As Gail and I have made more connections with trans parents, both online and in person (there were several great parenting conversations at Philly Trans Health several weeks ago), I’ve noticed that for those of us who had our kids before we transitioned, parental title can be a sticking place.
I’ve met several trans men who still go by mom (or something mom-like) with their kids, and several trans women who go by dad. For some folks, this seems truly comfortable, a way of recognizing who they once were and perhaps providing continuity for their kids, but far more describe discomfort with their old title’s persistence.
A little over a year ago, I was at Pride with my friend J and his family. At the time, I knew my name, but the only people using it were Gail, and four close friends, including J. I hated meeting new people at that time (very unlike me in general). I didn’t want to say the old name, but I couldn’t yet introduce myself freely by the new one. We were in a big group, many introductions were made (that I studiously avoided). It was awkward. At some point J muttered under his breath “I just refuse to say the old one.”
A bit later, with my name on both of our minds, J and I were walking together and he asked “What are the kids going to call you?” **
My heart seized up and my shoulders tensed “I can’t make them change. I want them to call me Aba but I can’t ask that. It’s too much.”
J said, “You can ask. It’s not too much.”
That was it. That was the whole conversation, but it was the permission I needed. For me, parental title was particularly fraught. I had a lot invested in being “Mama.” I had pushed hard to claim some recognizable “mom turf,” and as a non-gestational parent, the name had provided a lot of security, particularly in my early relationship with Leigh.
In addition, like for so many parents in similar shoes, a huge concern in figuring out my path forward in transition was my kids. But I was coming at the situation with a lot of assumptions — assumptions that a change this big would hurt them irreparably, that the better thing to do as a parent was to hold back, to deny what I needed, or to do only the bare minimum, in order to keep things constant for them. In reality, I was ascribing my own fears to them — using them as an excuse not to push forward, not to take the (scary) steps I needed to take, but for a reason that sounded really good — “I have to think of the kids.”
With all that baggage, I needed a friend to say it was OK, to remind me that I wasn’t overstepping, that we couldn’t predict how it would go, but that I could tell my kids what I would prefer they call me, that I could ask.
We have some old posts about how that asking actually went, but the short version is that gradually, probably over about 3-6 months time, the kids shifted first to calling me a mix of Mama and Aba, then a mix of Mama and Aba and Dad, and now all the time Aba with the occasional Dad*** thrown in. In our case, I think it helped a lot that Gail, and also Gail’s mom (who sees the kids a lot) and later, our daycare providers, were consistent in how they referred to me, and that while I did state to the kids clearly what I would prefer to be called, I did not force them to change all at once. For a long time I responded to both names, and then, once Aba took firmer hold, I gently reduced/delayed my response to the old title. While some of this was quite purposeful, much of it felt like it just happened without trying.
In retrospect, a shift in my parental moniker seemed to give my kids something concrete to latch onto, and was a good way for them to process what was happening. Important conversations with both of our kids centered around what they called me, and for both, a firm switch in parental moniker was a marker of increased comfort and security.
All of this is to say, I get it. I get why a change in parental title is so hard, why trans parents who are transitioning after they’ve had kids might feel they should hold back on this front, and might struggle to find a way to engineer a shift. Whether it will be possible depends a lot on your family structure (e.g. will your coparent support a change?), the age of your kids, and the personalities of all parties involved. But do know a shift might be possible, and don’t assume, like I did, that it will automatically be easier or better for your kids if you don’t ask.
**As a bit of a disclaimer — I don’t recommend asking this in general — J had clearance because he is a very very close friend. If you happen to know another family in a similar situation, or really ANY queer family where parental title may be non-obvious and you are trying to figure out how to refer to the parent, first try to figure out parental title from context, but if it’s not clear, it’s probably OK to say “Can I ask, how does (child) refer to you?” — but steer very clear of prying about why or offering alternative ideas. Just take it at face value unless they seem keen to discuss.
***The differences in kids between when they use “Dad” are interesting. Our oldest uses Aba when talking directly to me, but “Dad” when talking about me to people outside our family. Our youngest always calls me Aba, unless he wants a snuggle or is being silly, in which case he often calls me “my sweet Dada. Can I snuggle you Dad?”