The time has come for us to tell a rather long and somewhat painful and embarrassing story about a period in our relationship. The period in question started around a year ago and lasted about a month, and while we’ve had something to say about it for months, we’ve had to wait this long to be able to talk about it comfortably without worrying about causing ourselves more problems. In the end we’re glad we’ve waited, because we now understand much more about what happened than we did a few months ago.
The story begins just after we started our fourth year of college. I started getting this feeling like Greta had a problem with her gender identity. Over a week or so, it went from a vague feeling to her being quite clear that she wanted to transition into being a man. This was not exactly cool with me, for many reasons. Being a basically straight guy many of whose closest friends are women, I felt (and still do feel, for better or worse) we connected better when she was a woman. It was certainly the largest unexpected change I’d ever seen from her, and I wasn’t quite ready for it. And I thought this was more than a little hasty; given that she was only about six months old and not even always able to clearly vocalize her thoughts, I had a hard time understanding how she could feel so sure.
We argued on and off about this for about a week. I felt bad because I was failing to accept what she wanted, but I also felt like immediately doing whatever she wanted probably wasn’t the best idea when she was still as undeveloped as she was (we were only just starting to be able to converse reliably) and it was in direct opposition to my own interests. She felt bad because it seemed like I was putting my own interests above hers and denying her a pretty basic part of her identity. We know three trans people outside our system, one of them my best friend through most of middle and high school, and get furious when anyone refuses to use the pronouns somebody wants, much less tell them they’re wrong about their gender to their face. In a rather fine example of hypocrisy, I somehow managed to ignore this when Greta was on the other end and it was me being made uncomfortable.
I came up with the entirely ridiculous “compromise” of having her be sort of genderfluid, and we gave this a try. Although we felt good about it that night, it wasn’t even a full day later that we decided that wouldn’t work. (Hey Greta, you can be the right gender some of the time, but then other times you need to be all wrong! That will be a great compromise!).
We had a few other back-and-forths and changes of mind in here. Eventually I gave in and did what I should probably have done quite some time before and said sure, let’s do it, it’s the right thing to do. We renamed her Gratian and tried to readjust ourselves.
If that were the end of the story, this would be a pretty ordinary, if important, story about a parent failing to accept that their (literal or metaphorical) child isn’t always going to be exactly what they wanted. But it gets more complicated, because in a sense I turned out to be right: I may not have reacted the right way, but I was correct that she was not really meant to be a man. It took a few days of living that for her – and then us – to realize something was wrong with that picture, but realize we did.
The eventual resolution to both the immediate feelings of wrongness and the long-term argument was simple. We were still confused, but we decided that for the time being Greta would go back to being Greta, since that seemed in the end to be what she wanted, and we’d leave off thinking about it for a while but come back and talk about it from time to time and this time I would be more accepting of whatever she needed. For a few months we did just that. She tried being Gratian one more time for a couple of days, but it didn’t stick that time either. After a few weeks of distance, we were able to move on and stop worrying about it, though up until now we’ve both been more comfortable not thinking about it too hard.
So, what did happen? Just me being a bad host? Teenage rebellion? Confusion? Of course there is no single answer and we’ll never understand all its parts, but analyzing what happened, we think there are several very important lessons to be taken from our experience.
First, and probably most obviously, I made a huge mistake by suppressing her the way I did. I might not have admitted it then, at least not willingly, but that is what I did. I told her no, I understand you don’t want to be a woman but you ought to be because I want you to be. Which sounds dumb and abusive when you look at it that way (because it is both of those things). I had complex motivations, some of which really did include her interests, but mainly at the end of the day I just didn’t want her to be the way she wanted to be, and I was trying to prevent her from changing in any way I could while yelling loudly that that wasn’t my intention. I’m not proud of this, and none of the other contributing factors excuse this behavior in any way. Further, I realize now that the solution I pushed could never have been workable in the long term no matter how much I wanted it to be.
