On a Sunday last spring, after locking up the office at my old job, I turned into the hall and saw a little girl. She was eight or nine, and wore a hair band that glistened with purple sequins. The girl was alone – I could make out some adults through the frosted office windows behind her, but nobody was there with us in the hallway — and she was dancing. Wild, flail around, “Twist and Shout” dancing. It was incredible.
“That looks fun!” I said, smiling at her. Immediately she stopped dancing and looked over at me.
It occurred to me that this was the first time I’d really interacted with a child since I began my transition six months earlier. I felt an anxiety leap up in me — is she looking at me like that because I don’t make sense to her, because I’m weird, or — but then, somehow, she smiled.
“Do you have a little girl, too?” she asked.
I shook my head. When I got onto the elevator, I added, “But I want to be a mom someday.”
“Good!” she said, then started to dance again as the elevator doors closed.
A few months later, in the heart of summer, my coworker L sat with me at work updating me about a family picnic the weekend before. She told me about her niece, who ran around the whole time in her dress, playing jokes and being sweet and ridiculous while her mother chased her.
“Don’t you miss being a girl and feeling free like that?” L said, sighing.
I felt a familiar pang of loss – for the girlhood with the dresses and the giggling and the running. This feeling is old. It’s particularly strong in summer, when I walk past kids on school breaks, traveling with their families. It makes me want to find a dark place and yell.
I’m ascribed an alternative personal history when I pass as cisgender: people who don’t know any better assume that I had a girl-presenting childhood during which I ran around feeling femme and free. Maybe I had a girlhood and a boyhood all rolled into one, or something altogether different. What do you call missing something that never really happened?
At some point, I realized that while I would always need to manage the loss of girlhood, that loss doesn’t need to control the way I live my life. As I thought about L’s picnic, my feelings of loss faded, and in their place was curiosity. What did her niece’s childhood look like? Was it marked by adventures and friendships, the endlessness of internal worlds? Was it sorrowful? Was it liberating? My dysphoria felt small next to the possibility of nurturing a childhood where, as a parent, I could step back and make room for gender – where I could affirm self-expression without limits or expectations.
I am a trans woman, and I plan to adopt and raise kids. I want to be the kind of person who helps a little human navigate the terrors and wonders of childhood, to tell them they are complete in whatever way they unfold — to assure them that love is their birthright. Yet I’m still learning what my kind of motherhood would look like, since I live among institutions and ideologies that continue to question my existence.
In the recent blitz of media narratives of transgender women, the role of the later-in-life transitioning parents (from Maura in Transparent to Caitlyn Jenner) have received the most attention, in stories often told from the perspectives of adult children — a spectacle of identity to be processed by family members. It is only in small glimpses, such as the prison visitations between Sophia Burset (played by Laverne Cox) and her son in in Orange is the New Black, that we see trans women striving to provide a foundation for their children. These stories reflect the preoccupation with transitioning individuals engaged in an epic struggle with identity, rather than the everyday lives that trans folks actually build, fight for, and share with others.
That morning at the library with L, I tried to imagine myself raising a daughter. Do you have to pretend to be frustrated at your child when she plays pranks on your extended family, even when those pranks are really funny? At what age will she want to play card games on the lawn with me? If she’s into fixing up cars, or figure skating, or something else I know nothing about, will she be okay with me cheerleading and supporting her even if I occasionally make a fool of myself? And when the parents of her classmates learn about my identity, how will they react? I’m okay with making a fool of myself, and I’m okay with managing the pain, but how can I protect her from the meanness of others?
Generations of women — women who could not conceive; women who were queer or part of nontraditional partnerships; women who adopted alone late in life; women who were marginalized by poverty and white supremacy and then judged by society as incapable of showing children stability; women who were for a million reasons considered the wrong kind of woman — have been spectacular mothers. I know that countless trans women must number their ranks.
But I still struggle to find stories that shed light on the kind of mother I hope to one day be. I’m still learning what to expect in negotiating the adoption agency, the benefits coordinator in HR, and even the judgmental parents of my future kid’s classmates. I’m looking for possibility models of trans women who take on motherhood and bring something beautiful, and stable, to a child’s life.
Of course, not every trans person wants to be a parent. But from my conversations with other trans women, I know I’m not alone. Many of my friends want to raise a child, to give them safety and freedom and to serve as a mother in their life. The role of mother, for these women, means something real and urgent and true. And at the same time, so many in our community are mired deeply in difficulties that are immediate and all-consuming: battles to secure employment, shelter, access to health care and safety.
Ironically, the very things that make establishing ourselves difficult are also things we can share with children: our tenacity; our willingness to affirm people exactly as they are, and not as society says they should be; patience and humor and compassion in the face of all obstacles. My friend Athena Brewer, who is a psychotherapist and a former director of the Trevor Project, recently told me how trans teenagers in crisis often talk about parenthood – how it serves as a beacon for them, even as they struggle to make it out of an abusive household or escape the precariousness of homelessness. They already want to give more than they have been given.
We have more stories than ever about the drama of transition, and the struggles for survival that trans women face – but what about the other meaningful choices we make in our lives?
