Two transmen and their respective seven-year olds spend a week “roughing it” in an air-conditioned cabin, go fishing, reinvent the family, and explore the parenting role of transgendered mothers.
My friend Adrian and I took his daughter, Michaela, and my son, Jaice, on a week-long camping trip in the Catskills. We stayed at a popular campground, Jellystone, in one of their two-room cabins that may have been evocative of days at summer camp from someone who grew up in a higher economic class than I did.
I’m sure, though, that those summer camp cabins weren’t as luxuriously outfitted. In fact, having both air-conditioning and a TV/VCR, it was better equipped than my own apartment. All it lacked was a stove and indoor plumbing.
Jaice had been staying with me for a couple weeks, a summer visit that would culminate in the camping trip. He lives in the South with his father most of the year, and visits me in the Northeast on his school vacations.
On the day we were to leave, we were to pick up Adrian and his daughter at a train station, and then proceed to the Catskills. I got lost and was over an hour late picking them up. To my great relief, Adrian didn’t shoot me. We went to his storage unit, got some supplies, and were on our way.
The Catskills are gorgeous. I drank in as much of the view as I could while nervously downshifting on the steep mountain highways. Scenes from Dirty Dancing kept flitting through my mind, especially as we passed ancient billboards advertising resorts. The two seven-year olds became acquainted in the back seat and began forging the bond that would become a week-long game of sibling, litter-mate, and proto-love interest.
Adrian, the consummate Boy Scout, taught me how to build a proper campfire: two logs parallel, and two more across those, in a tic-tac-toe design, and stuffed with paper. As the days passed and my lungs filled with the smells of lighter fluid from other campsites, I more greatly appreciated our simple fires. Sure, we didn’t rub two sticks together to start them, but neither did we douse them with combustible fluids. Over these fires, we cooked most of our food: roasted corn on the cob, breakfast potatoes and bacon, and my cordoned-off-with-foil kosher hamburgers.
We swam, we fished, we rode horses. The fishing was done in a small stocked pond, but we caught only sunnies and bass too small to keep. Jaice easily baited his own hooks, as well as mine and Michaela’s. I tried once, as I had when I was a teenager and first introduced to fishing, to put the live worm onto the hook, with no success. The feeling of the worm swelling up under my fingers as the hook pushed into its body was too much for me to take. Similarly, when I caught two fish in rapid succession, I had to trot over to where Adrian sat so he could take the fish off the hook and throw it back in the water.
Realizing my utter failure as a fisherman, I mainly sat and watched and enjoyed the quiet. It was a pleasure to watch Jaice’s mastery with a bamboo cane pole, and even his sitting silently for an hour, unravelling some line. I could see a quiet, masculine patience in him that I rarely witness, a trait he’s acquired from his father, definitely not me. I was pleased that I could appreciate those qualities in him as I had in his father, but I also wondered what Jaice learned from me, and whether it was feminine or masculine or neither. Is what I do mothering, or fathering, or is it simply parenting? I never wondered about this when I was a single mother, raising Jaice on my own, but now that I am living as a man and Jaice doesn’t live with me, I wonder what kind of figure I am in his life. He still calls me Mom, but acknowledges that I am a man. Does he, as I do, perceive me as occupying some non-binary gendered space?
Sports figure into gendered parenting. The old bonds that dictated what sports and activities boys and girls could appropriately participate in are disintegrating, but enough of it still remains to make me second-guess myself. When I was a kid, my sister studied dance and I took karate lessons. It was painfully obvious from the beginning that I didn’t belong in my sister’s dance class. The subject was never even brought up. I remember some argument about the decision to let me take karate classes at the same dojo where my father studied. I was being bullied by another girl, and Dad thought I should learn to fight back. Mom didn’t want me fighting. Dad won, and I learned karate.
So as my parents seemed to respond to cues from each of us and treated us distinctly differently, despite the fact that we were both girls. Yet I worry that, if I respond to a traditionally feminine desire on Jaice’s part, such as him wanting to help with the cooking, or if Adrian nurtures his daughter’s intense interest in the WNBA, will we be judged more harshly than my parents were, because we are transgendered mothers? Does a transgendered father struggle with whether to throw a football with her child in the park?
In the end, it seems that these are things I only worry about after the fact. Meanwhile, people like me and Adrian just do what most parents do: we raise our kids along the fine lines our society allows, encouraging them to “be themselves,” while warning them about sexism. We do it every day when we are our transgendered selves, mom-bois and daddy-grrls. And when we throw footballs (or cheer from the sidelines), cook meals (or order pizza), and hook worms (or don’t).