Amma vs. Mama: The Importance of a Parental Title

When I first came out to my children that I was transgender, it was one of the most significant and difficult conversations of my life.  How do you explain to a then 5-year-old and a 3-year-old that the person they have called Dada all their lives needs to be a woman?  As I explained in my post describing that experience, at the time I told my children, my wife and I were locked in a bitter debate over what they would call me once I told them and starting presenting as a woman.  I wanted to take on a maternal title; my wife was adamantly opposed.  After about two days of complicated and awkward grammar such as, “Dada told you to clean up.  She told you 5 minutes ago!”, a change needed to be made.  Dada was just not going to work for me.

Parental titles are used by children as a sign of respect and authority.  Rarely will one find a child that uses actual names when referring to their parents.  Parental titles are a reserved, special social construct, and the titles we use have great sentimental value and personal meanings to all that use them.  They are so significant, in fact, that even the religious frequently refer to God as the Father who art in heaven.  Not to be outdone, we lovingly call our most precious living resource Mother Earth.  There may be no greater title given by humans than that given to a parent.  Therefore, having children and having them call us by a parental title is significant and endearing.  However, parental titles are something that much of the world takes for granted:
Man with child = Father.
Woman with child = Mother

Simple.  Straightforward, right?  Not so much.

Same-gender couples with children go through the parental title debate.  A child with two moms or two dads is not uncommon, especially where I live.  However, what is the child of this “non-traditional” household supposed to call each of their parents?  Are they both Mama or Dad, and when called, do two parents respond simultaneously?  Or are they nuanced, one being Mama and the other one Mom.  Or do we use actual names or even initials?  There are many ways to solve the issue, and many same-gendered families solve it without issue.

Similar solutions exist for transgender parents.  In these cases, the transitioning partner may keep their old title or easily come to agreement with their co-parent about how to handle things.  Options exists.  For starters, the trans parent could simply retain their old title.  This would be a situation where, for example, a transwoman continues to be called Dad even after transition and presenting female.  Another way to go is for the trans parent to take a title which matches their new gender.  This would be a situation where, for example, a transwoman moves from Daddy to Mommy.  The third solution is for the trans parent to assume a new creative title.  For example, in the TV series Transparent, the lead character Maura takes on the title of Moppa, an amalgamation of Momma and Poppa.

In my home, no simple solution exists.

Why?  Well, pretty simple reason, really.  I was not always female.  Therefore, in my wife’s eyes, I am not qualified to be called a mother.  She acknowledges that having the children call me by a masculine parental title would be awkward for all—especially in a public atmosphere.  At the same time, she believes she is the one and only mother our children will ever have.  “You will never be their mother!” she has decried on multiple occasions.  For her, the title of Mama (and all its forms) are sacred, and she is nearly intractable in her position.  Her suggestion:  I should take on the creative title Amma, which was as close to Mama as she was going to allow.

I was never fully comfortable with Amma.  Yes, it rhymes.  Yes, it close.  But, no, it is not a traditional title that women with children in the world are called.  The random person on the street will refer to me as a mom.  What does Amma mean?  Still, after two days of confused speech after coming out to the kids, I needed something other than Dada, so I begrudgingly adopted the moniker Amma, and that is what the children have called me for the last 8+ months.

Trans people come in many forms, and not all of them fit the binary male-female roles to which much of the world is accustomed.  Gender non-conforming, gender fluid, androgynous, and others fit somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum.  These types of people may be more liberal when it comes to adopting or selecting a parental title, which eases the burden.  Unfortunately, I am not one those people.  While I love my GNC and queer trans friends, I do not personally identify that way.  I am a femme transwoman on the end of the gender spectrum.  In that sense, my identity aligns more with a stereotypical ciswoman’s gender role.  Along with that comes an even further extreme tie to the notion of specifics of womanhood, including maternal desires to carry and deliver a baby naturally from my own body, breastfeed it, and raise it like any other mother would.  I have mentioned this before, and it sets me apart from a majority of other transwomen I have met.  I will forever be scarred by the fact that medical science is not advanced enough to allow me to enjoy (or suffer) through those experiences.  However, it does not change how I feel about them or myself.  As a result of these feelings and unmet desires, I have a real need to be called a mother by my existing children, even though I did not actually push them from my body.

