This Father’s Day weekend, we’re celebrating all kinds of dads. I interviewed Nick North, a Canadian dad of five, to learn a little more about his experiences navigating fatherhood as a transgender man. The following are just a few of the many topics Nick and I touched on.
Nick North and his wife have five kids ranging in ages from four to thirteen. Nick gave birth to four of these children, starting his transition in his thirties after having gotten divorced from his ex-husband (the children’s other dad). After exploring his identity with his wife, he decided to come out to his children before starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Living in a small town in rural Alberta with a population that is nearly forty percent Mormon and where the majority of fathers work in the oil fields, the journey has been an interesting and complex one. Knowing when it’s safe to come out or who it’s safe to come out to is never easy, but for Nick’s family it all centers around being comfortable in who they are and using their privilege to benefit those others who may come after them. “I am a middle-class white guy and if anyone can be out in my small town, it’s me,” Nick said, “and so I feel like by doing that it gives this opportunity for people to be like, ‘oh, that’s not so scary’ and then the next person can come along and have that experience too.”
Coming Out to the Kids
As a transgender parent, coming out is always something you have to decide on how to approach when it comes to your children. In Nick’s case, all of his children had known him as “Mom” for their entire lives up until the point where he and his wife brought the family together for a night of homemade pizza making. They had talked together and to therapists, planning out exactly how they were going to go about things and what they should be prepared for. The pizza idea came from a therapist suggesting that everyone be doing something with their hands while the conversation took place. For this family, it was a perfect focus tool as well as distraction. As for timing, Nick knew that he wanted to come out to his children before beginning HRT, saying, “I wanted them to be the first people that knew. I wanted them to be on the inside of things. I wanted them to feel like they were part of the discussion, that they had a voice. Not a choice, but a voice.” When his wife began the conversation, she said, “you know how Mom is often more like a dad? It’s because Mom doesn’t really feel like a girl, Mom’s a boy on the inside.” All the kids were interested but not altogether bothered, engrossed in their pizza making.
“It was just about them getting to decide the relationship they have with me”
But like children do with any sort of new information, they had questions. When asked what they should call him, Nick answered, “whatever you want to call me”. He added, “it wasn’t about them losing someone and it wasn’t about them having someone taken away from them. It was just about them getting to decide the relationship they have with me”. However, the biggest question was “do you think that you could grow a beard to stroke?” Many of us hope the answer will be yes. There was also a difference in questions asked by age, with their oldest daughter asking “why did you wait so long?” Nick’s simple answer was, “I was scared.” His youngest son asked later, in a somewhat hushed way, “will you get to grow a penis?” It’s these types of questions that you should be ready for before coming out to your children, and realize that kids can often be more direct than the rest of us. Honesty, humility, and directness seemed to be the best approach. The final question, however, was “can we eat the pepperoni now?”
‘You’d be a beautiful mommy’
Even though it might seem like you only have to come out one time to your children, this might not be the case. Nick’s daughter, now five but who was three when the above story occurred, had only ever really had memories of him being known as Dad. So when the family was watching the rough cut of their new documentary (out soon, I know you’re curious), and the scenes about going in to top surgery came on, she gasped and said, “Dad! Are you going to become a woman?” She had thought all of the suspense of this scene was that Nick was going to transition in a different direction than he already had been. But this didn’t seem to phase her much at all, apart from the initial shock. Nick remembers, “then she looked at me and said, ‘You’d be a beautiful mommy’ and I was just like ‘thanks, kiddo.’” So, if anyone tells you that younger children won’t understand, they might be right, but definitely not in the way that they’re thinking.
Talking About Gender: The Other Adults in Children’s Lives
Knowing that everyone sees and experiences gender differently, but with a heavy influence from the surrounding culture, is important when parenting, particularly as a person of trans* experience. If you ask Nick, it’s a continual process of determining how and when to come out to certain people in certain situations, like to the other parents at the BMX club. “Probably the hardest thing about being a trans* dad is that me being trans*, and me choosing to be openly trans* I think is the more important thing, does affect my children’s lives.” When the kids make new friends, it’s always the start of a new process, a new coming out. But most importantly, it’s about being a continually safe and accepting place for everyone. Nick’s family is very open about being inclusive of all LGBTQ+ identities, including their own. Though telling people who they are isn’t always easy, and Nick has the advantage of being able to “go stealth” if he chooses, being out and open about his identity is an important step in showing his kids that there is nothing to be ashamed of in being an LGBTQ+ person. Given his children’s ages, Nick decided being out was something he needed to do as a parent. “I wasn’t willing to say, ‘I believe that who I am should be kept a secret because I’m embarrassed of it.’ And so I felt like, I wasn’t willing to ask them to lie or to keep a secret about me and so I had to choose to be just out.” Though Nick doesn’t believe that “everyone’s […] necessarily entitled to all my stories”, coming out to the adults in his children’s lives just makes more space for LGBTQ+ acceptance, even when it pushes the boundaries set by a patriarchal community.
