Disclaimer: this post is very late. I started working on it in early May, but I have been unable to devote the time I would like to writing so… apologies it was topical when I started. Promise.
I have been doing some thinking of late (yes I know, that is dangerous, but I have kept the fire extinguisher on hand just in case anything overheats). As is often the case some (I think) rather deep and far reaching thoughts have been prompted by a rather banal stimulus (and the fact that it is Mother’s Day season here in South Africa)…
Those of you who are on Facebook may well have seen these pictures (or at least your personalised iteration of them) recently.
They are cute t-shirts and their message is kind of sweet. I found these pictures amusing. I was even (almost) tempted to purchase one of them. Clearly Facebook has identified me as a woman and a parent. They have passed this information on to their client who has then put two and two together and determined that as a woman and a parent I must be a ‘mother’. They then matched my musical taste (easily identified through the artists I have ‘liked’ on Facebook and then placed a (seemingly) appropriate product in my news feed (or timeline, or whatever they are calling it thees days) for me to purchase. As an aside it is interesting that Facebook does not identify male me as a ‘father’, there I am just an ‘old man’. Not only has this amused me, Facebook has also got me thinking…
As a transgender person who is also a parent, what does it mean to be ‘a mother’? Do you simply become a mother when your child is born, or is it a process of becoming a mother, from the time of conception? Is ‘mother’ (or indeed ‘father’) defined as a female parent, or is there something more to this? Is there an innate ‘motherness’ or ‘fatherness’ that is distinct from the ‘other’ parenting role? Are these social constructs or are they real or innate? What are the various connotations of mother versus father versus male/female parent and are the different gender roles all that different? Does this have any implications for gender and where do transgender people fit in? I have been thinking a lot about this. I claim no special knowledge and as always these are purely my opinions. I do think I have some insight as being a parent who has not transitioned I get to see as much of both sides of the parenting coin as it is possible to see at the same time. I am also privileged in that one of my daughter’s good friends is the daughter of a lesbian couple and I have observed how the two of them parent her.
It seems to me that the roles of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are quite different. For starters, my spouse started to feel that she was a parent long before I did. From almost the time of conception she was very aware of the life growing inside of her, in a very real way that I simply was not. Intellectually I knew there were cells inside of her. I knew that these cells were multiplying, dividing and generally behaving very mathematically, but I had no experience of them. I had no real feelings about them. When my daughter was born, I felt a massive emotional blow. There she was! My daughter. Helpless, totally dependent on me and brought into this world because of my choices, not hers. Wow! That was a real epiphany. My spouse felt no such thing. yes she had an emotional release, but it was essentially different to how I felt.
She had spent the last nine months of intermittent nausea feeling the life inside of her. She was becoming (a very nauseous) mother. I became a parent in a single instant of epiphany. An emotional tidal wave hit me.
I was aware that I was a parent but (despite reading all the baby manuals) I had no idea how to be one. I learned that. On the job. Fast! Sure changing nappies, feeding her, supporting her and caring for her had to be done. That was the easy part. But what did she need me to do for her emotionally? That was trickier. Fortunately, initially the feeding, changing and sleeping is pretty much all that is needed so you get to learn, but I did have to learn… It wasn’t really natural for me.
Mothering seems to be a far more natural process. There is a more instinctive approach. Having said that i do not mean it is easy. far from it, perhaps because of the instinctive nature, I see many mothers second guessing and doubting themselves, perhaps far more than fathers who have thought about things in advance. Perhaps this is just a reflection of my personality (being INTJ on the Myers-Briggs profile means I am something of a strategic thinker who plans ahead a lot) versus my spouses more sensing and feeling approach.
Sadly, we had a miscarriage before our second daughter was born. This was a traumatic event for us. I definitely felt a sense of loss and sadness but I will also admit that this was nowhere near as profound as the loss felt by my spouse. She had felt those cells going all mathematical on her. She had experienced the nausea. She had the surgical procedure to remove the dead tissue. She went through all that. I could only look on. Support her as best I could and empathise, but I could not do it. It was a path only she could tread. When ouryoungest daughter was born, once again I only truly experienced her after she was born… Although the emotions were more of a normal Indian Ocean wave than the tsunami I had felt before… I was already a parent I was more aware of what this all meant, but again the reality only strikes after the birth.
I have also noticed that our children look to us for very different things. Whilst my eldest daughter confides in me a lot and feels able to ask me anything, there are some things she just feels more comfortable talking to her mother about. When the youngest falls and hurts herself she needs her mother. I can hug her, console her, administer first aid etc but it is never as good as what her mother does for her.
As to my daughter’s friend who has two women as parents, I do not and cannot pretend to have great insights into their relationship or what happens at home. I have noticed that both women are very maternal. Yes, one is perhaps more ‘motherly’ than the other, they are both definitely mothers. Then again as I have said before gender roles are always in a state of flux. Male parents in the early 21st century behave very differently to those of the early 20th century. A male parent who does not change a nappy is considered a freak of nature, whereas fifty years ago this was relatively normal. Similarly, mothers roles have also changed. There are more single parent families and this has implications for the way parenting happens for both genders (and indeed sexes). This is all very much for the better and we should not say that people are ‘less’ fatherly than before. That is surely a nonsense. Things are different certainly. But not any worse than before, if anything children seeing that either parent can play either role is surely a good thing. It shows that you are not the victim of your genitals and that you can become whatever you choose to be.
In the aftermath of Father’s Day (yes I am that late with this piece) we were discussing what impact having Mother’s Day versus Father’s Day had on people. We were wondering whether there should just be one Parent’s Day? And indeed whether we shouldn’t make more of Youth Day. My feelings are mixed. Whilst I feel for people who feel unable to celebrate on the day of their choosing because of some societal prejudice, I also think there are certain roles that perhaps need to be honoured in their own special way.
I know that this is not a particularly politically correct stance and I understand that my membership of the feminist club may be in jeopardy by saying this, but I do think fathers and mothers provide their children with different inputs. I say this because while my spouse and I share many household chores and functions (I do a fair bit of the cooking, we both clean, do laundry and we both do the DIY odd jobs that need doing from time to time: the idea of ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ jobs that is common in some relationships is alien to us) and we try to both offer our daughters physical affection, discipline and love, I have seen that our children relate to us quite differently. There are times that no matter what I do, only their mother will do.
This would suggest to me that whilst all parents are valuable, the roles are indeed different. I certainly do not feel like a mother. I do feel like a woman, in as far as I can understand what it is to be a woman. At the very least when I see myself as a woman I feel that the outward appearance is more congruent with the way i feel inside. That does not mean I pretend to know what it means to have a uterus, for I do not. It does not mean I pretend to know what it feels like to experience constant sexism, for I do not (although I do have some insight as I do experience it in small doses from time to time). But I do not feel like a mother. I do not think I can ever know that bond with my children and I would not want to. I have a different, no less important relationship with my daughters. They love me. I love them. I do things for them that their mother can not and I do not want to try and appropriate that role. Their mother is their mother. She is a very special and amazing person. They are lucky to have her and they should honour her on Mother’s Day.
I am happy to be their male parent. I only hope that they are as happy to have me in their live as I am happy to have them in mine.
I acknowledge that these are highly personal views and I do not intend to dictate to other people how they feel about parenting. I would therefore like to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences as I find this an interesting and even perplexing subject.