I presume ciswomen that adopt children due to infertility and non-biological lesbian mothers go through similar struggles.  However, in each of these cases, society and their partners happily accept and refer to these people as mothers in one form or another.  Why not me?  The simple answer seems to be that my wife does not want to associated as a lesbian.  To be fair, she is not.  While technically, she is now legally part of a same gender marriage (since I am legally female), her orientation did not change as a result.  She is a straight ciswoman.  She wants to be with a man.  She also has those strong ties to motherhood that cannot be ignored, nor should they be.  I never sought to co-opt or usurp her authority or title.  She will always be the mother of our children.  However, I feel I have the right to ask to share that title given my gender identity and the role I both feel and will be perceived by the world to have.  I deserve a maternal title like any other woman with a child.

The continued use of Amma also inadvertently puts the children in the middle of the debate between my wife and myself.  Our now 6-year-old son knows of both my desire to be called a mother and how upset my wife is by that.  Ultimately, I want him to have the choice what to call me.  On now two occasions, he has expressed—of his own volition—his desire to call me by a maternal title other than Amma.  Most recently (and why this topic is germane to my life right now), he intentionally called me Mom while sitting directly in front of my wife.  This happened just minutes before we were to take him to school on Monday, and neither of us corrected him or asked him why he chose to do that in the moment.  While walking to our minivan, I walked with our 3-year-old daughter, while she followed behind with our son.  Just moments out of the parking lot of our apartment complex, our son said that he wanted to call me Mom because it would make me feel better.  This moment of rare empathy was lost, however, when he also mentioned that my wife had told him on the walk to the minivan that it upset her when he called me Mom.  This caused an explosive reaction from my wife I have not seen in awhile, and she left the van and walked half a block home, while I continued to take our son to school.  When I returned home, she did not really want to talk to me, but in our brief conversation, she reiterated many of the things she had said on this topic before, most notably, that I will never be their mother.  For me, that stopped all conversation, as I took it as a personal attack and insult.  Later in the day, I received both a rare kiss and hug (separately), but they came without comment.  I do not know if they came as apology for the outburst and comments, or if they were simply because she needed a hug.  All I know is that I have been in an emotional funk for days now.

To be clear, I have never told my son that he should call me anything other than Amma.  However, we have had discussions about how others may perceive me in the world.  Very often, a stranger on the street will refer to me with a maternal parental title.  In the past, my son (and even daughter) have been quick to point out that I am not their mother. “That’s my Amma.  She’s transgender.”  We have talked about how uncomfortable that makes me feel, and that essentially outing me is not respectful.  I have told them that people in the world may call me their mother and that they do not have to correct that person, nor is it likely I will correct that person either.  The children and I have established that they now have two mothers, it’s just they call me Amma and my wife Mama.  It is only natural, though, that they would want to call me something else.  They don’t know any other Ammas in the world.  It sets me apart, and not necessarily in a good way.  The 6-year-old understands that and empathizes with my feelings.  That is actually quite sweet and endearing. I am not sure my wife sees it that way.

A reasonable discussion needs to be had with my wife on the topic, but I do not know really where to start that conversation.  I do not want to offend.  I do not want to anger her.  However, placing the children in the middle of this battle is not healthy, and we need to address it.  At the same time, I do not want to poke the bear.  This is a sensitive subject, and I need to be sure we have a level conversation about it.  This talk needs to happen soon.  I am not sure I can easily get through this episode without addressing what happened and how everyone is reacting to the situation.  This is not one to sweep under the rug like it did not happen, especially since it is likely to rear its head again in the future without warning.

Parental titles are incredibly important within families and our societies.  They help define us at our core.  If anyone ever wrote a story about me, along with my name, age, and location, they would also likely include that I was a mother of two beautiful children.  I would not be an Amma of two, right?  The reality of my life is that I not only identify as a mother, but I am one, even though my children did not come from my non-existent womb.  I want—no, need—to be recognized as such both by the world and my family.

There is great importance on how this turns out.  My life and my children’s lives will be forever shaped by how we resolve this debate, but until then, they are unfortunately caught in the middle.

