The first thing Braiden Schirtzinger felt was the pop — like a bursting balloon.
A doctor had said today could be the day, and a Google search said exercise could help speed up the process. So here Braiden was, under a warm late-April sun shaded by oak and willow trees, taking a third lap around a suburban Virginia neighborhood, determined to walk out a baby.
Braiden stopped on the sidewalk, feeling the liquid trickling through baggy gray basketball shorts.
"Mom, get in the car," Braiden said over the phone. "My water just broke."
For nine exhausting months, Braiden had lived in a body that felt more feminine, with its swelling belly and breasts, than Braiden had ever felt inside. And yet this transformation was the means to what the 26-year-old had always wanted to become: a mom.
Braiden was born biologically female but has always identified as more masculine than feminine. For months before the pregnancy, Braiden had taken testosterone shots, leading to a deeper voice, a sharper jaw, more muscular arms. But Braiden is no longer a transgender man.
At an LGBTQ support group almost two years ago, Braiden heard someone use a word that resonated: "non-binary." It felt like the best way to describe who Braiden was - not a he or a she, but a "they," part of what appears to be a growing group of Americans who identify as genders other than male or female.
No reliable data is available on their numbers, but non-binary people like Braiden are more visible than ever - and parts of the country are rapidly adopting rules to recognize them. State and city governments, including in the District of Columbia, California and New York, have begun offering a gender option of "X" on identification cards. Airlines, school districts and colleges nationwide are allowing alternative gender markers.
A lexicon of pronouns, such as "they" and "them," has also emerged to express the idea that gender is fluid, moving along a continuum from male to female. The Washington Post has formally recognized the new pronouns since 2015.
To people like Braiden, the terms provide a liberating alternative. But to many Americans, the pronouns are ungrammatical and confusing. They find moral certitude in a binary world, made up of men and women playing roles that conform to the genders on their birth certificates. And right now, on the sidewalk, baritone voice cracking with excitement and body beginning to shake, Braiden was about to take on one of the most gendered roles of all: motherhood.
Braiden, wearing a Hogwarts T-shirt and Adidas sandals with socks, turned around and started wobbling in the direction of home, dialing at the same time. A neighbor walked by with her golden retriever, and Braiden stopped to pet it, as if it were just a casual afternoon stroll.
"What am I doing on my phone? I was just about to . . . oh, call the doctor," Braiden said, tapping the numbers for the obstetrician's office.
"Hi, it's Brittany Schirtzinger," Braiden said, using the legal name, the dead name, the despised name. "Can you, um, let Dr. Gonzalez know I'm on my way to Fairfax? My water just broke."
Breathing deeply, Braiden hobbled into the house and upstairs to change into a fresh pair of boxers. Braiden's dad, Steve Schirtzinger, walked into the house just in time to make the drive to the hospital.
Clutching a water bottle and a stick of Old Spice deodorant, Braiden rushed awkwardly back down the stairs and into the passenger seat of a Nissan Sentra, a diaper bag already on the back seat.
* * *
On an afternoon in March, about a month earlier, Braiden had been wandering the bright aisles of the maternity clothing section at a Buy Buy Baby store in northern Virginia, hunting for outfits to accommodate a growing belly.
Dressed in maroon sweatpants and a baggy black T-shirt, Braiden grimaced at the racks of low-cut shirts, tight colorful leggings, and pink flowy tunics with cinched waists. Only one top seemed like something they might wear - a red flannel button-down shirt - but even that was too feminine.
"I can't win," Braiden said, walking away without choosing anything.
Braiden had a similar feeling while surveying the offerings in the baby bottle section. "Joovy Boob Baby Bottle." Braiden read the brand name on one white, glass bottle out loud and chuckled.
"If it's called boob, I don't want it," Braiden said.
"Mom" was the only feminine term that had ever felt right. As the oldest child, Braiden grew up taking care of a half sister and half brother. In high school, Braiden would invite the younger kids in the neighborhood over after school to do their homework and eat macaroni and cheese. The neighbor kids eventually started calling Braiden "Mom." A tattoo of the nickname, in black script with a heart in the center, is on Braiden's left foot.
Yet it had hardly been a direct path to this point. Growing up, Braiden had always had the sensation of being in the wrong body and behaved like a tomboy. Braiden's mom insisted on buying her child dresses and later, when Braiden was a teenager, heels and push-up bras. But Braiden just wanted to wear cargo shorts, band T-shirts and Pokémon sneakers - clothes for getting dirty.
