When Fall and Halloween Became Falloween: An Analyst’s Personal Story

Aisha Abbasi

When I was asked if I would be willing to write an article for TAP about my experience of being the mother of a transgender adult child, I agreed. I feel it’s important for those of us who are analysts to share such personal experiences. Honest sharing of this kind often helps decrease the stigma that still exists around the topic, provides guidance for other families dealing with similar situations, and gradually moves analytic discourse in newer directions.

My husband and I had our first child, assigned female at birth, about three years after we got married. For the sake of my (now) son’s privacy, I will not say much about his life growing up. He started a five times a week analysis by his own choice when he was 17, which continued for eight or nine years. My son’s analyst suggested we see another child/adolescent psychoanalyst for parental guidance, which my husband and I initially found useful in terms of raising an older teen and then a young adult child. As first generation Pakistani-Americans raising our first child in the States, we needed help particularly in areas where the cultural norms and expectations of our country of origin clashed strongly with those of our adopted country, which was, after all, our child’s homeland. This help we received from the analyst we consulted with. Much needed other help, we did not.

In 2009, sometime after he turned 21, I started realizing our young adult child might be transgender. My husband and Idiscussed this, but it was clear our child was not yet ready to share this with us. We waited. Our son came out to us openly when he was 22 and about to graduate college. Our younger child, our daughter, was eight years old then. Although we were preparing for this news, and although it was a relief to finally know for sure and to be able to start dealing with this new reality, it was nonetheless a period of intense turmoil for all of us.

Memories of the first few months and years

It is often said when an individual or their family comes out, the very first people they come out to are extremely important, and what these people say will be remembered forever. The very first person I reached out to was my analyst. I had gone back into analysis some months prior to my son’s coming out to us, feeling that something momentous was about to happen and I would need help understanding and dealing with it. My analyst’s first few comments were about my distress and his wanting to help me with it but also that he was deeply impressed that my husband and I had “raised a child who loves you both and who prizes her own integrity.” He might not have been immediately savvy about my son’s new pronouns, but his focus on the importance of authenticity and truth was right on. It was an approach that highlighted for me what is really important in life, and one that has since helped me help many of my own patients.

I spoke next on the phone with my sister in England. She was enormously helpful, concerned about my son’s well-being while supporting my husband and me in our roles as parents.

From the Diversity Editor

Aisha Abbasi, in this heartfelt account, describes how she and her family responded when her son came out as transgender in 2010. Although the experience was challenging at times, Abbasi’s grace and generosity shine through as she portrays a family who reacted to their son with open hearts rather than skepticism. She writes about the poignant responses she received at the time, including those from her analyst and her mother, who offered guidance about how to lead with acceptance. She also writes about unhelpful responses she heard, those founded in shame and confusion, that could have led her in the wrong direction had she not such a clear inner compass and the support of those around her. Abbasi and her husband’s respectful love for their son, and their willingness to be self-reflective and curious about him despite difficult feelings of loss, serve as a guide for how we all might approach gender nonconforming individuals in our lives, whether loved ones or patients.

—Justin Shubert

I talked then with my brothers. My older brother shared how one of his professors at the University of Chicago, Deirde McCloskey, had come out as a transgender woman in 1995 at the age of 53. By that time, McCloskey had been married to a woman for 30 years and had two children. As was not uncommon, McCloskey had suffered for years before coming out. I read in detail about her story. In presentations she gave after her transition, she shared that as a child she used to stammer. Every night, when praying to God, she would ask for two things: “God, please take away my stammer and make me a girl.” After her transition, she pointed out that God had obviously granted one of her wishes. (The stammer never fully went away.) I was pained by her pain and moved by her conviction and courage.

These thoughts were with me when my husband and I went to see our son at his college out of town. It was a weekend when students were giving presentations about projects they had been working on. Our son looked more masculine than when we had seen him in the fall the year before. We all hugged tightly, glad to be together, even as we grappled with what was still very new and felt very fragile. My husband said he felt, in meeting with our son now, as though a boat that had been floundering in a stormy ocean had finally come to shore. His words captured beautifully my own internal sense that our son was more at peace then, compared to any other time over the few years prior.

My husband and I came back home. We had planned with our son that we would talk with our daughter about her brother’s transition, and then we would all attend his college graduation together. We sought good help before we talked with our eight-year-old daughter. It was help that served us well during a time that was full of difficult and conflicting feelings. We were deeply glad and relieved for our son, that he could now live more fully as himself. At the same time, we were not unaware that the years to follow would be difficult and challenging for all of us. We also worried about our daughter, wondered how to help her with the changes she would see and deal with, and the loss of the older sister she had known. She had many mixed reactions, of course, and we all talked about the change, that it was difficult and painful for us but right for our son. When she saw her brother a month later, a new journey of acceptance began.