A Wedding, a Reception, an Act of Kindness, and a Moment of Inspiration

For the last few months, I’ve been on the down side of life. This summer has been difficult for me, and I have expressed that on multiple occasions. However, this past weekend provided a brief respite from the doldrums, and I would be remiss if I did not share the moments that made me happy, at least for a little while.

On Saturday, I watched two friends get married in a beautiful ceremony. As an added bonus, I was honored to be the happy couple’s photographer. Photography is an interest of mine, and I actually have a decent eye for it. If the industry was not crowded and highly competitive, I might be interested in my own business. But consider the financial shakiness of my family, trying to go self-employed seems highly risky. So when I get asked to take photos here and there, it feels nice. For this wedding, I was only asked to take a family picture at the end of the ceremony, but really… I couldn’t do that—especially since I was actually credited as the photographer in the program.  So, I took pictures all day, and I enjoyed doing it.

The wedding and cake reception were filled with joy, love, and amazing music.  One groom surprised his new husband with a surprise appearance by a champion a cappella group after the ceremony.  Both sides had lots of family present.  Being surrounded by that much happiness—especially from people I care about—could not help have an effect on my mood and lift my spirits a bit.

At the cake reception, I was also able to talk to a friend, herself also transgender, who I was able to vent to a bit about what was going on in my life.  She gave me a comment I still remember:  “You walk like yourself.”  I needed a little explanation.  She said, “You are Gabrielle.  You walk like Gabrielle.”  When unpacked like that, I understood a little more about how I am perceived and how I should perceive myself.  I am wrapped up in how I present to the world and myself, which is why I am so focused on vocal therapy and facial feminization procedures.  I believe they will help my mental state, as they will help me to “pass.”  What my friend was pointing out with her statement is that I have come a long way already.  Even without vocal and facial surgeries, I already am living as the authentic me.  It is an important point that I gloss over, but in reflection, I am now 8 months full-time, 18 months HRT, and I have been transitioning over two years now.  My name and gender have changed.  My life is forever altered.  But I have found the authentic me, and it manifests itself in organic ways, such as how I walk and how I act on a daily basis.  Vocal therapy and facial surgery will aid my presentation, but even without, I am still me, and I am comfortable with the changes I have made thus far which make me, well… me.

Once we took a drive to drop off the children with visiting grandparents, my wife and I returned to the formal reception.  Despite wearing heels all day long, I took to the dance floor like I may never have before, which is something highly significant in my life.  As a child, I was a nervous wallflower at dances and later clubs.  I was afraid of making a fool out of myself (or my partner) on the dance floor.  I got teased enough in school for being a nerd and an outcast, so why add fuel to the fire?  But on this night, I got out of my head for a little while and decided to just have a good time.  I danced and sang and danced some more.  I did things in heels I did not think I could ever do (jump, kick, spin).  I was not held back by the self-conscious doubts that plagued me in the past.  I genuinely had fun all night long!

Later that night, despite foot & leg pain from wearing those heels all day, I stayed up late into the night celebrating a neighbor’s birthday.  While I was there, I brought up a few of the things that have been bothering me about life, including how my court date and birthday were largely not celebrated at home.  In a very sweet gesture, I was cut a slice of cheesecake with lit candles, and in the middle of the night, the small group of neighbors all sang “Happy Birthday” to me, which was the first time that song had been sung to me by anyone other than a family member since my name change.  It was a super touching moment, and I cannot thank my neighbors enough for this amazing act of kindness.

The next day at work, I was stopped by a random guest if I had a “moment.”  The next words out of her mouth both touched and surprised me.  She told me that I was an inspiration to her 9-year-old daughter, who was not with her at the time, but who had seen me several times at the store.  They have always known she is transgender, and I told her that it was wonderful to hear a trans youth was being so supported.  Also, if she ever wanted to introduce her daughter to me, she was welcome to do so.  As a retail supervisor, I am exposed to all manner of people, and I am always subject to random comments both in my face and behind my back.  When asked for a “moment,” I never know if I am in for a complaint or someone telling me that I am “brave” for transitioning.  While being called out as transgender by this woman admittedly dinged my ego a bit (that whole not passing thing), it was quickly washed away by the fact that I was being called an inspirational figure and effectively, a role model for a trans youth I have never met.  How jaw-dropping is that?