By age 13, Braiden developed a crush on a girl from school - a secret Braiden kept from their mom until after graduating high school, when Braiden opened up about liking girls. By age 19, Braiden felt no choice but to dress and act like a butch lesbian to continue expressing masculinity.
Then Braiden started seeing transgender men on magazine covers, and came across some on YouTube and Instagram who talked about their transitions. Braiden wanted to look like them: hard-edged, confident, strong.
So in January 2017, at 24, Braiden started taking testosterone shots to transition to a man. They started going by the new name and documenting the transition in YouTube videos, filming while injecting a vial of the male hormone into one thigh. They grew facial hair, bound their chest and felt more confident in their body than ever before.
But being a man still didn't feel completely right.
Braiden was living with several male roommates at the time, and was uncomfortable listening to them talk about sex, objectify women and act like showing emotion was a sign of weakness. Braiden had felt the need to inhabit the stereotype of a man, but the 5-foot-tall nurturing lover of animals, scented lotions and spiritual healing crystals didn't fit the category.
Being non-binary was different. It removed the pressure to fit into a conventional gender category and allowed Braiden to be as masculine or feminine as desired, or both - to just be Braiden. The pronoun "they" was also a way to publicly assert to others how Braiden felt inside.
In March 2018, after realizing the testosterone shots could permanently inhibit fertility, Braiden stopped taking the hormones. Not long after, Braiden started dating a former high school boyfriend, Brendt.
The couple had known each other when Braiden was still Brittany, wearing a dress and makeup to prom, and the newly revived relationship felt comfortably familiar to them. But Brendt, a construction worker who grew up in a blue-collar family, had dated only women, and he told Braiden that he was sometimes uneasy about being with someone who didn't identify fully as a woman. Would people think Brendt was no longer straight? He declined to be interviewed but agreed to be included in the story on the condition that The Post not use his last name.
Just months into their relationship, a pharmacy-bought test revealed the unexpected news: Braiden was pregnant.
Braiden was anxious about the baby's sex, about how difficult it would be to raise a girl.
Some parents have latched onto a trend of raising children free of gender - sometimes known as "theybies." But Braiden had no interest in doing that. When an ultrasound revealed that the baby was a boy, Braiden was overjoyed.
As someone who identified with both genders, Braiden was used to making choices on any given day - men's cologne or flowery perfume? But the expectant mom could not wait to raise a son with the stereotypical boyhood that Braiden never had. There would be trucks instead of dolls, and mud instead of makeup. Braiden chose a strong-sounding name: Owen.
In the boys' section at Buy Buy Baby, Braiden picked out a Nike onesie and a tiny dress suit. Braiden flipped through racks of outfits with footballs, dinosaurs and planets, and walked to the register holding a pair of tiny black suspenders - on sale.
Yet if someday "Owen wants to wear dresses, he can wear dresses," Braiden said.
Braiden wants Owen to understand that gender isn't just male and female, and that his mom isn't a woman. But Braiden doesn't want Owen to feel as though he has to be a "gender warrior" just because his parent is non-binary. Braiden's assigned gender was the wrong fit, but that doesn't mean Owen's won't be the right fit, Braiden said.
Midway through pregnancy, Braiden had sat outside a Starbucks and written a four-page letter to Owen to read when he could understand.
"Things I want for you have been weighing heavily on my mind," Braiden had written. "Things like making sure you know how to swim, how I want to go to all of your sports games if you play, concerts if you're musical, conventions if you're into science or the arts. Thank you in advance for letting me be your mom."
* * *
On a weekday afternoon in early March, Braiden drove up to the parking lot at the Inova Fairfax medical campus. Braiden was 32 weeks pregnant and due for an ultrasound, but even now, a baby bump was barely visible under a baggy blue sweatshirt and oversized jacket.
At Braiden's job at an Amazon warehouse, co-workers had looked surprised when Braiden talked about taking maternity leave to have a baby. Many didn't know Braiden wasn't biologically male. But showing or not, Braiden's belly was big enough to be getting in the way.
"That's not going to work," Braiden said, opening the car door slightly and reaching out the window to grab a parking ticket. "I am too pregnant for this."
Braiden parked and lumbered across the lot, walking through automatic doors under a sign that read, "Women's Hospital."
Braiden found the waiting room and sat down next to Brendt. The couple had had trouble communicating in recent months, so they had decided to stop dating. But they were still living together at Braiden's father's house, and Brendt was still coming to every prenatal appointment.
