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.