It's strange, but when I think of the times in my life when my identity shifted significantly, they are all times of slow, gentle, gradual change rather than the dramatic variety.
When I became a married person, for instance, my husband and I had long been in love and had lived together before the wedding. And I went from college student to graduate school to being a professor, so showing up in a campus classroom every day was never much of a metamorphosis. I've written with energy, enthusiasm and frequency since I was five, so while becoming a published author was gratifying, it didn't change the fairly unglamorous equation of butt plus chair equals words.
SHE TOLD THE OTHER KIDS THAT SINCE GIRLS COULD WEAR PANTS, BOYS COULD WEAR SKIRTS. THIS MADE SENSE TO THEM
The exception to the rule was becoming a mother. Motherhood affected my life dramatically and instantly, but at least that's a shared experience. No one anywhere read that last sentence and thought, "Huh? Really? When I became a mother my life didn't change at all." No one.
Over the course of a single year, the first year at school, that child who made me a mother went from someone who could haltingly sound out words to a full-on reader; from an unrepentant wriggler to a calm being who could sit quietly on the carpet during circle time; from a worrier permanently at my side to a happy solo bus rider. Over the course of that year, that child also went from being a boy to being a girl.
Becoming a different gender was not an identity shift I'd had any experience with before it happened to my six-year-old, but I'd certainly have guessed it belonged with becoming a parent in the dramatic-life-change category. To my surprise, though, it was much more like those other identity shifts – a slowbuilding, patient change that, day by day, resulted in a little girl who in many ways was not so different from the little boy she'd been at the beginning of the school year.
Her slow-growing hair was the starkest manifestation of my daughter's transition, and it's the perfect metaphor for it as well. She wore a skirt on her first day at school, but her hair was still short and her name was still male, so everyone assumed she was a boy. She told the other kids that since girls could wear pants, boys could wear skirts, and this made sense to the six-year-old set.
Her hair grew slowly and awkwardly and over eyes that were trying to learn to read, but she was committed to having it long and didn't mind. When it finally reached mid-cheek, after three months or so, waitresses started to say, "Welcome, ladies," when we went out to eat, and baristas would ask, "What are you girls doing today?"
Towards the end of that year, I made her get bangs, so at least she could see, and I wrestled the rest into a ponytail. By the end of the school year, she finally had a graceful bob, just past the bottom of her chin. Half her classmates referred to her with male pronouns out of habit, half with female ones because that's what she so clearly was. None seemed confused or ill at ease with this, and she was patient with either one.
Over the summer, she changed her name and began year 2 as a girl. Everyone uses female pronouns now without thinking about it. Her hair reaches most of the way down her back.
Otherwise, she changed in exactly the slow but meaningful ways you expect a six-year-old to over the course of a year. She reads harder books, writes longer sentences, draws birds that look more like birds, cares more about what clothes she wears, runs faster, eats more salad, adds without using her fingers, and navigates the monkey bars backwards now as well as forwards.
The shift in identity from boy to girl seems enormous looking back, but while it was happening, it wasn't so dramatic. Kids grow and change so quickly and unpredictably anyway. What's up next for them is always just around a bend you can never see past.
My daughter's hair is now a long, tangled mess that we do battle with every morning, but it's still just hair, growing out of the same head encasing the same brain of the same terrific kid she's always been and the one she's always changing into.
Laurie Frankel's book, This Is How It Always Is, is published by Hachette on January 31.