Morph: a mother’s view of a child’s journey through gender

Photographer: Margaret Albaugh

Essay: Margaret Albaugh

Morph is the story of a child exploring his gender expression and showing himself as a girl to the world. This project doesn’t really have a start date. Or maybe it does. Maybe it started in the second trimester of my pregnancy with him, when I lay in our teal guest bedroom (teal oddly being his favorite color now) crying with fears he might be trans. My therapist asked how I got this specific fear but I don’t know how. Maybe trans individuals happened to be in the news a lot at that time. Caitlyn Jenner wouldn’t come out for another three years though and I can’t remember any other newsworthy individuals during my pregnancy in 2012 so it doesn’t seem probable. I don’t know what specifically planted that seed of fear in my head.

Maybe, I just didn’t like trans people.

That didn’t seem likely though.

I do know why I feared transsexualism. I remember hearing someone’s story about feeling like they were born in the wrong body. They suppressed that feeling for years, feeling ashamed of their inclinations and for their desires to express themselves authentically. I can’t imagine that kind of mental anguish. I didn’t want that for my kids. But I managed to tell myself, the chances of him being trans were so minimal. And even if he were trans, the anguish trans-children and trans-people go through is a result of having no safe space to be themselves. I wouldn’t let that happen to my kids. Our family would be their safe space. (These were the thoughts that helped me get out of bed and move onto other fears, like cat litter and toxoplasmosis.)

I prefer not to tell you this story of my pregnancy, but I do think the story is important for understanding why I saw some very nuanced moments and then chose to photograph them. (Also, Brene Brown says it’s important to be vulnerable. So, here I am being vulnerable.)

As he grew into toddlerhood, there were moments during his young life that I witnessed and thought might speak to a broader story of his life, so I documented it. When he picked up his sister’s skirt and asked to wear it, I remembered those days crying in an empty bedroom and the fears that festered inside of me. I didn’t want to discourage the skirt because that would be wrong. Yet, I didn’t want to encourage it for fear of making my worries come true. I simply said, “Sure” that day.  Then I watched him dance in the living room, bouncing around in a pink skirt amongst moving boxes and a mess of toys.

As he explored “girl” toys, “girl” activities, and “girl” clothing, I paid attention and documented. I didn’t really know where it would go or if it would culminate into anything because I didn’t know if these actions spoke to a broader theme yet. I photographed moments that I felt were pivotal to his exploration. You could say, these images started out of a curiosity of who he is. I didn’t know one way or the other if he would be trans or gender non-conforming when I first started photographing him in dresses and skirts. He was only three. I only saw a boy who seemed to be enjoying these gender non-conforming things and it made me happy to see him so expressive. You could say, I documented these moments because he was happy.

The series is his journey as he uncovers who he really is inside, and perhaps, he is uncovering a “she”. We still use “he” pronouns with him because he has told me he doesn’t care what I call him. He hopes that others will think he is a girl and call him a girl, but he does not care what his parents and family call him because, in his words, we know him. I suspect it is because we don’t enforce gender norms with him. I find this interesting. As a toddler, he was told by other kids he couldn’t like pink or wear dresses. It makes me wonder if his interest in “tricking” others into believing he is a girl is to avoid the confrontation of gender norms, or if he simply identifies as a girl.

As we progress further with his maturation as a human, I hope to learn more about who he is and what he wants. Eventually his verbal development will allow him to communicate his desires to us more fully. Looking back on my fears during pregnancy, I sometimes wonder if I just knew him. If on some level, I just knew my baby would have this journey with gender. I hope that this series helps other people see that gender-fluidity and gender-experimentation is not something to be feared. I think there is too much emphasis in society on gender and how it influences the definition of a person and who they can and cannot be. In Chinese, there are no gender pronouns. I think that would be interesting to live in a world without gender pronouns, where the emphasis isn’t on whether a person is a “he” or a “she” but in everything else that makes up a person.  If we relax our hold on gender and its place in society, we’ll become less fearful of gender fluidity. We’ll see gender expression as just another way a person conveys themselves rather than as the confines to which the person is restricted. 

I hope people see the joy and connection in these images and that his journey has helped make him, and every one of us in his family and in his circle, to become stronger individuals. At the risk of sounding trite, I hope people will be more accepting and empathic towards those who are fumbling through their gender journey.

Margaret Albaugh is a documentary photographer and procrastinator at Margaret Albaugh Photography originally from the Bay Area but lives in Spokane, WA. While she enjoys chronicling the lives of her amazing clients, her hope is to travel the world and document her kids discovering every curve of the globe. When doing personal work, she is inspired by topics that scratch at contentious or thought-provoking issues with the ultimate goal of making people think or affecting change. She is intrigued by the nuances of human nature and the internal workings of individuals. Concurrent projects include a conceptual project regarding gender norms.