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Trans-Parenting: How Daddy Became Mommy

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One mom shares her journey of becoming a mother ... and the woman she always knew she should be.

two woman holding hands and a boy

Gina Kaysen Fernandes: For as long as Terry* could remember, she never felt comfortable with her body. The 35-year-old New Jersey native was born with XY chromosomes and had the right corresponding anatomy, but "my body parts felt wrong," says Terry. As a child, Terry preferred to play with girl toys, have female friends, and tried to hide her urge to cross-dress. "My dad would flip a lid if I played with girl stuff." During her teen years, Terry struggled with low self-esteem and emotional issues as she tried to suppress her hidden gender identity. Terry had no doubt she was a female trapped in a male's body, but it would take years of anguish and psychological counseling before she could completely transform into being the woman and mother she is today.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Terry began to lose her way. She moved to New York City and spent her time couch-surfing, party-hopping, and ending up in trouble. Her parents forced her into a residential treatment program in hopes of helping her find direction. But efforts to "fix" her problems only made things worse, and Terry hit rock bottom. The unexpected death of a close cousin who knew Terry's secret sent her into a downward spiral. "I had a complete breakdown. After losing my closest confidant, I felt completely alone," says Terry, who confesses she considered committing suicide.

Without the support of family or friends, Terry had to find a new community that would accept her for who she wanted to become. Online transgender support groups pointed Terry toward therapy and hormone treatments. While the effects of hormones can take years to kick in for some people, Terry felt the effects almost immediately. 

"At one point, I woke up and noticed, oh my god I have boobs!" said Terry. She describes this stage of female puberty as very liberating, "like I was finally fitting in my own skin."

By then, the only time Terry appeared male was in the workplace, but not for long. Her success in the computer IT industry led to a high-profile, high-paying job in Massachusetts. Terry was upfront with her new employers about her intention to completely transition. Much to her relief, the company didn't care. "They knew exactly who I was and were okay with it," recalls Terry.

Despite having a career on the fast track, Terry's love life was much more rocky. She's attracted to women, and her straight girlfriend at the time wasn't supportive of Terry's desire to transition. Terry then dated another transgender person, but the complicated dynamics ended in a breakup. Finally, she found a bisexual woman who accepted and loved Terry as a transgender. Although Terry admits the relationship had problems, the couple got legally married. Then Terry experienced what she calls "the biggest miracle that could ever happen."

Terry injured herself in a bad fall, and had to stop taking hormones to reduce her risk of a blood clot. It was during this period that Terry's sperm count unexpectedly surged, which allowed her to "father" a child. "It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me," says Terry, whose son, Daniel,* was born in 2002. Terry embraced parenthood, relishing every stage of her newborn's life, but her marriage didn't last long. "For a short time, we tried to make it work as a family," said Terry. Once Daniel turned 18 months old, his mother called it quits, leaving Terry a single parent. Although Daniel's mom never wanted full custody, she still took Terry to court. As a transgender, Terry faced an uphill battle in the courtroom because of deeply rooted discrimination in the justice system when it comes to gender, morality, and sexual orientation. "As soon as it came out that I was transgender, the judge ruled everything against me," recalls Terry, who strongly believes "there's no reason I can't be a parent."

"The most important piece of parenting is not gender identity, it is attachment style and their ability to attach to a child in a way that eventually allows a child to be independent," said Dr. Wendy Walsh, a clinical psychologist who treats individuals, couples, and families. "Children will become attached to whoever loves them the most," says Walsh.

Part of the stigma associated with trans-parenting is the fact that most transgender people have undergone psychological counseling. Those medical records can be used against someone in court. "A diagnosis can come back to haunt people," says Walsh, who adds, "homosexuality was considered a disorder up until 1986; now it's not."

Terry eventually gained full custody and is raising her son in New York City with another woman who is her domestic partner. Terry went back on hormones and experienced a more intense physical transformation the second time around. "The physical differences really ramped up, the fat deposits increased, and I couldn't hide the changes anymore," said Terry. She applied for a new ID card that identifies her as female so she can now confidently call herself a woman. The family moved to a new neighborhood where people never question her gender. "I pass very well," Terry said. She's on the leadership team of the PTA and is active in several community organizations.

For his part, 7-year-old Daniel calls Terry "da-mommy," but isn't fazed by her altered identity. "He never needed an explanation. He's so secure in being a boy it never occurred to him that he could be any different," says Terry. Therapists recommend discussing gender issues and questions about sexuality when the child is old enough to ask. "Speak to them without judgment. The more information kids and young adults have, the easier it will be for them to make better, well-informed decisions," Walsh said.