Five other couples were in the waiting room with them, all sitting quietly, all seemingly heterosexual. On the television, a commercial for testosterone-boosting supplements came on.
A moment later, a nurse walked into the room and looked around. "Miss Schirtzinger?" she said.
In a dark, curtained-off room, Braiden lay down on the bed as the ultrasound technician came in, smiling.
"Is it Brittany?" the sonographer asked, lifting up Braiden's sweatshirt and spreading jelly on their abdomen.
"Yes," Braiden said.
Months ago, Braiden had asked the doctor's office staff to use the name "B," instead of the still-unchanged legal name. But Braiden got tired of correcting the staff - just like Braiden had given up on correcting their mom each time she referred to her "daughter, Brittany."
It wasn't worth it to explain things to the sonographer now. Braiden worried that if they spoke up about being non-binary, the baby's care might suffer.
These appointments were uncomfortable in another way. Each time a doctor performed a pelvic exam, or a nurse placed her hands on Braiden's belly, Braiden felt intense dysphoria - the distress of being in a body that doesn't match one's gender identity.
Sometimes this pregnant, feminine body felt so wrong - so disconnected from who Braiden was - that they wanted to rip their skin off. Sometimes, in private moments, Braiden would tightly clutch their stomach and breasts, take a deep breath, and think: This is not for me. This is for Owen.
The thought of the baby would calm Braiden down.
So for the next 20 minutes on the hospital bed, Braiden struggled to think of their body as mainly a vessel for Owen. The only thing that mattered was the tiny human whose heartbeat Braiden was about to hear.
Braiden looked up at the ultrasound image as the sonographer pointed out the baby's head. Braiden breathed deeply, and felt a kick.
"He's hiding his face," the sonographer said. "Does he always do that?"
"Yeah, he's got his arms in the way," Braiden said. "He's like, 'There's too much talking!' "
"Oh my gosh, he goes to the gym, he's buff already," the sonographer said.
"Maybe I did too much with the protein," Braiden joked, turning to Brendt, who sat next to the hospital bed. "That's what it is. He's going to come out wanting protein shakes instead of breast milk."
The sonographer pointed out the baby's foot.
"That's what keeps me up all night," Braiden said.
Braiden smiled. Seeing this, seeing their son, made everything else worth it.
After toweling off the jelly, Braiden sat in the hallway with Brendt, waiting to meet with the doctor. The table was stacked with copies of Better Home and Gardens and Oprah's magazine.
"Guess they don't expect many men to come here, because they don't have [anything] to look at," Brendt said.
In the hallway, a nurse stopped by.
"Is Brittany still here?" she asked.
"That's me," Braiden said.
"How do you say your last name? Schirtzinger?" the nurse asked.
Then another woman's voice called from down the hall - the doctor, the only person who had made an effort to use the name Braiden preferred.
"B?" the doctor called out.
"That's also me," Braiden said.
* * *
Later in March, the brakes on the Nissan Sentra were acting up, so Braiden's dad, Steve Schirtzinger, rolled up his sleeves and stepped out of his beige two-story house to change the rotors.
Braiden wasn't going to let a round belly get in the way of joining him.
As Steve lay flat on the driveway under the car, Braiden crouched down.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Braiden asked, peering at the left wheel. "You gotta put the cap on it. Just push it."
Braiden had been helping Steve with car work more often in recent years, especially after a brief job at a CarMax. Braiden has always made a point of helping Steve with yard work and other tasks around the house. Braiden spent most of childhood living with their mom and stepfather on 21 acres of land in rural Spotsylvania County in Virginia. But on the weekends, Braiden would stay with Steve in this house, taking trips to Chuck E. Cheese and water parks.
These weekends together gave Braiden a brief, liberating sense of what it would have been like to have been born a boy. Steve and Braiden would go to wrestling matches and Monster Jam shows.
Inside the small, outdated kitchen in Steve's house, where Braiden and Brendt now lived, photos on the refrigerator show Braiden over the years: There's teenage Braiden at a homecoming dance, posing with Brendt and wearing a strappy maroon dress, makeup and long hair in a bun. Then there's Braiden about a year later, wearing baggy jeans, metal gauges in their ears and a backward baseball cap over short hair.
When Braiden first told Steve about wanting to become a man, the father accepted it, thinking the declaration was part of a phase, a young person trying to figure out who to be. Steve grew up in a blue-collar family in Virginia and manages audiovisual equipment for conference centers - he had never heard of anyone who was transgender. He struggled with the pronouns. But after a while, the transition started to make sense - Braiden had, in some ways, been more like a son than a daughter. Steve started referring to Braiden as "Brae," and "my son."
