'Emma is a boy'

An Alpharetta mom adapts to life with a transgender child.
Winner of the second annual Personal Journeys Writing Contest.

It was a hot summer day, three weeks after school had ended. My girls and I were running errands in the car. Hannah, 16, was sitting in the front seat next to me. Emma, 12, was in the backseat. We had just turned into our neighborhood in Conyers when I glanced in the rear-view mirror and was struck by Emma’s reflection.

She was dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts — boy’s shorts because she was self-conscious of her thin legs and we couldn’t find any girl’s shorts that were long enough. Our last few trips to the beauty salon had ended with her hair shorter and shorter each time. Now it was above her shoulders in choppy layers.

“Can someone tell me why Emma wants to look like a boy?” I blurted.

My question was met with nervous laughter from both girls. I’d noticed the two of them had been spending a lot of time in Hannah’s room lately, and their chatter would usually stop when I walked in. It was obvious they were keeping something from me. I didn’t know what else to do but ask.

I waited for an answer. There wasn’t one. My anger grew at being excluded.

“Fine, don’t tell me.” I said.

“M-o-m,” Hannah said.

She drew out the word with a condescending tone, characteristic of teenagers who think they know more than their parents. Apparently she did in this case.

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

Hannah (left) helped facilitate communication between her sister and their mother when Emma (center) came out as transgender.


Confusion and disbelief

My husband Brian and I both grew up in Conyers and started dating in high school. We married after college and had three girls, first Elyse, then Hannah and finally Emma.

Hannah struggled in school and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder when she was 8. At age 11, we began homeschooling her. We were amazed by the changes after only a few short months. Emma had just finished sixth grade and at her request, I agreed to homeschool her the following year. It was likely we would be moving in the middle of the school year anyway. Brian, who works in construction, had recently gotten a new job in Alpharetta, and the commute was taking a toll on him and our family. We decided it was time to move.

In recent months I’d noticed that Emma had become moody and withdrawn, which was in stark contrast to the fun, energetic kid I was used to. I thought it was just part of being in middle school and the start of puberty. I hoped homeschooling would help.

A few days after the conversation in the car, I found Hannah alone in her room and asked her again what was going on with Emma. She hesitated at first, but finally came out with it.

“Emma is transgender,” she said matter-of-factly.

“What does that mean?” I had heard the term, but never thought much about it.

“Emma is a boy,” Hannah said.

“But Emma’s a girl. She can’t be a boy,” I said. It sounded ridiculous.

“She feels like she was supposed to be a boy instead of a girl.”

Confusion and disbelief settled in as I sank back in my chair. I tried to reason through it. Emma was clearly a girl. She couldn’t just decide she wanted to be a boy, could she?

“Why didn’t she tell me?”

I was hurt that she hadn’t felt she could confide in me. Hannah looked down.

“She was afraid of how you might react. She thought you might kick her out of the house.”

I was shocked.

“Why would she think that?”

Hannah shrugged her shoulders.

“She saw a lot of stuff on the internet. It kind of freaked her out.”

“I would never do that.” I couldn’t believe she would think such a thing.

“I know.” Hannah said. “I tried to tell her that, but she was scared.”

I told my husband later that night. He had the same reaction I did and asked the same questions I had. At that point it was hard to move past the shock and confusion to have any real discussion so nothing much was said over the next several days as we each tried to process what this would mean for our family.

I threw myself into packing and cleaning as we got ready to move.

I still wasn’t sure what to say, but I knew I needed to talk to Emma. I went to her room one afternoon. She had moved into Elyse’s old room since she was at college. We had packed most of her things away and the room was bare.

“Hannah told me what’s been going on,” I said

My voice was shaking, and I tried to hold back the tears. Emma gave me a sheepish grin and looked down.

“I just want you to know it’s OK,” I said, taking her hand and holding it tight. “We love you no matter what.”

She glanced up for a fraction of a second before looking away again. It was obvious she wasn’t ready to talk about it. I didn’t know what else to say so I got up and left the room.

Emma (right) gets a hand from her sister Hannah with walking on a fallen tree over the Chattahoochee River during a family outing.


Haircuts and underwear

A week later Emma found me in the kitchen one afternoon washing dishes.

“When can I get my hair cut?” she asked.

“I’ll make an appointment soon,” I said casually.

I tried to act like it was just another haircut. Like all the other dozens of times I had taken one of my girls to the beauty salon, but it wasn’t. This time Emma wanted her hair short, like boy’s hair short.

I tried to put her off each time she asked. She had already cut so much of it off. I wasn’t ready to see her long, straight, blonde hair gone.

I told Emma I was OK with her cutting her hair short, but the thing was, I wasn’t OK with it. This wasn’t what I wanted.

After the disbelief and shock had worn off, I went through a period of denial. Maybe it’s a phase, I told myself. I prayed and asked God to change it, to make Emma realize she was, in fact, a girl. The prayer was answered with silence.

I finally gave in and made the appointment.

“She wants it short,” I told the hairdresser as my chest tightened around my heart. I tried to ignore my own feelings and pretend this was normal.

