Because I am a transgender woman, my tenuous value in the eyes of society is never as painfully obvious to me as when my motherhood is questioned. A transgender mother? “Where is the real mother?” some ask; “But how did you have your children?” others inquire. Whenever I enter the playground with my children, I can see the eyes wandering around me, behind me, in search of that elusive body — the children’s “true” mother, the one who must have given birth to them. I am forever met with doubtful stares that mark me as an imposter, even as the children call out to me with the only name they know me by, Mother. Especially then.
In these moments I am reminded how easily our worth as individuals, along with the bonds we form with our loved ones, can wither before the relentless gaze of society. That is the prison not only for transgender women and mothers but, I increasingly realize, for all women and mothers. We inhabit a world in which we are seen as passive receptacles, defined by an oppressive normative gaze sharpened through millennia of misogynistic formulations long accepted as inarguable facts of nature. In this gaze, personhood is the realm of men, while the value of women resides in their physical bodies
Transgender women occupy the fault line of this gender gulag. Our womanhood resides solely in who we are as persons, not in the set of physical attributes conventionally expected of our gender. Therefore, granting transgender women their womanhood is tantamount to granting women personhood. It means affirming that women are not walking and talking composites of ovaries, uteruses, and vaginas, but something more intangible and cerebral.
This, I believe, explains the ferocity of society’s attempt to invalidate transgender womanhood. To acknowledge our existence as women is to disentangle the woman-body complex on which patriarchy is built. It challenges the notion that men and masculinity have sole proprietorship of personhood, relegating women and the feminine to the carceral condition of being nothing but bodies.
My transgender motherhood is silently denied, as in the case of those demeaning glances at the playground, when it is not being vocally attacked in the media as inauthentic, unreal, fraudulent. I do not have the parts in flesh that are required of me in the patriarchal constructs to be accepted as mother. The uterus is prized more in this regime than the countless years of attentive engagement with babies that motherhood entails. Breast milk is hailed as liquid gold, while the hours of rocking and settling a newborn is mere detail.
The societal gaze is essentially collective and normalized blindness.
Yet there exist facts that cannot be banished even by this tyrannical gaze. Though there is no womb of flesh in my loins, there was a womb in my heart that carried all three of my children; my soul was pregnant with them though my body could not be. It is of little relevance to those who deem me unfit or incapable of motherhood that my young children know nothing of eggs and sperm, uteruses and labor; they know about cuddles and stories, diapers and creams, and my bottomless love.
What my children care about is the temporal strength of our bond, the songs I sing to them, and the warmth of my body when they wake up at night after a bad dream and crawl into bed with me. They neither know nor care what is in between my legs, let alone what lies beneath my pubic bone or in my chromosomes. They perceive, in a way society somehow cannot, that I love them as only a mother can. The pain my transgender status can inflict on them comes primarily from those who deny that simple fact. Those who invalidate me also harm my children, telling them that the central truth of their lives is actually a lie.
Tragically, transgender women with children often eschew the term “mother,” resigning themselves to society’s reduction of motherhood to reproductive organs. Or else they accept some hyphenated version of the term, placing themselves secondary to the person who carried and birthed their children, regardless of the living truth of their families. For many, though perhaps not all, I suspect that abjuring the language of motherhood is done reluctantly, as a result of social coercion. How dare they call themselves mothers when they possess neither ovaries nor birth canal?
I am a mother, and those with presuppositions to the contrary must lose them. I am the real, entire, and, in my case, only mother of my children. My motherhood is without hyphens, qualifications, or apologies, the injudicious prejudices of a blinkered society be damned. Such prejudices wound not only families with transgender mothers or other LGBTQ mothers. Even cisgender, heterosexual mothers who adopt, for example, face similar styles of questioning and are not considered their children’s “real” mothers. Alas, our supposedly advanced civilization continues to foreground the most ancient rites of flesh and blood.
In our social matrix there are male subjects and female objects, and this informs our received notions of motherhood and fatherhood. Unlike mothers, fathers are not merely corporeal entities. One consequence of this is that nonbiological fathers are more readily accepted by society as fathers in a way that nonbiological mothers are never accepted as mothers. A mother is fundamentally deemed to be the woman who birthed a child, not the woman who lives the life of a mother with the child.
Reductively, man is person and woman is body. This is the predicament of all womanhood, made visible in larger relief under the magnifying glass of transgender womanhood. The man does and the woman is done, the man fucks and the woman is fucked. Women have a shelf life both as mothers and as lovers. Our worth is tied to our bodies, our ability to become pregnant and be pleasing objects with virginal orifices for the male member to penetrate and to possess. If our bodies are determined to be inadequate by the arduous metrics imposed on them, we are regarded as worthless sacks of flesh, not women and certainly not mothers.
I am not a perfect mother; no woman is. One day, my children may fault me for my mothering style and may conclude that I am a bad mother. But no one, not even they, can revoke my motherhood, just as no one can revoke my womanhood. This is a fact with which the puzzled onlookers at the playground and everywhere else will have to come to terms.