When a request came out for submissions on being a trans parent, my immediate reaction was along the lines of “What can they mean, it is no different from being a non-trans parent.” And so I contacted DRM to find out what they were after and one thing led to another and here I find myself writing this blog post.
So let’s start with some context. I have two children, a daughter who has just turned 18 and a son who was 16 last October. Current focus for both is exams with A-levels and GCSEs this summer. The children live with my ex (we split up at the end of 2013) and I transitioned about 1½ years ago.
My son is a typical teenage boy, focussed on sport, video games and in leisure time, generally only comes out of his room for food or for the bathroom (unless of course the match is on TV). Fortunately he is also academic and studies hard – the competitive streak runs deep in everything he does. Yes, there are a fair share of grunts and monosyllabic answers but there are also times when the conversation runs deep and he waxes lyrical about the latest set of football results or the quality or otherwise of the national team depending on the score. Maybe a career in sports journalism beckons.
My daughter’s 18th has naturally led to some reflection. Time goes so quickly and now she is an adult. Wow! I remember holding her in my arms immediately after she was born and feeling an unconditional love that still exists today. How can 18 years have passed since then?
Her whole life has been one of many transitions; growing up and changing from a baby to a toddler, then to a child and becoming a teenager with all the associated changes. And then growing into the beautiful young woman she is today. As a parent I feel very blessed to have been able to share that journey with her and to have been there for the ups and the downs, supporting her when she needed it, helping her with school work, ferrying her around from A to B etc. She is hoping to go to university in the autumn if she gets the grades and like a butterfly she is about to spread her wings and fly.
Children need different things at different times of their lives. Often they don’t know what they need. As parents we fulfil so many different roles. I have been a sounding board, a cook, a cleaner, a tidy-upper, someone to argue with, someone to test boundaries with, someone to pick up the pieces, someone to provide emotional support, a taxi-service, a source of ready cash (not all the time), a confidant, a source of advice, a source of strength and love, a guide, sometimes a judge, sometimes not a judge, a provider of a home, a provider of a safe space, a bedtime storyteller, an educator, a maths homework helper, an entertainer. I have even been someone to hold hair back when throwing up…. The list is endless.
Yet all of that could be summed up simply as someone who is there when needed.
And that is no different whether you are a trans parent or not.
Now, some of you might ask, “That’s all well and good, but you’ve finished your transition. What happened before, during and after? Come on, spill the beans, it can’t all have been plain sailing, surely?”
And of course, you would be right.
Transitioning is a journey full of many small steps, one step after another with the hope that eventually you will make it over the mountain and come down the other side. And eventually normal life takes over again.
Of course, the most dramatic and visible of those steps is the change in presentation from one gender to the other. In my case, all the smaller steps in the lead up to that event, had been so gradual that the children had pretty much been oblivious or had taken them unconsciously in their stride as they had no impact on their lives or how they were treated.
As a parent, I continuously worried about how the children would be affected and what impact my transition would have on them. Long submerged memories of incidents at school and growing up in a small Yorkshire town during the miners’ strike when men were men and women were at home resurfaced. The last thing I wanted was for my children to be made fun of, bullied or excluded because of who I am.
In the months prior to my change in presentation I did my best. I tried to subtly educate the children and open their minds by mentioning positive LBGT role models in the news, and watching “Boy meets Girl” with them on TV, whilst at the same time trying to ensure I didn’t overdo it.
Eventually it reached the day when I came out to them but they didn’t really get it or have any idea what it would mean for them. Nor did they want to talk about it. And there wasn’t really any reference point for them.
At the beginning of November 2017 I had surgery and changed my gender presentation. I had told them beforehand that I was going into hospital and so they were aware of what was happening. Naturally they were worried and apprehensive, both for me and for them. I kept in touch with them from the hospital and afterwards so that they knew I was ok.
The custody arrangements are that the children stay with me every other weekend. I had to miss a weekend due to my recovery and so it was the end of November when I went to pick them up for the first time in my new gender. I deliberately dressed ambiguously to take things at a gradual pace and to try to be sensitive to their needs. My ex didn’t help by immediately criticising me in front of the children which raised the anxiety rate. My son refused to come and stay with me (he was just 15 then) and my ex supported his refusal which, with hindsight, was counterproductive.
My daughter was also upset but agreed to come with me. I asked her to share her worries and concerns and told her that I would not be cross or judge her. That she should just be open and not worry about saying something that she thought might upset me. So she talked and I listened.
Her concerns were very much about what could happen at school if it got out. She wasn’t just worried about what her friends would think but was also worried about what would happen if anyone from the school should see us together, even people she didn’t know but that knew of her. In our conversation, I played her concerns back to her to make sure I had understood and so that she knew that I was listening and taking her seriously.
That evening I had to stop at the supermarket on the way home (a usual occurrence when picking the children up). She didn’t want to come around the supermarket with me so I let her stay in the car; I said that was perfectly ok and I wasn’t going to force her to do anything she was uncomfortable with. As the conversation progressed, I did try to reframe her concerns a bit by putting them into context. I live in a different town to her and know very few people at her school so the likelihood of someone seeing us together and then working out that I am trans and her parent was very unlikely. We also talked through some scenarios, for example, how she might introduce me if we did bump into someone she knew (e.g. as a family friend, or just using my new name). I didn’t mind what she called me as long as she was comfortable and it wasn’t rude!
