My son became a girl. What do I do?

Now that she's in college, she's really floundering. How can I help her?

Published November 17, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Tell me what to do about my child. Really. I Give Up. Here, Sgt. Friday, are the facts. My son was much wanted and loved. Here is what his father and I did: loved him, read to him, helped him get his Eagle Scout, took him to church so he wouldn't end up as bait for some wacky cult later on, set consequences, had his friends over all the time, didn't sweat the small stuff (jump on the couch? Fine. Climb on the roof? Be careful), had family dinner, went on vacations, explained the finer points of Bugs Bunny and Kubrick, got sober (yes, AA was needed), took the boy to Al-Anon, guitar lessons, obtained a psychiatrist, got the orthodontist, and were always available to talk about whatever. And loved him. OK -- so you don't need to wonder about whether he had a good home life -- he did. Not perfect, but good.

Then, in his late teens, he told us that he was transgendered and was a girl. We coped. Since this is my letter, I'll say that I accept her, though I think this is going to be a hard life. But other family members, including her dad, have been very, very accepting. Kept the psychiatrist, added in the hormone therapy under my insurance.

Here's where the question comes in. She's away at college and underachieving in a major way. She says that she can't motivate herself to attend her less-than-full load of classes, can't think of what she wants to do with herself, even in a short-term way. I don't have buckets of money. I can't send her to college for a warehouse substitute. Do you remember in "Charlie Brown's Christmas" where Lucy diagnoses Charlie as being afraid of everything? That's my daughter. I don't know what to do. I love her, I'm there for her, I can send her to college, keep her in healthcare until she's 26, but I can't make her functional. If she flunks her fall classes, what do I do? I think it would be a terrible idea to let her move home and hermit in her bedroom for an undetermined amount of time. (and I know it would be bad for me because I would have an aggravation stroke). But she's like a jellyfish --- boneless, drifting. How do I help her move forward with her life when she can't seem to make any effort at all? What is the right course? And let me tell you, she's a savant at not getting a job. So making with the tough love on the get-a-job-or-else plan has been tried, I tell you, has been done, with a lot of tears and protestations of worthlessness and "I'm never going to etc." What am I supposed to say to a person who is loved, smart, physically fit, accepted as a girl, and inert?

Sisyphus Mom

Dear Sisyphus Mom,

Your daughter is undergoing a miraculous transformation. It is taking all her strength. That is why she has no time for classes. This is an existential task. Think of her as pregnant with herself. Think of her as heavy and bloated with her own future, which she must assemble blindfolded.

Imagining her this way may make you even more desperate to do something. Of course as her protector you want to leap in and fix her skirt, tie her shoes, bundle her up, get her a job, set her on her way.

I suggest you do the opposite. I suggest that in the midst of this miraculous transformation your role is to do nothing.

Nothing is the most wonderful thing you can do right now. It is also the hardest.

Nothing is hard to achieve. Meditation is one way to achieve it.

See how long you can do it.

At times, action will be unavoidable. But when you are done with that, return to doing nothing.

It won't be easy. Doing nothing takes everything you've got. But if you do nothing well, you will achieve something good.

It's interesting that you say she seems "boneless." That sounds like exactly the right word for what is going on: She is formless because she is in transition. She has given up a form and is in transition to a new form. In the meantime she must be "boneless." Trust that when she has completed these exhausting existential and spiritual tasks, she will then be able to conquer whatever she chooses to conquer.

Let this fact into your heart: You are now the observer. You have brought this being into the world, you have done everything asked of you to nurture and care for this being, and now you are witnessing the miracle of autonomy. What better evidence of your essential powerlessness over your own progeny than the fact that your son turned out to be a girl? What better evidence that even a parent is merely a bystander?

Do not worry about the future. When she has completed her current task, she will turn to the tasks of becoming a functioning adult in the world.

There is one possible exception. If she becomes depressed, she may need professional care. So watch for that. Watch for signs of depression. But be careful to distinguish depression, if you can, from the healthy exhaustion of a Herculean transformation. If you are worried that she may be depressed, insist that she get counseling.

Meanwhile, she needs space. How do you create space? By doing nothing.

She doesn't need instruction. She needs air, food and water. Create room for her and let her fill that room in a natural way.

That takes trust, or, if you prefer, faith.

Try to see your former son as a person trying to know his own soul. In looking into his soul, he saw the face of a woman staring back. What a shock it must have been! Kudos to him for undertaking this act of becoming. What a courageous act. How manly of him to become a woman.

In the midst of change, when we are neither worm nor butterfly, we need protection. Do what you can to protect her. Stand by her. Support her when she needs it. Pray for patience and serenity. Have some reverence for what is transpiring.

Trust in what comes next.

By Cary Tennis

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