Stuck in the Middle With You

Parenthood in three genders.

"We Can't Call You Daddy If You're Going to Be a Girl"

Being trans was hard. Finding a name for my children to call me was harder.

Photo of Jennifer Boylan and her two sons

Zach, Jennifer, and Sean Boylan, summer 2009

By 2002, transition was behind me. I’d been a boy, but now I was a woman. It had been a long journey, involving therapy, endocrinology, a minister, a social worker, and a trip to the large size shoe store. There were times when it seemed as if that journey--which more than anything else resembled a kind of emigration--was never going to end.

I had plenty of friends in the transgender community who suggested that it never would end, in fact; one such well wisher even sent me, on the day of my surgery, a card that said, “Now the journey really begins!” I remember putting the card aside with a feeling of exhaustion. The last thing I wanted, after everything my family had been through, was another journey.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

And for the most part, that turned out to be true. As a couple, my wife and I went from a time in which we suddenly seemed, after twelve years together, like strangers, to a time in which once again we seemed familiar, if altered. I went back to work at the college and my students rolled with the changes. In time they were replaced by a new generation of students, young scholars who had never known me in the days Before.

Whatever it was I’d imagined I’d become, before I changed genders, had finally been replaced by the reality--both difficult and joyful-- of what being a woman in the culture was actually going to mean.

There was one question though, that nagged at me, however, that woke me up in the middle of the night, and which caused me to lie there in the dark, unable to conjure an answer. What about the boys, a voice asked me. What about your two sons?

Now, speaking from the vantage point of my fifties--and my sons’ late teens-- I know that things worked out just fine, that having a parent who changed genders had no direct effect on their sense of “manhood.” Whatever masculinity is, in their hearts and minds, it appears to be hard-wired. My sons, like any other sons, developed most of the passions that we traditionally associate with men-- an affinity for sports; a love of loud music; a passion for climbing mountains, bungee jumping, and diving in shark cages; and some virtuosity in the realms of Skyrim, Minecraft, and Zelda. And if they’d developed in some other way, that would have been fine too. Whatever they are is the result of something other than my own emergence as trans.

If they have learned one thing about the world as a result of having me as a parent, it’s not that their masculinity is vulnerable. It’s that the world contains all kinds of souls, and that to be loving means to open your heart to all the different ways there are for people to be.

I think my sons are more tolerant and loving as a result of having a parent who is different. I think that because they have lived with someone who has seemed, at times, on the margins of the culture, that they have more forgiveness and compassion for all the world’s outliers and wastrels.

The most important element in bringing all this about, of course, was my wife, whom I’ve called “Grace” in my books, but whose real name is Deedie. You could never say that having her husband come out as trans was Deedie’s first choice for what to do in a marriage, and the scars from that transition remain. But Deedie decided early on that her life was better with me in it than without it, and as a social worker and a therapist she was, perhaps, better equipped than most wives to understand what I was up against, and what it would take for our family to endure.

And so it was that as I made my transition, back in the day, my wife helped send the message to my children that our family was not in danger; that our love for them had not changed; and that whatever it was that was happening to me was not something that would happen to them.

I finally knew we were going to be all right when my boys at last came up with a name for me. This is a story I’ve told before, so please forgive me for telling it one more time: one night my son Zach looked at me and said, “We can’t keep calling you Daddy if you’re going to be a girl, that’s too weird.”

I suggested he call me “Jenny,” since that was the name I’d chosen. I don’t know how I chose Jenny-- perhaps it was because I’d been a James, and I wanted a “J” name, something that would seem familiar, and send the message to people that I was, all the changes notwithstanding, still the same soul they had always known.

But Zach just laughed at “Jenny.” “Isn’t that the name of a lady mule?” he asked.

Trying not to be hurt, I said, “Well what do you want to call me?”

He said, “How about ‘Maddy’? That’s like half Mommy, half Daddy. Plus I know a girl at school named Maddy, and she’s cool.”

That was when his little brother said, “Or Dommy.”

We all laughed at this, but in time, Maddy began to stick. It helped that Deedie called me Maddy as well, although she didn’t take to it right away. At first, being Irish, Deedie called me “Maddy O’daddy,” which was nice. But in time, like lots of other suffixes and shadows that had trailed me around, “O’daddy” faded away. “Maddy” became my name. During the summer, on a Sunday in June, we celebrated “Maddy’s Day.”

It’s proper to scoff at “labels,” at the way we sometimes lose the wonderful morphability of identity by hanging a single name upon ourselves. But I can say that having a good name to call me made a huge difference for us. When I became “Maddy,” it meant that there was a name that was mine, and that my sons had chosen it. The name felt right, in ways I can hardly describe. It felt like I belonged, once more, in my family.

I know other trans parents who have kept the name “Daddy,” even though their children have changed pronouns to female ones. I know other parents who are still called “Dad” and “he” at home, and who rightly say that “this is what the children want, and they get to decide,” even if it creates more than a few awkward moments outside of the house. For some parents, enduring odd looks from strangers is a price they are happy to pay in order to keep a family going.

But tragically, I know other trans parents--lots of them, in fact-- who have lost their children, whose spouses have decreed that their sons and daughters may not see their Maddies. Or Dommies. I know one woman whose children have been told that their father is dead.

My heart breaks for all of these families. Those parents have been denied a chance to share their love with their own sons and daughters. And their children have been denied a chance to learn something very important-- that while a parents gender may change, the love that he or she feels is constant.

My wife and I are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this summer-- 12 years as husband and wife, 13 as wife and wife. When I wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes I still think, What about your children? What about the boys?

Then I think of them-- grown men now, scholars, mountain climbers, shark cage divers, and I think, Don’t worry, Maddy. The kids are all right.

Jennifer F. Boylan is professor of English at Colby College in Maine.

more...

Subscribe to Stuck in the Middle With You

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.