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Mother's Day

On Little House on the Prairie; Detransition, Baby; and all of the ways we become our own mothers


Emily VanDerWerff

May 10 2021

17 min read


When I was young, I watched Little House on the Prairie after school every day. My normally over-protective parents approved of the show — except for one episode.

"I Do, Again," the 20th episode of the seventh season, follows what happens after both Laura and her mother, Caroline, experience pregnancy symptoms. Caroline, who has long hoped for a son after having only daughters, allows herself to hope in miracles. But she is in the early stages of menopause. She falls into a deep depression, sure that she will be rejected by her husband after he learns that he will never have a male heir.

An episode summary informs me that "I Do, Again" concludes with Caroline and husband Charles deciding to renew their vows. I never got that far. As Caroline continued sobbing over the loss of her childbearing years, my mother turned off the television.

"We're not watching any more of that," she said. "She's just going on and feeling sorry for herself."

Here I should mention my sister and I are adopted.

I have spent the last several days visiting friends whose oldest child is 6. She is smart and hyper-verbal and funny in that way kids are before they realize laughter is a reaction they can elicit intentionally. Seeing her gives me a distant roar of existential dysphoria, the sense of seeing through a hazy window into a world where I had a childhood that made sense to me.

But existential dysphoria is an old friend, and I know how to blunt its impact. I might wish I had had a girlhood or an adolescence where the world understood me as a girl or a young woman, but I just didn't. If I start to go on about it and feel sorry for myself, I reach over and change the channel to something else.

Meeting this kid didn't make me feel existential dysphoria for the past, though. Meeting her made me feel existential dysphoria for the present. If I were able to have a kid, they wouldn't be my friends' child, but they would be somewhere in the neighborhood of her. I wasn't seeing an echo of myself. I was seeing an echo of a present that cannot be.

There is some version of me in another reality who has children she gave birth to herself, and I think it is pretty likely that I will be a mom in this reality someday. I am under no illusions that my kid will think I'm less of a mom because I didn't painstakingly grow them inside a uterus I don't have. They'll probably just want me to get them a snack already.

But I know myself well enough to know I will always think I'm less of a mom. And I hate that about myself. But I also know it's true.

So I try not to think about it. But when my friends' kid needs her food cut at a restaurant, I reach over and do it without a second thought. It's like a ripple through time, to another world where this movement is already a reflex to me.

My mother is reticent to talk about the years before she adopted me. She and my father were married for just over 10 years before they learned they were had been approved for adoption. She talks about those 10 years mostly in snippets of memory. She tells me about frustration and sadness and seeing pregnant women in the grocery store and feeling locked out of an experience she wanted so badly. But the phone call she got saying that I existed is firmly etched in my memory, even though I wasn't there.

It was a cold day in late January, and she was in the long, olive green barn where we kept the sows who had given birth to litters. The phone hooked up in the small office there rang. She rushed to answer it, and when she did, the adoption agency told her that she and my father would be adopting a child. She hung up and leaned against the wall and cried. (Here, I imagine her sliding down to the floor, but that's my embellishment.) She found my father, and she told him.

There are a lot of things I am reconsidering about my childhood of late. I was raised in a house that masqueraded so well as one full of love that I learned to pretend it was the costume it wore, even though I knew better. But even now, as I look at the things I taught myself not to look at with many years of practice, I know that my mother was telling the truth about how hard those years before she was a mother had been. I know that she longed for me deeply, and I know that she feels betrayed by me in part because I was supposed to be a solution to a problem that felt unsolvable.

When the adoption agency called to tell her that her unsolvable problem had been solved, I can imagine how easy it was to forget all of the other people involved in the story — the scared college girl and the coworker who had gotten her drunk and raped her and the baby who would grow up into a woman with her own complicated issues around motherhood — because the weight of those years of hoping that life could finally begin must have fallen off her shoulders in that moment, when the voice on the other end of the phone said, "You're going to be adopting a baby boy."

It is very hard to be a trans woman and not find yourself slightly haunted by motherhood.

For instance: I sometimes forget I told my wife I was trans months before I was ready to do so, simply because she was having an embryo transplanted that week. If we were going to raise a child together, I reasoned, she deserved to know that I was going to transition someday. (I used to joke that I came out as trans and then my wife went on hormones, but it was never funny and it got less so the longer we didn't get pregnant.) That transplant didn't take, nor did the next one. We haven't tried again.

