Josie came into this world creating a wake of love and happiness that rippled far and wide. At 10 pounds, 14 ounces and 22 inches long she looked more like a 3 month-old than a newborn as she lay swaddled in the hospital bassinette; her head with dark locks of hair touching one end, and her puppy dog feet, the other. Instead of a cry I swear she let out a giggle when the doctor held her up for us to see, which was our first clue that she would always possess a sunny disposition.
When word spread of her birth, hospital staff from every floor trekked to the maternity ward to behold the ‘big baby’ as they fondly called her. Giddy with pride and thankful for her safe arrival, we didn’t realize it at the time, but that first claim to fame would be her last for awhile, as she joined a family that was about to embark on a journey few had traveled….one that would take every ounce of our time and energy leaving little to none for Josie, who quickly became, the forgotten one.
Josie took her place behind Samantha who was four years her senior. A rough and tumble big sister who preferred matchbox cars to Barbies and bulldozers instead of baby dolls. Society had graciously given us the Tomboy label that we gladly used as a wishful excuse for her masculine ways, but, as we soon found out, our firstborn child was actually transgender.
Grappling with the unknown, countless hours were spent desperately seeking information that would help us understand why Sam’s mind and body did not match. Hours that took us away from Josie. And as we researched and worried about Sam, our second child grew before our eyes…eyes that were too weary and blinded by fear to see the beautiful person she was growing to be.
Piano recitals, dance performances, spelling bees and sporting events for Josie were a blur. I was there but I wasn’t, my mind focused not on the stage or softball field, but rather on the next steps we must take to help our first child become whole… doctors we had to find, insurance companies we were required to fight, teachers we needed to brief, lawyers we must retain. And all the while the forgotten one smiled, not noticing or perhaps noticing but understanding, even as a small child, that her parents were stretched beyond their limits, trying to do the best that they could for their family.
When Sam transitioned to be the boy he always knew he was, Josie was just seven years old. Wise beyond those years, when asked what she would say if her friends inquired about Sam, she only paused a moment before saying with a confident, front-tooth-missing smile, “I’ll tell them that I used to have a sister, but now I have a brother.” I remember being so proud but also ridden with guilt.
As is often the case when families have children with extra needs, siblings can fade into the woodwork; an unfortunate truth that was not lost on our family. Concerns about Sam’s safety, and his mental and physical wellbeing preceded everything else in our lives, often times making us feel like we were drowning in a sea of despair. On the rare occasion we would come up for air, there would be Josie, the smile on her face always providing a much needed ray of sunshine on an otherwise overcast existence we had come to accept as our new normal.
It was on one of those come-up-for-air days that I finally realized how much she had been forgotten. Running into an old friend on the post office stairs, we stopped to catch up. “How is the family?” she asked with genuine interest. She listened politely as I shared Sam’s latest trials and tribulations. When I paused to catch my breath, she pointed out my neglect in a way only a dear friend could, “It’s good to hear about Sam but you have another child too…how is Josie?” Her comment caught me off guard. So consumed by all things big and small in Sam’s life, I was acting like I only had one child.
Sick with remorse, I raced home to find Josie flopped in her usual position on the couch. Her chestnut brown locks thrown up in a bun on top of her head, she lounged in a much loved pair of pink and gray sweats, her gangly legs draping over the armrest. She had established her favorite after school command center — backpack within arms reach, a computer resting on her lap, and a bowl of popcorn on the coffee table before her, she would not have to move until dinner. At 5’6” and possessing a level of maturity well beyond her twelve years, she could easily pass for a college student.
She smiled when she saw me, but didn’t bother removing the buds that connected ears to iPhone. So used to me passing through the family room with my phone pressed to my head discussing something related to Sam, she knew that smile was the only sign of life I needed to let me know she was fine. But this time was different, today I was really here for her and I needed her to know that…needed and wanted her to understand how much my heart swelled with pride every time I looked at her. How much I appreciated the compassion, patience and love that she gave unconditionally to our entire family. How very much she meant to me. But most importantly I wanted to tell her that she would never again be forgotten. That I would never again allow fear and worry for one child, keep me from my responsibilities as a mother to both of my beautiful children.
