Love Prevails

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What makes for a happy family, even in trying circumstances?

“When you meet someone that you’re so much in love with, you think, I’ll absorb this and do what needs to be done.”

If someone had told Michelle Trudo at the beginning of this journey more than 11 years ago that one day she’d be fighting to preserve her family as a unit, she would have laughed. This designer, teacher and mother of three can take her hits and keep on going. With the emotionally wrenching aspects of all that has happened, Trudo is listening to her instincts, which tell her to do everything she can to keep her family together.

The tattoos on Trudo ’s legs and arms are powerful symbols of her love for her family and its struggles. One is a cute cat with a baby kitten in its belly, representing her former partner and B.B.T., the child she birthed. Another is a small bird with “E.B.T.” inscribed underneath, since he was underweight at birth. A third is a pink lotus, which is the national flower of Vietnam, for J.B.T., who was adopted from that country. A fourth is the phrase “I love you so much” in black script on the inside of her right forearm, as a message to her children. Finally, a fierce-looking female samurai (Japanese warrior) is depicted on her left bicep to remind Trudo of her own strength.

Watching the children–B.B.T. (7), E.B.T.(5), and J.B.T.(3)–pedaling around on miniscooters, dueling one another with foam swords or playing inside a brightly colored plastic ball that hangs from a tree in their backyard, one is struck by several things. Engaging, enthusiastic and friendly, the children are the epitome of happy curiosity. They’re also representative of the new American family, twenty- first century style.

As this profile was being written, it became clear that the best way to respect and protect the wishes of both parents, as well as the privacy of the children, was to shield their identities in the photographs. In the long view, Trudo ’s epiphany and the couple’s separation didn’t change the love that they feel for their children. “I know that I’m fighting for them,” Trudo said. “It’s not anymore about heart connections–it’s about their connections to each other.”

Over a breakfast of waffles and fruit one morning, each child’s unique personality was shining through. Trudo described each of the children succinctly: “B.B.T.’s very observant and bright, an amazing artist and very engaged in life. E.B.T. is sweet, affectionate and a very articulate communicator, also creative. J.B.T. is an independent, affectionate child who loves to sing and dance all the time.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines parent as “(a) one that begets or brings forth offspring and (b) a person who brings up and cares for another.” every divorce brings complications for the parents and their children. But the specific complexities of a same-sex couple, where one partner transitions from female to male, brings its own set of challenges and legal hurdles. Although Trudo fully supported her former partner all the way through her transition, she was still hard on herself. While she was being counseled in a group for the partners of transgender people at Waterloo Counseling Center, an older straight woman provided perspective.

“She said, ‘You’re a success story because you actually stayed with your partner through the transition.’ Failure of not being with him now isn’t really a failure. I actually did do it,” Trudo said, fighting back tears. “It’s hard to say. I still really love him. I was surprised to find myself at this place where I was no longer physically attracted to him. It was really a hard decision for me and for my family.”

“In all facets of my life, it’s like a pressure cooker.”

Baptism by fire is the best way to describe Trudo ’s experience with motherhood and everything that went with it. When Trudo met her former partner as a student at North Carolina State University, and they connected romantically, motherhood was always the plan. Each gave birth to one of the children, and their third child, J.B.t., was adopted from Vietnam.

l-may-june-2011-feature-5Before moving back to Maine, the couple searched for and found a suitable donor at the California Cryobank. When they were ready to have children, Trudo developed some precancerous cells on her cervix and the doctors recommended that she not get pregnant. They discussed their options and her former partner agreed to bear their first child.

B.B.T., a fair-skinned redheaded girl, was born in November 2003. Trudo healed naturally and she became pregnant about two years later. What came next was unexpected: within 16 weeks, she couldn’t walk because she was already having contractions. Homebound, Trudo became depressed and ended up spending a month in the hospital in order to bring E.B.T. to term.

The couple’s curly, blonde-haired son E.B.T. was born a month early in January 2006; however, he’d stopped growing two months earlier. In addition, the umbilical cord was wrapped five times around his neck. “He had to be pulled out by emergency C-section,” Trudo said. “He was disproportionate and so small–and they took him away quickly because his heart rate was dropping fast. It was the scariest thing.”

Medical issues related to premature births are commonplace. E.B.T., who is now healthy and enjoys the outdoors, has asthma. For three months after his birth, he was homebound and visited each week by a nurse. Trudo was in hyper vigilant mom mode, given the fragile state of her newborn son’s lungs.

