By Trystan Reese, Director of Family Formation
Long before I became a parent, my mother always told me that parenting is hard. At the time, I thought she was speaking about logistics: Changing diapers, driving kids around, making meals, talking to teachers about behavior problems and grades…Your to-do list becomes pages long. But after our kids Hailey and Riley came to live with us, I realized how very wrong I was.
In my experience, logistics are the easiest part of parenting! It’s a pain to drive everywhere and not get enough sleep and worry about what to feed everyone for dinner. But that’s not what keeps you up at night. That’s not what you ask your parent friends for help with. That’s not what causes you to call up your own parents and say “thank you” and “I’m sorry” time and time again. No—the logistics of parenting are relatively easy. It’s the actual raising of children that is hard.
Attempting to shape them into good people and managing a relationship with them—that’s what’s hard. Balancing what it means to be a parent (Are you a friend? A mentor or coach? A confidante?)—that’s what’s hard. And it’s even harder when you’re still managing a relationship with yourself.
For those of us who are transgender, our relationship with self may be complicated. I became a parent long after I realized I was transgender and long after I had taken steps to transition physically. But for people who are already parents, grappling with a shifting identity—or decision to transition—may be doubly complicated. A 2018 Canadian study notes that transgender parents who had children prior to transitioning tend to have ongoing experiences of struggle around their gender identity. Regardless of when they transitioned, most trans parents in the study experienced some issues regarding family marginalization, trans visibility, and identities’ acknowledgment.
We can’t erase those challenges. But there are a few things you can keep in mind as you come out and transition as a parent that might make these challenges a little easier to navigate.
Your Partner/Co-Parenting Relationship might look different.
As you come out and transition, It’s not uncommon for there to be some kind of shift in your family’s dynamics. For some families, this can even mean a parental separation. So it’s good to know ahead of time if you have a partner or co-parent that coming out and transitioning may put a strain on your relationship.
Some relationships survive a transition, while others don’t. One way to navigate this aspect of transition is by finding a relationship professional who is understanding of transgender issues, and can help you work through the challenges that may arise during the process.
It’s also not uncommon for a rift to occur with children, especially if the children are older. For them, too, working with a professional is a great way to make sure you stay connected during this change. The family can also seek out support groups and online forums—PFLAG has chapters in cities all over the country, and COLAGE has multiple online spaces that are closed to outsiders and provide critical support to children with trans parents.
A 2007 study of the children of trans parents shows that parental conflict that continues after transition is a contributing factor to strained relationships between the trans parent and their child/ren. In other words, if you and your partner(s) stay on good terms, regardless of whether you stay together as a couple, you are more likely to have a positive relationship with your child/ren afterward.
Coming Out Might Make You A Stronger Family
Living in the closet is hard. Data shows that it can even be toxic! There are many studies that suggest that even though there might be an initial strain on the family, having a parent come out and transition can actually strengthen the relationships in a family over time. Living your authentic truth not only frees you from the constraints of a closeted life but also shows your children what it means to be honest about who you are, even in difficult circumstances. Children of trans parents report that once their parent has come out, they’re often happier and more pleasant to be around.
In fact, a 2014 study found that adult children of trans parents experienced either no change or a positive change in their relationship after having a parent come out and transition. The Canadian study mentioned above also reports that many families saw a parent’s transition as an asset—that this unique life trajectory contributed to a richer family story. Others said it inspired them to be more open-minded about diversity.
Becoming A Parent Might Jump-Start Your Transition
I have heard from many trans parents that the very act of becoming a parent was what inspired them to come to terms with their transgender identity. In some cases, I’ve heard that being pregnant and/or nursing a baby clarified for transgender men that they were not, in fact, women. Engaging in a process that can be very gendered caused them to examine their identity and decide to explore and live openly as transgender.
In other cases, raising a child meant teaching them to be honest about who they are and wanting to be known authentically by them. This, too, can inspire a coming-out process.
Many transgender people have children to try to bury their trans identity, believing that perhaps a heteronormative life will somehow rid them of being trans or will make them so happy that the pain of not transitioning will somehow go away. And sometimes, at least for a little while, it might work! But as time goes by and children get older, the data shows us that the desire to transition never really goes away.
So if any of these situations describe you… you’re not alone.
You might need to support yourself in order to support your child/ren
It can be hard to stay present with a child who is struggling with your gender identity. They may say things that are hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally. In order to stay psychologically healthy during this time, you need to have a support system of your own. Once that’s in place, it will be easier for you to show compassion for your child’s journey (regardless of their age).
The most important thing to remember when it comes to your children’s acceptance of your trans identity is…Everything will take time. It will take time for them to adjust to a new name and pronoun. It will take time for them to call you by a new honorific, if you want them to change from “dad” to “mom” or something else entirely. (And if you don’t want them to change what they call you, that’s okay too! I know plenty of transgender women who identify as dads, and plenty of transgender men whose kids call them “mom.” There’s no script here—you and your family get to figure out for yourselves what will work for you).
However, you may want to think through some non-negotiables. For example, a child may make a request that seems unreasonable to you, like asking you to not come to their school if you’re presenting in your new gender identity. If they’re younger, that might not be an option. When a request like this is made, it’s okay to firmly let them know that you cannot do what they are asking, but are happy to make a different accommodation. For example, maybe you can agree not to come to their school with a new presentation for three months so they have time to tell their friends and teacher. Find ways to give them power and control over aspects of the process, so your transition doesn’t feel like something that is “happening” to them.
I didn’t say it at the beginning, so I’ll say it now: Congratulations. You’re on your journey. And you have a family who gets to accompany you along the way. They might not always understand, and there may be many difficult moments and changes, but you can do this. Make sure to get support from knowledgeable providers, connect with other trans parents in your situation, and follow along with Family Equality. We’re here to help you along on your journey, with events and resources that can keep you informed, supported, and empowered.