When My Daughter Became My Son - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When My Daughter Became My Son

When My Daughter Became My Son

By Karen Barnes



Because appearances can be deceiving.

By Karen Barnes

The following letter was written to some of my family members. I had not had a chance to sit down with them and discuss a change that seemed to happen overnight … when my child decided to openly identify as transgender.

When I was pregnant with my children, I never worried about how they would grow up or if they’d be gay or straight, Democrat or Republican. I just wanted them to be healthy. I did everything I could to stay healthy myself. On the day they were born, I felt so blessed and in awe of the miracle of life. I didn’t know how to be a good mother, the right mother or an all-knowing mother. I just wanted them to thrive.

I had twins: two girls. They were very different from the beginning. Molly was bold and courageous; Erica was shy and sensitive. Erica leaned on Molly for help with everything. When Erica was 5, she wanted to cut her hair short and didn’t want to wear dresses, while Molly liked dressing up and playing with dolls. Over the years, Erica continued to be shy and unsure of herself and preferred to play with boys and dress like a boy. At one point, she insisted that we take her shopping for boys’ underwear and for a coat that was like a boy’s at her school.

When Erica was in middle school, she was an incredible athlete — an all-star — and played on a basketball team that went to the finals. We didn’t have any experience with gender issues related to children, and we didn’t know any families that did. But we had known “tomboys” growing up, and we thought that was what Erica was going through. It seemed simple.

Erica had stopped eating entirely. … When her doctor asked why, her answer was “I want to disappear.”

At 13, Erica was moody and withdrawn. She was eating very little. And then one day, the school called to tell me that Erica was cutting herself. Finding out that she was self-harming was one of the bleakest and scariest moments of my life. We immediately put her into therapy and hoped that she would get better.

Shortly after this happened, I noticed that Erica had stopped eating entirely. I was panicked and called the therapist and my doctor. And when she started to pass out, I rushed her to the doctor. When her doctor asked why she wouldn’t eat, her answer was “I want to disappear.” She was immediately admitted to a local hospital to a ward for young adults with mental issues and stayed there for about 10 days, getting strong medication to alleviate depression and increase her appetite. This episode was painful for the whole family: What did we do wrong? Didn’t she care about her family and know that we loved her? Couldn’t she see that life was worth living and any problem could be solved?


Over the next 12 years, Erica had her ups and downs with depression and anxiety. Sometimes her meds worked, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes she was happy, and sometimes we all worried that she’d commit suicide.

In 2015, after graduating from college, Erica had a total breakdown. She couldn’t function or stay employed, and had both psychological and physical problems. She moved in with us. Every day it got worse. She couldn’t eat; she couldn’t sleep. She’d wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me that she was dying. She’d sleep most of the day.

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Molly + Erica

Source Photo courtesy of Karen Barnes

I was so anxious that I could not stop shaking, and I couldn’t sleep. Sometimes I had to change my travel and work schedule because I was afraid to leave her home alone. One day after a psychiatrist appointment, she got into the car and told me that the doctor recommended that she be admitted to an in-patient facility to help figure out what she needed to help her be functional. Her medication did not seem to be effective, and she had medical issues as well. Over a four-month period, I had taken her to the emergency room at least three times.

Erica was finally admitted to a facility in Arizona, and her life and ours changed forever. The day I dropped her off was the beginning of my recuperation because I finally had hope that she’d be taken care of properly, and I was optimistic that we’d find a solution.

What happened was totally unexpected.

About two weeks after being admitted, I received a call from her therapist at the center. She said, “The psychiatrist, medical doctor and I have all spoken with Erica, and we all agree that she is a transgender male.”

My heart burst. My first thought was: “What will life be like for her/him? Who will accept him? Will he survive?” My second thought was: “What will people think about me? Will people think it’s my fault or that I’m a bad mother?” I went home right after the phone call, full of worry and grief and fear. I told my husband what I had been told, and he said, “That makes sense.” It was shocking to me, but his acknowledgment and acceptance gave me hope.

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Dylan + Molly

Source Photo courtesy of Karen Barnes

It’s been more than a year since Erica left and Dylan showed up; however, I would say now that Dylan has always been with us — we just didn’t see him. Dylan was always there, afraid to be what he knew he was, afraid his family wouldn’t accept him, afraid that harm would come to him and his family if he came out as who he really is.

When I told a rabbi, whom Erica had worked with as his administrator one summer, he told me that Jews don’t believe in transgender transition. They believe that God gives you a soul and a body, and you should not change it. My belief is that God sometimes makes physical mistakes — for example, when conjoined twins are born. In Dylan’s case, a male soul accidentally was put into a female body.

Dylan is now a much happier human being. He’s finally at peace with himself, and his body is evolving. He laughs more, expresses himself more, enjoys life more and is more forgiving. And as a mother, I am so much more at peace with this son than I was with my tortured daughter.

Naturally, I still worry. I think Dylan’s happiness allows him to forgive people’s prejudice and their discomfort with him. He is now who he’s always wanted to be. It’s me who is tortured.

I am so sad to see that some people don’t accept him. It’s as if they’re afraid to accept him, or are fearful that acceptance reflects something about them. It hurts me to see judgments and discomfort in others. I’m sad because it’s the way that humans choose to build walls between ourselves.

So I no longer care what people think of me as a mother, because life is so much more peaceful and joyous with this child who’s always been with me. I never saw as clearly as I do now. I hope that one day everyone can be kind to Dylan and others like him.

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