Photo: Rhys Harper
The following is excerpted from How We Do Family by Trystan Reese © 2021 by Trystan Reese. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment, LLC.
We had started dropping hints to the kids that we wanted to have a baby.
Hailey was six when we first started talking to her about being a big sister at some point. One night, when I was tucking her in, she asked if I “really, actually” wanted to have a baby. I tried to sound nonchalant and dismissed the question with a breezy “Oh, I don’t know, honey. Maybe!” But she pressed on. “No, Daddy, you do know,” she declared. “Yes or no, do you want to have a baby?” I sighed and sat down on the bed. “Yes, honey. I do want to have a baby.” She promptly burst into tears. “But you already have a baby. And it’s me!”
Over time, though, both kids softened to the idea. We even started brainstorming baby names together. Lucas still wasn’t excited, per se, but he wasn’t showing as much blatant distress as Hailey had during that first conversation. In fact, Hailey had started to proactively ask about when a baby might come. She already knew many men and non-binary people who had given birth, so the idea of me getting pregnant wasn’t that new or different to her.
After the first burst of joy and excitement, I settled into pregnant life. We quietly went to doctor’s visits and ultrasounds, and I managed the first-trimester nausea without the kids catching on. We weren’t sure that this pregnancy would take, so I only told my very closest friends and my trans pregnancy community on Facebook. We proceeded with caution, having learned that, for us, pregnancy loss would be better handled with a small group of people. The first few months were blissfully uneventful. When I hit week 13 (aka the second trimester), we decided it was time to officially tell the kids.
We planned a nice family dinner at home. Biff bought sparkling cider and I made a copy of the ultrasound photo to show them. We thought through how we would approach the situation, discussing it as an opportunity to be a big sister, for Hailey, and an opportunity to be given more freedom and independence, for Lucas. The day of our announcement came, and we all sat down to one of the kids’ favourite dishes. As we poured the cider into plastic champagne flutes, an excited Hailey (who loves anything sweet) slowly narrowed her eyes in suspicion.
“Wait a minute,” she said, turning her head to face Biff. “What are we celebrating?” Biff and I made eye contact and sat down, reaching across the table to grasp each of our children’s hands in our own. Biff began.
“Well—Hailey, Lucas . . . we wanted to let you guys know that—” He paused for dramatic effect as I pulled out the ultrasound photo. “We’re having a baby!” he exclaimed as I showed them both the photo. We had expected Hailey to react badly, given her previous animosity toward the whole baby idea. But much to our surprise, she jumped out of her chair with joy, screaming at the top of her lungs. “I’m going to be a big sister! I’m going to be a big sister! Where will it sleep? Can I choose the name? When will I be old enough to babysit?”
Lucas rolled his eyes and slumped in his chair. “Great. A loud, screaming baby. My dad is pregnant. Awesome.”
We tried to hold space for both reactions, appreciating Hailey for her excitement but reminding her that Lucas doesn’t like loud noises, so she needed to control her excitement. And we told Lucas that we would do the best job we could at keeping the baby from crying too much, but that babies cry when they need something so yes, the baby would cry on occasion, maybe even often, depending on its personality.
“And we know that it’s not every day that a man gets pregnant, so we will leave it up to you to decide if and when you tell your friends, okay?” Lucas immediately began to tell us that he wanted us to keep it a secret entirely, requesting that he be able to tell his friends that the baby is his cousin or a baby we were babysitting. Biff and I glanced at each other in frustration. We had known that this wouldn’t be easy, but hadn’t anticipated that Lucas would be so distraught that he would ask us to lie about the whole process. Biff took over.
“Lucas, no. We will not be dishonest about who this baby is. Everyone will know that the baby is your little sibling. That will be totally clear. You can’t ask us to lie, because it doesn’t make sense. And Lucas, you know that all your friends already know we’re gay and we’re your dads, right? It’s very obvious, despite what you told Halil last week,” Biff said, referring to a conversation we’d had with Lucas’s teacher, during which she informed us that she’d overheard Lucas telling his friend Halil that Biff was his uncle and I was Biff’s roommate. I cut in, trying to keep things from escalating.