I placed a deliberate kiss upon her forehead and hugged her with all my might and hoped that one day she would understand.
Just beautiful. I think all of us with a Transgender child can relate to this. Or a child with some need beyond the norm that takes us away from the day to day family attentiveness. My guess is that Josie knows you love her and is saving up for when she really needs you for something big. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for your kind words, Roz…it helps to know other parents feel the same way!
I can so relate to this. Our child just came out to us as transgender a few months ago and I feel like it’s all we have going on right now. Finding support groups, coming out to family and friends; it’s exhausting and stressful. Our younger daughter is 12 and sounds a lot like yours.
It is so exhausting and stressful, isn’t it, Jen? And it seems like it is something every day. Coming to that realization about my younger child, though, was really enlightening and helped me find a balance I had not had in many years.
This is breathtakingly beautiful. (*Remember what we talked about last week? You’re on my mind!) xo
Sibling relationships are amazing, but also challenging. As the youngest of 4 kids who had to stand out from my siblings, my heart hurts for Josie. I am particularly sensitive to kids who get the most from their parents.
It seems Josie knows her place in your family and is comfortable with that. As a mom, you can only do your best. Thank you for sharing your mom “guilt” on a topic others rarely address.
Once again you’ve knocked one out of the park with your writing…I’m in tears. As a parent with a child who has had an eating disorder for over 15 years you know the guilt I have lived with regarding my “other” child. I don’t know that I will ever stop feeling guilty for the neglect and stress she suffered as a result of our pre-occupation with trying to save our oldest child’s life.
I made a special chapter in my book just for the siblings but it still doesn’t feel like enough. I think I need to do something like you’ve done for Josie here. Write a tribute to her. She’s the one who kept us laughing…who got us to laugh in the midst of the horrors we were living with.
Thank you Leslie! And I’m lucky to have met your sweet Josie, what an angel. Sometimes I think those who have siblings with massive challenges become some of the most incredible people – even though they were incredible to begin with.
Hard truths but so much beauty in the vulnerability of naming them.
Both Josie and Sam are wonderful people and I am glad to know them!!! (As was Tiger and as is Zoubi)
Leslie, You are an amazing woman and mother. I was just thinking about mother guilt this morning and how I could have been a much better mother. We are our own worst critics. I am quite sure your kids would say you are the best mother ever!
This is making me cry, Leslie! Beautiful! You have 2 wonderful children!
I too, have an older child that requires more, needs more and a younger one with a sunny disposition who simply goes with the flow …
add in an unexpected divorce and the bottoming out of their world … sigh.
Day by day …
I’m feeling guilty, too, realizing I’ve done the same thing when I ask about your family; I’m so focused on the boy in that lovely story you read last year but in order to really know how you are , I need to ask how Josie is, too. How nice it must be to have this time with her at home while Sam tests out his wings in college.
Thanks Leslie got another beautiful essay. I can so relate to this! My transgender child is the youngest of two and I know my older teenager sometimes feels she is not getting enough attention…
Well done, friend! I think men could write something nice but they never would– but we certainly feel these feelings. I do not have the challanges you have but I think we all feel the same about how each of our kids are so unique and so great and are we showing them how much we really love them? Some are more on autopilot than others but this was a great reminder. I often think of you and how you and your family are doing. Thanks for your nice note–I owe you one or at least a phone call.
I suspect that you would have found a way to meet Josie’s needs had she needed them. Your family has managed to balance it all. Josie may have needed piano lessons, dance lessons, and spelling bees and you provided all of that. She is adored by her family. Let go of that mommy guilt and know that your children are amazing.
ahhhh this rang so true for me. Loved your words. I have 4 children all assigned female at birth and my eldest is genderqueer. I have experienced exactly what you described. My 13 yr old is the one who sounds just like Josie. Thank you xx
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