Being a parent is Terry's number-one priority, and she puts her son's needs ahead of her own personal goals of completing her transition. Terry is considered pre-op, meaning she has been approved for gender-reassignment surgery but doesn't have the money to pay out of pocket. She wanted to share her story with momlogic to raise awareness about trans-parenting because "we're very misunderstood." The transgender community is still a small minority in our society, with many prejudices to overcome. "I think as a culture, we need to continue to open our eyes and our hearts and accept human beings as human beings," says Walsh.

* Names have been changed to protect identity.

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107 comments so far | Post a comment now
ashley October 19, 2009, 4:22 AM


Monica October 19, 2009, 10:14 AM

I can’t stand the fact that they try to make it seems as if the children who are in the middle of their parents identity crisis aren’t affected. It is not normal for a child to see his parent switch identities. Problems will arise because their little minds just don’t know how to deal with it. I think some people are so selfish. They think about themselves and what they want instead of their children and their mental well being.

gina October 19, 2009, 11:13 AM

Monica: Are you speaking from direct experience or from your own privileged assumptions about how you think it must be? I am woman who is trans (but very finished with my transition as opposed to ‘Terry’). Before I transitioned my then partner and I adopted a daughter. When she was 7, we split up (not only because of my gender issues, but it was a factor). However, our divorce, while certainly stressful for all, was mutually mediated, we live very close to one another and continue to be 50/50 co-parents of our child. My ex is living together with her current boyfriend, who I like and respect, and it’s a situation which has gone extremely well. My daughter is now in 7th grade, an honor-roll student and is becoming a very well adjusted young woman. As with so many situations in parenting, it’s the acrimony surrounding a particular challenge which creates trauma. I’m not pretending my daughter always had an easy time with my transition, but we always remained close throughout it all and, in some ways, I have a closer relationship to her than she has with her mom (she refers to me by my first name). I’ve been involved with a support group for trans parents in my area for over 2 years and I would say, on average, they’re more competent as parents and closer to their kids than most of what I see in this nation. Monica, i suggest before writing about “them” and what “they” do, you actually try to get some direct information concerning what you’re railing about and the ‘normality’ you’re struggling so hard to defend (and likely affecting your own children with your unfounded, narrow beliefs).

sloan October 19, 2009, 12:01 PM

I have an ex husband that is now transgender. She now makes my son refer to her as mom and I’m to be called by a different name. I think that this is wrong. It takes much away from the woman that gave birth to be referred to anything else but mom. My son is confused about who his dad is and has a hard time calling me mom in front of my ex. I am not sure how to handle this as I have not said anything to either of them about this. Any advise?

Jess October 19, 2009, 1:06 PM

Sloan, I would advise you to discuss your feelings with your ex. It’s not right for you to be denied the motherhood of your son, and it’s not right for your ex to try.

But by the same token, you should not try to make your ex feel like any less of a mother to your son. It may be confusing for your child, but he does not have a father. He has two mothers. The gender of his parents is not important. What matters is that you both care for him and want the best for him. That’s the thing to remember.

Anonymous October 19, 2009, 1:07 PM

There would be no way that I would let my child that I carried for nine months and labour thru delivery with call my ex husband -mom-. I would tell your ex to find another name for your son to call her. Maybe just like Gina’s kid, he could call her by her first name. I’m sorry but even if your kid doesn’t act as if this transition bothers them, you’re wrong to assume that it doesn’t.
Most kids keep their true feelings to themselves because they don’t want to hurt their parents. I agree with Monica that it’s shelfish to do this to your kids while they are young. If a person has known their whole life that they were in the wrong body then they should make the decision to transition before bringing kids into the middle of it. I mean seriously, I don’t understand why people chose to get married and have kids then decide to switch sides. Yea, it’s good for you but not for the spouse who feels cheated out of their partner or the child who no longer has a dad.