Receiving this compliment took me back to June when I was asked to tell my transition story publicly for the first time.  In addition to sharing my story, I also served as an advocate for the transgender community.  I did so again by participating in Trans March at SF Pride.  Transition is a very personal thing, and every trans person experiences it differently.  I have fallen prey to getting wrapped up in my own personal struggles, but this moment in the store reminds me that, much like my friend at the cake reception tried to remind me, I have come along way.in my transition.  I have solved many problems, resolved many internal conflicts, and I am now living my life as authentically as I know how.  Doing so means that I can speak on behalf of the community.  Living my daily life means I can serve as a silent inspiration for others who are questioning or transitioning.  Being me is important not only to myself but to others.  By living my life authentically as an out trans person, I am actually serving a greater good.

Often I get down on myself because the weight of the world seems to be on my shoulders, but this weekend woke me up a little.  I can be me, and that me can enjoy herself.  I have a lot on my mind, but that does not mean I should not get out of my head every once in a while and have some fun.  That helps.  I thank my family, friends, and even the strangers whose world collides with mine for reminding me of the greater parts of my life.  I still have much difficult work to do on my transition.  I still need to find greater support among friends and family to keep me sane and on track.  However, these events show me I am doing well and others are noticing.  I am important, loved, and admired.  I need to remember that, so that I can inspire myself like I inspire a 9-year-old.

My FFS Dilemma: So Close, But So Far Away

Today, I had a conversation with the patient coordinator for the world’s foremost facial feminization surgeon in the world (who is actually local to me!). Last week, I had sent an e-mail to their office introducing myself. In the message, I said that I was seeking a consult for FFS and that I was covered by Medi-Cal. I was under the impression that the doctor did not take insurance, but I wanted to confirm. What was the harm in asking, right?

To my surprise, I actually received a response saying that they were interesting in talking to me. A glimmer of hope! After a few attempts to contact the office, I finally reached the patient coordinator by phone today. She took some information from me, and actually tentatively scheduled a consult for me in December. Yay, me! $365 non-refundable for the consult, she said. Then I asked about insurance, and the bubble burst.

The doctor will contract with insurance provided pre-authorization is approved, but he does not contract with Medi-Cal. I was given the option to finance my surgery through a health credit card or a personal loan, both of which I am sure would carry significant interest. I am already financially strapped. How do I pay for a $30K-$50K surgery with interest? I told them I would think about things. She said she would give me until Monday to decide if I wanted to schedule the consult for the date agreed to. So now what?

The idea that I could have a consult in December for a surgery in January or February is an amazing, dream come true. The fact that I even have a consult date at a particular date and time, if I accept, is incredible and makes this seem attainable. And… it is all with the most skilled FFS surgeon in the world. It sounds so perfect. In reality though, without an angel to finance me, the dream seems out of reach. I have not yet formally rejected the consult, but I have real trouble justifying going to the consult if I cannot follow-up with an actually surgery.

What if I go to the consult and walk away with amazing digital images of how beautiful I could be given the surgery. It would be kind of like looking at pictures of Hawaii without actually ever seeing it firsthand. Could that further my depression or cause me to make impulsive decisions that would affect the financial well-being of myself and my family? We are poor as it is. How can I justify adding to that debt for this?

My face is a sore point for me. I can still see the remaining masculine features in my face that need to go away for me to look like other women. If I see them, others can see them, too. FFS is more than a cosmetic procedure. It can have a profound effect on how I am perceived by the world and how well I am accepted. this truly is a quality of life issue; it is not simply cosmetic. This is why I am so stressed by this dilemma. I feel like I need to “fix” my face (at least parts of it). I need a skilled surgeon to do that for me, and I need that doctor to take my insurance.

There are other doctors that may take insurance (and even Medi-Cal), but how frustrating is it to have be this close to working with the protégé to the surgeon who actually wrote the book on this procedure? I have until Monday to sleep on it, but I don’t see how my situation will change by then unless some miracle comes my way.

I am losing control. So many things feel like they are out of hands, and I there is not really any assistance out there for me. It is these kinds of bubble bursts that prevent me from getting too happy and excited anymore. I continue to dream, but the dreams are darker or more unattainable. I don’t like those kinds of dreams. I miss looking at the bright side of life and the silver linings. When do the breaks start going my way again? What do I need to do make my dreams a reality?

