My daughter looking up at me when she was 2, asking to be picked up.
What it means to be a parent.

My parenting past and present

This is a strange time to be a parent. Some parents have an abundance of resources—an equal partner, day care, family support, and perhaps even a functional in-person school. My friends in these circumstances usually know their privilege, and spend their time helping others find resources. Other parents are single, unemployed, homeless, and focused on food, shelter, and safety. None of this is because of their poor choices or bad luck, but because of the unjust policy choices that our leaders have made over the past six months. The parents I meet in these circumstances often live in shame, for accessing the crumbling safety nets, for their struggle to care for their children, and for the layers of trauma they know this world is resting upon their children’s souls. And, between these two extremes, there are a scores of other diverse parenting circumstances, each with their own particular challenges, and even joys, as we all face the unpredictable waves of social, economic, and civil disarray. This is not a time in which anything was ever going to make any sense; and parenting, for many of us, never made any sense anyway.

I want to write briefly about where I sit in this diversity of parenting situations. I don’t think my story is particularly important tell—our attention should clearly be on parents in need, and telling my story risks taking attention from those needs. However, I do think my role as a parent is unique, and that sharing it might be a good reminder to parents with privilege of just have unfathomably complex parenting can be, even when things look managed and stable from afar. Maybe that reminder will lead us all to have a bit of grace for any whose responsible for caring for children right now.

Before I start, however, I want to explicitly note that writing about parenting can be fraught with privacy concerns. My child and her mom don’t need me oversharing the messiest parts of our family history, nor do they need me processing my emotions at their expense. Parenting is our most intimate of relationships and we should respect them as such. So this post might not come with my usual transparency and vulnerability, as much as I benefit from bearing my soul in this strangely anonymous medium. My ex and daughter have read this post, and gave me consent to share it.

In that spirit, let’s just start with the facts. I was a relatively young parent, raising a newborn when I was just 21 and my partner 22. My partner at the time shared the news that she was pregnant during Winter break of my third year in college. I was scared, of course, and knew that being a young parent might be hard. But I was also excited: because of a childhood full of separation, divorce, joint custody logistics, parental conflict, and confusing transgender feelings, there was nothing I wanted more than a stable, boring family life. My partner and I had many hard choices to make—whether to keep it, how to finish college, whether to commit to each other long term, how to tell our parents, whether we trusted ourselves and each other as parents—and so it was a emotionally, logistically, and financially challenging month. Ultimately, we decided to become parents, to commit to each other long term, and to do it with all the youthful vigor we could muster.

The first and most obvious consequence of our choice was the lifetime of generational misalignment we’d chosen. Our classmates were childless and partying at keggers; we were in birthing classes with thirty-something suburbanites. After our daughter was born, we had two choices of parenting groups: upper-middle class suburban helicopter parents who were a decade our senior, or lower-middle class young parents looking for the social connection and childcare freedom that comes with a good playgroup. As graduate school and career-bound aspiring professionals, we just didn’t fit in anywhere. We were lucky to find other young parents in graduate school, and clung to them desperately for our shared experiences. Of course, even after nearly 20 years, we still don’t fit in: all of my peers at work are wrangling households of young children or embracing being childless, while my ex and I are awkwardly empty-nesting, and reveling in the pleasures of watching our 19 year old young woman find herself and her place in the world, while we are just finding ours. We know that for as long as we live, we will be the exception to our class rules, perhaps becoming grandparents in our 50’s, or even great grandparents in our 80’s.

My parenting has also been strongly influenced by both my ex and my daughter’s bipolar disorder. Both manage it exceptionally well, not the least of which because my ex is an outstanding psychiatric nurse practitioner. But it took years of hard work on their part, with some of my help and support, to find stability, work through the stigma that comes with the diagnosis, all while maintaining a respectful, reliable parenting relationship. I owe an immense amount to my ex’s resilience, self-awareness, and grit for her creating that stability, but also helping create it for our daughter. And I am astounded by my daughter’s journey, facing such challenging emotional swings, and yet still being a loyal friend to her peers, an outstanding student, one of the sharpest and wittiest people I know.

