My Daughter's Partner Is the Hero We Need
At her most vulnerable moment, my daughter has turned to a significant other for guidance.
When you're a parent, you hope that your child will come to you if they’re distressed or have a problem they can’t handle alone.
When my daughter, Sam, was colicky, thrashing and wailing, I quieted her with bottled milk, or walked her up and down the hallway singing "September Song" so much that I actually learned how to sing it on key (fudging for my half-an-octave-and-a-prayer range). When she pooped in her diaper, my wife and I wiped her butt—and then when she kept pooping in her diaper for years, refusing to learn how to use the toilet with a cheery, steadfast, beautiful smile, I continued to wipe her butt. I taught her to read by writing the names of superheroes on a whiteboard (she'd cheat by recognizing the hyphen in X-Men, though sometimes I'd trip her up with Spider-Man). When she was randomly terrified of Count Duckula, we comforted her. And when she was more rationally afraid of her new high school, we comforted her then, too.
That's what you do when you're a parent. You're there to help.
At some point, though, your child stops wanting your help all the time. She may not, hypothetically, want you to drive her to the Walgreen’s to pick up contraceptives for her. She might say something like, "No, dad, I will walk." She may roll her eyes when she returns and you ask if it went okay. She may also, it turns out, not tell you that she's experiencing serious depression. Or that she's questioning her gender identity and is trans.
You Don’t Always Realize How Fast Your Daughter Is Growing Up
We weren't totally out of the loop. We knew that remote learning—sitting in front of a screen for eight hours a day—was making her anxious and depressed. We also knew she was experimenting with gender expression. She was wearing make-up and eyeliner and necklaces, and presenting more femme, especially when her new significant other came over. Still, we weren’t the ones she confided in.
Instead, she confided in Angela, that new significant other. They started dating over the summer, mostly over text and FaceTime, while we lived in our COVID fallout shelters. In the evening, Sam would disappear for hours—we'd hear her voice chattering along from her basement room, giggling or dramatically expostulating (Sam's an actor, and a truly spectacular dramatic expostulator). All is well, we thought. Young love! Hooray!
Alas, all was not exactly well. A lot of what Sam and Angela were talking about was depression, anxiety and gender dysphoria. Sam had figured out she was a trans girl and Angela figured out they were non-binary. Even though Sam knew we’d be fine with her coming out as trans (we'd told her so). (Parents! Tell your kids you will accept them if they're trans!)
It's still a big step, and she was nervous about admitting it to us and to herself. Being locked in the house for months without being able to see friends or travel to France (she had a trip scheduled) didn't help either. It was only when she started cutting her bicep with a pocket knife that she was scared enough to tell us what was happening.
When Your Daughter Grows Up, It’s Natural for Them to Confide in Others
While we were being clueless and largely useless, Angela was her support structure. The details of that support structure are a little fuzzy from my perspective, since I wasn't privy to any of their conversations. I've barely spoken a dozen sentences to Angela at this point, though they’ve been to the house (wearing a mask) a couple of times. Mostly, they pass by us fairly quickly, pausing only to try to win over our Siamese kitten. (The first couple of times the kitten ran from them, but Angela has successfully wooed it by cooing and rustling plastic bags.)
Like the kitten, I don't know Angela well. They haven't even tried to court me with rustling plastic. But I do know that whenever my daughter gets to see them or even talk to them, her depression lifts. I know that when we took Sam to the hospital for suicidal ideation, and were up until four in the morning, Angela was on the phone with her as late as my daughter wanted them to be, offering a lot more practical help than the doctors did. (Mental health care in this country is generally not good, and the mental health care we received did not break that mold. That's another story. But it was horrible.)
Part of Letting Kids Grow Up Is Losing Them to Others
According to hallowed tradition and a lot of sitcoms, parents are supposed to hate and resent their child's significant other. This is mostly about hating and resenting the fact that your kids grow up and have sex. But it's also about being sad that you aren't the primary support structure for your child anymore. At one time, the child needed you to roll her around the neighborhood, and stuff her with Cheerios to keep her quiet. And then, one day, she crawls out of the stroller, grows up and takes those Cheerios with her own paw. Or, worse, she turns around and asks someone else to get Cheerios for her.
That new, designated Cheerios retriever is by definition going to be something of a stranger. Children find their own friends. Becoming an adult is, in part, the process of determining the people with whom you want to share your problems before bringing them to your parents. As parents, you're bound to resent those other problem solvers. But you also have to be grateful to them. After all, the greatest kindness a stranger can do is love someone that you care about better than you're able to love them yourself.