“Like, how short?” The hairdresser asked. Emma showed her a picture on her phone. The hairdresser smiled.

“That will be so cute!” she said.

I breathed a sigh of relief and silently thanked her for not being judgmental. They walked to the back of the salon while I sat in the waiting area, picked up a magazine and waited nervously.

After a few minutes, I looked toward the back just as they were finishing up. What was left of Emma’s hair was now on the floor around her feet. I tried to prepare myself for this moment, but I hadn’t done a very good job. I swallowed past the lump in my throat as tears stung my eyes. The little girl I had known for the past 12 years was disappearing before my eyes. The ache in my chest was hard to ignore.

Emma jumped out of the chair and walked toward me. There was a huge smile on her face, and her eyes were bright and full of joy. She even seemed to be standing taller. I couldn’t help but smile. It had been a long time since I had seen her that happy.

Privately, Brian and I continued to discuss Emma’s transition, but we had more questions than answers. We held off on telling family and friends as we grappled with the situation. Hannah seemed to have a better grasp on things, so I usually went to her when I wanted to find out what was going on with Emma.

Walking into the boy’s department at Target a few days later, I almost expected someone to call me out for crossing the line between the girl’s and boy’s departments. Emma was excited. I faked my enthusiasm.

We were there to buy boy’s boxers. Again I had tried to stall Emma. Things were moving too fast for me and not fast enough for her. Each step brought me closer to the end of my daughter. I wanted to delay it as long as possible. Finally I had acquiesced.

Guiltily I laid the packages of boxers on the counter. Surely someone would come over and tell me I wasn’t allowed to buy those for my daughter, but before I knew it we had our bag and headed out of the store.

Before we got in the car Emma turned and hugged me.

“Thanks Mom,” she said.

When she let go I saw her huge smile again. I couldn’t believe how something like underwear could make her so happy. In that moment I realized it didn’t matter what she wore underneath her shorts. It was worth it to see her so happy.

Coming to terms with losing a daughter and gaining a son as Emma transitions genders has been a process for Melissa.


Answered prayers

In September our family went to see the Braves play at Turner Field. We were getting ice cream toward the end of the game, when I realized Emma had not used the restroom since we had gotten there. It had been several hours since we had left the house and Hannah and I had been twice.

I remembered the last time we had been at the stadium. Emma had started into the ladies’ room when an older woman stopped her and informed her that the men’s room was down the hall.

Emma explained she was a girl and the woman looked mortified and apologized profusely. Emma was embarrassed and hurried out of the bathroom.

“Has Emma been to the bathroom since we got here?” I whispered to Hannah. I looked back at Emma who was straggling behind.

“No,” Hannah said. “She doesn’t feel comfortable going in the women’s bathroom.”

“Tell her I don’t care which bathroom she uses. She can’t hold it in the whole time.” I waited while Hannah went back to relay the message.

This time Emma chose the men’s room. She was done in a few minutes and we proceeded through the stadium without any further incident.

I put on a brave face and pretended all of this was normal, but I still struggled inwardly. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that Emma was a boy.

Driving in the car alone one day, an overwhelming sense of helplessness came crashing down on me. With no one around, the tears started pouring. I turned to God for answers.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I cried out. The response was immediate.

Love her.

It wasn’t audible, but it was clear as day in my head.

The tears kept coming, and I asked the question again. Again the answer was the same.

Love her.

Once more. “What do I do?”

I heard it again in my head and in my heart.

Love her.

The tears finally slowed. I thought about the answer to my question, and I felt my spirits lift. I could do that. It’s what I had always done. It was that simple. I didn’t need to add anything else to it. It was the unconditional love of a parent for a child. For the first time since this journey began, I felt the burden ease off me.

It has been a year since that realization. There have been awkward moments since then. Explaining that Emma is transgender to friends and family has been difficult at times. But for the most part, our lives haven’t changed all that much.

Concerned relatives have asked if I worry about the future. The answer is no. Since that day in the car I realized that my main job is to love my kids, and that has taken away any fear or worry about what the future might hold.

Right now, I’m just enjoying the time I have with my kids, and I’m loving them the best way I know how.

Emma takes a break from home schooling to spend time with family dog Blue on the deck of the family home.

Behind the story

Emma relaxes on a swing during a family outing at the Chattahoochee River.


Our second annual Personal Journeys Writing Contest elicited so many fascinating stories on a variety of intriguing topics, it couldn’t have been easy for our judge, author Jessica Handler, to pick a winner. But I couldn’t be more pleased with her selection. Alpharetta resident Melissa McWilliams tells an astonishingly honest and intimate story about adjusting to her teenage daughter’s transition to a boy. It is a beautifully told story about life’s curveballs and the power of love.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor


Melissa McWilliams is a graduate of Georgia Tech, an Alpharetta resident and the mother of three children. She is a member of the Atlanta Writers Club and has been writing for a few years. This is her publishing debut.


Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.


Jessica Handler is the author of “Invisible Sisters: A Memoir,” and “Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, the Bitter Southerner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Newsweek, The Washington Post and More Magazine. She teaches at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.www.jessicahandler.com