Any miracle workers out there?

The Danish Girl

Anyone following me will know I am in a terrible state right now.  I am tired, stressed, and emotional.  Last night, I came home from a trying day (really, weekend) at work to my wife rushing out the door to party at the neighbor’s.  I collapsed on the bed and cried in my isolation.  I wrote last night’s post, then mindlessly watched some TV.  When my wife came home, she almost instantly went to bed without conversation.  There as no real opportunity to decompress with her, and it compounded my feelings of isolation I described yesterday.  Then, I decided to watch a movie, and what did I find?  The Danish Girl.

For those not in the know, The Danish Girl was released last year.  It is based on the true story of Lili Elbe, who was one of the first people to receive gender reassignment surgery (GRS) back in the 1930s.  The story details her transition and its affect on the relationship with her wife.  I had not seen the movie before.  I had always meant to get around to it.  I am not sure why I chose last night to watch it, but that is what happened.

The movie is not perfect and has its flaws, but it gets a lot of things right.  There were several moments that I could feel both Lili’s pain and that of her wife, Gerda.  Aside from the sexual aspect of Lili’s transition (which is practically non-existent in my life), there were so many things with which I could identify, especially when it came to Lili’s feelings and the obvious strain on their marriage.  Being married myself, I have experienced firsthand the devastation a transition causes.  The fights, the tension, the negotiating.  It’s all real and palpable, and watching the movie reminded me how real that struggle has been.  Like any transition story, mileage varies, and Lili’s transition does differ from mine in many ways.  However, the need to be one’s authentic self in spite of the severe and everlasting consequences cannot be understated.  Watching this movie was like being slapped in he face, a stark reminder of the reality of my situation.

I cried and cringed several times, and I bawled during the closing credits.  Waves of emotion crashed against me.  I could not help be reminded of the struggles of the last two years.  Further, the fears I have of the future were renewed.  Who will love me?  Who will accept me? What have I done to my kids, my wife, my family?  Will anyone remember me when I die?  If so, how will they remember me?  As a woman or something else?  My recent bouts of isolation and depression fed into these fears, and I lost it.  I must have cried for about 20 minutes, but really I have no idea.  It wasn’t like I was watching the clock at 2:30 in the morning.  A friend of mine happened to be awake, so I vented on her a bit, and then I fell asleep on the couch.  I woke up after sunrise and an hour before I was to take my son to school, so I stayed up and took a shower.  I took so long in the shower, that my wife ended up taking him to school, and I went to bed for a few hours.  When my daughter woke me up, I was still very sleepy and exhausted.  I continue to be.

I do not know why I decided to watch The Danish Girl on this particular night, but I did.  I am happy I got around to it, but no matter what I do and how much things improve over time, I cannot help but watch a movie like this and be reminded of all the uncertainty I still have yet to face.  I have overcome many hurdles, but there are several more landmines ahead, and just the the thought of them challenges my resolve and heightens my fears.  I feel like I am on the verge of mental breakdown, but no one asks how I am doing.  At least Lili found internal happiness even if cost her everything else.  My search continues, and who knows how much more pain myself and the people around me must suffer for me to find that peace.  Such a cruel trade-off.

I Am Falling Apart, and No One Seems to Notice

I have been told that this blog is sad.  True, much of the time I have the urge to write it is because there is something on my mind that I need to share.  Tonight, it’s not much different.  Why?  Well, I have difficulty finding a reason to celebrate, even though my transition is going well.

I am have been on HRT 18 months.  Next week will mark 8 months full-time.  I legally changed my name and gender 3 months ago.  I have come along way since I started my transition, and to accomplish these major milestones has been incredible.   Reflecting on those achievements should make me ecstatic, but still I find myself crying on this Labor Day holiday, sitting alone in my living room, with no one to talk to while my children sleep.  The weight of the world seems to be resting on my shoulders.  My resolve, which typically is quite strong, is failing.  I would cry out for help, but I don’t know what I can get help with.  So I write, hoping to at least make myself feel a little better by converting thoughts to words.

