By Sarah Rutledge Fischer
My husband and I have a wonderful 16-year-old daughter who was born biologically male.
She was clear about her gender identity early on, and my husband and I have done our best to help her live in the gender with which she identifies. We are proud to support our brave and beautiful daughter on her journey. But lately, I feel like a fraud. Last week she approached us about legally changing her name. I was completely caught off guard. I know I should support this step, but I am overwhelmed with grief. We named her after my younger brother who died the year before
she was born.
How do I tell my daughter that I don’t want her to change her name? I want to support her fully, but I don’t know if I can.
Named in Honor
I am so sorry for the loss of your brother. I cannot imagine how difficult that must have been and what a comfort it was to honor his life in the name of your child. And now you are facing the loss of that symbol of your love. Mourning this transition does not make you a bad mother. But let’s stop for a second and separate the transition from the mourning.
It is clear that you know that you need to support your daughter in this name change. Names are important to our sense of autonomy and identity, especially in adolescence. For transgender youth, the ability to use a chosen name instead of the name given at birth can be incredibly important. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that among transgender youth ages 15 to 21, young people who were able to use their chosen name at school, home, work and with friends experienced 71 percent fewer symptoms of severe depression when compared with peers who could not use their chosen name. It sounds as if you have fully supported your daughter’s gender identity, and I urge you to continue your support at this juncture.
Now, let’s turn back to grief. Grief is so powerful that it can blind us, especially when it shows up unexpectedly, years after the precipitating loss. And grief can be hard to talk about. It is hard to be vulnerable and broken, especially in front of our children. But to fully support your daughter you must do so. She will sense your grief and may misunderstand if you don’t explain. Assure your daughter that you support her name change, and then explain that the transition has triggered fresh pain at the loss of your brother. Ask her to help you find a new way to honor the man he was and the legacy she carries forward. It might be as traditional as a tree planted each year in his honor or as modern as a shared tattoo memorializing his lasting influence—the form of the memorial will be yours to choose together.
You have long supported your daughter through difficult transitions. This time, in order to be able to support her name change with a full heart, you need to let her support you in your grief. That doesn’t make you a bad mother at all. It makes you human.
That should get you started.
To submit your own question, email Allie at Allie@focusmidsouth.com. Focus reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.