One of the most moving and helpful responses came from my mother in Pakistan. A retired physician, she was then very ill, recovering from a severe episode of spinal stenosis and had to be moved temporarily from her own home in Abbottabad to my brother’s home in Islamabad. I needed to postpone my plans to visit her and asked my brother to share my email with her, so she would know why I was not going to see her just then. He told me she read the email while lying in bed in pain, closed her eyes momentarily, and then said softly, as though to herself, “What cannot be cured, must be endured.” I do not believe, of course, that being transgender is something that needs to be cured, nor did my mother. My sense is that she understood, right away, that courage and endurance would be needed for this new reality in our lives that could not be changed.

My mother then asked my brother to call me on the phone so she could speak with me. She told me she had never before personally known a transgender person but that she knew about it. Her message to me and to my husband was simple and powerful: that our most important task was to be deeply understanding of our child’s suffering and needs and to help him in all the ways he needed help at this tough point in his life. A devout and practicing Muslim, she had no qualms and no confusion about what was needed and what was right for her grandchild. It was a message that helped me in turn reach the deepest recesses of my mind and heart and to become a much better mother than I had ever been before.

…when an individual or their family comes out, the very first people they come out to are extremely important, and what these people say will be remembered forever.

Our son came to live with us at home after graduating college while going through a part of his transition. It was a chance for all of us to reconnect and to get used to the externally different persona my son was developing. This brought him great peace as his external presentation began to match more and more his evolving sense of himself. It was also a time when he and his sister could begin to reconnect, as my daughter grappled, in her own characteristic way, with the changes in her life.

A few more months went by. Fall was approaching. I said to my daughter that it had been a hell of a year, and it was now time to have a hell of a party. I thought she would want to plan a party for Halloween. Instead, she decided we should celebrate Falloween, a combination of fall and Halloween. It was a poignant and powerful moment as I realized her young mind was working hard with the notion of combinations. That year, she decided to be a devil in red for Falloween, and her brother helped her with her face makeup. We had ponies in the backyard and petting animals. Many of her friends from elementary school came and met her brother. The tradition of Falloween went on for four years, after which it was put away, and Halloween became the focus again.

My husband and I had decided we would share, simply and directly, the news, with friends both in the local analytic community and in the Pakistani community, that our eldest daughter was now our son. It was a very moving time. Some friends brought gifts for my son, honoring the gender he had now declared. Others came by just to say hello. There was an outpouring of love and support.

That first year, when my son stayed with us, I was grateful to have that time with him. We’d sit on the porch as he strummed his guitar, and we talked about many of the things over the last few years that felt so confusing to me as I witnessed changes in him I couldn’t fully understand. Along with the joy of having him back with us and seeing him more at ease, I was also in mourning for the daughter I felt I had lost. I missed the softness of my daughter’s cheek, the dark swathe of her long hair, the beauty that had been so particularly hers…but I also came to realize what for me had been a pleasure had been for him, my son, a terrible and painful burden. And gradually, very gradually over the next few years, as my son’s transition progressed, I realized I was falling in love with, and loving deeply, all over again, this child of ours who now had a different form. His infectious smile, his wicked sense of humor, his beard, his muscles, his growing interest in things his father was interested in were slowly but surely being etched in my mind and heart. It was as though the new image of my son had become superimposed on the old image of my daughter. Over time, it became possible and then even pleasurable to look at old family photo albums, something that felt painful in the very early period of my son’s transition.

After living with us for about nine months (the significance of which one can only surmise), my son moved into his own apartment, started one career, decided it was not for him, and went into another line of work which he loves and is very successful at; married, remarried, and is now happily settled with his husband. He and his sister are close, confidants and supporters for each other, and when we all gather, the home is full of love and laughter.

Unhelpful responses after our son came out

What was not helpful were certain relatives who, unconsciously terrified of the idea of a transgender person, advised us to encourage our son to go to the East or West Coast “where most such young people go,” and for us to visit him there—in other words, to keep this a secret. Some insisted that the very same bright individual they had loved and cited in the past as an example of a mature young person must now be confused and just going through “a bad phase.”

To these relatives, I responded that we were in a state of sadness and mourning—a strange mourning because there are no external rituals to mark this kind of loss. At the same time, we desperately wanted to help our FTM (female-to-male) transgender son stay safe while going through his transition. We wanted him to find a measure of relief and wellbeing. I said we would, therefore, welcome words and deeds of solace and comfort, but those who could not offer that should please stay silent: “If you are not able to help, please don’t say and do hurtful things.” I added that my husband and I were clear that no child of ours ever needed to leave town out of a sense of shame or to maintain secrecy. They were certainly welcome to leave when they wished, but for the right reasons.

