Before my first day of prekindergarten, I knelt beside my bed and prayed, "Dear Lord Jesus, please let me learn how to read." Then I cried, filled with the desire to learn and terrified that I'd fail. It became one of my mom's favorite stories about me: how studious I was, how sincere.
By the end of the week, I was tearing through books. All I wanted to do was study. I memorized Bible verses competitively and planned to attend the best college in the world: Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. With God's blessing, anything was possible-I could disprove evolution, become a medical missionary, find a cure for AIDS, and perform praise pop to sold-out stadiums. Meanwhile, my teachers called home about my uncombed hair, dirty socks, and shrunken shirts. Every few months, my dad's mother, Grandma Edna, visited and made me cry as she critiqued my grooming, dragging me to the beauty school to get an awful haircut.
"Some of us have to work for a living," my mom huffed as soon as my grandmother left. My mom earned the money; she and I did all the housework. My father had briefly been a nurse but stopped working before I was born. He believed it was the women's job to cook and clean (unless it was warm enough to grill bratwursts).
My mom bemoaned what had become of her life. As a girl, she'd dreamed of attending Stanford. "I almost got in," she told everyone she could. "I think they only rejected me because I was sixteen." Remaining at home was not an option: her parents starved their daughters, allowing each of them a single can of Metrecal diet drink for breakfast and making them do calisthenics while chanting songs in unison. (All four sisters would go on to struggle with their weight, chronic illnesses, and hoarding.) Eager to escape, my mom fled to a rural campus of the University of Minnesota, where she studied art and education and then got a job at the state crime lab.
Apparently, everything would have been different if my mom had gone to Stanford. Especially when things were tense with my father, she rhapsodized about how she could have been living in California, with palm trees and an ocean, instead of scraping ice off her windshield six months out of the year. She would have married a medical student who made good money and helped out at home, instead of marrying two deadbeats, one after the other.
I doubted that things were so simple, an inevitable path from point A to point B. Like when my mom told the story of how she met my dad: she was thirty-eight, with a ten-year-old son from her first marriage, and longed for a blonde daughter to name "Honey." My dad had a hazy backstory involving photography school, a botched surgery, a monastery, lots of LSD, hallucinations of headless chickens falling from trees, and a stint in solitary confinement after throwing baby bottles full of blood at the Pentagon. When my mom met him, he'd been bouncing around for twenty years. He had platinum hair and stonewashed blue eyes but no stable address. Two months later, she married him, even though the son from her first marriage begged her not to. Ten-year-old Noah feared a stepfather and a baby would sabotage his future. My mom told this story with a laugh because Noah's premonition proved true: my father didn't want a stepson and banished Noah downstairs to raise himself. My dad didn't want kids, period. "But he was too lazy to go buy condoms!" my mom told me, chuckling. Just after she turned forty, she gave birth to me.
Luckily, when my father held me, "he fell in love." He nixed the "Honey" idea and named me Margaret Frances. My father was home every day, watching Jeopardy! or building computers, our half-Maltese, half-cockapoo mutt, Poochie, sitting beside him. I didn't mind his strict rules: no nail polish (too sexy), no sports (filled with lesbians), no Girl Scouts (filled with lesbians and abortionists). Even when I wasn't allowed to see Noah, it made sense: he was my half brother, not my real brother, according to my father. Both my parents called me an only child. But as the years passed, my mom chafed over my dad's controlling ways and started spending her lunch hours scouring the clearance sections at local stores. She shopped in secret, buying a hundred Winnie-the-Pooh watches for one dollar each at Target, hiding the loot in her office. After piano recitals, she snuck me to McDonald's for ice cream-outings that would become her favorite memories.
I couldn't stand hearing my mom complain, the way she acted as if she had no agency. By the time I was eight, I told her all the time, "If you hate my dad so much, why don't you just get a divorce?"
"Oh, sweetheart," she said in the voice that indicated I was cluelessly naive. After my father lost his job, my grandma had given him a trust fund worth two hundred thousand dollars. It was a lot of money, even to Grandma Edna, the widow of a small-town doctor. My mom, bitterly, called it "a retainer for our marriage." During the boom years of the nineties, the interest my parents withdrew was almost as much as my mom made working full time. The money did its job: my parents stayed together, and we lived in a suburb and rented out the duplex my mom owned in Minneapolis. We were middle class, almost exactly at the median-but if one thing changed, we wouldn't be anymore.
When the dot-com bubble burst, my parents started fighting more: my dad blocking my mom in the doorway, my parents throwing phone books in the kitchen, my mom calling the police, both of them sitting in a squad car, the cop telling them to civilly decide who'd file the tax returns while I hid in the garage.
That same year, I became the state champion in Bible memorization. I walked door-to-door by myself hawking fundraising calendars and sold so many I got to ride in a limo. While my parents yelled at each other downstairs, I lay on my mattress and schemed about how I could hijack the ABBA cover band the A-Teens and rewrite their songs to glorify the Lord. I took for granted that, no matter what happened in my life, I could escape into my ambitions; they would transport me to a future where the way I grew up couldn't matter less.
One morning, my mom pulled me out of fourth grade and swore me to secrecy. "I'm not going to lie to my father!" I argued. "It's a sin." But then she bribed me with Radio Disney, a rare secular treat. Rain pounded on the windshield and Lil' Bow Wow crooned on AM 1440 as my mom drove me to see my first therapist.
We pulled into an office park. Inside a dumpy building, a lady wearing fancy shoes took me to a room filled with toys. Smiling, she asked me to make a family out of dolls. A one-way observation mirror stretched along the wall.
Immediately, I suspected why my mom had brought me to therapy: she was looking for a confession of abuse, something that would justify leaving and make it easier for her to win custody. I folded my arms and refused to draw a house or play in the sandbox. When the therapist dropped me back off with my mom, she explained, "Sometimes it takes a while for the resistance to wear down."
