“Mommy, Mommy, come quick!” my daughter shrieked at the top of her lungs while taking her nightly shower, her voice so piercing I suspected the worst.
“What’s wrong?” I screamed as I closed my computer, jumped up from the couch and ran toward the kids’ bathroom. I tripped over a rogue backpack left lying in the middle of the hallway and just barely caught myself before I stumbled through the door.
“Are you okay, love?” I asked, slightly out of breath and looking through the shower steam for anything awry.
“Are you okay?” Gabby* asked sarcastically. I could see her through the shower door, loofah in hand, suds all over her body, a slight smile forming as the water splashed down around her.
“You scared me. What’s the matter?”
“Oh, sorry, nothing’s the matter,” she said. “I was washing myself, and the loofah hurt my boobs. Do you think they’re growing?”
I laughed. “They might be, G. They really might be.”
“Yay!” she squealed. And then: “You can go now.”
Accustomed to being summarily dismissed by my 13-year-old twins, I chuckled to myself and headed back to the living room, hoping my daughter’s boobs were indeed growing.
Unlike my daughter, I’d been an early bloomer when it came to “developing,” as my mom called it. I distinctly remember my boobs beginning to poke through my favorite pink Izod shirt in the spring of fifth grade. One day after class in mid-June, my math teacher said to me with a giggle, “Wow, Katie, June is busting out all over.” While that language wouldn’t fly in today’s educational environment, my teacher’s observation was accurate: My breast buds were beginning to form.
Several months later, my mom took me for my first bra fitting. Several years later, when it became abundantly clear that my boobs were, well, abundant, I became a regular at the bra and swimsuit specialty store two towns away. I quickly learned that a slender build, small back and big breasts meant I would not be an off-the-rack bra or bikini buyer. Decades later, when I gave birth to twin boys, I assumed my children wouldn’t be any type of bra or bikini buyers. I was wrong.
Gabriella socially transitioned from Gideon when she was 8 years old and realized she was transgender. Candidly, I’d suspected Gabby was trans since he was about two. It wasn’t simply his affinity for shoes — we’d walk down the street and he’d point to passersby and excitedly squeal, “heels, flats, heels, flats.” Or that he was just as obsessed with princesses, dresses and my bras as his twin brother was with baseball cards, trucks and the Yankees. I just knew.
While emotionally draining (um, the understatement of the century) for our whole family, Gabby’s first few years living as her authentic self were, in retrospect, easier than what would come after. After all, socially transitioning “only” meant calling herself by a different name, using female pronouns, growing her hair and shopping for and wearing girls’ clothes. No medical procedures were involved; nothing was irrevocable.
Hitting puberty two years later meant making bigger decisions — economical, physical and emotional ones. Gabby already hated her penis and didn’t want it to grow any bigger. (What she really wanted was to get rid of it altogether, although sexual reassignment surgery is only available to people 18 and older.) She also feared getting a deeper voice, an Adam’s apple or facial hair.
Enter puberty blockers.
Historically, puberty blockers were used to treat children who went into puberty too early — the idea being that there are social and emotional benefits of postponing puberty until their peers are going through it, doctors have explained to TODAY. Guidelines from the Endocrine Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health all recommend that transgender adolescents be offered blockers to suppress puberty.
They help buy time for kids like Gabriella, allowing them to solidify their gender identity and ensure it’s not just a phase without developing secondary sexual characteristics. This way, if Gabriella later decides not to transition, she could simply stop taking the puberty-blocking medication and her body would go through traditional male puberty.
With the help of a gender therapist and an endocrinologist — both of whom Gabby had been seeing for several years to monitor her emotional and physical development — our daughter was prescribed puberty blockers as soon as the first signs of puberty presented themselves.
Phew. No further penis growth. No manly abs. No deep voice. But, also, no boobs. That wasn’t a problem for Gabby when she was only 10, but it was a concern when her friends began growing boobs and curves a couple years later, while her chest remained flat, her hips straight.
“Mommy, I want boobies, too,” she told me more than once. “Not like yours, though, no offense. Yours are sort of droopy.”
“No offense taken,” I laughed. “Though, to be fair, they were a lot prettier before I gave birth to you and your brother.”
Gabby laughed. But her laughs quickly turned to longing as more of her friends began wearing bras and filling out their bathing suits. It was bad enough, Gabby said, that she had to wear shorts over her bikini bottoms to hide her penis. Not having anything to show for herself up top was adding insult to injury.
“Mom, I want to look like a real girl,” she began saying with greater frequency. “I’m never gonna be a real girl.”
“You do look like a real girl. You are a real girl,” I fully believed and wanted desperately to say. But I knew those words wouldn’t help. So instead, I validated her feelings and empathized as well as I could. “It must be really tough to feel that way,” I told her. “And even though I see things differently, I know this makes you sad. I’m so sorry, Gabby.”
“I just want to be like everyone else,” she cried. “I don’t want to be trans. It’s not fair.”
Gabby was right. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t choose to be trans. I don’t think anyone would choose to be trans. It’s simply who she is. Period. While gender-affirming surgery (aka sexual reassignment surgery) can ultimately give her a vagina, it still won’t change the fact that she’s transgender — and surgery, should she choose to have it, wouldn’t happen for years. Breasts, however, were a more immediate option.
“Once she starts taking female hormones, Gabby’s body will start to develop like a young woman’s,” our endocrinologist explained. Taking estrogen and progestin would help her develop breasts, softer skin and rounder hips, the doctor told us.
“So I’ll get boobs?” Gabby asked excitedly. “If I take the pills now, will I get them before camp?”
Gabby was finishing sixth grade. Sleepaway camp was a month away. Our doctor had explained it could take three to six months to notice any changes. And before she could begin taking hormones, Gabby would need to undergo blood tests, take a bone density exam and sign a waiver saying she understood the risks of taking the medications: an increased chance of blood clots, stroke, heart attack, even the possibility that she would be shorter than she otherwise would have been.
Part of me hoped my daughter would start taking the hormones sooner rather than later. I figured doing so would help her fit in better with the other girls. Another part of me wanted to postpone hormones. Up until that point, everything we’d done to help our daughter transition was reversible. Hormones were different. We were standing on the precipice of forever altering the physical and physiological trajectory of our child — not something we took lightly.
We were standing on the precipice of forever altering the physical and physiological trajectory of our child — not something we took lightly.
Gabby already had to make so many decisions other kids her age didn’t — whether to tell people she was trans, whether to go to mainstream camp or trans camp, whether to save sperm for the future. I didn’t want to add any more pressure.
Six months after camp and a couple of weeks after her thirteenth birthday, our daughter decided she was ready to begin taking the hormones. One small pill in the morning, one small pill at night. Less for the promise of big boobs, more for the hope that Gabby’s outsides would grow to match her insides.
The tender breasts in the shower were just the beginning. I’m pretty sure the pubescent mood swings have kicked in, and I could swear my daughter looked a little curvier in her tennis shorts and tank top the other day.
“Mommy, how does this bra look with this shirt?” she asked one recent morning while getting dressed.
“Fabulous, baby girl,” I told her. And I was telling the truth.
“Not sure I really need it yet,” she admitted. “But my chest is definitely growing. I can feel it. And soon I’ll have real boobs,” she said. “But not like yours,” she added with a smile.
“No,” I agreed. “Definitely not like mine.”
*The name of the author’s daughter has been changed to protect her confidentiality.