How to be a Girl is US mother Marlo Mack’s poignant and honest memoir of raising M, her transgender daughter. Marlo Mack is well known for her award winning How to be a Girl podcast. This is her first book.
Like many parents, Marlo was completely unprepared for raising a transgender child and unaware that very young children can know that they have been assigned the wrong gender at birth.
In the book, Marlo doesn’t shy away from sharing how she struggled at first to understand and accept that her little boy’s love of all things pink, everything that sparkled and glittered and fairy figurines and princess dresses was more than a passing phase. Her family and friends thought so too.
Then one day her three year old said “Mama, something went wrong in your tummy and it made me come out as a boy instead of a girl.” This is when it dawned on Marlo that M might be transgender.
When M continued to insist she was a girl, Marlo joined a trangender parent support group and sought advice from a therapist who specialised in gender issues.
Once Marlo accepted that M was transgender, they were on a new journey together, one that would be both joyful and challenging. For although M had her mother’s unconditional love and support, this alone could not protect M from the outside world and the people around her.
“My fight with my child was finally over and my fight with the world began.”
Supporting M has involved a never ending cycle of conversations with relatives, neighbours, parents of M’s friends, and educators.
Initially Marlo and M chose to keep M’s gender private, with M telling only a few of her closest kindergarten friends that she was a transgender girl. Although loyal and kind, these friends sometimes let her secret slip, leading to further rounds of conversations with their parents to ask that their children also keep it a secret.
When Marlo enrolled M at elementary school, she wondered whether trying to maintain M’s privacy was the best option. On asking M what she thought, M told her that she was scared that if the other kids found out she was transgender something really bad might happen to her.
‘I’m afraid they would kill me,” she said.
This fear speaks volumes about the impact transphobic attitudes can have on young people.
M has never once wavered in her knowledge that she is a girl. In the book’s epilogue, written in 2021, Marlo describes her as a happy, well-balanced teenager. A few months ago, just shy of her 13th birthday, M began taking puberty blockers and is now on the next part of life’s journey.
But things remain precarious for transgender children in the United States, as Marlo points out:
“Thus far, nine US states have banned girls like mine from playing on girls’ sports teams at school. In April, Arkansas became the first state to make it a crime for doctors to prescribe puberty blockers to trans youth. Fourteen other states have introduced similar legislation.”
Thankfully, in Aotearoa New Zealand, there are no legal constraints on trans young people accessing puberty blockers, but we still have a long way to go in terms of becoming a genuinely inclusive society.
Although in many ways How to be a Girl is a very much a US-based story, reading this eloquent and moving memoir has built my understanding of just how important it is to be supportive and tolerant so that transchildren in our communities feel safe and are free to grow and thrive.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter