Ask Ari #105

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #105, Spring 2004.

Dear Ari,

I began my transition two years ago with my ex-wife?s support (sort of). At first she really seemed happy that I was finally becoming myself, but lately she has been difficult to get along with and I feel she?s trying to take my kids from me. My son is seven years old, and my daughter is 10, and they both ?know,? but I?m not sure they understand. Recently, my ex yelled at me on the phone and told me the children could never call me ?Mommy.? This hurt my feelings. What do you think the kids should call me? Daddy doesn?t really fit anymore, does it?

Just sign me ?Parent?

Dear Parent:

You are raising one of the most troubling issues I see in my work with transsexual people and their families. It?s often difficult enough for family and friends to remember to use your new name and to get the pronouns right. When it comes to parental role titles, there?s usually confusion and an active resistance.

There?s a strong sense of ownership about the terms Mommy and Daddy, even when nobody is changing sex. When children are adopted, there?s often a discomfort on the part of the adoptive parents, if someone refers to the birth parents as the mother and father. Not wanting to share their newly acquired parental status, adoptive parents will emphasis the word birthmother and birthfather.

During the transition process, the outside world can be so harsh, so unforgiving, so unwelcoming and judgmental, that we sometimes assume all difficulties in our human interactions are related to our gender issues. It?s easy to assume your wife is rejecting your transition, when she may simply be unwilling to share what has always been her special and intimate name: Mommy.

Perhaps it?s best to find your own name, and not borrow one being used by another family member. I wonder if your ex would be open to another term for female parent? Even in lesbian relationships, where there are two moms from the beginning, one is often called Mommy and the other Momma. Rarely in two dad families are both dads called ?Daddy;? often, one uses Papa or Pop.

Sometimes, people borrow from other languages (e.g., Ima and Abba are Hebrew for mother and father). Sometimes people make up names or words that fit? words that sound like mommy (i.e., MeMe)?or their own unique words, even nonsense words, that become endearing by their use (my son used to call me Plum, which I suppose rhymes with Mum, but is, well, juicier!). One family settled on DeeDee, which sounded like Daddy, but had a female lilt to it. Another family uses BeDa for butch dad, which honors the transitioning parent?s maleness, but also honors his history as
a butch lesbian.

Sometimes, transsexual people themselves feel strange or uncomfortable switching titles. One transman said, ?I?ve always been their mother. I birthed them. I just don?t feel right asking them to call me Pappa, although I admit I love the sound of it.? I encouraged him to ask his children what they wanted, and surprisingly enough, the children felt perfectly comfortable calling him Pappa. However, in this family, there was no other Pappa contending for the role.

The important thing is what matters to you. Do you want to remain Daddy even it raises eyebrows on the street? Or do you hate the reminder of your life as
a male, and not want to bring anyone?s attention to you in this way? Do you want to share the word Mommy with
you ex, or would you prefer to be called by your new female name? How about
if you sat down with your family and discussed it with them? Maybe your ex just wants to be included in what can be an important and lifelong decision.

What your children call you is no small thing. Children often have the best and simplest solutions; maybe this is a decision in which they can have an active part. Be aware that some children fear losing the parent that is transitioning;
letting go of your title as Daddy or Mommy can be very hard for them.

Establishing a relationship with your children (and your ex) as a parent who was once a man (or at least looked like one) and is now a woman involves avoiding potential landmines. In many ways the complication of naming is a metaphor for these other issues. Children want to know if you will still watch monster trucks on television with them, and still go fishing with them. In our gendered world, they cling to traditional sex role behaviors that have defined you as their Daddy. They want to know what to tell their friends about your transition. How do they explain who DeeDee is when you sign their permission slip for the class trip?
Most children don?t want your new title to bring excessive attention to your transsexual status, which is often exactly what you want. The question each family needs to ask is, ?How can we honor this transition with an appropriate naming, and not have the name we choose con-tinue to bring attention to anything unusual about our relationship?? Naming is a sacred act, an act of great courage that confirms an identity.

The name
you choose to have your children call
you should honor this life transformation.

Arlene Istar Lev, CSW-R, CASAC, is a
therapist specializing in working with LGBT
families at Choices Counseling and Consulting in Albany, New York. She?s a mom, educator, activist, and the author of two books, Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and their Families (2003, Haworth Press), and How Queer: LGBT Parenting (forthcoming, Penguin Press).