“It’s so nice that you’re giving your wife a break!” a neighbor called out as I paced down the sidewalk with my nearly-sleeping infant. Little did she know that carrying the semi-peaceful baby was my relief from the last three or so hours of desperate soothing attempts that included chestfeeding, rocking, bouncing, singing, and stair climbing. If she disturbed him now, the baby and I would both return to ugly crying. I smiled quickly in her direction and lengthened my stride.
I’m a transgender dad in a gay relationship and I have engaged my body to carry pregnancies and build our family. There is no wife, no mother, yet people we encounter in our daily life are always on the lookout for one. Frequently they express some combination of amazement and mild scorn at seeing me, a dad, caring for an infant in even the most basic ways like changing a diaper or holding the baby. Sometimes their comments are judgmental of me, but people also judge her, “the mother.” Where is she? Babysitting, are you?
Last year, I traveled often with my youngest in order to present at conferences in the U.S. and Canada about research results from a study I worked on exploring transmasculine individuals’ experiences with pregnancy, birth, and infant feeding. Conversations with airport security, airline staff, and customs agents went something like this.
“Who is this baby?”
“This is Emily, my baby.” I handed over our documents.
“Who is this baby?”
How can I rephrase? “This is my baby,” I would say.
“Where’s the mother?”
Aha! The real question. Sometimes it satisfied them to state “this baby has two dads,” but other times the questions kept coming until I outed myself as a transgender birthing parent.
The assumption here is that a young child cannot be without its mother. I would like to think that the reason for this has something to do with the importance of breastfeeding. Yet in our culture breastfeeding continues to be stigmatized while bottle-feeding is generally seen as the norm. No, this is about sexism and unfair expectations around mothering.
A journalist interviewing me last week said she thought she might want to have kids but she didn’t want to give up her career. She felt she would have to choose. She was also worried about the potential guilt. “If anything was wrong with the kid later on, everyone would blame me!” she said.
She might be right about that. If I get backhanded compliments for “babysitting” so my “wife” can have a “break,” where does that leave mothers? Figures from Statistics Canada show that mothers, 73 percent of whom work outside the home, spend twice as much time doing unpaid childcare as men, and they also do the majority of housework. When directed at me, the question “Where’s the mother?” implies judgement of an imaginary woman for what she’s not doing.
Other times, when people find out that I gave birth to my kids, they determine that I must be the mother. When my family visited a new dentist a few weeks ago, I paused but then ticked off F for female on the intake form. My health card still says F, despite my beard, masculine name, and he/his pronouns, and I didn’t want to risk a computer error and insurance mismatch. I added a note to say that I’m transgender and my pronouns are he/his. The dentist referred to me as “mom” and “she” anyway. When I corrected her, she started to apologize, and then she could not stop apologizing. I ended up comforting her after making a failed attempt to move on. If I’d checked M on the form, the conversation wouldn’t have happened at all — at least not until the point where the computer would declare that coverage was denied.
Yet many of our close friends really get it, and they find ways to be affirming of both my parenting role and gender identity. When my second child was about 6 months old, we attended a dinner party at the home of friends who live 40 minutes away from our town. After the drive, my baby was ready for a cuddle and a nurse. Our host, a man in his 60s, immediately showed us to a comfortable couch and then hurried to the kitchen to return with a glass of water. “I remember what nursing is like! The baby wants to nurse for ages but you get so thirsty and you’re just stuck there, right? Is there anything else you need, Trev?”
I loved that my friend called me dad and Trevor, as per usual, and he also recognized the intensity of the job I was doing as a nursing parent. He had obviously been a great support to his wife decades ago when she breastfed their children. For him, the baby’s needs were the focus, and any adult with a free pair of hands could find a way to help, to share the mundane burdens as well as the joys.
We live in a society in which the rape of women is usual and acceptable and men may ostensibly do what they wish to women’s bodies, yet if a man takes on the responsibilities of caring for a baby, he is likely to be praised excessively, degraded, or simply not recognized as masculine. Our parenting culture in general needs to include men and nonbinary people — for the sake of everyone, but particularly in order for women and girls to have the control they deserve over their bodies and their lives.