Two weeks later my son refused to even come downstairs and again my ex supported him in his choice. So again it was just my daughter. That weekend was notable because it snowed very heavily on the Sunday. There was so much snow I had to check if the main road was clear otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to drive her home. And I asked my daughter if she wanted to come with me to see. To my surprise, she did. As we walked down to the main road, a car was stuck so we both helped the couple get it moving. The world did not end. The main road was passable and on the way back the same car was stuck again and so we helped push it out again! Again, the world did not end. No-one made fun or pointed or anything. Life just carried on.
Two weeks later it was the weekend before Christmas. My sister, brother in law and niece all came for the day while my daughter was staying with me and we had a lovely family time. Again the world didn’t end. Nothing negative to report.
I had been planning to see The Last Jedi on Christmas Eve and gave my daughter the option as she is a Star Wars fan. I wasn’t sure whether that would be a step too far but she was up for it. Yes, the cinema is dark when the film is on, but you have to queue up and be visible plus there was a reasonable risk some children from her school could have been there. Again, the world still turned. Nobody behaved inappropriately. Everyone addressed us with correct pronouns etc. We had a great evening.
Each visit, we both took baby steps with no rushing of anything. I let things happen at her pace. Giving her space enabled her to see for herself that everything was actually ok; it enabled her to become used to it in her own time. I also think that acknowledging her fears, talking through them and working out strategies with her to deal with potential situations also helped.
A couple of months later I asked my daughter what she wanted to do for her birthday. Her answer was for us to go out for a meal somewhere. That was our first meal out together after the change in my gender presentation and her choice and the fact it meant I was accepted made me so happy. I don’t think she realised how much it meant to me. We had a lovely evening in a local restaurant.
Since then things have gone from strength to strength. Last summer we went on holiday to New York together and had an amazing holiday, sightseeing in Manhattan, on the beach in Montauk (a first for me) and doing all the touristy things that you do on any holiday.
A couple of interesting asides:
- We never did bump into anyone who she knows. Just like I did prior to transitioning and like many of us do every day, my daughter was catastrophising in the absence of tangible information. We all have a tendency to think the worse will happen, and it very rarely does.
- At some point last year, my ex told me that my daughter had started seeing a counsellor at school and intimated that it was my fault. So I mentioned it to my daughter, apologised for any upset I had caused her and said if there was anything about me she wanted to talk about, that hopefully she knew that she could. Her response? “It’s nothing about you, I was over that months ago”.
So what about my son? Well I haven’t seen him since that weekend in November 2017 after my surgery. We talk regularly on the phone and exchange texts and WhatsApp messages but at the moment we do not spend any time together in person. At the time he said he was concerned about what would happen at the school or if people saw me. I have respected his wishes to stay away from school and sporting events. I did try to offer strategies for these (e.g. dropping him off at the end of the road etc) but he has chosen not to stay with me or see me in person. We are in a kind of limbo situation where the only losers are my son and I. He even turned down the New York trip.
Contrast this with my daughter, who took that leap of faith, came to stay with me, and was able to see for herself what life was like and gradually adjust. I can’t force my son to come to stay with me, nor do I want to. He has to take that leap. And I will be there to catch him when he does.
I do think that an opportunity has been lost; by letting him stay and not pushing him to at least try, my ex gave him an easy way out. My ex’s last comment when I raised it was that the boys in my son’s school can’t deal with gays so trans is completely out of the question. Now whether that is my ex projecting or an accurate representation of the school, I don’t know, but what I do know is that my son is probably still thinking the worst and I’m guessing his concerns are still exactly the same as a year and a half ago in the absence of any direct experience to counteract them. He will have to come to terms with his own prejudices and preconceptions if we are to move forward. Education and openness in schools is key.
Being a parent brings all sorts of challenges. Everyone has things to deal with, big and small. The only constant is change. My role as a parent hasn’t changed although my relationship with my children has. And no doubt as they grow older it will change again. That is completely natural, whether you are trans or not. For me, it was completely natural to give them time to adapt and to try to be sensitive to their needs. That’s not a trans thing, that’s what all parents would do in times of change or upheaval in their children’s lives.
Being a parent is being a parent. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, young or old, male or female, gay or straight, trans or cis. It doesn’t make a difference.
I feel very blessed. I have two wonderful children. I am able to live authentically, to be who I am, to be accepted and included. It is truly amazing. For most of my life I thought that would not be possible in my lifetime. Has transitioning changed me as a person? Yes. Has it changed me as a parent? Possibly, you would need to ask my children that. If it has, then it is for the better. Now they get to see the whole of me, whereas previously they only saw a part.
In her novel “The French for Christmas”, Fiona Valpey wrote “As parents, we try to give our children two things, strong roots, to give them a sense of belonging, and wide wings, to let them fly when the time comes.”
And that is no different whether you are trans or not.