Breastfeeding as a trans dad: “A baby doesn’t know what your pronouns are”

June 14, 2017

Adapted from the original piece by Ashifa Kassam, published in The Guardian, June 20, 2016. Read the article here. All photographs by Trevor MacDonald.

‘There is this assumption that goes along with the “born in the wrong body” narrative, that if you are a trans guy you would want a hysterectomy and never use your body to carry a pregnancy.’

It was in an idyllic Canadian mountain town, surrounded by jagged, imposing peaks, that the conflicting facets of Trevor MacDonald’s identity came crashing together.

MacDonald, soft-spoken and sporting a wispy goatee, was breastfeeding his first child at the time. He and his partner had splashed on a lavish dinner, baby in tow. When his son began fussing, MacDonald eyed the waitstaff and patrons wandering about in formal attire and thought it best to head to the restroom.

It was there, holding his fussing son, that he was struck by the incongruity of nursing a child in a men’s bathroom. “It was this weird scenario,” says MacDonald, who was born female and began transitioning some eight years ago. “I’ve felt pressured to nurse in bathrooms because of the supposed lewdness of feeding a baby from my body. I’m also told that my body and gender don’t fit into the neatly divided men’s and women’s restrooms of western society. People like me are told to keep out.”

Trevor MacDonald began transitioning eight years ago.

While south of the border the controversial “bathroom bill” stirs up a political firestorm, in Canada MacDonald is seeking to broaden the conversation, sharing his own experience as a transgender man who carried two babies to term and breastfed both of them. His recently published memoir, Where’s the Mother: Stories of a Transgender Dad, aims to shed light on gender diversity in parents through his story of being both male and pregnant.

MacDonald points to the often trotted out narrative of a transgender person as someone who was born in the wrong body. “Our stories are so much more diverse than that one phrase,” the 31-year-old says over coffee during a recent trip to Toronto for book readings. “When someone who has only seen that narrative hears about a trans person becoming pregnant, they think, well that doesn’t make any sense. If it’s the wrong body, why are you doing this with your body? But it’s so much more nuanced than that.”

MacDonald, who lives in rural Manitoba, began transitioning in his early 20s, legally changing his name and taking testosterone. About a year later, he had chest surgery.

As his body fell in line with his gender identity, the stress that had dogged him for much of his life melted away. His relationship with his partner blossomed and a happier, more confident MacDonald began contemplating starting a family for the first time ever.

The pair briefly considered adoption, but worried that the odds would be stacked against them as a transgender man and a gay man. They soon realised that there was a simpler path: as MacDonald had never felt the need to have a hysterectomy, the pair had the anatomy needed to make a baby.

‘Throughout the pregnancy, I was able to continue presenting as male.’

MacDonald stopped taking testosterone in order to begin trying to conceive. After he became pregnant, the effects of the hormone endured, leaving him with facial hair and a low voice. “Throughout the pregnancy, I was able to continue presenting as male,” he says.

The couple had – to the best of their abilities – timed the pregnancy so it would coincide with the Canadian winter, leaving MacDonald wrapped in figure-concealing coats and sweaters just as his pregnancy was beginning to show. Many who spotted his changing figure simply assumed he had gained weight, he says with a smile. “Our next door neighbours did not know that that there had been a pregnancy until we came by with the baby.”

Some 12 weeks into the pregnancy, he shared the news with his co-workers. “There were people who immediately began calling me ‘mom’ and ‘she,’” says MacDonald. One person told him simply: “If you’re giving birth, you’re a mother.”

MacDonald disagrees. While many wouldn’t hesitate to describe childbearing as a female experience, carrying a baby never felt gendered to him.

To his delight, neither did breastfeeding. Despite his chest surgery, he was able to breastfeed – or chestfeed – both of his children, now aged five and 18 months, using a combination of his own milk and donated milk from a community that ranged from a military family to Mormons. “I was worried that breastfeeding might feel gendered to me – I thought, am I going to be able to do that, or am I going to experience a lot of gender dysphoria?”

MacDonald became an ardent fan of breastfeeding, leaving him with mixed emotions about his chest surgery. While the surgery had helped propel him to a place where he felt comfortable in his own skin, it now hindered his ability to feed his children.

He turned to a blog to document his travails of breastfeeding as a trans male. As he penned posts that ranged from achingly vulnerable to deeply thought-provoking, MacDonald became the public voice of a conversation long hidden in the shadows.

He soon found himself inundated with questions from around the world; from transgender people eager to start their own family to healthcare workers keen on providing better care for transgender people. Wary of generalising too much from his own experience, MacDonald began working with a research team to design and produce a series of research papers, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, that aim to draw parallels among the experiences of pregnancy, birth and infant feeding of 22 transgender men from around the world.

The groundbreaking research has already revealed some interesting findings, he says. Of the nine men in the study who had had chest surgery prior to becoming pregnant, not one had raised the possibility of breastfeeding with their surgeons beforehand. “There is this assumption that goes along with the ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative, that if you are a trans guy you would want a hysterectomy and never use your body to carry a pregnancy,” says MacDonald.

One participant in the study said he had actively withheld his desire to have children from his surgeon, worried that any questions about breastfeeding would hamper his chances of obtaining the surgery.

While the diapers, bottles and sleepless nights of parenthood are universal – “a baby doesn’t know what your pronouns are,” he says – the study also seeks to highlight the additional barriers transgender parents often face in navigating healthcare systems unfamiliar with their needs.

MacDonald points to one night during his second pregnancy as an example. After consulting with his midwife about some worrying symptoms, he was instructed to head to the obstetrics unit at the nearest hospital.

When he arrived at the downtown hospital, the front doors were already locked for the night. The security guards eyed MacDonald’s beard warily, demanding to know why a man needed immediate access to the obstetrics unit. “I had to come out to them as transgender and explain a lot of my backstory in the middle of a hallway alongside other people who were also trying to get past the security desk,” he says. “That didn’t feel particularly safe.”

It’s those kind of stories he hopes to bring into focus by sharing his own experiences and with his research project. As the push for transgender rights in the US stagnates in the grasp of a polarising debate on bathrooms – “it’s so sad; this is a population that is already incredibly vulnerable to suicide,” he says – he believes the the need to widen the parameters of the discussion elsewhere is vital.

Read Trevor’s blog Milk Junkies here

Get more information and resources for trans parents and breast/chest-feeding advocacy here