One day as the Christmas season approached Elizabeth told her 16-year-old son that she wanted him to stop calling her “Daddio.” She told him that every time he said it it felt like being punched in the stomach. Looking uncomfortable, he reluctantly agreed. The next day, she followed up: she said she was repeating the request so he knew she was serious about it, and that she also wanted female pronouns and gender words. He listened silently and did not refuse; but as the week went on he used the same masculine gender words as before, and scowled at her when she corrected him.
A few days later, when Elizabeth picked her daughter up from college, she told her that she was asking these things of her too. Her daughter, having recently claimed Queer identity herself, was more accepting, at least to talk about it, but as the days passed she avoided pronouns rather than switching to “she,” and also still said “Daddio.”
Several days went by. Elizabeth wept often, thinking of her long-dead mother, as she often did in the weeks before Christmas each year, with grief and fury and aching need for maternal comfort all balled together in a black mass...and her will to push her children to greater acceptance faltered. She couldn't see a way to back off from having pushed them without returning to the old bad man-box, but she knew it was wrong to have turned to them in her need, so driving her son to school one morning she said, “About the gender words thing...”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, wiping at his eye.
“Wait, let me finish. I think you’re going to like what I’m going to say. You have told me you can’t deal with this right now, and I’m accepting that. I’m backing off.”
That felt right, but it didn't stop the storm of pain and sadness, which loomed just as black as ever. Elizabeth held herself together in hopes of making it to her next therapy appointment...but at the appointed hour the door did not open. She waited fifteen minutes, then knocked. There had been a scheduling snafu; her therapist was seeing another patient. “I need to see you,” Elizabeth said. Text me later, said the therapist, and Elizabeth stumbled downstairs.
In her parked car she burst into wild sobs. “I want my mother!” she screamed. And, “I deserve to exist in the world! I do! I do! I deserve to exist!”...needing to say it so vehemently because of a terrible fear that it wasn’t true. Her courage and strength had failed her, and she felt as at other times at this same nadir the crushing weight of so many years of existence with self denied, of existence only through the mask of maleness, of shadow-life. She sobbed in her car for nearly an hour, then texted and asked if she could come back in, and her therapist texted back yes.
The session was oddly strained. Even in the midst of blurting out her dilemma Elizabeth sensed her therapist groping for responses...she sensed impatience, annoyance. Her therapist defended the children’s right to process in their own time, and to be parented by Elizabeth even as she struggled with her own pain, and Elizabeth agreed. But what about her own terrible need then? With time running out, the therapist said the words which Elizabeth needed to hear: “You do deserve to exist in the world.”
In a grateful rush: “Yes, thank you...I needed to hear someone say that. Thank you so much.”
“You do. You deserve to exist as Lisa you deserve to exist as Dave...”
“What? I wish you hadn’t said that last part.”
In a vehement note-to-self whisper: “I’m never going to say that name again.”
The last few minutes of the appointment were awkward, and Elizabeth left without making another appointment.
On the way home, bumped out of her rut of self-pity by irritation, Elizabeth formulated a new thought: OK, for the past twenty years I’ve been mising the presence of a mom in my Christmases...so fuck it, I’m gonna be the mom. My children can call me what they like, but what they’re getting is mothering.
She put her thought and heart into selecting presents; she cleaned; she bought herself a mixer and baked enough not only to satisfy her household’s sweet teeth, but to take plates to neighbors too; she wrapped; she played the piano while her daughter and her daughter’s girlfriend decorated the tree. In a word, for the first time in her adult life, she committed to the holiday, not as a religious nor a commercial celebration, but as the simple family gathering it had been for her when she was growing up...and the children seemed to have a good Christmas.
And, what about Elizabeth? Well, she survived. The amount of hurt she felt running the seasonal gauntlet was not less than in previous years; but in trying to make a real warm holiday happen in her own home she felt more joy in the day than ever before since her mother’s death, and she figured that counted as a victory.