He hadn't been able to grasp Braiden's new non-binary identity, and he still wasn't sure how Braiden would explain to Owen that his mom was not a woman. But if it made Braiden happy, Steve supported it, and made sure to correct himself whenever he used "he" or "she" instead of "they," even when Braiden wasn't around.
Braiden's mom, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has never stopped using "Brittany" and recently tried to talk Braiden into wearing a dress to a wedding. Still, Braiden didn't fault her. Braiden understood how hard it must be for her to change her perception of her child and to reconcile herself to the loss of her daughter. The pregnancy had seemed to narrow the distance between them.
From under the car, Steve asked for a wrench, so Braiden went into the garage in search of one. On a flagpole over the driveway was a rainbow Pride flag that Braiden had put up, now slightly faded from the sun. On Christmas eight years ago, after Braiden had moved in, Steve had set up a rainbow tree in the front yard. "That's for you," he had said.
It was getting late, and Braiden yearned for a cigarette. But Brendt was home, and Braiden knew he didn't like the smoking because it was bad for the baby. For years, Braiden had battled depression, anxiety and eating disorders - connected to feelings of not belonging, insecurities about being overweight, discomfort from living in a body that didn't fit. Braiden had stopped taking psychiatric medications since learning about the pregnancy. They had been trying to stop smoking, too, but with all of the stress of the past eight months, that hadn't worked.
* * *
At another ultrasound appointment in March, Braiden's anxiety was rising again, as Nwamaka Obi, an obstetrician, looked over the images of Owen. It was just a few weeks from Braiden's due date and Owen was five pounds - below average, but within the normal range, the doctor said. His femur was still shorter than average, but not concerning.
"The one thing, though, is the kidneys," Obi said. "They are much brighter than we expect them to be."
She explained that it could mean the baby had polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts develop. The condition often isn't a problem until a person is in their 40s or 50s, the doctor said, but it's a genetic disorder usually inherited from the parents, so she suggested that Braiden and Brendt be screened.
Braiden's face fell. They leaned forward, nodded and said they would make sure to follow up.
"How's your mood?" Obi asked.
"Not great," Braiden said.
"Did you end up going to see a psychiatrist?"
"No, not till after he's born," Braiden said.
She reminded Braiden about the potential for postpartum depression.
"Pregnancy seems to exacerbate all of those things," the doctor said. "We find that things get worse. It's important to think about how you're doing, because you're going to be taking care of a new baby."
Braiden had planned to go back to therapy, but it was expensive. And resuming the medication now was out of the question because they wanted to be able to breast-feed, Braiden told the doctor.
Braiden wasn't looking forward to breast-feeding. They hated drawing attention to their chest, and hoped to someday have a double mastectomy. But nursing was a sacrifice Braiden wanted to make, not only for Owen's health but for the chance to bond with him.
On the car ride home, with Brendt driving, Braiden thought about the possibility that Owen might have kidney complications. Braiden could handle the dysphoria, the exhaustion, the stress of pregnancy - because at least the baby was healthy.
"This really sucks," Braiden said to Brendt, looking out the window, holding back tears.
"Well there's nothing we can do except do better," he said, looking straight ahead.
"What do you mean do better?" Braiden asked sharply. The doctor had made it clear that this was a genetic condition that wasn't anyone's fault. "There's nothing I could've done better."
"Whatever they're saying we should do, we should do," Brendt said.
"It just sucks," Braiden said.
* * *
Braiden took off the Hogwarts T-shirt and slid on a diamond-print hospital gown. Under faint fluorescent lights in delivery room 106, monitors beeping, Braiden gripped the bedsheets hard, knuckles white.
The nurses struggled to hear the baby's heartbeat. They put an oxygen mask on Braiden, and called in extra medical staff. They took turns repositioning Braiden to get a good listen. The right side, then the left, then back again. Braiden started to hyperventilate.
"Do this for the baby," a nurse said to Braiden, trying to calm down the soon-to-be-mother.
Braiden began breathing through the contractions in rhythmic puffs. Between breaths, Braiden cursed - a lot.
"F--- that hurts," Braiden said, over and over again.
The doctor administered anesthesia via an epidural. Moments later, Steve Schirtzinger walked in to see how Braiden was doing.
"Your mom says she'll be here around 12," he said.
Despite their differences, Braiden's mother was the person Braiden had most wanted in the room when Owen was born. Now she was driving the eight hours from South Carolina, hoping to make it in time.
