All that I am, all that I will ever be: Sorting through my complicated emotions on Mother’s Day

This Mother’s Day marks the third that I have faced alone since my mother’s passing in 2016. Last year was painful; this year, the passage between her birthday on May 2nd and today has been even more difficult. I have been angry, frustrated, agitated, depressed. Beset with a loneliness that is bone-deep, existential, wordless. I debated whether I should even attempt to express it because my specific pain is coloured not only by my loss of a beloved parent, my own mother, but because, although I face the world as a male person, understood as a man even to those who know otherwise, I am also a mother. Mother’s Day opens itself to women who have longed for motherhood (including those born male) or taken on motherlike roles in a wide variety of contexts, but holds no space for a mother like me. Even my own children tend to overlook my desire for just a moment’s recognition.

The only person who fully understood, honoured and respected this incongruous aspect of my being in the world was my own mother. And she is gone.

Up until the week she died, my mother called me, like clockwork, every Saturday night at 7:00 pm. I’m not sure when this pattern was established, but it extended back for decades. We were so very close. I listened to her joys and trials; she listened to mine. But there was never a exchange more difficult than my call, almost twenty years ago, to tell her that, after nearly forty years of trying to make myself into the woman she naturally assumed I was, I could no longer fight a persistent agonizing sense that I was not really female. My thirties had been, she was well aware, a decade of peculiar turmoil; that behind the birth of two children and a dutiful effort to craft a home that resembled the one I’d grown up in, something darker was brewing. I was increasingly, obviously miserable. I had experienced a serious manic psychosis and spent the better part of a month on the psychiatric ward. But nothing could have prepared her for my revelation. I had never shown the slightest masculine tendencies or interests and “transgender” was only just beginning to become a topic of conversation. However if gender roles and experiences—including pregnancy and childbirth— could a woman make, I could have managed to quell the dysphoria. I could not.

My mother, bless her, responded to the news that I was planning to divorce and transition to a life as male, with the promise that she would always love me unconditionally. She asked for no more than a few weeks to adjust to the idea. She became my advocate, quietly, faithfully, unstintingly. If she had her own doubts and grief over the loss of her daughter, she never let me know. And I never got the chance to ask. It was a subject left unaddressed in death.

My mother died from complications of osteoporosis and, as we learned in the final days of her life, post-polio syndrome. In eighty-two years the markers of exposure to that disease had never been detected, but together these conditions had gradually reduced her body to a hunched, frail, crippled cage. Until the very last month, when the lack of adequate oxygen exchange began to impair her thinking processes, she remained alert, intelligent and fresh. When I spoke to her, her age was ambiguous, eternal. Every time I saw her in person, I would be shocked anew. She spent her final years trapped in a delicate, fragile frame that constrained the spirit of a woman who had been so active and physically vital most of her life.

Her body betrayed her.

My mother’s death, followed eleven days later by my father’s death from the complications of a head-on collision, unravelled my reality in ways I am only beginning to fully appreciate. My parents spent their final years in a cottage in the woods outside a small village about two hours northwest of the city I live in. It was the final destination of lives that had started in large urban centres—New York and Toronto—and ended in a place in which they had few, if any connections. To everyone who knew them in this ultimate location, I was the oldest son. To most of the distant and scattered friends and relations I was tasked with notifying of their passing, I was their only daughter. For my brothers, never entirely at ease navigating the decade and a half between my two opposed public identities, I will always be a sister.

My parents’ final home.

For my own two children, I am the parent who transcends and defies gender, who struggled to raise them alone from the ages of eight and eleven, with little financial and emotional support, with one identity at home, but hidden, vague and uncertainly defined to the outside world. I referred to myself as their parent, only explicitly defining the biological reality when medical or educational situations commanded more specific terms. To do so was to invite the question of how much my issues were or were not impacting my son or daughter who each had their own challenges. No one ever asked how the practical emotional distance of their father played a role. I looked like a father and it is difficult for others, even if they are fully aware of my past to hold mother as a reality in the existence and life of someone who looks like a man. I was, more often than not, reduced to that oddity that, even today, is poorly appreciated—a single male parent.

I would be asked: Where is their real parent? Who? Their mother? What could I say? She’s dead? And yet, I resisted revealing my identity unnecessarily. I have long known single fathers, not widowed but left with the care and responsibility while mothers moved on, and I felt it was important to call attention to the fact that not all single parents are women. I also feared negative fallout. As a closeted transgender person I stood in isolation.

Yet raising children through their difficult adolescent years gave my life meaning, value. My own parents stood by me, pitched in, built strong and vital relationships with their grandchildren while the other side of their family, maintained a distance. Only their stepmother, their father’s new wife, made an effort. As I built a new identity and a new history as a man in the world, my children and my parents provided essential continuity. They allowed me to feel whole, to carry motherhood and manhood as part of who I was.