Prior to Trudo ’s pregnancy, her former partner had begun counseling for her transition and shortly before Trudo’s C-section, she underwent sex reassignment surgery. Trudo said that her former partner’s decision to transition from one gender to another was born out of years of discussions, intense personal struggles and a longtime sense of feeling as though she was born the wrong gender. the topic arose a year into their relationship, after they met the performance artist and photographer Del La Grace volcano at a screening during the Austin Gay & lesbian international Film Festival.

Volcano, who lived for 37 years as a woman, is a female- to-male transsexual and self-labels as a “gender abolitionist” who chooses to amplify rather than erase the hermaphroditic aspects of his body–according to the artist statement on his website.

Rather than shying away from the issue, Trudo maintained open communication with her former partner, approaching it with a compassionate, inquisitive and open mind. “it was a dialogue that we started,” she said, noting that at first she was not sure when or even if the transition would happen.

About a year after E.B.T. was born, Trudo became fully aware of the bigger picture, her own difficult journey as the partner of someone going through this transition, and the fact that she was grieving two losses. “I had to say goodbye, completely, to this female part of my partner,” Trudo said. “You’re with someone, they’re alive, but you’re literally seeing them transform in front of you. It’s hard to admit that you’re losing something when you’re trying to be supportive of someone.”

During therapy, Trudo eventually realized that she was also afraid of losing her own identity as a lesbian, the situation took a toll on her, reaching a breaking point after the couple had moved to Portland, Oregon, and were finalizing the adoption of their 15-month-old Vietnamese son, J.B.T..

In Maine, they had had a base of support among family and friends, but in Portland, Trudo was teaching at Portland State University and wasn’t able to be fully out. Suddenly, she felt like her identity had morphed into being a partner involved in a heterosexual relationship. “It was so far removed–not our story–I felt like a big lie,” she said. “I fell apart.”

Trudo spent the next two weeks crying and in bed, removed from everyday engagements. She’d been suffering from daily anxiety attacks for more than a month. Her children brought her back from the depth of depression. “I knew I had to snap out of it for them,” Trudo said, noting that she found a therapist who specialized in anxiety.

“Without any question, having my children come into my room and ask me if I was okay–that’s what did it,” said Trudo. “I just didn’t want to scare them and have them see me like that.”

“We have this dialogue about things.”

The children love outings to Llittle Stacy Park, with its playground, picnic tables and wading pool, in the warmer months. Playing games on their bikes and having their faces painted at Ruta Maya coffee house also figure into typical days together. Lots of reading, painting, and impromptu dance parties is typical. Trudo doesn’t have cable, but they all watch movies together. Quality time as a family, and the trust that it builds, makes the open flow of communication much easier.

Indeed, Trudo and her former partner always took an honest approach with the children, talking about the transition early on in a very open way. As the children’s language skills start to come together and they get older, their inquisitiveness will increase and their questions will become more complex, but right now they can’t really go much further than simple questions. “We always told [B.B.T.] that her daddy was a girl and now he’s a boy,” said Trudo. “That’s where we kept it.”

Trudo brushed aside any notion, put forth in speculation by some about the children of couples where one parent is transgender, that their children will be confused when it comes to gender. “We talk about it: J.B.t. was born from a different mommy who could not afford to raise him,” Trudo said. “Each child has a different birthing story, so they automatically think that there isn’t this one way of doing things. There’s no confusion about that.”

The children will have to make decisions as they get older about who to trust in terms of sharing the truth of their family. How it all plays out won’t be known until they’re older. “E.B.T. is very social and he likes the interaction with other people,” said Trudo. “J.B.T. is quite good at being independent. B.B.T. likes to read–she’s in the first grade, but at a third-grade level in reading and math.”
It’s natural for children, especially at a young age, to test the waters of gender expression–regardless of their parents’ identity. Five-year-old E.B.T. sometimes likes to wear dresses and at first, he was wearing them to school. “I want E.B.T. to express himself and be flamboyant if he wants to be, but I also want to protect my children. I told him, it’s okay to wear solid- colored pink and purple shirts and that [negative comments are] because some people are confused and don’t understand.”

All of the interactions with the Austin independent school district have been great, according to Trudo. “If we ever had a situation where there was a teacher who was not accepting,” she added, “I would really do something about it. I would not put my child at risk.”

“It was like I was hit by lightning.”