For the next two hours, Steve sat in the nearly empty lobby downstairs, waiting for news of his first grandchild. At 10:40 p.m., he got a text message from Brendt: "Started pushing."
A few minutes later, Brendt texted one word: "Done."
Braiden had pushed through six contractions. Looking into a mirror, Braiden caught a glimpse of a tiny head of wispy brown hair sliding into the doctor's hands.
At 10:51 p.m., there he was: 6 pounds, 3 ounces, 20 inches long.
"She rocked it," a nurse said as Braiden's dad walked back into the room.
Swaddled in a blanket with blue and pink stripes, Owen lay pressed against Braiden's bare, tattooed chest, gripping his mouth with his tiny hand. He winced as he looked up at the bright lights.
Braiden smiled, kissing Owen's forehead, covered in a little blue beanie. Owen squirmed, sucking on his fingers.
Braiden suddenly felt starved, and exhausted, but had no desire to sleep, eyes fixed on Owen.
"Oh my God," Braiden said. "You're so perfect."
He had Braiden's nose, Steve said, leaning in to meet his grandson.
"Little man," Steve said.
About an hour later, Braiden's mom rushed into the room. Her face was beaming as she reached out to pick up Owen. She would have to drive back to South Carolina the next morning, unable to take time off work. But she stayed just long enough to take photos with her cellphone. "My heart is full," she posted on Facebook that night.
Two days later, Braiden breast-fed Owen in the hospital bed, relieved that he was latching on well after struggling the first few times. In just a few hours, it would be time to take the baby home. So with Owen on their chest, Braiden picked up their cellphone to call a pediatrician's office and schedule his first checkup.
"Okay, so he's a newborn," the scheduler said. "Sir, what's the mom's birthday?"
Braiden paused. For years, they had wanted a deep voice that would come across as masculine. But Braiden was now bothered by the person's assumption. Braiden had carried this baby, now feeding at their breast, for nine months. They had spent hours in labor bringing him into the world. They were the primary caregiver.
"Actually, I'm the mom," Braiden responded.
* * *
The first weeks at home had been even more difficult than Braiden could have imagined. The new mom had been sleeping barely three hours a night, worried about missing an important moment or not being there for Owen when he cried.
Braiden had tried repeatedly to keep breast-feeding but hadn't been able to produce enough milk. When he wasn't gaining weight, a pediatrician suggested baby formula. For a day or two, it had felt like a failure for Braiden, an admission that they couldn't nurture a baby like a mother should. But it also meant Braiden could start taking psychiatric medication again.
And on this Sunday morning, after three sleepless weeks, Braiden woke up feeling rested. Watching Owen sleep, Braiden noticed that he was looking more and more like his mom. He had gained more than a pound. He was healthy. And for the first time in weeks, Braiden felt proud and fully at peace. This was motherhood.
Braiden picked up their phone to browse Facebook and realized what day it was.
"Happy first mother's day to my first born," Braiden's mother had posted. "I am super proud of the mom you have become and excited to see the greatness you will instill into Owen. Here is to many more mother's days and to many more grandbabies."
Later that morning, Braiden went out to the garage. Owen was finally big enough to fit inside an infant rocking chair Braiden's mom had bought for him. So on this rainy Mother's Day, Braiden was on a mission to build it.
Braiden called out while digging through their father's tools. "Brendt, where would I find a screwdriver?"
"The bottom shelf, right there," Brendt said, appearing in the kitchen entrance to the garage, cradling Owen on his forearm.
Braiden entered the kitchen, face lighting up.
"Hi, my little love bug," Braiden said to Owen.
A few minutes later, Braiden was hunched over on the living room carpet, assembling the teal and yellow chair. Then Braiden strapped Owen in and watched as his eyes grew wide, looking at the giraffe and lion hanging from a mobile on the top.
"I think he likes it," Braiden said, shaking their head and smiling.
A few minutes later, Braiden picked up Owen and held him on the living room couch as Brendt brought out Mother's Day gifts: a pink card with a heart on the front, and a silver necklace with a pendant - the Tree of Life. Things had gotten better between Braiden and Brendt these past few days, and they were giving their relationship another shot.
Braiden had initially hoped they could spend Mother's Day fishing. But in this moment, the pouring rain was fine.
Braiden stroked Owen's forehead gently, letting him grip his hand around a finger.
"You can fall asleep," Braiden said. "It's OK."
Leaning against his mom's chest, he slowly closed his eyes.