My wife has an email folder labeled with her ex-husband’s name. For the purpose of this story, we’ll call him Jay. It’s labeled with the year 2014—when her divorce from him was finalized and co-incidentally, when Jay’s emails took an erratic turn. The folder has become a storage unit for some of the most cruel accusations hurled my way.
I began transitioning in 2009 before I met and subsequently married my wife in 2015. Based on Jay’s history of behavior I figured we’d go through some rocky times with him. Co-parenting with exes is always hard, but co-parenting with someone who has a different worldview and what seems like an active dislike for your existence is exhausting.
In my world, gender is one big gray space. I’ve lived on both sides of the gender binary and in the spaces not so visible. I have connections with men who have been pregnant and moms who used to be dads. My world is built with queer and trans building blocks.
Through that lens, I’ve been able to present to my stepchild that the world is limitless. They are not required to wear certain clothes or play with certain toys because of their gender. They are encouraged to be exactly who they are throughout their ever-evolving identity.
On the other hand, Jay sees gender as a strict binary— women versus men and we have emailed about our differing views. His views are best summed up in a line from one of those emails, “A stallion and a mare make a foal.” He, admittedly, lives in a black and white world.
I realize that Jay’s views are still, unfortunately, relevant. Every single preschool teacher I’ve spoken with talks about the differences between boys and girls; not realizing that they are perpetuating that difference by maintaining those views.
My heart breaks when these black and white worlds corral my stepchild into a gendered box. They will make decisions to not play with a certain toy because it’s for the “other” gender. I take those moments to ask them how it makes them feel. In a low voice, they often respond that they are angry and they don’t like that they can’t play with the toy. When this happens, I have to be bold and directly oppose these lessons of gender they’ve been taught by their father and by so many others. I try to create a space where they can be whoever they want to be as long as they are kind.
Recently I had a friend who was pregnant and my stepchild was very fascinated by the whole process. One day I casually commented that boys can be pregnant too. They were enthralled and excited about the idea. Kids love when there aren’t boundaries, right? We talked briefly about it and then their attention span dwindled and moved onto something else.
Fast forward a few weeks later, Jay expressed his concerns to my wife about an inappropriate conversation I had about pregnancy. My wife acknowledged his feelings and later she invited him to discuss it in therapy via email. This wasn’t the first time she had invited him to therapy through this process. He ignored the invitation and referred to me as a “his/her.” This is the pattern. I’ll discuss something that isn’t aligned with his world of male and female. We will then receive a flurry of emails accusing us of abuse for having these conversations.
But how can I deny the gray spaces of gender when that is where I exist?
These outbursts paralyze me as a parent. I worry that maybe I shouldn’t share my genderless world with this brilliant child. But how can I deny the gray spaces of gender when that is where I exist? I can’t make myself invisible.
When I feel this way, I often find myself shrinking back from parenting. After all, I have little rights as a stepparent. Legally Jay’s biological tie is greater than my many sleepless nights and long exhausting days taking care of this child. Sadly, I believe those are his intentions: to try to render me powerless as a parent. He wants me to be afraid to parent as a trans person.
When Jay began his abusive rants, I thought they couldn’t last long. But three years in, I realize he may never stop. My wife and I have found ways to navigate this rollercoaster of aggression. And maybe with time, we’ll find ways to remain completely unaffected by the outbursts and not be scared by his anger.
But when my stepchild bounces in from the weekend at Jay’s and wrap their arms around me. I refuse to be afraid. I refuse to shrink back from this love.