A transgender dad tells us what it's like to show up at La Leche League
Learning how to breastfeed is one of the great struggles and joys of new parenthood. For Trevor MacDonald, a transgender man who was born a biological female, the challenges that cisgender moms face when nursing were even more pronounced, and he had the added burden of dealing with a society that remains largely in the dark when it comes to transgender people and their role as parents and providers.
Where's the Mother?: Stories from a Transgender Dad is MacDonald's new poignant, honest and really funny memoir about his experiences as a trans man giving birth, raising two children and breastfeeding after he began taking hormones to transition from female to male.
The 31-year-old Winnipeg native, who is now raising an 18-month-old and 5-year-old with his husband, Ian, describes in thoughtful detail the internal conflict he faced when confronting the reality that the same female body parts with which he felt such a disconnect since childhood would now create and produce the people he loves most in the world and could help nurture them with the healthiest first food of their lives.
Before he became pregnant with their first child, MacDonald began taking hormones to develop more masculine features and traits and underwent a complex and painful procedure called top surgery to have his breasts removed ("I had my breasts removed because I hated them," he says point blank in the book). His decision to alter his physical identity did not dissuade him from wanting to nurse, an informed choice he made based on research. And despite his identification as a man, he experienced an intense emotional response to breastfeeding — particularly when he realized he wasn't producing enough milk for his baby. If ever there was proof that the desire to nurture a child is neither a female nor male trait, MacDonald's memoir is Exhibit A.
“I believe parents strive to do whatever they can for their infants, so breastfeeding and other early decisions — birth choices, for example — can have a lot of intensity attached to them,” MacDonald tells SheKnows. “Furthermore, powerful hormones are involved in both birth and breastfeeding. The hormone oxytocin usually causes nursing to feel wonderful for both parent and baby — that is, when nursing is going well.”
MacDonald did a lot of reading during his first pregnancy about the risks of artificial milk and the normalcy of human milk, and he learned about nursing as a way of parenting. “I think that was what really sold me on chestfeeding, even more than the nutrition,” he says. “Once my baby was born and I observed his strong rooting behavior — mouthing around to find my chest and latch on — I realized that nursing could fulfill a basic emotional need for him.”
It often takes a village of helpers to aid a mom in successfully nursing her child, so what happens when a transgender man attempts to break down barriers about gender and sex and gain access to the same support? MacDonald attended his first La Leche League meeting near the end of his first pregnancy, and his fears and hopes about nursing were met with kindness and understanding.
"I was welcomed warmly at a La Leche League meeting," MacDonald says. "It made a huge difference to me to get to see parents nursing their babies. It made me feel like I could do that too and also that I knew where to go for help if I needed it. It’s hard to describe, but there is just something special about finding in-person support and a community of like-minded parents. It’s not the same as reading guidebooks or chatting with others on Facebook, although those things can be helpful too."
If you've read up until this point and are thinking, here we go, another militant reaction to the "breast is best" debate and one that will make the many women and transgender men who can't breastfeed feel excluded, rest assured — the crux of MacDonald's story is more like this:
"Ian once saw a bumper sticker that read, 'My baby is exclusively breast fed. Not one drop of formula!' That is how the breast milk versus formula debate gets inflamed and ugly, isn't it? 'Breast is best,' but if it isn't available, there are alternatives. That is the miracle of modern living."
MacDonald avoided the mommy wars by keeping his focus on making the right decision for his child and family, staying off of Facebook and getting his information from books and La Leche League meetings. He doesn't promote slamming anyone for their parenting choices, but would rather we try to understand why more support and better examples of the normalcy of breastfeeding are desperately needed.
"Western culture has a history of denigrating breastfeeding and promoting bottles and artificial milk," MacDonald says. "We are beginning to recover from that now, but I believe that those dark decades have left a permanent mark on our collective psyche. We have a lack of communal knowledge about breastfeeding, since many of our parents and grandparents viewed nursing as a poor choice. The result is that both breastfeeding and bottle-feeding parents can feel attacked by others at times."
It's impossible to interview MacDonald and not want to ask his feelings about the current anti-LGBT bathroom laws that are sweeping our nation like a hellish inferno. When read with an open mind, his memoir has the power to relay the most important lesson of all: We all want the same things in life — to love and to be loved and accepted in return. When he reveals that he gave up music as a teen because his violin teacher shamed him for not wanting to look like a sexy girl, your heart might break at the thought that one intolerant voice prohibited another human being from living up to his fullest potential. And when MacDonald says he felt like a fraud using a women's restroom, the full weight of a potential law that may seem trivial to a lot of people is felt.
"I think when cisgender — meaning not trans — people are trying to relate to trans people, they often imagine the scenario backwards," MacDonald says. "They try to imagine what it would be like to transition to the opposite gender. So a woman tries to imagine herself as a man, and since she doesn’t feel like one, it makes no sense to her. If you’re a woman, try instead to imagine being told that you must use men’s bathrooms and wear men’s clothing, that you can’t wear dresses or makeup anymore — yet you feel like, and you are, as always, a woman. Transitioning may be less about changing from one gender to another than it is about being able to express the gender you’ve always known to be yours."
A mistake I feel we make as a society is thinking about transgender people in terms of what they're missing out on when they fail to associate with their birth gender. But time and time again, MacDonald provides astute examples in his book of behaviors and observations he noticed in both men and women during his transition, reminding us that many transgender people may possess a unique gift of empathy and compassion as they become more fully aware of certain aspects of both genders — and that should be celebrated.
"The greatest surprise for me has been the assumption that men in general are not competent to care for young babies," MacDonald says. "People asked me this question, 'Where’s the mother?' so often that it became the title of my book. They didn’t even necessarily know that I was trans and gay; if someone saw me on my own with my young baby, they almost always asked where the mom was, frequently with implied judgment or suspicion. Sometimes I received lavish praise simply for holding my young baby, the assumption being that this is a woman’s job, and that it is wonderful that I was 'giving her a break' or 'babysitting' for her. I think this attitude places an unfair burden on women in terms of expectations around child care, and it also is disparaging of men who are involved in parenting."
When it comes to his own family, MacDonald says he and Ian don't think in terms of traditional, gendered or new parenting roles in their household.
"We just try to get done whatever needs doing while keeping everyone happy," he says. "We don’t consider whether the tasks we’re doing are conventionally masculine or feminine ones. I really enjoy the balance that we have, where my partner and I both participate in running the household and hobby farm, doing child care and working. There’s a lot of give-and-take, so that if one of us is particularly busy with work commitments, the other is able to pick up more of the rest, and vice versa."
Although his children are still young, MacDonald is already open with them about being transgender and says he is starting to explain the discrimination he and others face.
“I think we are currently seeing an increase, rather than a decrease, in backlash and violence against transgender people due to the so-called ‘bathroom bills’ in the U.S.,” he says. “As we gain more visibility in Western culture, there are some people who are fighting even harder against tolerance and inclusivity. I think it is particularly difficult for transgender youth who are financially and emotionally dependent on the adults in their lives. We have high rates of homelessness and suicide in the transgender community as a result of anti-trans oppression. Legal protections against discrimination, particularly in health care, housing and employment, are important, as well as continuing education about gender diversity.”
MacDonald is more fortunate than most because he has the support of family and friends. His advice to anyone who is transitioning is to know they are not alone, no matter how it may feel at times.
"Even if the only resources you can find are online, that is a great start," he says. "Finding in-person support necessitates coming out to someone, which can be really difficult at first. However, many communities now have LGBT resource groups that respect individual privacy. If you can get to one of those, it can be a true safe haven."
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