As the summer winds down, I realize that the season has actually been quite a difficult one for me.  I work as a retail supervisor, so that in and of itself has raised my stress level.  Now that kids are back to school, I am hoping crowds will simmer down until at least the Halloween rush, but still… I certainly do not get paid enough for what I do.  I put out fires and solve problems all day long, 5 days a week, but that does not give me adequate time to troubleshoot my own issues.  At the same time, I am also actively looking for a new job that pays me more than what I make, which adds to my to do list.

Working in the daily scrutiny of the public eye does not help my mood.  I am already at odds with myself over my voice and face, both of which I feel are too masculine and prevent me from “passing” everyday.  With thousands of eyeballs on me, I feel like I am constantly being judged.  While those that speak up are generally flattering (a month’s worth of compliments on the dress I wear to work has been nice), the negative moments linger in my head.  Just today, I had a woman ask, “Your name is Gabrielle? (seemingly pronounced correctly)  That’s my son’s name.”  In my head, I thought, “No, it’s not.”  Not two minutes later, I was called “sir” by another guest, despite my lace overlay red dress, make up, and earrings.  It is soooo frustrating, and why my mind is so focused on vocal therapy and the possibility of facial feminization surgery (FFS).  I cannot continue to endure these types of moments.  It won’t matter how long I have been on HRT or full-time if I cannot pass, because each “he” and “sir” I hear grinds me down that much more each time I hear them.

But even getting vocal therapy and FFS is turning into a chore that I just do not have time for.  I finally have an appointment for vocal therapy, but I have to wait an agonizing 3+ months before my first appointment.  Both my therapist and my wife believe I should get a consult for FFS.  That is a relief to some extent, but in the other hand, now I am searching for a skilled plastic surgeon who also accepts Medi-Cal.  That’s no small feat, and the longer it takes, the longer until I get the consult I desperately need.  I am open to suggestions if you know of doctors that meet this criteria.

My health is further affected by my emotional eating, which has caused me to regain 40 of the 90 pounds I lost last year.  I have also had a low-grade headache for the last month.  I do not know if that is related to a hormone imbalance or the fact that I am just a big stress ball these days.  I am checking the hormone situation very soon, though, so hopefully I can solve this problem, too, because I am tired of hurting.

That’s a powerful statement:  I am tired of hurting.  My head, my arms, my brain.  They all hurt.  My heart hurts from what seems to be isolation from my friends and family.  I feel like my body just cannot handle the 15 things I am asking it to juggle.  But much of what I am dealing with cannot be easily delegated or helped by others.  My wife cannot find me a job or a surgeon.  Money will not fall out of a tree.  Even though I have solved so much, there seems to be an infinite number of other things I have to control, and I am just wearing thin.  I am overworked, lacking sleep, and always “on.”

Tonight, after a long day at work and after my wife rushed off to the neighbor’s apartment to have a fun time, I collapsed on my bed and began to cry.  Non-specific reasons, really.  Maybe it was a co-worker’s news of a possible pregnancy which made me think how much I wish I was making a call to an advice nurse on how to manage my nausea (because I would take her place in an instant if it was medically possible).  Maybe it was the nonstop guest issues I have had to deal with all holiday weekend.  Maybe it was being misgendered.  Maybe it was the fact that I was left alone with my thoughts.  Maybe… maybe it is just too much for me to handle.

What compounds my issues is that my friends have seemingly faded away.  My transgender support group is now populated with many new or questioning people, which is great, but at the same time leaves me lacking for a people in a similar situation as myself.  I have turned into more of a mentor to help others.  There are fewer who share my issues which are related to more complex transition issues.  My trans friends are in their own worlds these days, and I find I do not talk to them as much.  I am feeling out of touch with my community, and now I am beginning to feel out of touch with myself because I cannot triage all of the problems at the same time.  I need help and advice, and I do not where to turn.  I am falling apart, and no one seems to notice.

Throughout my life, with very few exceptions, I have been strong and resolved when challenges face me.  I take things one step at at time, and solve my issues one at a time, usually with little help.  I became much better asking for assistance and seeking guidance, and that approach served me well at the beginning of my transition.  This time around, I just feel like I am left on my own to figure it out and there is no guidance to be had.  My issues are for me to solve by myself, for better or worse, and this time—this time—I am not sure how well it will turn out.  I am trying to stay afloat, but it is awfully hard and isolating walking through this barren desert.  I need an oasis.  I need a vacation and maybe a little help from my friends.