“Hey, okay. We can’t lie about the baby, but is there anything else we can do so you know you’re in charge of your part of this story?” He paused, thinking it over. Hailey tried to interrupt with her own ideas, as usual, but I put my hand out to stop her. “Let him think and decide for himself, Hailey.” Finally, he spoke, looking at Biff.
“Okay. What if, I don’t want Daddy to come to pick me up at school when he’s like, really, really pregnant.” Biff, exasperated, began to cut him off.
“Lucas, Daddy doesn’t even pick you up from school. I do! This is—” but I interjected again, speaking directly to Lucas. “That’s fine, buddy. I’m happy to either cover up when I pick you up from school or have Dada do it after I start really showing. Okay? Anything else?” I wanted to really hear him through this process, because so little is really in kids’ control, and feeling powerless is its own kind of hurt.
“Yes,” he stated, directing his gaze at Hailey. “I don’t want her telling all of my friends all of my business all the time!” He stood up and started breathing faster, his face reddening. “She always tells everyone all about our life, ‘Oh, I have two dads and a mom that couldn’t take care of me,’ when I want to keep some things private.”
At this point, Hailey stood up, too, saying, “I’m proud of my sweet daddies and my nice life and I can tell whoever I want about it!”
Biff and I looked at each other as the kids continued to yell about who was allowed to say what to whom at what time. Resigned, we clinked our glasses together and had a sip of cider.
“Well, I think it’s safe to say we ‘nailed it!’ with this announcement,” I said sarcastically over the din of fighting. Biff smirked as I turned back to the kids and asked them to settle down.
“Okay, okay, okay. Lucas, I hear you saying that you would like to decide when and how to tell your school friends, is that right?”
“Yes, and Hailey—” he tried to continue, pointing her way.
“Aah!” I stuck my hand out, finger up. The universal sign for “You’re done talking and I’m in charge here.” He quieted down. I turned to Hailey.
“And I hear you saying that you would like to be able to tell your school friends whenever and however you would like. Is that right?” Hailey, who had learned her lesson watching my interaction with Lucas, simply nodded her head once while glaring Lucas’s way.
“Okay!” I declared. “Lucas, you may tell your friends however you like. You may not lie about this baby or this pregnancy, but you don’t have to tell anyone if you don’t want to. You are also not allowed to tell Hailey that she can’t tell her friends or try to make her feel bad about telling her friends. Good?” I asked for his assent with a thumbs-up, which was still our universal sign for checking in. He nodded his head resolutely, thumbs-up. I turned to Hailey.
“Hailey!” I tried to mimic the same tone I had directed at Lucas, adding a little silliness to the conversation. “You may tell your friends however you like. You may not tell Lucas’s friends, or try to make him feel bad about wanting to keep parts of his life private. He has a right to do that. Good?” I raised my eyebrows and held my thumb up, and she giggled and put her thumb up in response.
“Good,” I stated firmly as I poured everyone more apple cider and we continued with dinner. The kids had more questions, most disturbingly the one in which Hailey asked how I got pregnant. I addressed that question by explaining: “Well, just like in the book, in order to make a baby, you need sperm, an egg, and a place for the baby to grow. Dada has the sperm and I have the egg. I also have the uterus, which is where the baby will grow.”
Her brow furrowed as she tried to understand. “So, Dada took his sperm and gave it to your egg?” she inquired. I nodded delicately. She looked at Biff for her next question: “Did it hurt, getting the sperm out of your body?” He shook his head no. Satisfied, she began asking what we were going to be having for dessert. Biff and I looked at each other and sighed. We could keep coasting by on the sex question, answering only and exactly what she asked and not being forced to talk about intercourse at all. Whew.
Hailey and Lucas both recognized that this would be a unique situation in their school community. None of their school friends’ parents were transgender; there weren’t any other gay dads at their school either. But we were fairly certain they wouldn’t experience any trouble from their peers once everyone found out.
