What Makes a Mum

Photo by Ketan Rajput/Unsplash

The cards and marketing give us only a glimpse of what can be a mother.

It was Mother's Day in Britain and I nearly made it through without crying. I’ll count that as a win. My own story is something I still grapple to tell past the first attempt some while ago; I won’t try again here. I’m not a mother, but it’s complicated.

I don’t think a transgender parent has uncomplicated parents’ days. The whole enterprise is binary and rigid, though I believe there is a Parents Day on the 1st of June - the same day as International Children’s Day. Not the best start, but it’s something. There’s a lot being left out.

One thing I’ve discovered since joining the transgender community is how the term ‘mother’ is rather a lot more nuanced than I thought growing up. In my little bubble, I knew not everyone got on with their parents but I never considered that someone would be disloyal to them. I was always loyal to my mum even as I screamed at her as a child. We had terrible, sometimes physical, fights that became so much I was sent away to live with my dad one year. But she was still my mum and I kept her close, even as I lashed out.

"AFTER COMING OUT, MY WORLD EXPLODED AND I SAW SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF MOTHERS."

After coming out, my world exploded and I saw so many different kinds of mothers. Transitioning mothers who were happy to be fathers, parents of children they don’t know, polyamorous groups of parents. My family was fairly non traditional for its time with two stepfathers, so it wasn’t completely strange. It was still new.

One wall I find families hit with a transitioning person is what to call them where ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ doesn’t suit. Either because they don’t want to call their parent the same as their other or because there are deeper feelings surrounding the titles. I was never a mother, but I knew that had my daughter been born, I would have transitioned very quickly to avoid being called dad. People would say it to me in a congratulatory sense and it made me deeply uncomfortable. I wasn’t ever going to be happy being dad. But when a client brings it up, I just suggest they make a name up and it’s interesting to me how often they do this.

It seems we’re always inventing ourselves. Picking a parental label is just another invention; a way of describing a person: who are you to me, who am I to you. It doesn’t need to speak to anyone else, and often labels of this kind don’t anyway. Our relationship with our parents is inevitably highly personal. Unique.

Not everyone has good parents to honour and look up to. Some folks end up finding the day hard because their mother ended up being abusive, absent, or otherwise toxic. Some folks lost their mothers because they came out as something. Some are just passed away. The day is painful for many.

I belong to the class of people that lost children before they arrived. I had a child that I never got to meet, and that makes the day very painful for me. I never thought I could miss a person that never was, but I do. My child is this thing that could have been, never was, yet is. And I know I’m not alone in this; my story is not exceptional.

As I was sat having lunch with my fiancée’s family making a fuss over her mum and sister on Mother’s Day, I couldn’t really focus and I felt I was mostly bad company. Really, I was keeping a lid on my own feelings of being left out. It’s selfish but I couldn’t stop myself. I’m lucky to have a mum I am very close to and transitioning only brought us closer together. I was glad I could send her the loving messages she deserved; I knew they would be received and felt. But I also had pain at the absence of my 11 year old child that never was.

Motherhood is a thing that we construct with those we mother. I have only the smallest taste of parenthood; I can’t pretend to know. But the more I learn about those around me and the complicated relationships they have, the less rigid the definition becomes. We don’t have to be called mum to mother. We don’t have to have a birth experience to love another in that way. Motherhood is not restricted to gender. It just happens to us and we muddle through as the rules change.

"WE ARE NOT SELFISH FOR EXPRESSING THE PAIN THAT MOTHERHOOD MIGHT RAISE."

We are not selfish for expressing the pain that motherhood might raise. The day is for us all to explore the relationships we have with our mothers and to meditate on what might have been. On one hand, I look forward to growing closer to my mum. On the other, I am lost without the child I never got to know. That isn’t selfish, that is just honest expression of a complicated thing. Of course, that doesn’t mean I was going to bring it up at a Mother’s Day meal for my future mother- and sister-in-law.

I think the thing that frustrates me about these days is they simplify this very complicated thing to the extent that we can’t be honest with each other about what it might mean. We’re told we have to love our mothers. While I think most of us would agree that we would in an ideal situation, the truth is it’s rarely that simple. You can’t reduce motherhood to a card and a meal out.

Personally, I don’t need to be fussed over on Mother’s Day to feel validated, but I hope we can reach a day when we can speak frankly about our feelings and have that be part of a parent day, too. I would like to have a drink for my child, include the family, and not have that take away from the mums at the table. More broadly, I wish we could just open up the definition and let the day be inclusive of people, regardless of their title. ‘Mum’ means so many things and includes so many people, it seems a shame to not.

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