Who I was.

The last few years have not been so easy. The artificiality of this assumed completeness was shattered when I became ill and lost my job. The scaffolding provided by my short-lived career, the years I spent working in social services fully and completely accepted as male, was stripped away leaving me defenseless. By this time, my children were in their twenties, both dealing with their own serious issues, and I had no friends, community or support to fall back on.

In retrospect, the sharp jolt into recognition of the limitations of transition to address the longstanding dislocation of gender dysphoria, has been a blessing. I could have continued to imagine that my artificial existence was sufficient for some time, but in truth, cracks in my carefully tended armour were showing long before the tentacles of mania pried them open. Career success was only a passing indication of achievement. My failure to make friends or forge a sexual identity spoke much more acutely to the truth that I could live as a man, but would never really be a man. Yet, as transgender, my own experience—past and present—is never echoed in the endless stream of gender different narratives that have become so ubiquitous in queer and public discourse. My personal efforts to find comfort, community or safety in LGBTQ space have been a dismal tribute to the heartache of finding oneself doubly alienated among the alienated. I sometimes feel like I have never fit in anywhere.

So I sought to find myself where I had no reason or expectation of fitting in. Where I once sought to ensure protection by building walls between myself and the world, I now seek escape. Through reading, writing , and travel. South Africa. Australia. India.

And again, India.

My mother only lived to know of the first of these journeys, one that in my complete ignorance about the risks of long haul sedentary travel, very nearly cost me my life—blood clot to pulmonary embolism to cardiac arrest—saved against incredible odds, by my son who found me and started CPR. But I know she would never have discouraged my continued travel. In her lifetime she managed to visit Cairo with a friend and Russia and New Zealand with my father, but had she not been constrained by an increasingly brittle body and an increasingly eccentric and intransigent husband, she would have travelled longer and farther. Perhaps I have inherited some of my restlessness from her.

That restlessness is growing. I have never felt “at home” in the city where I have lived for most of my life. I was not born here. I have no roots or connections here. Both of my brothers are married to women with deep histories in this part of the country. But my ex was of the first generation born to migrants, refugees. My own mother was a migrant and, back only two generations of a family of refugees herself. I feel this eternal disconnect enhanced by the embodied dislocation I feel as someone who has navigated womanhood and manhood, but belonged to neither. In this present #MeToo era I am even more adrift. I am torn between a genuine empathy for men—informed by living as a male person in society keenly aware of the ways testosterone has altered my mental and emotional engagement with the world—and the feeling that my own experiences as a girl and woman have lost their currency. I look like a middle-aged white man and that is all that I am allowed to speak to. There isn’t even a language which can adequately address my dual life and my role as a parent. Transgender men who opt to have a child at the beginning of the transitional process engage a queer parenthood that is unlikely to ever be labelled “motherhood” as language now tends to be gender neutralized, distorted. Which is fine for them, but it silences and disowns the reality of my, admittedly less common, hybridized experience.

I want to speak for no one but myself. I do not regret the decision to transition, I am entirely comfortable with the face I see in the mirror. I am male and enjoy a hormonal rightness that grants me a certain completeness. The body, well that is another possibly unsolvable matter. However, of late I find myself wanting to claw back some sense of dignity for my early, pre-transition life. It isn’t easy. It is unsettling, even with my most generous and supportive friends— those who fully accept me but have only known me with this present name, this current appearance. And very often it angers transgender activists because it defies the accepted discourse. I can’t help but fear that the only person who might have ever come close to truly understanding, who might have been able to walk with me through this unending, evolving, shifting, and ever ill-defined journey is no longer here. My mother contained all that I am—all that I have ever been, and all that I ever will be. My absolute alpha and omega. Her love was whole, at times skeptical perhaps, but expansive and complete.

And for that reason, on this Mother’s Day, I miss her with all my heart and soul.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

22 thoughts on “All that I am, all that I will ever be: Sorting through my complicated emotions on Mother’s Day”

  1. Thanks for sharing this with us, Joe. It’s so deeply emotional that it reminded me of my mom’s memories. Like you, I miss my mom everyday, every time I look for someone to turn to for solace, every time there’s something good that happens in my life. Sometimes I regret not doing the things that shoud have made her happy. But that’s life. I may not believe in afterlife, she must be proud of what I am now. ^^

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Joey. My mother believed in an afterlife although I don’t know what I believe any more, I suspect she knew what I was never able to tell her. And and I hope that she can see how well her grandson is doing right now because that would truly make her happy.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this, Joe. I think you’re right that there’s a strange kind of rigidity about gender issues, and I think that when you challenge it as you have here, it helps to educate people about the complexity of it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lisa. To hold to two contradictory roles at once is difficult. I do not identify as gender fluid or non-binary, I simply have a life that crosses over from one lived gender to another. This an attempt to try to articulate how increasingly strange this doubled experience is, especially in light of my grief. I remember when we had lunch a couple of years ago you asked me something like: How would your children describe you? Felt like a job interview question at the time. Now I hope they would just say that I’m a good parent. 🙂

