A Singular Tale of Plurality

11848987_1645232672425628_733755781_aA couple of months ago I began seeing a therapist. I wanted to change a habit, and so it made sense to me to find a hypnotherapist to help me do that. My reasoning was that if they could help people quit smoking, they could help me quit my habit.

The habit that needed to change was the use of the wrong pronoun in reference to my transgender son. I had been trying to use the masculine when referring to him, but I was only successful on the occasions when I slowed down my thoughts and words sufficiently. Most of the time, though, I would spontaneously use the feminine as in “Do you know where she is?” and immediately realize my mistake.

Recently, when I was standing in line with Jamie’s partner and friends, waiting to see his musical show about gender transition, I said “Oh, here she comes,” and saw the amusement on their faces. I caught myself right away, and tried to make a joke out of it by saying “I think there’s a song about that” (which there is*), but I could see that they were dismayed on Jamie’s behalf.  If they could adapt, why couldn’t I?

Even when I tried to slow down my thoughts, I found it easier to rearrange the sentences and use his name instead of a pronoun. For example, I might say something like “I was talking with Jamie the other day and Jamie said that in Jamie’s experience, producing a play was complicated.” As you can see, that is a construction without grace and so obviously forced as to make everyone uncomfortable. However, so far it has been the best I could do.


1982 149 editIn talking with the therapist I recounted a story of something that happened when Jamie was an infant. The story was supposed to be amusing but it made me cry to talk about the day when we decided to take pictures of our baby in each of the new outfits we had been sent as gifts. We dressed and undressed that child in one pink dress after another so that we could show friends and relatives how lovely the clothes looked on the baby.

I cried in part because I felt a sense of loss for the little girl I once had, and in part because I felt I had to erase the memory of the silliness and happiness of that day. If I were to now accept Jamie as male, I had to deny my child as female, and that meant denying thirty years of memories.

I was also angry. I was angry that I got it wrong, I presumed too much, I knew too little about gender, and I had so easily bought into the social norms around parenting and gender. I was angry at my total misunderstanding of what it all meant, and would mean for my child. It never even occurred to me to question whether or not gender was binary, and neither did anyone else at the time.

So this mishmash of thoughts and emotions came to the fore, and helped me to understand my inability to use masculine pronouns in reference to Jamie. There was a deep-seated resistance tied to some happy moments in the past that I didn’t want to let go of. My therapist said something then that has stayed with me ever since. He said “You are one of the few people in the world who holds that thread; the thread of Jamie’s entire life,” and those words were a turning point for me. Suddenly, my memories became necessary, not something to try to negate.

In a subsequent meeting, I was recounting a recent lunch date I had with Jamie at which he was wearing a pin that said, simply “They. Them. Their.” Jamie had previously (a couple of years ago) said that he would prefer people to use they pronouns in reference to him, but I had pooh-poohed that idea. I said something like “You must be kidding! Both your mother and your mother-in-law were English teachers. There’s no way we are going to refer to you in the plural.” As far as I was concerned, there was no such thing as a singular they. Since then, though, I have softened on that position.

I realized that we do, in fact, use they pronouns in reference to singular subjects quite often, especially if the gender of the subject is unknown or irrelevant. You might say “A journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources,” without giving it a second thought. Or, “How do you like your new teacher? Do they want you to bring notebooks to class?”  Also, if you refer back to the first paragraph of this essay, you’ll see that I used the singular they in reference to a single person and when you read it, you didn’t find it odd. So, using they pronouns in reference to Jamie isn’t out of the question.

In fact, that is my new resolution.  I’m going to try to switch to using the singular they. That way I can include in my language and in my perceptions of both the infant who wore pink and the adult who now does not. It makes so much sense to me. I don’t have to negate those memories; I can incorporate them into the new understanding. Just don’t expect me to get it right all the time! That would be asking too much.




*The Coming Out Song










  1. Thank you for this post, Anne. I am also the mother of a wonderful young transgender man. He is nineteen and starting university and I am so proud of him and don’t wish him to be any different. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by his insight and courage but I also stumble with pronouns and phrases — then feel a sinking disappointment in myself. I see him flinch and I feel like I stabbed him with a red-hot needle. I want my son to know that I fully support him as he struggles with this transition and all the negativity that he gets from the world. I don’t want him to think that secretly his own mother does not accept him — all because I can’t fix my habit of referring to him as her.

    My question for you is: Does hypnotherapy work? Are you able to consistently use the correct pronoun, now?

  2. I love reading your posts! There is something so genuine and nonthreatening in your words and expressions. Something I have become aware of over the years in my own life is that at times when I was feeling uncertainty or less confident and assure of myself I also was “hypersensitive” about words, phrases and the thoughts of others.

    Many times in life we can be our own worst enemy. As I was reading this I was thinking I have made this same mistake in speaking of my son or daughter and it was simply that, a mistake. Neither one is transgendered. I have also inserted the “wrong names” when calling out to them, as I think many moms have.

    It is a blessing in life when we find that place where we are simply and genuinely comfortable with who we are, and that is when we can relax into being content. When we find that wholehearted contentment there is an intuition and understanding for genuine word mistakes and a confidence to understand that nasty intentional words are the problem of the person saying them. Although no one wants to be targeted, when we are confident in our own skin we are less hurt by the harmful ways of others.

    Prayers and blessing to everyone! With Respect, Hope, Joy and Love, Carmela

    • Thank you for this thoughtful response, Carmela. I know what you mean about sometimes using the wrong name for one of your children. My mother occasionally went through the list of her children’s names before she got to the right one, and there were six of us! It became a standing family joke, and no one resented it because, as you say, there was no ill intent. I’ll probably end up using a variety of pronouns before I get the right one. 🙂

      • I must tell you I recently had a bad break up. I am mending now and very cautious. Someone recently very kindly began conversation with me and wanted to take me on a date……. My answer was kind however I explained a bit of the situation and then very politely commented that “it is Me, Myself and I these days and for now we are very happy ….. So I suppose I am a plural pronoun these days too “We” 🙂

  3. It’s good to know I’m not alone in struggling to use the right pronouns! I’m sure you are doing the best you can, Marie. I have seen the therapist three times and it was enough to figure out my stumbling blocks. We mutually decided that that was good enough for now, and I have agreed to contact the therapist again in a little while when I have seen if using the singular ‘they’ will be easier for me to habitually use. Right now it is too soon to tell. I’ll probably write another blog post in a couple of months to give an update on my progress. In the mean time, it has helped to be able to discuss the journey with my son. As much as he would prefer me to consistently use either masculine pronouns or they pronouns, he is understanding of my difficulty.

  4. I cannot imagine what you have been through with this Anne, I had trouble when my daughter changed from the blonde she had always been to a brunette and now a redhead! I’m sure I would find it very hard to adjust to if she changed gender.
    I liken it to someone who changes their name – they have to be very determined and refuse to answer to the old name to get other people to accept it. With gender is it even harder. Whilst as a mother you always want to help and be understanding, it is always a two-way street.

  5. My oldest daughter has had two very sweet and gentle male friends who were gay and committed suicide. They needed to be accepted and she said they felt misunderstood and “unloved.” We certainly must love as many people as we can possibly meet. It would be quite a small heart to only love a few people. . . ❤

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