After that, I didn't trust shrinks, and I didn't trust my mom, who seemed irritated she'd taken time off work to get nothing. "I can't believe you made me miss school," I complained as she drove me back. My mom reached over and flicked off the radio, ". . . Baby One More Time" giving way to the swoosh of windshield wipers.
It almost seemed as if my mom wanted me to have been abused, in some gruesome way she didn't know about, because it would make her life easier. She claimed she took me to therapy because she wanted to help. But nothing was wrong with me, besides that I was a bookworm with a bowl cut dressed in outgrown clothes whose parents hated each other.
Or maybe my mom was sad that I wasn't a "child": I'd been doing all my family's dishes and laundry since I was five. I often shoveled our driveway for hours, my labor cheaper than buying a snowblower. But I was that way because I had to be. In my responsibilities and my grand dreams, I found independence, believing I was the star of God's great saga. Now I felt like a pawn in my mom's plans.
In the end, my mom didn't need me to produce a confession: that spring, my dad told me he was changing his name to Michelle. After the 'stunning announcement,' my mom moved out and into the lower part of the duplex she owned in the city. I lived with Michelle while my parents fought over custody.
"How do you feel?" a social worker asked me. I sat on my hands in an office filled with boxes and manila envelopes. The filing cabinets, I was sure, contained the lives of kids like me, locked up for eternity in this windowless bureaucracy with musty carpet that irritated my allergies.
"Fine," I replied, guarded. Like the play therapist, the custody evaluators wanted to extract secrets. They would read whatever they wanted into what I said. One wrong word, I suspected, could destroy my life.
All of them called me "traumatized"-by the divorce, but mostly by the fact that my father was coming out as a woman. It was 2002; there hadn't even been a trans person on Oprah. No one would believe me that I was relieved my parents had separated. Once she started transitioning, Michelle was happier and nicer. She became a Unitarian, and I quickly stopped believing in an Abrahamic God who sent Girl Scouts to hell with their lesbian lovers, the abortionists. If my loss of faith was a loss, I didn't realize it. At my new public school in the suburbs, where I went to fifth grade, I even got to play the drums.
"I want to live with Michelle," I told the social worker and everyone who'd listen.
She nodded empathetically, then reminded me that they didn't consider children's wishes until they turned twelve. I was only ten, so my preference didn't matter. The process infuriated me. Why ask how I felt if it didn't matter what I wanted, as if my desires were completely decoupled from my emotional state? Maybe, as people, the social workers cared. But, to the system, it didn't matter. The entire custody evaluation seemed like a joke. For months, my mom moved boxes of all the junk she'd quickly accumulated into the rental apartment upstairs, which she'd left vacant to use as storage. At the home visit, we wore matching sweaters and showed off our sewing projects. They thought we were so cute; I didn't think to pick a fight with my mom or tell the social workers to look upstairs.
The Friday night before I started sixth grade, Michelle came home from family court and told me to pack. "D's on her way," she said: my mom had won custody.
I was moving in with my mom, changing school districts, leaving my friends without saying goodbye. Michelle was moving away, across the country, saying she couldn't keep dealing with my mom. I'd see her a few more times that month; then, after one phone call, we'd never have another conversation. Bleary-eyed, I shoved my Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and library books into a black plastic garbage bag and kissed Poochie goodbye.
My mom's car pulled up in the driveway, headlights blazing, victorious.
I knew that any reasonable parent in my mom's situation would take their kid to therapy if they could. But I resisted: What good did it do to talk about things I couldnÕt change that were still unfolding?
When we sat down at the first family therapy session a few months after I moved in with my mom, I learned that counseling wasn't about my feelings anyway. "I need to collect evidence," my mom explained to the psychologist as she opened her journal. "In case he"-she used Michelle's old male name, as always-"tries to contest the custody decision."
"Michelle," I hissed, hating my mom and hating the shrink for acting like it was normal for a parent to haul a child to his office and ask the kid, baldly, to provide ammunition.
I recognized that, from my mom's vantage point, she had rescued me. Without Michelle to spoil our fun, we could drive ten hours each way to go to the world's number-one amusement park and stay out late on school nights, clearance-shopping until the mall cops escorted us out. We knew how to sing seven different renditions of "Happy Birthday" in harmony. Under the fluorescent lights of Walgreens, we pretended to star in a reality TV show.
My mom had done so much for me, and Michelle had absconded, yet I was completely ungrateful. I missed Poochie. My mom and I were broke, with no more support from my grandma, mired in legal bills and credit card debt, the house full of trash and rustling with mice. At my new underfunded public school in Minneapolis, I was utterly unchallenged and relentlessly bullied. Combining the social skills of a Bible quiz champion with my new provocative secular outfits-including a fishnet-sleeve top and a miniskirt that zipped all the way up, purchased by Michelle for my first day of sixth grade-I was an easy target. Classmates called me a slut and a ho a hundred times a day. Adults told me I needed a thicker skin; there was no way to stop it.
Things went from bad to worse around my eleventh birthday, when an eighth grader started groping me on the bus. When he threatened me and forced me to touch him, I finally told my mom. She'd just come home from work and looked utterly exhausted. "Well, did you tell your teacher?" my mom asked. When I said no, she told me to go tell someone at school: she wasn't there when it happened; there was nothing she could do. I knew better than to go to her when other bad things happened that year. All my friends seemed to have similar experiences, but we had no cultural depictions we could relate to, no way to talk about it except in whispers in the middle of the night. During the afternoons, scared to be alone, I wandered around with the other children who had no one watching them. Unable to sleep in my own bed, I crawled into my mom's.
Copyright © 2022 by Emi Nietfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.