Behind the Scenes with Marlo Mack

How did How to Be a Girl come to be? And why choose to chronicle life with your daughter in audio, versus another form?

I didn’t plan to do a podcast when I first started recording my child. She was three years old and we were still referring to her as a boy. But she had started saying things that I knew most "boys" don’t say to their mothers: "Something went wrong in your tummy that made me a boy." "When am I going to become a girl, Mama?"

I was frightened and overwhelmed, but I also knew that I wanted to document this somehow. I had no experience with producing radio stories or podcasts; I just I knew I had always wanted to "do something cool with audio," so I bought a recorder (a Tascam DR-40). The best conversations usually happened when she was eating dinner or when we were driving somewhere. I’d set the recorder on the dining room table or pull the car over, and ask her questions.

I helped start a radio club in my hometown (with the help of AIR – thank you!) and my new friends in the group patiently listened to my ideas and encouraged me. They heard my first drafts, which were pretty ugly, and egged me on. It took me at least six months to find the "voice" of my podcast and finish the first episode.

Why a podcast? Well, I love audio. I love public radio, and I wanted to try to make work like what I’ve been listening to and loving for years. And a podcast also provided a means for me to share our story without compromising my daughter’s anonymity (Marlo Mack is a pseudonym) while still giving people a chance to hear her voice and get to know her. I also write about our lives on my blog, but I think there’s something extremely powerful and humanizing about actually hearing this tiny voice tell the world who she is.

How collaborative is the production process with your daughter? When do you (or she) decide to turn the recorder on?

I turn the recorder on whenever it seems like something interesting might get said. Half the time, I’m too late and the moment has passed. For her part, my daughter only suggests I record her when she is belting out an awesome Katy Perry song. (She’s working on an album – mostly covers.) She knows I make a "radio show" about us, and that I use "pretend names" to protect her privacy, but she hasn’t listened to any of the finished episodes: They have too many of my own adult fears and hang-ups in them, and she doesn’t need to hear all that.

DAUGHTER: "What’s your ‘pretend name’ on your radio show, Mama?" ME: "Marlo. Marlo Mack." DAUGHTER: "Cool, I like that. What’s MY pretend name?" ME: "I don’t know. What would you like it to be?" DAUGHTER: "How about...Mirage!" ME: "Nice. Mirage it is."

I love the parallel narratives that develop in this episode. Did you have the idea to make an episode about dating/disclosure first, or did you first collect the tape?

My daughter fell hard in kindergarten for a beautiful brown-eyed boy. According to eye-witness accounts, the two six-year-olds swooned around the playground every day at recess, hand-in-hand. Their goodbyes at the end of each school day were epic, with impassioned and melodramatic displays at the tragedy of their premature parting. I had been recording my daughter for a while when she started talking about her kindergarten love affair, so I started asking her questions about it and turned the recorder on. When the beautiful brown-eyed boy broke her heart, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to juxtapose my own dating life with hers, particularly when I encountered a couple of men who would break my daughter’s heart all over again if she ever had the misfortune of falling in love with guys like them. They kind of broke my heart, too – and one of them I never even met.

Can you talk about how you think about and navigate boundaries on the podcast - for both yourself and your daughter?

My biggest boundary is the one I draw around my daughter’s anonymity. I want her to be able to decide (when she’s old enough to make the call) whether she’ll live openly as a transgender person or not. So I’m not planning to ever reveal my real name. I promised that to myself when I first started the podcast.

I don’t know how I could tell our story without making it really personal. I have never felt overexposed or particularly vulnerable. I just try to be honest about what I feel and think, even when I’m admitting to some less-than-laudable things. If I didn’t let it all hang out, then I don’t think my story would ring true or have much impact. I want to be raw and honest so that people can relate to us and (I hope) see that my kid is pretty much like their kids, and I’m just another parent struggling to do a decent job.

When my daughter is old enough to listen to the podcast, she may want to set her own boundaries around what I say and don’t say about her, and what she says about herself – even anonymously. I don’t know what that will look like, but I really hope she eventually looks back and likes what I’ve been doing.

Who do you hope is listening to the podcast?

My hope is that my audience is anyone who has never met a young transgender child, or never even heard of one. I want people to know that kids like mine exist, and that they aren’t much different from any other kid you know. I guess I also want people to know how hard and how wonderful it is to be the parent of a kid like mine. I feel really lucky, but I also often feel pretty alone and pretty scared. Announcing my fears and hopes to an invisible, anonymous audience is kind of therapeutic, like: "Hey, world! My kid and I exist! And now you know a bit about what it’s like for us."

You’ve just joined the podcast collective The Heard! Tell us about it?

The Heard is a newborn collective of independently produced podcasts like mine, and I feel very lucky to be part of it. The other members of The Heard are: Neighbors by Jakob Lewis, Nocturne by Vanessa Lowe, Anxious Machine by Rob McGinley Myers, ARRVLS by Jonathan Hirsch, and First Day Back by Tally Abecassis. They are all really talented and committed and are doing fantastic work – you should listen to them!!

The Heard was the brainchild of Jakob Lewis, producer of Neighbors - who dreamed up the idea at the 2014 Third Coast Conference. We banded together to support each other with all aspects of trying to create successful podcasts. We edit each other’s work, promote each other, and cheer one another on. We live in different cities all over the U.S. and Canada, and most of us have never met, but The Heard makes the lonely business of podcast production a lot more fun.

What’s next for How to Be a Girl?

I’m planning another season of podcasts, with the next one coming out in June 2015 (soon!). I’m hoping to release a new episode each month. I’m also collaborating with Jeff Emtman on a piece for his excellent podcast, Here Be Monsters. That’s coming out soon, too.

My daughter is entering a new and challenging phase. As she gets older, she’s getting more and more aware of how people may view her and has realized that some people won’t accept her. She starts second grade at a new school this fall, and nobody at the school knows that she’s transgender. We’re trying to figure out how to handle that: Whom should she tell? Is it safe to tell a few friends and trust that they won’t tell everyone else? And is it even a good idea for a seven-year-old to carry around a secret like this? I’ll be exploring all that in upcoming episodes. And since I have no idea how it’s going to go down at the new school, I don’t really know what will happen in future episodes my podcast. But whatever happens, I’ll be documenting it and sharing it.

I’m also interviewing some of the other people in our lives. We’re part of a community of local families with kids like mine, and I plan to share their stories, too. I’ve also met a lot of wonderful adult transgender folks through all this, and I’m interviewing them, as well. I feel very lucky to be part of this community at a time when the world is finally beginning to acknowledge and accept people like my daughter. I’m actually kind of overwhelmed by how many great stories there are yet to share.

Which word has been harder to explain to relatives: transgender or podcast?

Podcast – by far. My parents are totally cool with my transgender daughter, but they get kind of nervous and change the subject when I trot out the word podcast ("Why don’t you just print it out for me, honey?").