…very gradually over the next few years, as my son’s transition progressed, I realized I was falling in love with, and loving deeply, all over again, this child of ours who now had a different form.

We received another unhelpful response from the analyst who had been providing parental guidance to us for a few years. When we told him that my son was transgender, and, after visiting him in college, we all felt relief to know the truth/the reality, and, as a family, were planning next steps, the analyst replied he was glad things were working out well but added, “I have never heard of anything like this before.” This was the year 2010. I was dumbfounded and angry. My husband and I then sought another analyst, someone savvy in matters of gender and sexuality, for parental guidance regarding our younger child.

At work

In the first year of my son’s transition, I felt deeply supported by members of my national psychoanalytic study group—Group for the Study of the Psychoanalytic Process (GSPP). When I sent them a letter explaining why I had to cancel plans to attend the group’s meeting that year, the members of this private study group, initially founded by psychoanalyst Gail Reed, were profoundly supportive and compassionate in the deepest possible ways. Lena Ehrlich, a colleague and dear friend here in Michigan, extended a loving, wise, and empathic understanding that is her special hallmark. Other friends reached out. A response to my letter from Dominique Scarfone, who was then a GSPP member, is a message I have always cherished. With his permission, that note became part of a paper I co-authored. Here, I will share a part of that message:

I already knew that you were a poet, but I had understood you wrote poetry in Urduh (pardon my eventual misspelling). What I heard in your letter is the most moving poetry in English, but it was also poetry in more ways than literary. If I were to say this to anyone else about your letter, I would probably seem to have underestimated the importance of the issue, but it will not escape you, as a poet, that poetry is the most serious thing in this world, and I mean it literally. I mean poetry as poïesis, that is creation, and life itself. And I heard just that in the letter by which you so generously made me and the group witness, without any exhibitionism, of this difficult passage in the life of your family. I am not ashamed to say that I was moved to tears, sensing how difficult it must be (have been) and yet, how wide and warmly welcoming is your motherly heart to make you able to write those words. You are therefore a poet with words, but also a poet as a giver of life, twice indeed to the same child. For I believe that your child who felt compelled to undergo such a drastic change will be grateful to you for the gift of understanding and support, in the midst of the pain of it all. I can only imagine, and can certainly not imagine well enough, what you, your husband, your children, must have gone through. And yet, from what I sensed in your letter and from what I had already sensed emanating from your person, is the feeling that you were able to reach to the deepest layers of your being and to find new sources of love and support for your child, new words for the new person and new understanding for the previous one who could not go on in his/her old skin. I want to thank you deeply for the privilege I, along with the others, was given to be made witness of such an important moment in your existence.

APsaA’s Committee on Gender and Sexuality was another safe and nurturing space for me during the first few tumultuous years following my son’s coming out. At the national level, it was there, at a Committee meeting, where I told my and my family’s story. Colleagues and friends, especially Don Spivak, provided both support and an analytic understanding of what transition involves for both the individual and the family.

As patients heard that I had a transgender child, they were able, gradually, to bring their feelings about this into treatment. They often tested the waters first, though, to see if I could tolerate their talking about it. Initially, they wondered what my husband and I did wrong so that our child had “become transgender”; then they wondered how things were still okay at home with my family; and with time, many of them were able to talk about their envy regarding the acceptance and love they imagined my son received from me and my husband …which brought up pain about what had been lacking in their own lives. I’ve written about this in detail in a chapter in my book The Rupture of Serenity: External Intrusions and Psychoanalytic Technique.

I’ve always believed in the importance of being honest and open with my patients while trying to make sure the focus of their analyses remains on our working together to understand their minds. And I felt I could offer my patients nothing less when it came to this aspect of my life. So as patients heard, or read, about my having a transgender child, and asked about it, I met their questions with candor while also protecting my son’s privacy and that of my family, and safeguarding against being overstimulating or exhibitionistic: not an easy road to traverse but definitely possible. I made it clear to my patients that this was not a secret, and not something I could not or would not talk about. And at the end of the day, these discussions led to a deeper exploration and understanding of their lives. APSAA

Dr. Aisha Abbasi is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and a Supervising Analyst at the Florida Psychoanalytic Center. She is the author of The Rupture of Serenity: External Intrusions and Psychoanalytic Technique and the co-editor of Privacy: Developmental, Cultural, and Clinical Realms. She is also a published poet in her mother tongue (Urdu).