gina October 19, 2009, 2:14 PM

Anonymous (Too bad you couldn’t put your name on your post): I’m also sorry you think you know my child’s feelings better than I do. My daughter is very outfront with her emotions and, yes, I would never suggest a parent transitioning is easy on a child—no major life transition is. But if the attitude of the parents is positive (especially towards each other) and there is security in the household, this is by no means the tragedy you seem to think it is. Contrary to what you and Monica feel, it’s usually better to transition when the child is younger and harder to transition when the child is middle-school aged. This has to do with how kids process gender, identity and the fluidity or rigidity of gender. A good way to start understanding this is to watch the documentary “No Dumb Questions” about 3 sisters processing their uncle’s transition. It gives an interesting and thoughtful view about how kids deal such changes. Notice how the three girls at 3 different stages of development deal with the issue so differently. A huge part of it is how the other parent deals with it as well. If the other parent is angry, hostile or combative, this often gets translated to the children (although they often resent that behavior later on). I know a number of situations where the child was severed from the trans parent for a period of time, only to request living with that parent later on in their teens. And Anonymous, trans people don’t “decide” to switch sides—I find most people transition when they can literally no longer live in their assigned birth gender. The reason people hold off on transition has to do with the shame and fear of being condemned and ostracized by family, friends and society. The more people realize this phenomena is a regular part of society, trans people will feel less threatened to transition early and avoid what you’re complaining about.

James December 30, 2009, 6:04 AM

Coming from a place of not understanding (and not looking to understand because ‘it doesn’t affect me’) I’m slowly but surely doing what I can to become an ally to trans-folk.

It’s not easy. The fact that people on the outside of anything that is ‘other’ (race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, social situation) have no point of reference other than any prejudices they may have been taught or examples from popular media, means that it is difficult to break through the ‘not getting-it’ barrier. I have found that, invariably, the best way to get past that is to make myself acquainted with someone who is in that situation. If I didn’t naturally encounter a person in my daily life, I’d seek someone out.

An acquaintance where honest and respectful dialogue was held allowed me to hear the perspective of someone who deals with prejudice or wilful ignorance on a daily basis. The human face, the personal contact ensured that I couldn’t just ignore their point of view and buy into the depersonalised vilification that I might get from mass-media or ‘anti-’ campaigns without asking myself, “Is what they’re saying about my friend really true? Is [the ‘other’] being scape-goated unfairly?”

I commend the author for her bravery in bringing her story to our attention. Like gays and lesbians before them, there are far more trans-folk dealing with parenthood than we’d thought possible before they started putting their heads above the parapet. They need support and understanding as much as any other parent who comes here.

femme February 26, 2010, 6:57 AM

Monica, I think you misunderstand what the issues are. Children are amazing beings and are much more resilient then adults. They are not stuck with close minded views but are more open minded, remember they still believe in the tooth fairy and Santa etc. If both parents treat this with honesty and in a positive manner then the child will have little problems. It become a problem when one attacks the other, as is the case in many divorces. This has little to do with being selfisih and more to do with being honest to oneself and there by those you love around you.

Sloan, your ex didn’t become transexual or transgender. A person is born with transexualism (which is but a part of who they are as people) and does not some how later gain this condition. That you ex only recently informed you of this inner struggle which they have decided to finally address is another thing altogether. Congradulations, by the way, on using the correct pronouns and for not dealing with this issue with your child. This is something you do need to address with your ex. She should not, nor doesn’t have the right, to take away something from you with you have earned. Motherhood as well as father hood, let’s just say parenthood is not something automatically given to a person just because of bioligy, as many parents who have adopted will tell you, it’s something one earns by being that loving, caring parent to the child. (Sloan you come across as being that to me)
Your ex is out of bounds by telling your child not to call you mom, that’s being confusing and clearly painful to your child, let alone yourself. I believe your ex should have discussed this with your child, that they were now going to live in their true gender role, and that because of this your child needed to come up with something to call her.Be it the first name, mother, ma or what have you. But it was not to change how your child refers to you.
Speak to your ex, let her know that you are willing to support her, but you can not support her telling your child not to call you mom.

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Shaay October 31, 2010, 1:55 AM

I find it interesting that we seem to accept as given the idea that children should be protected from any confusion, stress or discomfort. Why?

When we damage a child through any type of abuse, or make them feel worthless, we are causing trauma. Living our lives beside them as whole people should not be traumatic. Parents come in infinite “types.” Think of some you may know who break the mold - maybe they have neurological or physical differences, are transgendered, or sex workers, or poly-amorous. Such people can teach all of us - and their kids - a lot about acceptance, creative problem solving, courage, resilience and honesty.

I would prefer not to “protect” my daughter from the amazing variety of people and lifestyles in the world. Or from the amazing complexity of myself.

Our children will become adults who experience stress, confusion, and identity issues of their own. Wouldn’t it be nice if they feel they can be real and whole with us, because we’ve always been real and whole with them?

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