Sunday, July 16, 2017

Trying to reconnect with my children

A lot has been written in the media about cis parents who grow to accept a transgender child.  Sadly, very little is available about the opposite scenario - a trans parent who is trying to have a relationship with cis children.  In my case, I essentially lost any opportunity to visit with my children due to stipulations that my wife attempted to enforce.   She is a devoutly religious woman who believed that being trans is a sinful choice that I made.  After coming out to her, she always referred to my gender expression as "this challenge that you have to overcome" and was fearful that seeing me as a woman would harm our children.  Nothing happening in my life at the time - including protracted episodes of depression and suicidality - could convince her otherwise. 

The following is a summary of my efforts to connect with my children after beginning my transition.  It has been a long fight to establish visitation, but I worry that the real work is just beginning.

Part I:
Raised in a very religious home, I spent the first 40 years of my life trying to hide and bury my feelings of being female.  The family religion taught that there was only 1 way to have happiness in life, and I was a faithful believer.  I did everything expected of young males in the church, while struggling with dysphoria.  I thought I could simply live out my life in hiding.  I hoped that I would be blessed if I kept the faith, and life would somehow work out.  I married, had a family, and struggled.  Life meandered through worsening depression for 15 years, before I became suicidal in late 2015.  The family suffered the consequences of dysphoria, without ever suspecting the underlying cause.

Fatherhood for me was a mixed blessing.  The religion taught that marriage and family are the source of our greatest happiness in this life.  In some ways, I can see this.  While the marriage was always troubled, the children grew to be my closest friends.  I love them dearly.  However, as the dysphoria grew worse, I had increasing difficulty with the fact that I was a husband and father.  Life became chronically traumatic, and the gender roles I was expected to play became part of the crisis.  When the depression was at its worst, I could still function at work, but symptoms would increase every night when I had to return home.  

This will be hard for some to understand.  Everyone says how rewarding fatherhood is.  Even within the trans community, I frequently talk with trans women who have no regrets about their past lives, and are at peace with their fatherhood.  This has not been my experience. I have only had the most tender love for my children, but dysphoria made fatherhood a traumatic experience for me.

Secondly, the family religion also played into the depression in dangerous ways.  The church essentially taught that being transgender is a sin, and I would only be unhappy if I decided to transition.  When my depression grew suicidal, the ideas taught by the religion did not make life as a woman seem like a hopeful option.  Honestly, it made death seem preferable.  When things were at their worst, my wife gave me the ultimatum of living as a man, or being put out of the family.  She reasoned that it was the right thing to do - a "tough love" measure, sanctioned by the church doctrine.

A psychiatrist recently asked me why I did not commit suicide.  I do not have a good answer to that question.  I do not know what got me through my wife's ultimatum.  My faith in the church must have faltered. Perhaps the thought of being buried as a man.  I honestly do not know.

Part II:
After being  hospitalized for 2 months, I moved out of the family home and into a small apartment where I would be able to make a serious effort at transition. It was an extremely difficult day.  My wife brought the children to the new apartment so everything happened in front of them.

The first few days were extremely lonely and difficult.  While waiting to start work with a new therapist, I made due with frequent chat sessions to the LGBT National Helpline (http://www.glbthotline.org/).  After a few days, I had a phone call with my wife. Unaware of the pain the religion had caused, she wanted me to call every night and pray with her over the phone. In order to visit the children, she insisted that I present as a man.

Since leaving, I have been to visit my oldest son on his birthday last September (2016).  I dressed as a man.  My son was happy, but it was incredibly stressful for me.  I know trans women who have a a "guy mode," but I have never been able to do it.  The dysphoria and depression come back in terrible ways.  I simply could not present as a guy after that.  I did the best I could to keep in touch with the children.  I called weekly.  I delivered Christmas and birthday presents.  These had to be left on the front doorstep of the family home, where I had to leave after ringing the doorbell.  I was not to be seen.

The children grew hurt, and felt that I had abandoned them.  As the months went on, they gradually stopped taking my calls.

Part III:
Moving out gave me the chance to explore the trans community in Chicago.  I eventually made friends with a woman named Christine.  One evening, I told her about the situation with my children.  She told me that I needed to fight for my visitation rights.  She explained that it would someday be important when the kids asked why I had left. It would give important credibility when I said that I had never abandoned them.

Part IV:
My wife and I moved forward with a divorce in the fall.  We made two attempts at mediation.

We had only 2 sessions with the first mediator.  I thought things were going well, but my wife abruptly halted the sessions.  The mediator had tried to broker a deal on child visitation - I would be allowed to see the children if I dressed androgynously.  While she kept a calm outward appearance, my wife was inwardly angered by the thought of compromise.

