In primary school my teacher asked me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be just like my mum", I said, "with a big round belly full of babies. I want to be a mum.”
My teacher smiled, laughed and replied: “You wouldn't want that.”
When I tell people that my one absolute sadness, my one absolute pain, is not being a mother, they variously palm me off with, "you don't know how lucky you are to not be", "I wish someone would take mine!" and the most common one, "children are such a worry, that's why you look young!"
Lucky me eh?
I think children can be a headache and I know that you probably never stop worrying about them, and I think they might age you, and I know you may sometimes regret them – just occasionally. But I'll never really know any of this because I'm not a mother. I genuinely believe it was something I was born to be, but circumstance, the times I have lived through, and my own lack of courage – that I could do this on my own by adopting as an HIV positive trans woman – have all meant that I am not a mother, not a parent.
Strangely, as I've grown older, the pain hasn't dimmed. I expected it would. I expected that having a seemingly comfortable life would be enough. I thought I'd become more absorbed in books, in words, in flowers, trees, art, walks, my dogs, my work. But it isn't enough. The pain grows. I know that this might seem like a comfortable, faintly middle class pain and in many ways I should just put up and perhaps allow only silent reflection. But as I write this down, I feel like I'm honouring something that has taken up a vast part of my life – and yet leaves me feeling empty.
I got into trouble for selling methadone and my first thought was 'what would my children think of me?' And then, 'I'll never be able to adopt now'.
I remember the shame in my school when a girl who was about 13 or 14 got pregnant. It swept through the school like a warm summer breeze; the gossip, the horror. I was in a Social and Economic History Lesson when I found out and I felt numb. I felt tears in my eyes. I stared at the blackboard and I knew that her world was the world I wanted; I wanted to swap, to have her shame and to have her belly.
I didn't really want to teach. I wanted to be a mother and do homework with my kids.
I remember my careers advice teacher asking me what I wanted to do when I left school. Familiar words came into my mind: 'be a mum' but they came out jumbled. I said something along the lines of:
"What do you think I should do?"
She said, "Maybe something in Art and Design?"
My career has been a collection of lucky stumbles. If I'm honest, up until teaching, I never had any connection to anything I did; art, office work, plants, trees, collecting, styling, records, delivering, selling. I always felt utterly detached.
Teaching connected me back to my desire to be a parent. I adored it but it made me sad. Because I didn't really want to teach. I wanted to be a mother and do homework with my kids.
I decided I had to transition sitting in the garden of the Oakland museum of Art in California. I was there on a break visiting friends.
Looking up through a Carl Andre steel sculpture painted buttercup yellow to a radiant blue sky beyond and then down the sharp yellow lines to a row of perfectly grown lilac-purple agapanthus swaying imperceptibly and then down their acid green stems to a lawn edged in steel. Perfect lines, perfect edges held tight, borders defined. I sobbed as I felt like everything about me was so undefined, so imperfect. I was a teacher who dreaded school every day because I wanted the simplicity of parenthood but was now a senior leader in a very large school, wearing men's clothes. I knew that all the years of wanting a vagina, a womb, of wanting to have the right body and wanting to be seen as me, the real me, had finally come to a head.
I wanted to prepare lunch boxes. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to be sturdy like the Carl Andre piece. I wanted to become me. I wanted me to be kissed and loved.
My life changed there.
I only wish I'd had that moment years sooner and somehow found a way to become a mother. Friends who are my age are now delighting in grandchildren, and friends who are younger are proudly posting about children moving on from primary to secondary school. I want to not feel jealous. I want to not feel sad, I want to be in their moment and feel joy because children are joyous.
But I don't. I feel like I want to hide away from their joy. To hide away from others whose lives change, whose lives are generationally linked through love to others whom they laugh with, whom they despair with and whom they plan with.
My wonderful mother – who is the mother I'd love to be (huge hearted) – told me that I could still foster. I think she truly knows the kind of mother I could have been.
"I'm way too old mum and I'm trans and HIV positive. I'm not sure anyone would let me foster, would they?"
"They'd be stupid not to." She replied.
As trans women, it seems we are only allowed to talk about certain things: being born in a 'body wrongly perceived', but not about missing a womb and the loss of not being a mother.
Maybe she's right. Maybe I could still foster, or adopt. I know that I'd make a great mother – I did as a primary teacher. I knew what my class needed, not just in terms of learning but boundaries, support, care. I adored my pupils. I couldn't wait for their energy to blast into the room in the morning, their brilliant minds eating up new bits of the world they were first encountering.
Children are brilliant. I adore the way they make leaps where you imagine there were tiny steps and am humbled by the things they find enlightening. I feel hugely protective about the stuff they find daunting. I would have loved to have gone through that with children of my own. Watching children develop, grow and change is a vital part of life that I've missed. I know that people could say that it's different when they're yours "twenty-four seven", but I dream of negotiating these spaces with my children. I feel like I've watched them age with me; my absent brood.
Should I try and foster? Adopt? I need to sit with those words on the page for a time. In many ways HIV took away the idea that it could ever happen. Is it possible, could it be possible now?
As trans women, it seems we are only allowed to talk about certain things, like being born in a 'body wrongly perceived', but not about missing a womb and the loss of not being a mother. We can talk about wanting a vagina, but not about the intimacy of tender sex.
When kids express a desire to transition at 8 or 10 or 14, I say let them, support them. One of them or many of them have dreams that need realising: to become an explorer, a teacher, an artist, a husband, a father, or like me, to become a mother.