Another: The first time I ever used a women's room, my sister called me to tell me she was pregnant. I was all alone in the room, trying to will myself to walk into a support group meeting in the skirt and wig I was convinced I looked ridiculous wearing, when she called. And I just knew what she was calling to tell me. It was like a reminder of my essential un-womanness, a reminder that for as much as I was about to walk into a room and insist that I was who I knew I was, there were some barriers I would never be able to cross.

So many of my trans woman friends were mothers before the world knew they were mothers, and they find themselves navigating the straits of trying to carve out space for themselves in a world that still too closely associates the idea of motherhood with the act of giving birth. My friends have always been mothers, but even cis people who understand that hesitate to celebrate them on Mother's Day. Mother's Day is special. It is sacred. It is for mothers.

Torrey Peters's recent novel Detransition, Baby centers specifically on Reese, a trans woman who finds herself haunted by how hard it will be to become a mother. Some part of her is infuriated at how much her body aches to do something it simply cannot. The trans women I know who don't really like Detransition, Baby often find Peters's characters fascination with motherhood hard to swallow. Motherhood is not particularly important to them, so the degree to which Peters has centered her novel on womanhood's perceived connection to motherhood in our society is off-putting to them. It's like Peters is artificially placing a restraint on them that they never asked for.

That goes for so many women I know, cis, trans, and otherwise. So many of us are pushing the world to understand that we don't have to give birth to have meaning and that choosing not to have children isn't defining oneself in opposition to something but, instead, just another way to live your life.

I think that's great. But also, I really want to be a mom, and every step I take deeper into womanhood seems to come tied to a reminder of this one thing I should be able to do but cannot, no matter what.


Every so often, I go back to Little House on the Prairie and am reminded how much of my taste was shaped by its utter willingness to go as hard as possible at any given moment. It was deeply inconsistent, even at its best, but its failures are more interesting than most other shows of its period.

In particular, it was a surprisingly sophisticated show visually. The show's multiple Emmy wins for cinematography reflected its willingness to break out of the usual TV show template. Take, for instance, this long crane shot into the Ingalls home from a Thanksgiving-themed clip show. Little House was breaking this sort of camerawork out for an episode meant to save money.

But mostly, I remember that I watched a lot of this show with my mother. It aired every day right after I got home from school, and she would make me a snack, and we would sit down together and watch. More often than not, she had things to do and would be in and out, but sometimes, I would get her for a full episode.

I loved my mother with an abandon that sometimes felt like throwing handfuls of sand into a bottomless pit. That's not to say that she didn't also love me, because she did. She loved a version of me who was sitting off to the side, the baby boy she had been promised.

I wish my mother had seen how much I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder, both on the page and on the TV show that was (barely) based on her books. I wish she had seen how excited I got for the (truly awful) Pippi Longstocking movie that was coming out at that point in time and realized that what I wanted was to have long hair I could put in braids, instead of suggesting to me that I should read some books about boys. I wish she had tried to actually see me instead of what she had been promised.

I think she did see me. I think she did try. I think, on some primal level, she knew I was a girl, and I think that terrified her. I think she was too scared by the thought that she had somehow broken me that she was unable to see she was breaking me. So she taught herself to see the golem and not to see me. She still doesn't see me. Maybe she never will.

I have started to think about adoption myself.

Out there in the world are so many tiny trans girls whose parents have horribly mistreated them, trying desperately to force those girls to be someone they are not. Many of those girls fall into the foster care system and need to be adopted by families who will affirm the most basic facts of their selves. In some states, you can request to adopt these kids who just need somebody to see them.

It's not as easy as I'm making it sound, but our brains make complicated things resolve into easy narratives when they think they know how the story goes. I think I know how this story goes, so the temptation is to decide on the ending, even though that's exactly what my mother did when she heard the words "baby boy" so many decades ago.

But pretend for a moment that this is true, that my wife and I will be able to navigate the complicated waters of a foster system that causes so many people so much pain, that we will be mothers, even if it won't be in the way we expected. If it's true, then the odds are good that my daughter is alive right now, but she will only be my daughter because right now, her mother or father is failing her in almost exactly the same ways my parents failed me.

I think I am drawn to this idea because it is a way of trying to fix something that cannot be fixed. That, too, is dangerous. A child is not a reclamation project to be performed on yourself. A child is a child.

But still. There is a power to knowing that you maybe already have a child alive somewhere. There is a power to knowing that every phone call might be the one that brings that child into your life. There is a power to knowing that motherhood is more than the act of giving birth, that it is, indeed, so much more about every moment after that act.