When I first started searching for “transgender mother” resources online, I found pages upon pages of information about mothers raising children who are transgender – which is wonderful! – but almost nothing about trans mothers themselves.
Then I discovered a remarkable woman: Meghan Stabler.
In 2014, Stabler, a transgender woman, was named Working Mother of the Year by Working Mother magazine. Stabler described in a 2014 op-ed how as a mother, the most profound barrier she faces is the economic reality of being both a working mother and a transgender woman in the workplace:
“It's a widely discussed fact that, on average, women in America are still being paid less than men for the same work — yet transgender employees have a much higher chance of being unemployed or underemployed, leading to further complications in the workplace.”
“...I'm just like any other mom, be she single, partnered or married: I'm planning meals, balancing budgets, figuring out how to encourage my child to enjoy reading, and juggling my schedule to accommodate taking my daughter to the doctor when she's sick. While most of the U.S. puts a label on who I am, both at home and in the workplace, to myself I'm just a working mother. What is remarkable is the staggering inequality we working mothers face."
Stabler is clearly a woman doing whatever it takes to make ends meet for her child. Her attempt to provide a stable livelihood sits at the intersection of so many pressures: LGBT protections from workplace discrimination, pay inequality for women, and inadequate supports for working mothers, to name three. Were she a woman of color, or if she did not have access to the same types of professional jobs, I imagine the list would be even longer.
While Stabler fully acknowledges the precariousness we live in as transgender women – 52% of Americans still live in states that do not prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity – her writing makes me feel hopeful. I know she’s out there, kicking butt in her profession, using her voice for activism, and then coming home and reading with her kid. She’s making it work, while also demanding more for everyone. I can tell that she has so much to give as a mother.
Last month, I visited my little nephew. I’m watching him grow up. He ran up when I visited to hug me, his auntie. In the car, I asked him what sound does a cat make, and we meowed at each other for the rest of the ride.
My mom took me aside during the visit back home and told me how much she enjoys watching me in auntie mode. “I can’t wait to see you as a mother,” she told me, and beamed. Though my head was awash with anxiety that day about the insurance coverage that fell through, and the savings account that may or may not dwindle away, I smiled back. I can’t wait, either.
I grew up in a household where my father worked and traveled full-time, and my mother raised me and my siblings full-time. My mom never seemed like the stereotype of the discontented stay-at-home mother; I knew that raising children was something joyful for her. I want to share that loving relationship with a child, and also give them the peace and stability that I’ve sought out for myself over the years.
Being included in this continuity of motherhood in my family is enormously meaningful to me – and something from which many trans folks are forcibly excluded. I don’t take it for granted. I am hopeful that trans women can be that for each other, too – that we can support each other specifically as trans mothers, and extend a sense of continuity and belonging in motherhood to those most systematically discouraged from taking part.
Every so often, a glimmer of trans motherhood appears in a story or movie or song, and shows me something beautiful. I’ve begun to collect these moments.
In one, in a story in A Safe Girl to Love, Casey Plett’s spectacular collections of stories published last year, Zoe (like me!) spends time with her mom, Sandy, who is herself a trans woman from an earlier generation. As in all of Plett’s stories, their humanity does not hinge on their gender identities. Rather, you see a mother trying her best, a daughter rolling her eyes at mom-texts, and the two growing (or maybe just existing) through an awkward time with an undercurrent of love between them.
In another, a video uploaded to YouTube, Laura Jane Grace (of Against Me!) is playing a small in-store concert, her young child watching off-stage. After dedicating “Two Coffins” to her daughter, Laura sings so warmly, so proudly, it’s as if the crowd isn’t there. I’ve watched the video countless times.
And shortly after reading Plett’s book for the first time, I learned about director Rémy Huberdeau’s documentary Transgender Parents (one of the parents featured in the documentary is a trans mother-to-be). The documentary is screening at festivals in Europe this fall.
We need to keep telling stories that bring us back to our own strength, and that share knowledge across generations. We can be tenacious and loving and graceful as parents, while also affirming the fucked up and scary parts of raising a child in communities that often devalue us. We can make space to worry about how we’ll be judged — how our children will be judged on our account – and then we can still go ahead and be spectacular mothers. We can start having conversations about whether adoption and foster parenting is truly inclusive for trans women, as President Obama proclaimed they must be in 2014. We can bring our aspirations as parents together with an intersectional approach to addressing the barriers mothers face in our economy and our society, as Meghan Stabler has done so beautifully.
And we can just hang out with our children and make space for them to be whoever they need to be. Regardless of what we were given, we can give them something more.
When the elevator door closed on that Sunday afternoon, the little girl still dancing in the hallway, I realized that in having spoken the words “I want to be a mom someday” aloud, it was more than just a desire or a preference. It was something already taking form in me, much the same way my transition itself had appeared to me in little moments and accelerated until it was unavoidable — until I was on the other side, living it.
Sometimes the amount of steps between that life and this one terrifies me. But when I remember how I felt that afternoon, or how I feel watching Laura Jane Grace sing to her daughter, or making my little nephew giggle, I think of how my favorite poem by James Wright ends:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
– “A Blessing”