I May Be A Woman, But I Will Always Be My Kids’ Father
When a parent transitions, the experience of the transitioning parent often isn’t explored at all.
Father’s Day in my family this year turned out to be a lot like any other Sunday. We woke up, had breakfast together, fed the baby, and watched some TV. My 6-year-old has been on a YouTube kick lately, choosing a channel that plays endless family home videos as her favorite. It just so happens that her mother and I have also split up recently, with me moving out. Freud would have a field day with my daughter’s YouTube selections. The reason for our split is my coming out as transgender — I can’t change being trans and my wife can’t change being straight. So even though it is painful, we try to move on in as friendly way as possible.
In fact, my daughter nearly forgot that it was Father’s Day, needing me to remind her of the occasion. Her card to me was perfect: It was Star Wars-themed, an ideal choice for her nerdy parent. It brought tears to my eyes — not least of which were for the “To Daddy” address on the front. You see, next year there will be a different name on the card, although she doesn’t know that yet. I’m not yet out to her as transgender, but I will be in a matter of weeks. Finally, she’ll begin to have the whole picture as to why her family is changing so suddenly.
Our situation, however, doesn’t get much media attention. It seems like families with trans children get the lion’s share of media coverage on trans matters, as parental decisions are easy fodder for the moral handwringing of the masses. Everyone seems to have an opinion on how to treat trans kids. Transphobic people claim that children are too young to understand the ramifications of transitioning. Many erroneously believe that doctors who give children hormones are performing surgeries on trans pre-teens. The media exploits these fears by featuring stories on how parents of trans kids support their kids and then watch the comments sections fill up with claims of child abuse.
It seems like families with trans children get the lion’s share of media coverage on trans matters.
Less glamorous are the parents who transition. When a parent transitions, the experience of the transitioning parent often isn’t explored at all — instead the focus tends to be on how the cis people around them are “adjusting.” Indeed, this dynamic of centering the cis family members of a transitioning parent is even the focus of the best-known exploration of transitioning parenthood, hit show and Jeffrey-Tambor-award-machine, Transparent. But for trans parents like myself, transitioning is a unique battle between gender norms and gender dysphoria, down to even the most basic aspects of my relationship with my kids, like the name my child wrote for me in her Star Wars card: “daddy.”
When someone calls me “sir” — either online or in person — when I’m in girl mode, I’m usually ready with a firm rebuke. Misgendering is an act of violence toward trans people. You would think, then, that I’d detest the name “dad.” When you think of how Father’s Day is advertised, it’s all lawnmowers and neckties, the pronoun “he” ubiquitous and synonymous with “dad.”
Misgendering is an act of violence toward trans people. You would think, then, that I’d detest the name ‘dad.’
As I despise any male pronoun given to me, why don’t I hate being called dad? Because that is the only name my oldest has ever known me by. “Dadda” was her first word. She’s been daddy’s little girl from the day she was born. I will always be her and her little sister’s father and nothing will ever change that. But, nonetheless, I must let the name “dad” go.
Shortly I will be living my trans life out in the open, no longer confining Katelyn to the shadows, or the nighttime, or quick, furtive trips to the mall. I will exist in public and my daughters will be a part of that existence. What will happen when my daughters call their accompanying adult who’s wearing a dress “daddy”? Anyone who overhears will know my trans status, which will paint an immediate target on us.
So what then?
What should I have my children call me now? If the male parent name is “daddy,” and I’m transitioning to female, shouldn’t I at least consider going by “mommy”? The answer is quite complicated. In a lesbian couple, both parents are usually called “mom” without issue, but for many couples with a trans partner, this arrangement doesn’t work. For myself and others I’ve spoken to, it seems disrespectful to the women who carried our kids for nine months and went through the horrible pain of childbirth for them. It’s a rite of womanhood that I will never experience, despite the fact that this doesn’t in any way invalidate the fact that I am a woman. Some women with trans women for partners are okay with sharing “mom,” but that’s not the case in my coparenting relationship.
This makes for an interesting dynamic wherein I will fiercely defend my womanhood to complete strangers, and yet feel apathy toward being called “mom.” When I was a child, I’d be asked what I wanted to be when I grow up and my secret answer, the one I never told anyone, was “a mom.” Yet now when I finally have the courage to pursue the transition I so desperately need, I ask myself, “What’s in a name?”
The options for the title of a trans parent are as vast and wide-ranging as the parents themselves. I’ve seen instances where the kids refer to the trans parent simply by their first names. I have a friend, Emily, who goes by “Mommily,” which is completely adorable. Jeffrey Tambor’s character in the aforementioned show Transparent goes by “Moppa.” Some go by “mum” or really any other mashup of “mom” and “dad” that you can think of. For me though, none of these names really fit in a way that would have any meaning — all save one.
In Jenny Boylen’s brilliant memoir, She’s Not There, she described running into this same issue, constantly being outed to strangers simply by the name that her kids called her. So she sat her kids down one day to work out a solution. Her kids threw a couple of ideas out there before a simple mash up of mommy and daddy produced “maddy.” It’s a simple and elegant solution, and a beautiful name for a parent.
When I read it, it was such a powerful moment, like the tumblers on a lock finally clicking into place to open a door. Suddenly I could see the future me, wearing a skirt or a dress with my two kids at the store. The disgusted looks at hearing “daddy” suddenly replaced with smiles at “maddy.” My ability, in light of this moniker, to see my future reveals why it’s important that we allow people to choose labels and names that work for them. My children’s grandmothers go by Mimi and Nana and no one worries or complains about those labels. Chosen names for trans parents and grandparents should be respected as well — although not everyone agrees with this sentiment.
As with anything having to do with trans people these days, parental status is constantly weaponized by transphobic political and church leaders as well as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). These people will use the fact that trans people have born children as “proof” that those trans people don’t really have the gender identities that are incongruent with their birth sex assignment. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that I’m “not a real woman” simply because I’ve fathered children before I started transitioning. TERFs in particular make an issue out of my divorce, calling my wife a “trans widow” who the trans rights movement tosses aside. I can tell you, though, that she’s received countless offers of support from spouses of my trans friends — while we’re still waiting for contact from any TERFs, despite their rhetoric about supporting “trans widows.”
Parental status is constantly weaponized by transphobic political and church leaders as well as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs).
Families with parents who are trans may look different, or have different names and nontraditional roles, but the love is the same. Parental status shouldn’t be used to invalidate a trans person’s identity — there are parents who are transgender, just as there are parents who are cisgender. I’m simply a woman who has fathered children. I’ll always be a dad to my kids, even when they start calling me “Maddy.” This may be my last Father’s Day looking like a typical father, but that will never change my role as a loving, devoted and supportive parent for my kids.
Nothing is more precious to me than my two little girls; a new name for me would never change that.