There is a woman I wish I could talk to about this. I wish I could tell her that I finally understand how she must have felt all those years, better than she ever could have imagined. I wish that I could ask her how she got through it. I wish I could hear her voice again.

But she wishes, too. She wishes for something I cannot grant. I feel all the time as though she has broken a promise to me by refusing to acknowledge me as I am in favor of someone who was never real. But who made that promise to me? She never stated it outright. I leapt to that conclusion, thanks to years of stories that taught me that, say, a woman concerned her husband will reject her because she never gave him a son will inevitably find that she was overreacting. "Families love each other, above all else" was only a promise I assumed to be true. Nobody actually made it to me.

She must feel like I have broken a promise, too. But that promise was also made by someone other than me. I was never the baby boy she was told I was. That phone call in late January wasn't the climax of a story, God's final answer to a long-offered prayer. It was the beginning of another story entirely, one we told together until I learned otherwise.

It is a terrible thing, waiting for your life to begin. I finally understand now how much relief that phone call carried and how much grief lived in the years of waiting. We are the two people on Earth who might understand each other best, if only she could understand me better.

Talk back to me: Tell me about the TV shows you watched with your parents. What did you like about those shows? What made them good shows to watch with your parents?

What I've been up to: Saturday Night Live is back in the news, because Elon Musk hosted the show, and I took it upon myself to explain the "controversy," which mostly boiled down to "a few of the cast members were a little irritated." This explainer has some good jokes in it!

It’s easy to be cynical about Musk’s hosting gig; SNL needs viewers, and controversy drives curiosity from casual audience members, and Musk will be sure to drive controversy, ergo. And SNL’s decision to let cast members who’d rather sit out the episode take the week off easily folds into this narrative. After all, what better way to get a certain subset of viewers all het up than being able to call some of the show’s cast members snowflakes or whatever?

But I would argue we’re not being cynical enough. Every single SNL controversy is driven by the same basic impulse to ascribe the show with a power it simply does not hold. The latest SNL controversy has almost nothing to do with Elon Musk and everything to do with the baby boomer gerontocracy.
And yes, I’m going to show my work.

Read me: Two pieces I'm only just now catching up with that are well worth reading. First: Helen Rosner on CNN's Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy:

Several episodes of the CNN series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” open with a message that’s part apology and part warning: “The following episode was filmed prior to the start of the covid-19 outbreak.” For the couch-bound viewer, any travel show is a portal to fantasy. But a show like this—airing in a time like this—is escapism of another order. Here there are olive trees and cow-dappled hills and the blue-green sea, sure, but also cheek-kiss greetings and crowded piazzas, tiny café tables and narrow alleyways. Tucci, the show’s host, wanders through Italy’s regions unmasked, unfettered, chatting amiably with cheesemakers and pizzaiolos, sipping aperitivos on rooftops, picking up petals of artichoke from a plate in a cramped restaurant kitchen. Everything, always, is drenched in heavy yellow sunlight, as if the nation were basking in the languor of eternal late afternoon.

Then: Film critic Justin Chang on watching Lee Isaac Chung's journey with the Oscar-winning movie Minari not as a critic but as Chung's friend:

The movie, of course, was “Minari,” and Isaac, as his friends and family know him, is writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. Looking back at that June day, I can’t help but marvel at how little we knew what was in store — for the movie, for Isaac’s career and for an industry that would be dramatically upended eight months later, culminating in a topsy-turvy Oscar night that would see Isaac strolling into a decked-out Union Station with nominations for director and original screenplay. But sitting there in the park that day, simply knowing that Isaac was giving filmmaking one more shot was more than enough.

Watch me: I spent most of last week watching Amazon Prime Video's upcoming miniseries adaptation of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, and it's masterful. It debuts Friday, and you should watch it. It's some of my favorite TV in ages.

And another thing... I have spent the past week hanging out in Humboldt County, California, with a variety of friends who live up here or who were visiting for one reason or another. And I'm not trying to tell you what to do with your life, but it's maybe my favorite place on Earth, and if you lived here, maybe we'd be friends? You can get started here.

Opening credits sequence of the week: My Little House digging led me to this endless opening credits sequence to the aforementioned Thanksgiving clip show. Look upon it, ye mighty, and despair!

Something I had to look up: The ending of "I Do, Again" was really not what I would have expected, despite the title of the episode. "I am sad about menopause" leading to "Let's have another wedding" definitely feels like something cooked up in a male-dominated writers room.

This week's reading music: "Pink in the Night" by Mitski

Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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