Talking About Gender: The Kids Themselves
When talking about gender with kids, many trans* parents find themselves in a bit of a bind. The approach Nick and his wife use is one that a therapist friend of their described as the “gender puzzle piece”. Everyone has a set of pieces that make up who they are, and as children it is important to be given the space to explore and learn about every single one, even if it goes back to exactly where it started out in the beginning. “We try really hard to let them be their genders,” Nick emphasized, “to not do that thing where we’re like pushing them to get rid of their gender, or like, not conform. We let them be who they are and like what they like while also giving them options to like other things.” However, this does not mean that they let their children just rest easily only improving on what they are already good at. In order to give them a more rounded set of skills, chores are delegated based on what a child needs to improve on most. It essentially comes down to this: “Our big theory is like, let them try and experiment as much as possible. Build them up as much as possible.” By giving their children not only space, but encouragement, Nick and his wife let their children be the makers of their own identities. However, that doesn’t take away from that special LGBTQ+ gift of knowing how to see a budding identity in others. “So, we have five kids so statistically speaking at least one of them will be queer if we’re just looking at numbers. I look at them and I’m like ‘okay, at least two of you are on the LGBTQ+, let’s see, let’s see which letters we’re gonna be’.” Whatever their children’s identities, it’s clear they will have love and support in finding them.
The Benefits of Having a Trans* Parent
It’s not hard to see the benefits of having a transgender parent. In Nick’s opinion, “I think actually my kids have benefitted so much from it[…]Honestly, I think our kids are bigger and better and braver because of it.” Having a different experience from most children has given Nick’s kids a way to have “their eyes are opened to a whole new way of being in the world”, as well as a level of empathy that seems harder and harder to come by. Instead of just being told that they can be whoever they want to be, kids of trans* parents can physically see this idea as a concrete reality. This isn’t just because of seeing their parent be happy with a positive change they’ve made in their own life, it’s also due to being a part of the vibrant LGBTQ+ community as a child. “They’re just in this whole new queer community where they get to see all these people making their dreams a reality. Like, they have this concept that like you can just go out and make things, you can go out and be things, you can go out and create art, you can dance and you can be unashamedly you and people will celebrate it.” By seeing others be exactly who they want to be, and exactly who they are, Nick’s children not only are more understanding of themselves, but of the world around them.
Going from “Mom” to “Dad”: Changes in Public Perception
It’s no secret to anyone of trans* experience that things really are different when the world perceives you as one binary gender instead of the other. This is particularly true in parenting. Nick talked about how, now that he’s seen as the kids’ dad by everyone, mothers that once would have judged him for not parenting his children in a very specific way now praise him for showing up at all. “I could show up on crack and they’d be like ‘well, you’re here! This is amazing.’ And so I get a lot of credit for things I shouldn’t get credit for.” He also said he doesn’t really get noticed by men at all for these sorts of things, but women find it extremely attractive. Essentially, it all comes down to toxic masculinity. Men and boys are stereotyped in ways that affect everyone, and these things are rarely talked about or challenged. Being a feminist, Nick feels like we should start talking about these differences, about the hatred and competition between mothers for other mothers, and about our biases surrounding fatherhood. However, he also has “mansplained childbirth to someone”. Being a dad, though he has given birth to four children, has somewhat taken away his space to talk about things like the hardest parts of delivery or being pregnant in rooms that are spaces dominated by women.
“as trans* guys[…]we get the opportunity to rewrite what fatherhood gets to look like.”
Juggling this change can be lonely, and make one feel invisible at times. “It does feel like a little bit of my experience has been taken from me,” he added. However, he also said, “It’s a tradeoff, I think, and it’s one that I make happily.” The benefits of seeing “both sides of the gender coin”? “I think one of the cool things that we have as trans* guys is that we get the opportunity to rewrite what fatherhood gets to look like.” Nick said. He later added, “We sort of get to break all those barriers and show them that it can be done differently, it doesn’t have to be just this one way. And, I think often actually we can show dads that they’re missing out on the very best part of their kids. And we can show moms to stop hogging the very best part of their kids from their spouses.”
Navigating Father’s Day
With so many dads around, one would think it might be difficult to navigate Father’s Day. However, Nick and his ex-husband are still good friends, making things a little easier (except when they wear the same outfit to the kid’s Christmas concert). During his first Father’s Day as an openly identifying dad, Nick had the kids and invited his ex-husband over to celebrate with them and have a barbecue. Presents were exchanged and love was shared all around, even though it was admittedly hard for his ex-husband to share the spotlight at first. “It was hard for him,” Nick shared, “but he was just always his best self and even when it was hard he just sucked it up because it was like, for the kids.” Nick and his wife also have a tradition for holidays where, instead of giving everyone cards, they write letters to one another in a large, leather journal. Everyone writes a letter to the other person or people during holidays, birthdays, mother’s and father’s day. Apart from that? It’s just all the dads making daddy jokes and spending time with their kids.
Though Nick certainly has a lot of wisdom he’s willing to offer, the biggest piece seemed to be that being honest, or “kind and blunt” as Nick and his wife would say, is the best thing you can be. Whether that’s with yourself or with the people you love, honesty saves you and others from “a ton of heartache and sorrow and hardship”. Even when you think your silence is protecting others, most of the time it isn’t. Also, “give your people the benefit of the doubt”. In trusting others, you give them the opportunity to be their best selves. “[Expect] the best out of people and you’ll actually be surprised. When you expect the worst out of people’s responses, they sort of show up as their worst selves. And it’s because they’re offended that you didn’t tell them and you expected them to be shitty.” If they aren’t on board, or if they don’t show their best side, Nick wants you to know “it’s not about you.” Most of the time, it’s not even truly malicious. The people who love you will show up in the ways they know how, and giving them the opportunity to do so gives them the space to be their best. Apart from that? “[T]ell the whole truth”. You will definitely thank yourself for it.
Want to see more?
Then check out Nick on Instagram (@epicdanger), or at www.nicknorth.co. You might see him in future articles as well! A big thanks to Nick for taking the time to chat with me, and wishing all the trans* dads out there a happy Father’s Day.