With bipolar, amongst many other issues that come with being married young parents, also came divorce. While divorce isn’t nearly as stigmatized as it was fifty years ago, I still felt it. I kept imagining everyone in my life whispering behind my back, “I told you so.”, “It was never going to last”, “Could have seen that coming”, ignorant about the countless complexities of our marriage, but also right, in that the odds were against our lifelong partnership. With divorce came so many other parenting challenges: the very joint custody arrangement I was trying to escape through marriage, financial challenges and stress, trying to maintain a healthy line of communication, managing the differences of two household cultures, the complexities of step parenting, and the logistical morass of who-plays-taxi-is-it-your-day-or-mine-what-do-we-do-about-Thanksgiving-why-won’t-she-talk-to-me-but-talks-to-you. I think back to that time and cannot comprehend how we did it, while I sought tenure and she started her independent practice. We were parenting superstars.

As a by-product of divorce, our relationship, my own personality, and my ex’s preference for having majority custody, my ex unfortunately took on the majority of this burden. She managed the details, was mindful about our daughter’s friendships, and coordinated with schools and doctors. I ended up being financial and emotional support for our daughter, listening, problem solving, and writing the big checks. This wasn’t at all fair: I always felt like my ex was doing too much, and I wasn’t doing enough, and that resentment was inevitable. It was also a strange role reversal, as I had the edge in logistics skills, she deserved a closer emotional relationship with our daughter, and our daughter deserved space away from both of us.

After my daughter finished high school last year, I told her I was a woman. Coming out as trans changed—and continues to change—our relationship in surprising ways. While others have adjusted to my name, she’s had to deal with tensions her parent name for me. Am I mom? Junior mom? New mom? Amy? Or am I still D*d, which makes me cringe into a soupy dysphoric mess, but allows her to preserve its meaning? It’s one thing to ask a parent to adjust to their child’s new name—that’s the kind of sacrifice that every parent should be ready to make—but to ask a child to make the sacrifice for their parent seems somehow cruel, as cruel as it would be for her not to. And names are just one of the many ways she’s had to play parent to me: I’ve needed emotional support in this last year, and as much as I refuse to put her in that position, she is in that position, and provides it patiently and practically.

So when our daughter turned 18 and went to college last year, our empty nest was in many ways a blessing. Our daughter got time away from us in college, where she got to prove to herself that she could take care of herself. My ex got to see that she was going to be okay and give herself space to tend to her needs. And this distance gave me enough space to take stock of my own needs, which I’d chronically neglected, both as a parent, but also as a closeted trans person. The break from the daily challenges of parenting and being parented was healing.

Well, at least until March it was. The pandemic has reverted our lives in some ways—our daughter is back at her mom’s, but with a new independence and confidence, and a stronger relationship with her mom. I feel as distant as I did when she was younger because we are in separate distancing pods, but far closer than ever, having opened up about my deepest secret with her, and hers with me. We all find ourselves, as many families do, having to renegotiate our relationships, and redefining our love for each other. We’re just doing so with almost 20 years of practice, which makes me feel confident that we’re all going to be just fine.

Because of our complicated history, when other parents ask, “How’s your daughter?”, these are the things I think about. What simple answer could possibly convey how things are? They are good, they are fraught, they are new, they are changing, they are complex, but they are also simple in some ways. My parenting is not a circumstance in need of judgement. It just is. These thoughts remind me that when I speak to the other parents in my life about their own children, there’s probably just as much complexity, just different kinds, behind these questions, and that there is no safe assumption to make about someone’s experience as a parent. Perhaps hearing my story can help you remember this too.

With that, let’s put our attention back on all of those parents who are sifting through this mess of a year. They need our patience, our support, our relief, and our love. Some of them even need a meal, a place to stay, and a promise, from all of us, that we’ll help them ride this out, so that their kids will be safe. After all, its their kids, and our own, that will be taking care of us in a short time, and we need them to be strong, courageous, and kind for the times to come.

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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