Trudo is one of those creative types who enjoys having her hands in a multitude of pots; at one point, she credited her Gemini nature for her broad interests in the world of design. This largely self-taught designer has generally succeeded in all of her professional endeavors.

She began her undergraduate work at a time when computers were scarce. Trudo had heard about Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and she applied, moving there and earning her bachelor of fine arts with an emphasis in graphic design. She became a lab monitor, teaching herself a wide range of computer-based skills that would help fuel her career development. For graduate studies, she was admitted into schools stronger and more prestigious than North Carolina state university in Raleigh.

“I visited the school and I asked them if they had a wood shop,” said Trudo , laughing. she credited time spent with her father, who was a woodworker, with her appreciation of building a range of things.

Her first day on campus, setting up in a studio, she walked outside and saw her former partner–who was teaching at NCSU at the time. “I said, oh, my God, I have to be with her. I had never been with another woman before,” said Trudo, noting that she wasn’t scared or hesitant. Three weeks later, they were together. On the way home from seeing a show, the young lovebirds sealed their fate. Trudo was being very quiet and her former partner asked what was on her mind. “She was nervous because–it’s a risky position to be in,” said Trudo . “After completing my first year, I realized that we had to leave.”

A colleague told Trudo about a then-new MFA program in design at the University of Texas. She was among the first to graduate from that program in 2001 and now has nine years of experience teaching new media or graphic design. After getting her bearings again in Austin, she took up two teaching positions, one as an adjunct professor at Texas State University in San Marcos and another at Austin community college. More recently, a friend from St. Edward’s university offered her an adjunct teaching position there. Trudo teaches a range of design courses, including interactive media and graphic design.

“It’s been nice because I’ve been able to see each institution and the differences between the programs and students,” said Trudo. “The best part is seeing a student who is engaging in a really curious way. They have a moment where they make something that’s really amazing, but they don’t know it and I see it! Those are the moments that I’m like, wow.”

“We all have our individual stories.”

They were together for 11 years, united in a civil union in Vermont, were legally married in Portland, Maine, as a heterosexual couple (after her former partner had fully transitioned) and they have three children. Traversing uncharted legal ground in Texas has meant, among other things, a conflict between the state’s prohibition of transgendered (along with gay or lesbian) marriage and the equally valid fact that Texas law honors heterosexual marriages performed in other states.

While the divorce and custody process winds its way through the courts, the children share time between both parents. “I was a supporter of his transition, so I have to take responsibility for that,” said Trudo. Nevertheless, her viewpoint isn’t shaded by bitterness. “I am a mom of three children. I’m very proud of the way my ex-partner and I made our family,” she said. “We all have our individual stories.”

In the early years of their relationship, Trudo  engaged in a deep study of gender studies and queer theory, reading the work of scholars such as Judith Butler–philosopher, professor at UC-Berkeley and vocal opponent of homophobia and transphobia. Although Trudo and her former partner talked about gender together, even in the context of a few academic workshops they held, their perspectives were different (but mutually respectful).

Trudo realized at a young age that for her, gender was something more fluid and even performative. “Looking back at my childhood, I was a tomboy,” she said, adding that she would mimic the behavior of her brother or father on construction sites as a young girl. “on the flip side, I also worked in restaurants as a hostess or waitress and could get dressed up in a skirt. I was easily moving between these two.”

Ever the perfectionist, Trudo  is learning the value of letting go as she tries to be super mom. It’s not always possible to get three excited children fed, dressed and ready for the day in less than an hour. When the children are as fun-loving and playful as B.B.T., E.B.T. And J.B.T., there’s a need for structure and rules. “Being a good mother is the most challenging role in the world,” she said, adding that she plans to take an active role in her children’s school communities. “I know it’s important to be an advocate for children, especially when I have three very different children who come from a different family.”

Balancing everything–raising three young children, teaching her students and growing her design career–requires that she take time for herself and accept her limitations. she’s hopeful about future collaborations with designers and creative types, new teaching endeavors and planting her roots firmly in Austin.

“I’m struggling with the fact that I really do want the kids to be together as a unit,” said Trudo. “it would pain me to have any of them absent in any way from my life. I’m being a warrior for my family and I need to be strong and do what I need to do,” she said. “I’m just trying to stay focused on the kids.”

Although all divorces are hard on children, even with everything that’s transpired, Trudo considers herself an optimist. “Ultimately, I just want them to feel completely loved and that we have the ability to teach them to be creative and also about life and its diversity.”

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