Jessica Walton, 31, Pakenham, Vic
Flicking through photo albums of my childhood, I smiled at the memories of being read picture books. With my first baby on the way, I couldn’t wait to share those moments with my own kids. But I felt a pang of worry too. I couldn’t help but notice all the families in my favourite reads featured a traditional mum and dad.
Are there any kids books with transgender characters? I wondered. It was a subject very close to my heart. That’s because five years earlier, my dad, 55, told me he was transgender.
‘From a very young age, I wanted to be female,’ Dad said. ‘I’ve always known I’m a girl on the inside.’ It was a complete surprise to me. Growing up I had the happiest of childhoods. Dad was always laughing and joking. It wasn’t unusual for me and my three siblings to come home from school to discover he’d built an assault course in the garden.
Then when I was nine, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer – in my left leg. Doctors said the best option was to have it amputated above the knee. While it put stress on my family, Dad and my mum Tess, 55, did an amazing job shielding me from the trauma.
At 16, I told my parents I was bisexual, but it didn’t matter to them. ‘We support you unconditionally,’ they said. But despite being part of the LGBTQI community for so long, I never suspected Dad was really a woman. Knowing how hard it was to confess your true feelings, I hugged Dad. ‘I love you no matter what,’ I said.
From then on, we started to use female pronouns for Dad, using ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘her’ instead of ‘him’. I carried on calling her ‘Dad’ though. After so many years of calling her that, it felt more like a term of endearment rather than a gender label. Dad chose the name Tina and started dressing in feminine clothes. Sadly, the changes meant the end of my parents’ 30-year marriage, but they remained close friends. With the help of hormone replacement therapy, Dad began to look and sound like a woman.
I had moments when I was afraid I’d lose the dad I’d always known. But we had a lifetime of loving memories together that couldn’t be erased. Dad was thrilled when I told her my wife Charlotte, 34, and I were pregnant with the help of a sperm donor. Charlotte and I excitedly set about finding books featuring same sex couples. But when our son, Errol, arrived in March 2014, I still couldn’t find any books to help me explain to him why Dad – his grandma – was a woman.
‘If I can’t find one, then I’ll write it myself!’ I declared.
Errol was obsessed with cuddly toys, so I decided the main character would be a teddy who was labelled a boy but knew he was a girl. Putting my heart and soul into creating it, the words poured out of me.
Introducing Teddy told the story of a boy named Errol who plays with Thomas the teddy, but suddenly Thomas feels sad. When Errol asks why, Thomas says it’s because he’s really a girl and wants to be called Tilly. Errol says he loves his teddy no matter what.
After I’d written the first draft, I sent it to Dad. My hands were shaking with nerves. What if Dad hates it? I feared. I needn’t have worried. ‘I love it!’ Dad replied.
After that, Charlotte and I found a fantastic illustrator, Dougal MacPherson, to help. Knowing I’d want a few copies for myself and might sell a few to friends, I decided to pay for a print run. But the costs mounted to $10,000, so I started a Kickstarter campaign asking for donations in return for one of the books once it was printed. Within six days I’d raised $20,000! Then I got a call from Bloomsbury, who wanted to publish the book. It felt like a dream!
Dad was thrilled too. In May, Introducing Teddy was released in Australia and it’s also been translated into nine languages to be sold worldwide. My boy Errol is now two and Charlotte is due to give birth to our second bub soon.
Errol still loves being read Introducing Teddy too. I’m thrilled that he understands his Grandma Tina is a woman, even though she’s also my dad. While my family might not be conventional, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
We’re proof that anyone can have a storybook ending!
As told to Riah Matthews.
Originally published in that's life! Issue 34, 2016.