Many trees have been sacrificed to convey the tales of how difficult it is for the families of trans people to adjust to and accept the new reality, if indeed they ever do. I’m not going to write about that, not exactly.
Twenty years ago I was with my first wife and we were expecting a child. To say I was unprepared would be an understatement: back then I was emotionally immature, unable to fully process or understand my feelings.
Looking back now with the benefit of experience and hindsight–never underestimate hindsight–I can see how I was caught up in events, carried along without much thought for where I was heading or what might happen. That’s the story of much of my life.
Back then we were out having lunch when the first signs of labour appeared. I don’t remember any panic, just a kind of excitement and also relief that the long wait was nearing an end. Much of what follows is a blur, jumbled memories of locations.
- A hard, uncomfortable pallet on the floor of a mostly bare room in the local hospital’s Central Delivery Suite, trying to cuddle through a hot summer night.
- Being all but ordered home, trying to get some sleep and mostly failing, waiting for the phone call to summon me back.
- How empty the home felt.
- Having my hand squeezed so tight that I thought my fingers might break.
- Looking with rapturous fascination as our daughter’s head first appeared.
- Taking the proffered scissors from the midwife and severing the umbilical cord. The surprising robustness of the cord.
- Looking at our daughter’s face for the first time.
- Holding her for the first time.
- Never feeling such unalloyed bliss before or since.
I don’t know how it felt for my mother when I arrived: we never talked about it. She never gave birth: I was adopted as a baby. But I never knew any other mother. Most of what I learned about being a parent I got from her example. Most of what I got wrong came from, well, elsewhere.
I was a parent myself. And I really didn’t know what to do. I remember bits and pieces. Putting her in the pram and walking around the block in the hope that she’d fall asleep. Changing nappies, toilet training, reading a book at bedtime. Her starting school. Taking her swimming or to the park.
Making decisions that affect the life of another human being: that’s one hell of a responsibility. Trying to identify what my own parents got right and what they got wrong. Trying to do the best job we could.
And all that time the dynamic of the marriage had changed and we were drawing apart. I never saw it coming. When it did and we separated, then later on divorced, there was acrimony. We hurt each other, deliberately to a degree. We could exchange words and it would sound civil on the surface but underneath there was pain and it was deeply uncomfortable.
I tried a handful of visits with my daughter after separating. It was just me and her, and I didn’t know how to relate to or interact with a four or five year old. I felt out of place, awkward. I also felt incredibly self-conscious out with her in public: were people looking at me, apparently a man, out with a young girl? I stopped seeing her.
It was selfish, I accept that. But I couldn’t cope with it at that time, and as time went on I found myself in a new relationship and then marriage. My life took a different direction.
When she got in touch with me I was no longer the same person who had walked away all those years ago. I don’t mean that I’d come out as a trans woman, that I’d changed my name and was transitioning. None of that changed who I am.
No, what I mean is that I had grown older, learned to look inside myself and finally begin to understand my feelings, unravel some of the emotional baggage I was carrying. Here and now in my 40’s I am not the same person I was in my mid-20’s when my daughter was born. Here and now I am finally able to be a parent.
It took my daughter’s acceptance of me just as I am for me to accept that the past happened and is over, and that we don’t have to let it shape our future relationship. We got a second chance, a new start. I realised I could be a parent without playing the role of “dad”.
And that was when I appreciated how much of a legacy my mum left behind. I have a lot of happy memories of spending time with her, but there are a lot of things we never did because she thought I was a boy. Things I missed out on.
Now I have the chance to do some of these things with my daughter and it’s as if there’s an echo of what might have been with me and my mother. Without consciously trying to become my mother I find I’m reflecting aspects of her personality. I catch myself sounding like her sometimes, and that makes me happy, because then I know a part of her lives on in her daughter, just as I hope that part of me in turn will live on in mine.
This was the final piece that completed my sense of identity: the recognition that I could be just like my mother. That I didn’t need to have given birth to my daughter to be a mum. That I have as much right to claim motherhood as my own mother did.
I had to overcome a lot of internalised prejudice to reach the point where I feel comfortable calling myself a mother. So often trans people are denied these aspects of our identities when people refuse to accept them. When we believe their objections. But in the end it is simple: I am a parent and I am female. No other word fits except mother.