“Today for show and tell, I brought in this! It looks blurry a little bit, that’s because it is, but it is called an ‘ultrasound.’ It’s a special kind of picture of a baby in a belly and it’s my little baby sister. Or brother. Or . . . sibling.” Yes, Hailey decided to bring an ultrasound into her classroom to tell her friends that she was going to be a big sister. Given that she was in second grade, we weren’t sure how it would go, but as a precocious child she was unlikely to listen to our warnings about transphobia anyway, so we gave her our blessing. When she came from school, I asked her how it went.
“Great!” she said. “Everyone is really excited for me and helped me think of some baby names, if you were planning to let me name the baby.”
“Um . . . we weren’t, but I would love to hear them.” She began to rattle off the names she and her classmates had come up with (“Chestnut, Walnut, pretty much anything with ‘nut’ is gonna be good.”) and I chuckled in disbelief at how charmed her life with us in Portland was. So many of the trans men I’d connected with online had shared stories of their kids being tormented by peers and even school staff when stories of their pregnancies had surfaced. I wasn’t sure if it was Hailey’s charm or our liberal school community, but I appreciated how well things were going for her. The next day, though, when she came home from school, she said that things had changed.
“Everyone was super mean today,” she shared. “Sara said that her dad told her that boys couldn’t have babies so I must be lying. And Xian says that his mom said I was wrong or didn’t understand what I was saying because only girls can have babies. I told them they were both wrong because my dad is transgender and used to be a girl and still has some parts of a girl’s body so he can have a baby, but they were all really confused.” I gave her a hug, but she shrugged me off. “Whatever, I’m still happy about a baby and it doesn’t matter what their parents say about us. Can I go play now?” I told her she could, and she skipped off to her room. A few minutes later I heard her talking to herself in different voices, pretending to be a dog and a cat playing astronauts (or something like that).
“Nothing fazes that kid,” Biff said that night when I recounted the story, shaking his head in disbelief. While very sensitive to others’ emotions, Hailey was perpetually unperturbed by the actions and options of others. She would cry at the drop of a hat, especially if she had experienced any measure of physical discomfort (stubbed toe, bumping into a chair, almost bumping into a chair) and if anyone else was upset or hurt, she would cry for them too. But when it came to her own emotional sensitivity, it just seemed to be ironclad. When the rare occasion of teasing came up, she would shrug her shoulders and dismiss it. Considering how deeply it hurt me when Lucas showed shame and embarrassment about having two dads as his parents, I was in awe of Hailey’s confidence and resilience. How do I get to be like that? I still haven’t figured it out.
The thought of a new baby continued to challenge Lucas’s sense of security. One day he was being particularly grumpy, stomping around the house and calling everyone names. Frustrated, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, vowing to respond constructively even though I did not feel at all interested in dealing with his stuff. I walked over to him and knelt down so we would be eye to eye.
“Lucas, what’s going on with you? Can you tell me why you’re upset?”
This tiny amount of compassion broke the attitude bubble and he burst into tears, his little-kid face suddenly red and wet. He struggled to catch his breath and we had to just stay there for a moment, with me modelling big, obvious in-and-out breathing until he mirrored me and steadied himself enough to speak.
“I’m just scared that you will love the baby more than you love me, because the baby came out of your body and I didn’t.” He collapsed into me and I held him for a long time. I had been expecting this concern and had practiced what I would say. Because this fear isn’t a silly one! It makes perfect sense that an adopted kid would have this worry, and I wanted to provide him with something he could hold on to and come back to later on, when his insecurities crept up again.
When he was ready, I pulled away from him and looked into his eyes. “Lucas . . . this baby, whoever it turns out to be, is totally random. I don’t know him! He’s just like, a mix of me and Dada. That’s it. But you are special. We knew you when you became our family. We chose you. Okay? We chose you.” I let him sit with that for a moment, and it did seem to speak to the part of him that was feeling most afraid. I reminded him that we could have this conversation again anytime he wanted to, and we shared a big hug. I took more deep breaths, hoping that we were doing the right thing.