A reader writes: “I started my transition this year. I’m ‘stealth’ already and my parents have accepted me as their child again (daughter is still too much). My daughter is also accepting, and my friends are also really supportive.
“I have another child, whom my ex-partner (before I transitioned) and I share custody of, amicably and without any real problems, and ground rules have been established for what my child will call me (not Mum). My ex’s family is also absolutely fine with everything. However, there is a problem.
“My ex-partner recently told me that she is actually having serious problems dealing with my transition. My relationship with my ex and therefore my child is hanging by a thread. I’ve managed to deflect legal advances and have come to an uneasy agreement for the short term.
“How can I help my ex with my transition? There seems to be no support group or information I can direct her towards, and talking about things between us always ends in one of us walking away upset and angry. She’s worried about how our child will grow up and about possible teasing in later life. And she can’t see how my being around in the long term is in her or my child’s interests.”
First of all, congratulations on having supportive family members and friends. They can be very helpful as you are going through some of the more troubling aspects of transition, like what you are facing now with your ex-partner and one of your children.
I don’t know how old this child is, but I get the impression that this is a young child – possibly an infant, toddler, or preschool-aged child. You say that every time you and your ex discuss the situation, you argue and someone walks away, which is not beneficial to your child, even if the child is not yet aware that you are arguing. And I believe that communication is paramount to resolving a problem like this.
So perhaps if you send your ex a link to this column, that might pave the way for another, more productive, conversation about your child (but as you’ll see towards the end of this post, that conversation is not the very next one that needs to happen).
There are some things that I think are important for you and your ex to consider when you are talking about your involvement in your child’s life:
> Frequently, when there are custody or contact issues involved in a separation, children are put in the middle, and it is really not their best interests that are being considered. They are being used to advance the agenda of one parent (or both). So it might not be your child that your ex is really concerned about.
Her concern about possible future difficulties may simply be an excuse for her own desire for no contact with you. Maybe she’s really worried about how she will deal with this over the long term, if she will be teased, and if continuing contact will be detrimental to her. She really needs to be honest with herself about whose interests she is serving by denying contact and preventing a relationship from forming.
> At some point in your child’s life – probably relatively soon – the child will want to know who fathered him/her and where that father is. Children really want these questions answered, and sometimes the answer is not an easy one, but a child would rather know the truth, I believe, than be told some made-up story.
And it is certainly going to be to the child’s benefit to know that the person who helped create him/her wants to be in his/her life, rather than to hear some story about how this person died or disappeared or whatever your ex intends to tell this child.
Children are extremely accepting when given the opportunity to be so. And most children consider whatever they grow up with to be natural, “normal,” and acceptable. If this child grows up with the knowledge that his/her parents are both women and that the person who fathered him/her is a woman, this will seem natural to the child. He/she is likely not to question it or be damaged by it unless the parents make a big deal out of it or act as if it’s something bad or terrible – which will then be very damaging to the child. (You also do not have to use the word “fathered.” Use whatever word is most comfortable for you and your partner when discussing with the child his/her biological co-creation by the two of you.)
> It’s possible that your child will be teased as he/she grows up – possibly for this, and possibly for some other reason. Children can be very cruel. Your child might be teased because he/she is not good at sports, his/her hair is wrong, his/her clothes are not in style, or he/she is not in with the “popular crowd.” As much as we want to protect our children from the cruelties of the world, as long as we send them out into it, we cannot protect them. On the other hand, your child might not be teased at all.
To prevent your child from having contact with you because of something that might happen in the future makes no sense. It’s like refusing to let the child cross the street because he/she might get hit by a car. You can only plan for possible future events to a point and then you have to let go of them. There are no guarantees, but we can’t live our lives, or set up our children’s lives, based on what might happen at some hypothetical time down the road.
> There will be a time when your child is old enough to make his/her own decisions. That is the time when your child can decide whether or not it is detrimental or damaging to have you in his/her life. That is the time when your child can decide how much contact he/she wants with you. It is unfair not to leave this decision up to the child.
If your ex believes that she can prevent all contact, now and in the future, and hide from this child his/her true paternity, she is mistaken. In this age of the Internet, your child will find you if he/she wants to. Your ex is only delaying the inevitable and possibly making the discovery more difficult in the long run. While your ex might have the best of intentions, by denying contact, she is not protecting this child.
Honestly, I think one line in your letter says it all: “My ex-partner recently told me that she is actually having serious problems dealing with my transition.” Your ex-partner is having problems with it, and your child is a convenient way for her not to have to deal with it herself. This really isn’t about your child – it’s about your ex-partner. So I would suggest that, in your next conversation, you leave the child out entirely.
When you talk again, set a ground rule that your child will not come up in this particular discussion at all. This conversation will be about the two of you. Then let your ex talk about what she is really thinking and feeling – about her and about you. Let her ask any questions that she feels have been unanswered or left hanging, and answer them if you can. Let her put her anger or her fears out there on the table, then address them in the best way possible.
Really listen to her, and then ask her to listen to you as you explain where you are coming from and what’s going on with you. Remember, the child does not come up in this conversation at all. The two of you need to talk about your own stuff and listen to each other. There should be no argument here – neither of you can argue with how the other one is feeling. Feelings are not wrong. They are personal reactions to situations. So there should be no frustration or walking away until you’ve heard each other out.
Then agree to go your separate ways and process that for a while. When you have both had some time to digest what the other has said, and when you are both in agreement that your child’s best interests outweigh your own, then come back together and talk about what really is in the child’s best interests.
I can’t imagine a situation where it is not in a child’s best interests to have as many loving people in his/her life as possible. And you and your ex might have to make some compromises for this to happen. One of those compromises has to be “no fighting.” If you both truly want what’s best for your child, then you have to act like adults and put your own needs and desires aside for the benefit of your child.
I wish you the best of luck. I’m sure readers will have other ideas, and some have probably gone through something similar, so don’t forget to check out the comments.
Readers, you have the floor.