One night in 1980 my Mum was wandering the streets of a city, dragging me behind her, desperately trying to find a room in a cheap bed and breakfast for the night. It had been raining and the lights were gleaming on the wet pavement. It was getting late. Her sister had chucked us out again after another row. Mum was working in Debenhams but it wasn’t going well. She had no support from anyone and was battling mental illness – and I mean battling, trying so hard to keep it together. She was working from payday to payday with nothing to spare. She’d left everything we had behind in a dash away from my father. All she had were some clothes and a wedding ring she was forced to sell. Later, the council offered us a place in a former army barracks that had been converted into accommodation for the homeless. We were to share a unit with a married couple; probably the most creepy people I have ever encountered. After one visit to our proposed new home, Mum finally gave up and sent me to live with my grandparents. We never lived together again. I was nine years old.
Where was my father while this was happening? Actually, doing very well. He’d taken a new job in London now that there was no wife and child to look after. He’d started a new relationship with another woman, not telling her about his predilection for women’s clothing and belief that he was a transsexual, and would shortly be living in her beautiful home and spending her inheritance. No money for us from my father – not one penny while I wore shabby second hand clothes and Mum struggled.
I don’t see much respect for mothers from the trans community, although the word ‘mother’ is sometimes appropriated. I suppose it’s one answer to an obvious problem: what do you call a Daddy who doesn’t want to be called ‘Daddy’ any more? I had to call my father something and he hadn’t provided me with any other option. Ironically, when he was going in for his operation I told friends at school that ‘my mother’ would be away for a while in hospital. At least one of them assumed it was for a hysterectomy. But now I am angry that I had to pretend my real mother didn’t exist. I wish I hadn’t felt obliged to disrespect my mother like that.
Google provides many examples of the appropriation of ‘mother’. Transsexual Meghan Stabler writes in the Huffington Post of being named Working Mother’s ‘Working Mother of the Year’: “The transition to working mother has been a difficult one.” But nowhere in the article is Meghan’s daughter’s actual mother. Who is this ghostly figure? A random, friendly uterus, dispensing children as required?
A friend sent me an exchange on Twitter of a transitioner raising lots of money because their child’s mother had not returned the child when expected in their custody agreement. The rest of this person’s Twitter is about transition; happy pictures of new nails, a wig, selfies taken in changing rooms. Exciting! A new life! And the old one discarded. A child kept as proof of a new status: ‘mother’. ‘Mom’.
This is a person barely into a transition. Still a short hair cut, still sending bags of old male clothing to the charity shop, but already the word ‘mother’ has been appropriated from the woman to whom it belongs. And the mother of his child, his former partner, has neatly been erased. She is the ex. Doomed by being just an XX. Another woman who can be made disposable, invisible, negatable.
I want to write more about this. About how our mothers are shunted aside. About how they are made invisible and aren’t respected and listened to. Partners and children aren’t just something to be discarded in someone’s search for their ‘authentic self’. The transitioner is celebrated for the bravery of their transition. Why aren’t the widows and orphans celebrated for the bravery of dealing with being left behind?
Trans widows don’t seem to get the great profiles in newspapers and magazines. Journalists who think that transition makes someone ‘brave’ and ‘stunning’ don’t feel the same about newly-single mothers whose partners have decided to erase them. Have a look yourself. Find some profiles of formerly married ‘trans women’ and then look for a mention of the mother of their children. On the site Make More Noise, @tranwidow, talks about what women can do for trans widows. It’s a rare, authentic voice from the voiceless. She describes herself aptly as the ‘elephant in the room’ and advises: “Don’t, under any circumstances, refer to him as my daughter’s mother. She only has one mother and it’s not him.”
I only had one mother too.
A Plea for Help for Feminists from a Trans Widow:
Transgender Mother Responds to Being Named Working Mother of the Year: