The concept of family has been a bedrock of social interactions since humankind began. Families lean on each other and share resources and support. Families grow together or sometimes split apart. Over time, how our families looked have undergone change. Where once family was defined by two cisgender heterosexual parents raising children as a team, membership into the parenting class has expanded significantly of late. Same-sex couples are now having families of their own through adoption, transgender people are coming out more and more lately, all of which shifts our previous familial assumptions. Along with these demographic shifts, the language and dynamics of family operations are expanding too.
Families with transgender parents especially may not only have to deal with many of the same issues as cisgender same-sex couples do, but also deal with making structural family change on the fly. When dad becomes a mom, there’s no end to the potential issues that may come along.
For trans woman Dana Stinson, who is 45 years old and lives in Reading, Pa., motherhood has been a fitful journey. Having two children with two separate partners has added even more complication to already tense family dynamics. “It’s been 425 days since my [oldest] daughter has last spoken to me,” Stinson said.”I have missed two birthdays, two Easters, one Christmas.” Religious differences over Stinson’s trans status has driven a wedge between her and her biological daughter. “We trade off holidays so my oldest can travel with my spouse and our daughter to spend time with my spouse’s family. I spend the night in a hotel Christmas Eve so my oldest would come over and spend Christmas morning with her sister.”
Stinson’s story may feel like an extreme example, but many marriages end up in an ugly divorce without the added pressures of a gender transition. Just 55% of married couples survive transitioning. Religious and cultural concerns can add an extra layer of resentment between a trans woman and her co-parent, or even the children themselves. While she’s sad that she’s missing such a critical time in her daughter’s life, it’s important for Dana to let her older child know that despite a lack of face to face contact there’s still love there. “Almost every day I send my oldest a text letting her know she is loved and how proud I am of her. To her, I am a topic which is still off limits. It breaks my heart everyday.”
One key factor in how children tend to respond to their parents’ gender transitions is the age they are when the parent comes out and transitions. The older children grow, the more they have their own preconceived notions or beliefs on gender. Also, as kids age, they depend on their parents less and less. For an example that illustrates this point, let’s examine the family dynamics for Carol Holly, a 46-year-old trans woman from Massachusetts with two daughters, 20 and 16, as well as an eight-year-old son. When she first came out, her kids were 16, 12 and four, respectively. While she’s lost contact with her oldest, her relationship with her middle daughter and younger son illustrates the way in which a child’s age plays into the likelihood for a positive long term relationship with a parent who transitions. “My middle daughter refused to have anything to do with me for nearly two years,” Holly said. “She would hide in the back of my ex’s house, and I didn’t see her grow up. We reconciled in the last year, and it has been glorious, but I missed her so much. Now I’m her cool mom, and we shop and can talk deeply. My experience in transition makes me non-condemnatory to anything she’s going through, and she confides in me.”
With her son, she points to regular visitation as the key to maintaining a positive relationship. “My son felt the loss of his dad keenly, but he had court-mandated visitation, and we kept our relationship going,” Holly said. “My son lamented losing his male dad who he felt he could build things with; I was his role model and he idolized me. It was a profound blow to his self-perception, and he had to learn to stand up and be the man who he was earlier than he would have otherwise had to do. We [now] enjoy both mother-son and some father-son activities. I take him fishing and camping, even though it’s never been my thing.”
The earlier a child is when a parent transitions gender, the less controversial that change will feel for the children involved. With Alisha King, a 33-year-old woman of trans experience with a three-year-old son, her child only knows her post-transition self. Being too young to remember any differently, finding a new parenting name for King was a simple process. “My son only knows me as Mommy.”
While King will benefit from being to be her true self for her son’s earliest years, the situation does come with a few unique parenting issues of its own, especially when she is responsible for medical decisions. “Everywhere I go people think [her son] is adopted. One time my son was in the hospital with his asthma and one of the nurses was asking about his health history. [As] I’m answering the questions, she asks ‘do you know anything about his birth mother and father?’ When I said he was mine by blood she looked at me like [I was] lying.”
All three women confirmed having issues with medical providers simply not believing they were the biological parents of their children. Not only is this a hassle, but can create potentially serious situations. King recounts another incident, “another time my son was in the hospital and [when] it was time for him to leave they wouldn’t let me take him because [they said] I’m not the real parent, my husband is. So I said ‘Check all your paperwork my name is on everything, he is mine. If anything I’m the only one with rights to him.’” Medical providers need to be more cognizant of the differences that can occur between families as more and more trans parents are deciding to transition.
A common frustration among most trans parents is the lack of awareness or even respect for families that look like theirs do. Transgender parents are still parents and transitioning doesn’t change the quality with which they support their children. As more and more trans people come out, more and more families will have to work through a parent’s transition and shape themselves into a workable situation. All these beautiful mothers want is that you give them a fair shot and judge them on their parenting skills, not their transitions. At the end of the day, that’s all that will end up mattering.
Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and trans woman. She lives in Maine with her two young children, and you can find her on Twitter @transscribe.