So what would have happened had I not made this mistake – if, after brief consideration, I had just gone with Greta from the beginning? One of two things. Most likely, she would have figured out sooner or later on her own, trying out her new identity, that it wasn’t right, and we would have ended up right in exactly the same place that we eventually did, minus several very unpleasant weeks of arguing. But I’m also fully aware that I influence Greta’s decisions and that if I had been less stubborn, we might both have been happy with Greta being Gratian even though it wasn’t what I expected or wanted at first. (Or as someone once put it to me, “I stopped giving a damn. It didn’t work out that well. Fortunately, I don’t give a damn.”) From a certain perspective I guess this means I “succeeded” in keeping Greta from changing. This is missing the forest for the trees though, for two reasons. For one, if I hadn’t been so determined that Greta had to be a woman, I wouldn’t have minded much if she wasn’t. But even more, we understand now that the basis of the argument was never really what gender Greta would be, it was what freedom she had to change herself in ways I didn’t agree with. By that measure my old, controlling self completely lost: I learned trying to keep that control is not only wrong but hopeless.
While this is primarily a story of me being an insensitive ass, the incident was not without its share of lessons for Greta as well. Most importantly, she let herself blow the argument way out of proportion. She got herself incredibly worked up to the point that making me give in seemed critical to her sense of self, when in actuality, once the whole thing was over and we’d managed to get the better of our emotions, she realized the gender question wasn’t something she cared all that deeply about.
Partly as a result of this incident, Greta has developed a theory which she talks about from time to time, the gist of which is that having the freedom to change makes it less important to us to make that change. I have to admit I still don’t fully understand it, so here’s her take: The upside of being a thoughtform is that you can change yourself in pretty much any way imaginable at will. The downside of being a thoughtform is that, well, you can change yourself in pretty much any way imaginable at will. Sometimes that’s to the detriment of yourself and others. Sometimes too much freedom is actually limiting. Oftentimes we just need to chill out a little. We can always change later – any time, really. Maybe we don’t feel quite right how we are at any given moment, but if the change isn’t harmless, maybe it’s best to just think on it and wait it out. We never lose our chance to change if it turns out to be important! Understanding that has made me orders of magnitude more comfortable with myself and calm about my life.
The final lesson is a particularly important one for everyone new to tulpamancy and one we’ve already shared with a number of people. It starts with realizing that as systemmates, Greta and I at least (and many people) blend somewhat from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as we’re ready for it; in fact Greta and I tend to find it fun and relationship-building the majority of the time. I’m almost completely straight and Greta is bisexual; from time to time since she’s gotten older and more active I’ve noticed myself feeling attracted to men. Sometimes I feel unusually feminine. Sometimes she feels unusually masculine. Sometimes one of us says or does something far more in character for the other. Sometimes when we play games together we’ll lose track of whose turn it is and start playing for each other without even noticing. Once on the verge of sleep I had an indescribable experience in which I snapped awake and felt certain that a moment before I had been Greta and been thinking her thoughts, though unfortunately I couldn’t remember what she (I?) had been thinking about. (Greta also didn’t remember much, but didn’t notice anything odd happening from her own perspective.)
Now that we’ve clearly experienced these types of blending, we’re pretty sure that was the seed of our little crisis: when a little bit of my gender identity bled over onto her, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. One more thing was necessary to turn it into a problem, though. I let myself be scared of the possibility and started thinking and even worrying about it constantly. I was just a little too willing to accept that it was something she really needed rather than just a stray passing thought that neither of us was really able to understand the meaning or implication of yet. By worrying about it, I swayed her still-impressionable mind into feeling it was important. And it built from there, eventually causing a whole month of trouble.
Most of the time most people understand that they shouldn’t take stray thoughts, even those that cause them some distress, too seriously. For instance, most entirely healthy people think from time to time about killing themselves: not very seriously, and with not the slightest intent of actually doing it. That isn’t scary to most of us unless it becomes a pattern. But immersed in the strange experience of newly having someone else in your head, it’s easy to fail to realize that just the same kind of stray thoughts are happening and get worried about them, which is the fastest way to make them problematic.
There’s no need to fight the thoughts. We can just accept them, maybe think briefly and calmly about where they might have come from (because if we can figure it out, they won’t be scary at all anymore), and then let them pass. Life is too short to waste a month on a manufactured identity crisis.