We hope you join us this Thursday, July 24th at Re-bar for more reflections on Inheritance, parenting and dialogue on motherhood at the Inheritance Summer Series: Mother Show. Get pre-sale discounted tickets today.
Joli St. Patrick
“Mommy—I mean Daddy?” my 5 year old daughter stammers, in the course of a routine child-parent query. I tell her, not for the first time, that “Mommy” is fine. In fact, we've talked about this often: how I really prefer “Mom” over “Dad,” how it feels weird for both of us for me to be referred to as a father even though I'm a woman, but also how confusing it is to call both me and her other parent Mom.
If I had my druthers, I'd scrub “dad” and “daddy” from our family vocabulary like I have all other male referents. But when I came out as transgender, I wanted the process to go gently for my child, then 4 years old. “Woman” and “she” were important terms to establish, but I didn't want her to lose her dad, which is what she'd known me as her entire life. Especially in the wake of a divorce, I needed to be careful to keep her wrapped in love and security, even as I navigated my own dramatic upheavals. So I left her in the driver's seat on that particular title, even as I insisted on my name and pronouns.
But as I saw her own ambivalence grow, and such hasty corrections and confusions become commonplace, I decided it was time to be a bit more proactive. Still not one to lay down the law on anything short of running into traffic, I talked with her on more or less equal footing, floating different mom-substitute names from various languages, and asking for her suggestions. She never fielded any serious ones—her first suggestion was “poop”—so I knew I'd have to take the lead.
Being a transgender parent is rewarding but rough. My daughter, like most kids her age, is open and adaptable. It was a wonder watching her process my transition in her own way: telling me two trees by my home “used to be girls, but this one is now a boy,” for instance. But the messages that surround her are legion and often contradict my own narrative. While my co-parent is on board with respecting my gender identification, the rest of her household is not. Other children often ask me questions and don't always accept the answers. After I told one group I was a woman, they all chanted back to me “No, you're a MAN!” My daughter, thinking it was all a fun game, joined in. I held the hurt silently in my core, and waited till I was alone to cry. At the next opportunity I had my first frank talk with her about my gender transition.
Another time she blurted to me, “You're really a boy, but you think you're a girl.”
I stopped and asked, “why do you say that?”
“Well...because you used to be a boy.”
“Yes,” I replied, “I did identify as a boy, but I discovered that wasn't true for me.” I was silent a moment, then asked, “do you know anyone who says I'm a boy?”
She answered, “Grandma.”
This was not a surprise. She was referring to my devout Christian mother, who has not taken my transition well and is both concerned for my mental and spiritual well-being and worried I will warp her granddaughter. I said, “Your grandma and I do disagree on that. And it hurts my feelings when she says that about me.”
My daughter's response was to run ahead. We had reached the park's play structure, and her endurance for heart-to-heart conversation was at its limit.
The charge of selfishness is always available to critics of a trans parent. Trans women especially are seen as failed men but not really women, either. Our person-hood is so disposable, our “lifestyle choices” so seemingly arbitrary and frivolous to other eyes, that “think of the children” is an easy rallying cry. It's also easy to internalize that charge. But I like to think that in this case, knowing my deepest needs and doing what's best for me is also of incalculable benefit to my child.
Recently, without my daughter present, I met a pair of women conversing with my friend at a bar, and no sooner had they introduced themselves than they asked me to explain my whole... “lifestyle.” I gamely tried to share my story of transgender awakening, but once they learned I was divorced with a child, they focused exclusively on her need for a father in her life, insisting that I had a responsibility to fill that role specifically, and implying I am selfish for putting my own needs before that. One even suggested I tie my hair back and put on masculine clothes when in my daughter's presence, maintaining a bizarre masquerade throughout her childhood. I challenged the pair to name me one thing a “father” can do for them that I can't. They could only volunteer that a father would enable to be “daddy's girl,” or teach her respect for authority. I had asked them how fatherhood could help me love my child, and all they could think of was threat and punishment. I helped them out a bit: I suggested that by pretending to be a man, a “father,” I would teach her that my true self is shameful, and therefore her own self is shameful. I would show her that her innermost heart is always subject to override by outside power, and that what she feels and knows is worthless. I am absolutely delighted that I will not be able to be there for her as a “dad.”
Meanwhile, our little family has at last settled our mother-title question. Her other mother was dropping her off at my place, and she mentioned that today she was going to call me “other mommy.” I laughed, but pointed out that this seems like a lot of effort to go through, and perhaps it was time for me to have my very own title. I selected my favorite of my previous suggestions, and said “well, I pick 'Ema.'” Ema (eh-mah) is an Estonian word for mother, and I've loved it for years. My co-parent cooed, “oh, that's pretty! I'll try to remember: Ema.” My daughter said she'd try it out as well.
That day we ran around the children's museum, and she called me “Ema” several times. Once in a while she said “Dad,” and I would ask “you mean Ema?” with a teasing smile, which would prompt a grinning “yeah, Ema” in return. Finally, exhausted and nursing a skinned knee, she curled up against me on the train home, and murmured, “I love you, Ema.”
That sentence was a greater gift than she could know. A treasure to hold silently in my core. Once again, I waited till I was alone to cry.