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      1. I have no doubt that it is difficult, and made more so because people (including me) don’t have much experience of knowing someone in your situation, and (as I obviously did at the time) can unwittingly say things that are thoughtless or hurtful.
        That’s why I think that even though it’s hard for you to do, sharing your thoughts like this is so valuable, but I’m reminded of how Indigenous people in Australia just get so tired of having to explain, having to be an ambassador, having to educate other people *all the time*. What all of us want, is just to *be*, and to be accepted in whatever way we are.

        Anyway, from one mother to another, happy mother’s day:)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I didn’t take your question as hurtful at all by the way. I interpreted it as a question of character, not gender. I remember it because I was, at the time, at a loss to answer. A sign of how hard it is to think positively about myself.

        Happy mother’s day to you too. One out of two kids remembered. Not bad.

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      3. Ha, that’s one more than me.
        (But mine is forbidden to do Mother’s Day. I dutifully did it for my own mother, and we still do it for my MIL, but for myself, I dislike commercialised sentiment. )

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Joe, you are a brave person and thank you for sharing something so deeply felt. I can only begin to imagine the complexities you must be trying to juggle, and finding understanding is a difficult thing in this day and age. Despite our great steps forward, I think things are still seen in very black and white terms, with gender changes still not properly recognised or understood or accepted. My non-binary youngest is gradually coming out to colleagues (friends are already aware) and the experience has mostly been a positive one, but they are younger and have less life experience behind them than you – and so far they have retained their initial physical characteristics. Transitioning after being a biological mother must have been infinitely more difficult, especially when it comes to deciding how to name yourself (the naming of things being so important to us humans). Parental love (whichever one from) should always be unconditional and happy mother’s day from me too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know about brave. You come to a place where there are no more options. Unlike many transgender people, I’ve never insisted my family change their language for me. I do not own their memories or their relationship to me. Especially when I transitioned at 40. But the more male I looked the more foolish my parents or children would look if they used the wrong pronoun or name in public. They learned to switch as needed! My kids call me Joe in public. My father had the hardest time with name and pronoun (my previous name was gender neutral and another nickname for Joseph), but in the hospital in his final days he never slipped up once. I like to think he truly saw me at that point.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s very difficult for me to understand what you’ve been through,since I can only identity your male image…..
    but I wish you wholeheartedly that one day your child or a future grandchild would write about you with the same zest,love and appreciation you remember your mother.
    And why not find a female partner who would recognize all your sides?!!
    Here,in Greece,motherhood is something sacred since the ancient time,and basically we do like finding excuses (any excuses) for celebrations,so we give/receive flowers, cakes and small gifts.
    I got an impatients flowers (we call it ‘Eros’here) from my partner and a Tangerine Gem pot from my daughter,
    but I send you the flowers I got for my mum : a bunch of purple carnations… and best of Luck!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. I sometimes think parenthood is underappreciated here. I have wondered at times if a partner would really provide the validation I feel is missing, but I have very serious body dysmorphia that interferes with my ability to even imagine a relationship. What would have been nice is more commitment from the kids’ other parent, especially around our son’s alcohol addiction. That’s what wears you down. I didn’t expect to be so actively involved in parenting 30 years in.

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  5. What a beautiful, painful and emotionally honest post. I had no idea there was this other side to you, although I suppose I only know you through our bookish blog posts, so why would I? I wish you the best of luck in the next few years, although you sound like a very strong person, so luck isn’t what you need at this point anyway. Perhaps I can wish you more happiness instead?

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    1. I have written about gender identity on my blog, but I tend to be rather oblique. My longer essays are linked here, but this is the most significant piece I’ve written in years. My way of talking, even thinking, about myself continues to evolve after all these years. I am “out” but, of course, my history is not evident. Chances are we’ve crossed paths at Wordfest somewhere along the way and you wouldn’t know (weirdly that is one place where I am very cautious about outing myself). I feel very safe about certain things (like medical care) in Calgary, but less so in general terms. Probably because I trust the LGBTQ community least of all! I know you have little ones, but we should try to meet up for coffee if you’d like.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What else to do with all of this but write through it and spiral around and under and through once more. These socially prescribed days are so difficult to navigate, on top of the tender efforts required to navigate everyday life. Beautifully expressed: please do keep on.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. *nods* I keep a small stack of torn-out pages (from notebooks that have lost their binding or been dismantled) and use them to write things that I then discard in the recycling bins when I’m walking in the parks nearby. On those sheets, I can say stuff.

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