'You have to forgive me': Winnipeg mom recalls struggle to accept her son's female-to-male transition

The mother of a transgender man opens up about what it was like to see her daughter, Rosemary, become her son, Ro Walker

Cindy and Ro Walker Mills talk for the first time about her struggle to accept his transition

Today Ro and Cindy Mills are close and Ro feels happier than ever before. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

Cindy Mills has a habit of opening her family's mail, even if it isn't addressed to her. But one day in 2011 she opened a letter, addressed to her 21 year old daughter Rosemary, that shocked her.

The letter was from a doctor's office, and it revealed that Rosemary was exploring transitioning from female to male, and looking into top surgery to remove her breasts.

"I initially was angry. I said 'if you're old enough to make these kind of life decisions you're probably old enough to live on your own.'" The next morning Rosemary woke up to a Renters Guide on the kitchen counter.

You don't know how your daughter is going to be as a son. There's a period of time when you're panicking.- Cindy Mills

"It was awful," said Ro Walker Mills about his mother's reaction to his decision to transition.

That reaction led to a difficult, strained period in their close relationship. It's something Cindy deeply regrets now, seven years later.

Ro Walker Mills wipes a tear from his mom Cindy's cheek as they talk about the pain they both went through during his transition. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

As Winnipeg's Pride week kicked off, mother and son sat down to tell each other, for the first time, what they both went through during those two years.

Felt like life or death

Ro moved out right away, and lived with friends as he pursued his psychology degree at the University of Winnipeg while working full time as a respite worker to support himself. At first it was hard to find people to support his decision.

"No one understood," recalls Ro.

While living as a lesbian he had dealt with physical dysphoria for years, and transitioning felt like a life or death decision. "I either had to get this process started or depression was going to bite me," he said.
Cindy Mills and her daughter Rosemary always had a close relationship. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

"So even though the person I love the most, my mom, had trouble I still had to push forward."

He started testosterone therapy, and went through a second puberty as his voice changed and facial hair began to appear.

'She needs to mourn the loss of a daughter'

Meanwhile, Cindy struggled with loneliness and grief for her daughter. She hadn't had a problem when Rosemary came out as gay, but even today tears stream down her face as she looks at the photos of Rosemary that are still all over her house.

"It's really not my business who my children love, you still have your daughter," Cindy said. "But when your child is changing gender, it's like that child dies. You don't know how your daughter is going to be as a son. There's a period of time when you're panicking."
Cindy Mills has photos of her daughter Rosemary all over her house. She had to mourn the loss of her daughter before she could accept her son. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

Ro finds it difficult to see his mom cry, but understood her grief from the beginning. "I think my mother is mourning and she needs to mourn the loss of a daughter before she can accept having a son." he said in 2011.

Sex ed

He tried to support his parents by educating them as he transitioned, comparing it to sex ed. He offered them literature, and was open to answering questions. "Ro was patient with me and gave me the education as I asked for it," said Cindy.

He chose his name, Ro Walker Mills, because Walker is what Cindy would have named him if he had been born a boy.

I always knew we could get here.- Ro Walker Mills

Mother and son also would regularly go grocery shopping. For Cindy it was the way she could continue to support her child. For Ro it was an opportunity to help his mom get more comfortable with who he was becoming. He recalls bagging groceries and hearing a cashier tell his mom she had a helpful son.

"Those moments were so important to have [her] witness being in public around people who just automatically were using 'he', and 'son', and 'young man'." said Ro. "I think that was just affirming to the whole situation."

'You need to watch your pronouns'

Cindy struggled with pronouns for about a year. "I tripped over my tongue so many times," she recalls. But these days Cindy is the one who makes sure other people get it right.

Cindy went to visit Ro in the hospital after his recent hysterectomy. The nurse on duty used "she" instead of "he" when directing Cindy to Ro's room. "I stopped in my tracks," said Cindy. "I was horrified. In a very angry voice I went, 'You need to watch your pronouns!', and I stomped down the hall."

Ro laughs as his mom tells the story. "It's awesome!"

Now they giggle about Ro leaving stubble in the sink after he shaves. There are photos of Ro throughout the house alongside the ones of Rosemary.

'I'm happier than I've ever been'

"I always knew we could get here," said Ro. "Even though it was really hard and we've clearly gone through a lot as a family, I'm happier than I've ever been and we just get along better."

"We have an adult to adult relationship, and it's a nice one" Cindy agrees. Ro visits every week and Cindy proudly wears a hat that shows she is a trans-ally.

"But you have to forgive me for that first very angry reaction," Cindy says to her son. "If I look back, it's the one thing that I wish I had done differently and I apologize for that."

She also has advice for other parents of transgender children. "You can't stop it, you can't fight it and if you try it's just going to be a rougher journey," Cindy cautions. She advises families to talk a lot.

"Feel what you feel, be honest about it and don't push your children away no matter what."