This is a really difficult area, but one I don’t want to duck. There is no simple answer, but it does contribute to the acceptance of trans women as women. In essence, are trans women being accepted as women (e.g. in feminist circles) whilst simultaneously being implicitly told that they are not ‘real women’, because their bodies, and hence physical experiences, are not complete as female?
The question fundamentally is whether transwomen can be included in discussions surrounding conception, pregnancy, fertility, giving birth and nursing, or whether because they cannot, they should step aside and keep quiet. Is it an intrusion or a presumption to enter these discussions? Is it seen as invasion of the male patriarchy all over again, if only psychologically? Is it entering a unique preserve of ‘womyn born womyn’? I was intending to use this phrase throughout, but it is too redolent of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) so let’s settle on women assigned female at birth, or cis.
Sexism, feminism, identity
I have written twice recently about sexism at work, because I receive it. But this is at brain level: I cannot be worth as much in my abilities and knowledge because I am a woman, and until proven exceptional, am inferior. I therefore feel comfortable taking a feminist stance, and indeed many men do the same. It is a matter of equality and fairness that anyone could see and participate in.
When it comes to matters of child-bearing though, this is physiological. I ventured to say that I felt closer now to the issues that mothers feel on returning to work after childbirth: the diminishing, the setbacks, the presumed loss of commitment to work, the distrust. I shall soon return to work, not with a baby at home, only with my own kind of ‘maternity leave’ (because I have queried whether my experience was nearer to being born or giving birth). That in itself is only a thought experiment, not about actually giving birth to a baby.
Nevertheless, it did raise the matter in my mind about the mother-identity among trans women.
When people with gender dysphoria express themselves as having the wrong body (however fundamental or not that is experienced as being), it means just that. Not the wrong genitalia, but the wrong everything. We may just as much resent facial hair, larynx, hand size, head shape as the genitals, and indeed as the missing bits. Faces can be reshaped, bones modified for more gracile features. Breasts can easily be developed, because they are already there, if dormant, and indeed can lactate. Penile inversion to create a neo-vagina is routine and satisfactory. But whilst testes can be removed, and thereby the source of testosterone, ovaries cannot be implanted to avoid the need for pills, and the post-surgery trans woman still has no uterus.
This may leave the trans woman with a degree of residual gender dysphoria, but most of us have already grown to accept that there is nothing that can be done. Younger trans people may live in hope of future transplant techniques, and some meantime at least seek to store their gametes before surgery so they can be blood-parents at some stage afterwards.
In my mind, this places us in a similar position as women born infertile, or without a uterus, and women who have had a hysterectomy before being able to conceive. We all identify completely as women in ourselves, and none of us will ever know what it means to be pregnant, or give birth.
Or maybe it isn’t about bodies at all? Is it about the maternal instinct that only cis women can experience, and therefore we as trans women cannot?
Initially I am reminded that many women have little or no maternal instinct. Some only develop it during pregnancy, and many lose it afterwards in post-natal depression. Maternal instinct may also not be so distinct from paternal instinct. Both seek fulfilment and both give rise to powerful nurturing urges. It is fairly common for fathers to envy their wives’ abilities to breastfeed, and this is only partly alleviated by bottle-feeding, even with the mother’s own expressed milk.
I am therefore unsure that I can honestly affirm that the maternal instinct is there in all cis women, and if not, why it should not be present and genuine in trans women. It may well be stimulated by hormones (hence increase during pregnancy and loss in postnatal depression), but there will be other factors, including socialisation, the presence of similar-age siblings, other caring experiences etc. I don’t believe it is genetic or a product of the absence of Y chromosomes.
What I can say is that I have heard enough trans women speak of their maternal feelings to know that it isn’t an invention to support their sense of authenticity.
There is a clear difference between the younger transitioned woman and the transitioned parent. For the former, there is a whole life ahead that may never include your own genetic children, which in itself can be quite a devastating and unbearable thought. This is no different from the cis woman facing the same reality for similar biological reasons. For the latter, there may be custody battles, severance, separation or rejection that cloud the joys of the parent-child relationship, and the loss of a very young family can be traumatic. Alternatively, a whole new positive relationship can evolve into a kind of belated or adoptive motherhood. But in retrospect, does one re-remember the maternal/paternal experience? I think it may well.
What do I remember? I can’t claim to be representative, but I do very clearly remember being present at the birth of both my babies. Seeing my wife in pain, then joy, and then in pain requiring some surgical repair, and then nursing, expressing milk, but only to a small degree able to include me in the initial nurturing. I remember the shared things: changing nappies, burping, jogging to sleep, bathing, singing, dressing, changing … I don’t suppose my remembering is very different in these things.
I do remember the feeling of exclusion from a powerful experience, and I can’t claim that to be different from any father. But it wasn’t that feeling of losing the focus of attention and affection. It was just that of ‘I can never do this’ and a sinking feeling.
So my contribution to the argument that unless you are a cis woman you can’t enter the discourses of pregnancy or motherhood, is to say that being trans is not the only way of being excluded. You also have to exclude every infertile woman and every woman who had declined motherhood for any other reason. And indeed any other woman yet to conceive. Instead, I invite you to step into the skin of the trans woman who knows that her incomplete body is an accident of birth, and feel her grief of knowing that she can never conceive, carry a baby and give birth – even if she could lactate and nurse.
In retrospect, I may remember early days in a more motherly way, not to usurp my wife’s role, but because I actively feel different now about babies and about motherhood. Maybe it’s the hormones, but if so it isn’t because I am a trans woman, but because it’s the same hormones as any cis woman. But what I will say is that it isn’t a pretence to bolster my proclaimed authenticity as a woman, nor a cover-up for a patriarchally privileged upbringing in order to be more included. My maternal feelings are real, because they are also part of my identity, my sense of self.
OK, so it’s obvious? Maybe. But it can also be enough to cause real upset and misunderstanding, when a trans woman engages in dialogue over fertility, pregnancy, childbirth and sexism or feminism, and is excluded because she can never know the experience first hand. I feel it is tantamount to saying that a trans woman is fully accepted as a woman – until it comes to the unique experiences of cis women, in which case the trans woman is, of course not quite a ‘real woman’.
And all I am inviting, is for this aspect of trans womanhood to be fully acknowledged, not as usurping the role of ‘real’ women, but as a tragedy every bit as real as for any infertile woman wanting to conceive. We may have the comfort of having our own genetic offspring, but this an amelioration, not proof that we are not real women.