Maureen's Story: What Acceptance Looks Like

Maureen's Story: What Acceptance Looks Like

October is LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I will be featuring transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hope to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights.

By Maureen Kelleher, Chicago writer and parent of a transgender daughter

In late December 2011, I arrived on a Pilsen doorstep hoping to resolve a classic parenting bind. Earlier that month I had launched my 2-year-old into day care with high hopes that it would finally end my years of paying a half-time nanny too much of what I earned as a freelance writer. But within three days, we were done with that center.

The toddler room—squashed between the spacious preschool and the cozy infant rooms—was clearly the redheaded stepchild of the business. Although the director had assured me the center could handle my dairy-free child’s dietary issues, yogurt was on the morning menu every day.  I asked: how are you going to keep a curious two-year-old out of everyone else’s yogurt? They had no answer to that.

So, well before Christmas, the nanny was back and I was scouring the Internet for new preschool possibilities. Somehow Google led me to Pilsen Montessori, a relatively new preschool that accepted children as young as two-and-a-half.  And they featured Spanish-English dual language! I stood on the doorstep feeling the mixture of hope and anxiety that every day care visit brought on.

When Aimeé Galban opened the door, I entered a beautiful world. The long room held 14 cubbies, shining hardwood floors, carefully arranged cabinets for children to take out the equipment they needed for both practical and academic work, and a spacious kitchen in the back. Aimee quickly let me know that yes, Pilsen Montessori already accommodated children with a variety of food allergies, and every day she cooked fresh, communal meals that every child could eat. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

Within 20 minutes I was tearing up as I told her about the past year. The previous December, my husband’s retina had detached, putting him out of work for five months and leaving me our sole provider.  We had already been dealing with our child’s failure to thrive due to multiple food sensitivities. The medical issues and financial challenges we had faced all came pouring out. Unflappable Aimeé listened with grace and kindness to my tale of woe.  I knew right away this was a place that would support not just my child, but me, too.

In late March, Roberto started preschool for three half-days a week. The change was hard on my little guy. Roberto was very shy at first and the separation was tough on both of us. Half days ended after his usual naptime start, and pushing him on to a new schedule took time.

But slowly, Roberto began to blossom at school. He would bring home books about trees and flowers, and dove into Montessori map-making. Our walls proudly display his maps of Australia, North and South America, Europe and the United States. Driving home from school, he would tell me stories about his friends and let me know he wanted to go on playdates.

By age five, Roberto was spending five full days at preschool and staying for dinner once a week. He had carved out his own niche at school and made friends. Pilsen Montessori was his second home. But his fifth birthday came in late August, and off he went to kindergarten. Thanks to the strong ties built through parent get-togethers, fundraisers and an annual camping trip, we knew the change didn’t mean we would lose our community.

But more changes I didn’t see coming were in the works. This is Affirmed Mom, right, so you know where this story is going. I’ve told the story of my child’s gender transition elsewhere, so suffice to say that by halfway through kindergarten, my “son” had let me know to call her she and use the female version of her name. As it happened, we changed schools mid-year for other reasons, but the switch offered us a fresh start where Roberta could just be known as a girl to her peers.

Maybe our preschool’s assistant teacher saw it coming before I did. Her fifth-birthday gift to my child was a book called Yoon Goes to Kindergarten, the story of a Korean girl whose short hair leads her to be mistaken for a boy. Once she gets to know her new classmates, she feels free to be herself, short hair and all.

Before we transitioned I read horror stories of the experiences other families had making the switch. Some were literally run out of their homes at gunpoint by hostile neighbors. Though I didn’t really believe anything that bad would happen to us, I didn’t know what might, and I felt afraid.

What I didn’t expect was how supportive our Pilsen Montessori friends would be. When I let our friends know about the change, they took it in stride. “What pronouns should I use? I really want to be supportive,” one friend emailed. “Roberta prefers she,” I replied. More than one parent offered us hand-me-downs to launch her new wardrobe. The playdates didn’t stop; if anything, they stepped up.

When some of Roberta’s old preschool pals made comments like, “He can’t wear a dress—he’s a boy!” their parents were there to explain Roberta is a girl in her brain and her heart and she can wear whatever she wants to wear. The kids adjusted quickly.

When I posted our story on social media, our Pilsen Montessori friends were the first to comment and share. At our elementary school, staff and a handful of parents know about Roberta. She prefers to keep her story private and I respect that. But everyone at our preschool knows who Roberta was and who she is now. We will never have to worry about someone finding out something they shouldn’t know, because everyone knows her full history. I find that liberating and hope that as Roberta gets older she will, too.

Last Friday night, Roberta and I went to Mom’s Night, a monthly get-together where the kids play and the moms enjoy a much-needed happy hour.  Back in the day, I used to have to pry Roberta off me and urge, “Go play!” to get a few minutes of adult conversation. Not any more. Roberta played in the garden, built block structures and took care of the smaller children, all without my participation.

By the end of the night, a handful of us were left to reminisce. “I remember when you first came to see me, in December, and how hard it was for Roberta in the beginning. But look at her. She is so strong now,” said Aimee, taking my hand.

Then the dance music started and Roberta took the floor. We moms formed a circle and Robbie owned the middle, flashing karate moves, tap steps and intricate hand circles. She is strong now. Thanks, Pilsen Montessori, for all you’ve done to help her get there.

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 Special thanks to Mary Tyler Mom who inspired this unique and beautiful way of honoring LGBT History Month.
photo credit: Classroom detail I via photopin (license)

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