By Eden Stratton
“So what’s the deal with you?”
I sit stiffly in my chair, eyes trained on my computer screen. I feel a hand grip my heart, panic rising in my chest. My throat squeezes in on itself, trying to keep the fear from bubbling beyond my lips.
“What about me, Mom?”
“Well, this whole they/them thing,” she asks curtly.
God, she had been in such a good mood today.
I don’t want to fight her on this one. For once, there’s no retaliation or witty quip on my tongue. No diversions or antics. Even my dog is nowhere to be found, her walnut-sized brain smart enough to recognize when there’s tension in a room.
We’ve done this before: Yelling, hard stares, years-old grudges dug out of history and laid bare in front of our feet. They’re hard to look at and much less to acknowledge. Each represents a failure from one or both of us, and we’re similar enough that we’d prefer not to admit it.
My mother picks and chooses when she and I are alike. She claimed me viciously for every high school achievement, every “A.” But for every moment of pride, there were always moments of disappointment. Moments where I was too brash, too stubborn. I hated her honesty, and she resented mine. We would seeth, our too-identical jaws clenching until our teeth rubbed flat – my little brothers held hostage in the warzone of our kitchen. In the midst of our fury, it was clear whose daughter I was.
An argument my sophomore year sums it up best:
“You’ve always been your father’s daughter, Eden. You always liked him best.” I bit my tongue, choking on the words she always wanted me to say.
My mother didn’t have an easy life either. She blamed herself for the divorce between her and my dad. They were too different; she was too ambitious and he was too content. Wracked with guilt for the effect it had on her children, she found solace in religion, in eternal forgiveness that would help her family get back on track. She worked days and nights, pushing her body beyond its limits to make sure that we had everything and more.
While the divorce had been amicable, my mother wasn’t the kind of person to rely on a man.
But, in the end, she didn’t do it out of spite.
She did it for us.
“Do you really want me to tell you?” It’s a new tactic – I haven’t tried to give my mother an “out” before.
It does little to quell my nerves. My voice doesn’t sound quite right, as if I’m a sock puppet and someone is opening my mouth for me.
For a moment, I blame myself. I was supposed to keep things quiet, not to rock the boat as violently as I had years before. I was too careless, and my mother’s questioning was a consequence of my recklessness. Two little words—they/them—on my Instagram profile had finally given me away. Suddenly I’m reliving the first time coming out to my mother all over again.
It was horrible.
I was 15, young, and very much confused. We were at a waterpark with my brothers, on a hot, sunny day where it felt like you were melting every moment you stepped out of the pool. I had thought about coming out before. I knew who I was from a young age, and my brief stint with my ex-boyfriend had done little to quell it.
My mother and I sat on the edge of the water, our feet close enough to touch.
“So what’s the deal with you?” she asked.
I’d been a nervous wreck for weeks, wondering how I was going to tell her. I hadn’t mentioned it to another living soul, and my mother knew something was weighing on me.
It blurted from my lips.
“I think I’m gay.”
It stands as one of my worst memories. My mother didn’t believe me, her face curled into something between disbelief and horror. We had argued, right there in the waterpark, before calling it quits and driving my brothers home in thick silence.
I learned later that she thought someone had either coerced me or that I was doing it simply because “a lot of people are saying they’re gay nowadays.” That singular argument led to the start of fiery years full of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Sometimes they were petty, others not, but all of them were connected to one sentence that became our personal Pandora’s Box.
After I went to college, my bouts with my mother almost ceased entirely. I got older, and my anger began to fade. I realized that despite the thousand-mile distance between us, I didn’t want to live my life without her. We found a sense of common ground, and we focused on our similarities, our shared sense of ambition.
There was just one thing I never told her: I wasn’t her daughter anymore.
I had realized I was non-binary, and it was heavenly. Finally, after years of feeling wrong and out of place, I could finally make something feel like me. I told my friends, I was open about it on campus. I added my pronouns to my Instagram, foolishly believing my family would never see them. Going home and pretending to be someone else wrecked me, but I couldn’t risk the life I had built for myself.
“I’d like to know, Eden. Just tell me.”
I feel 15 again, my feet dangling into endless water, and I know that I’ll be pushed off the edge.
But this time is different because I never told her. She figured it out herself.
It deserves some honesty.
So I tell her. I tell her how I’ve felt like I’m a different person all my life. Someone who wears a mask perpetually, never knowing if that’s really their face. I tell her about cutting my hair—how it was the most euphoric feeling of my life. How I started to actually love myself.
She stays silent. Then says she doesn’t understand.
I tell her I don’t expect her to, it’s different.
It’s not perfect. But it’s a start.
Eden Stratton is a third-year political science and magazine, news, and digital journalism student. While they enjoy writing freeform pieces, they find satisfaction in reporting the stories of others. In their free time, Eden can be found driving down a backroad or making a nice cup of coffee.