother's recent death at our home after an illness, and two cats that ran away -- seriously, poor kid).

Last summer when Nana first became ill and we moved in, my daughter's emotional difficulties manifested in her literally pulling her hair out -- a very disturbing habit she quit as abruptly as she picked it up. After Nana died, my daughter took an old brooch of Mom's and started picking at the skin on her palms with it. Again, she stopped abruptly (this was months ago). These two incidents have made me question strongly whether we should tell her about her dad at all. But if we have to tell her -- how do you break that kind of news to an 8-year-old?

What Do You Say to an 8-Year-Old?

Dear What Do You Say,

My amateur opinion is: This kid is worried crazy because her world is falling apart. Or, more precisely, the responsible adults in her life are acting like her world is falling apart and they don't want to tell her that it's falling apart, so she's trying to figure out all on her own exactly in what ways her world is falling apart, and how she herself can prevent it or protect herself when it occurs, because obviously nobody else is up to the task. All the mysteries about death and transformation, about who Daddy really is, and where he is going, and where Nana went, and where the cats went -- and is she going there too? -- all this mysterious change has got her literally tearing out her hair at the age of 8.

So I suggest that everybody stop freaking out this poor child and instead reassure her with a celebration. Bring some joy into the household. Bring her whatever furry objects she needs to feel secure, and light some candles and sing some songs. Gather around her.

I mean, frankly, just celebrate this thing, OK? Let's not fear it, or be ashamed of it, or whisper about it, or make up stories about it. Let's welcome this new guest, the strangeness of life. Let's tell the truth and celebrate the truth. Daddy is a woman in a man's body. Daddy was born that way. Daddy is a transsexual. These things happen. It's nothing to freak out about.

Daddy is also very lucky. Doctors can fix this. It used to be that if you were a woman in a man's body there was nothing anyone could do. You had to pretend. If you said you were a woman in a man's body people would laugh at you. They would even put you in jail. That's silly and wrong, right? That's crazy!

This is confusing, your daughter may say.

Yes, you might reply. It is a little confusing. But things are going to be better now. Daddy is going to be happier now.

But ... how can that be? your child may ask. She may ask a thousand things. Or she may sit silent, letting you know nothing of what is going on in her head. Let her ask a thousand questions if that is what she wants. Or let her be silent if she prefers to be silent. But reassure her on the basics: You are staying in your house and you are still her mommy and he is still her daddy.

Those are verbal assurances. They are important things to say but words may not have much of an impact. So I'm not joking about the celebration. I really feel that you need to go beyond verbal assurances. You need to make something happen. You need to create a spectacle. You need to celebrate and be close.

So have a party ... with cake and ice cream.

And put some flowers on Nana's grave.

And get some new cats.

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