A few weeks later, the wife called, telling me she wanted to try a new mediator.  She told me that she thought this new mediator would be more "professional," and we would get more value for our money.  I reluctantly agreed to go along.  We worked with the 2nd mediator for ~6 weeks, but I soon realized that the "mediator" was not going to side with me on anything.  No compromise.  It became evident that the wife was trying to use mediation to force a settlement that no court would ever agree to.  I stopped mediation altogether at that point, knowing I would be protected in the courts.

We do not have any real assets, so my wife borrowed $4,000 from her mother, and hired an attorney.  The divorce petition was filed 2 days after Christmas.  After an auto accident, I used the insurance settlement to hire a divorce lawyer in mid January.  After we filed a response to the petition for divorce, my wife filed motions to restrict my parenting rights.  She argued that I was a danger to the children because of their religious upbringing.  She formally asked the judge to order me to present as a man in order to see the children.

In May (2017), the two attorneys had a pretrial conference.  Both sides were to set forth their expectations for the trail, and the judge would provide guidance.  At the conference, the judge dismissed outright my wife's petitions for restricted parenting.  In fact, the judge quickly rejected the main points of my wife's proposed settlement plan - including requests for an order that I present as a man in order to see the children, permanent maintenance, and an inequitable division of the marital assets.  Judge Flood added that she was a judge of the law, not of my ex-wife's religion.

At the conference, the judge endorsed a plan we had advanced that called for use of a therapist to help me re-connect with the children as a trans woman.

The only remaining obstacle to visitation was to find a suitable counselor.  In the following month, my wife soon put forth a motion suggesting a church-affiliated counselor.  In good faith, I contacted the woman to ask about her experience, but it was evident that she had never met a trans person before.  After a little digging, I found the name of  another counselor who took the family insurance and had a history of working with transgender children.  She became the focus of our motion.  A hearing to decide the matter was set for July 13th.

Part V:
 In the meantime, relations with the children were not getting any better.  In late June, I dropped off a birthday present for one of the children, and my daughter happened to see me through the window.  This was the first time she had seen me after almost a year into my transition.

I spoke with her on the phone a few days later.  She asked who had dropped off the presents.  When I said it was me, she was hurt - she had not recognized me.  She went on to ask me to "dress as her Dad" when I came to drop things off.  I tried to explain that I love her and will always be her parent.  In response, she protested and started to talk about religion - telling me that she knew that my transition was wrong.  I tried to explain that my transition had saved my life, but it was of little use.  I could not begin to explain that mom had given an ultimatum that would have ended terribly for everyone.

The difficult call underscored how far apart the children and I had become.  My transition has gone really well, and I had been passing as a woman since December.  My facial features had softened and grown more feminine.  My facial hair is almost entirely gone. My breasts were a size B, and I had stopped padding my bra months before.  My hair was shoulder length, curly, and had been highlighted.  Even without female clothing and makeup, I did not look like a man anymore.  However, that was only the beginning.  The kids have stayed locked into a religion that I had to leave if I was ever going to accept myself.  They had an extra year of Mom's influence, and have heard her side of the divorce, and have tried to soothe her hurt feelings.

Part VI:
On the 13th, the hearing was supposed to be brief, but it ended up including an hour's worth of testimony for and against both therapists.  My testimony included an admission that I had left the church, and discussion of how church teachings had done harm to myself and the family.  I also spoke of our therapist's experience working with the families of transgender individuals.  My wife's arguments focused on her track record of making decisions about the children's healthcare providers, and the experience of the counselor that she was championing.  In the end, the judge took my side.  She ruled that the family needed the guidance of someone experienced with transgender patients.

Part VII:
I have a date to see the children - August 24th at 10:00.  This will be the first time they have seen me as a woman.

Life has been an incredible struggle over the past ~2 years.  I somehow fought back from suicidality, but in doing so left a church that was openly hostile towards trans people.  After being separated from my children for over a year by conditions set by their mother, I fought and secured visitation rights.  The kids are upset, and I know they are going to judge me for many of the actions I took to save my life.  They are going to side with mom on her losses in court. I know the kids will blame me for many things, and the older ones may never accept me as a woman.

I am sure they wish I would simply go away.

Why do I persist?  Because I love them.  Life is hard enough, and I know they will need that.

If anything, my transition has taught me a lot about the home in which the children live.  It's a world that is judgmental, and at times openly hostile.  It's a place where love, once thought sure, is frighteningly conditional.

Some of the children may learn these lessons.  When that happens, I will be close enough to make a difference.

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