The Father I Want to Be

by Preston Van Vliet

TW: transphobic parent, mention of disownment

The written plan, now crumpled in my lap, forecasted the routes this conversation could go barreling down. Everything inside me was a tornado as I sat on my parents’ couch in the same house I grew up in, the same house they’d lived in for 30 years. I’d prepared for weeks. I knew that I couldn’t outsmart my gut-twisting fear — but, damn. I will always try.

“I’m not disowning you,” my dad responded. “I’m accepting you. But I won’t call you Preston,” he finished, not recognizing his contradiction. I chose Preston as my name because of its proximity to my dad: He gave me Preston, my middle name, which was his mother’s maiden name. I chose it as mine, partly believing it might reduce his angst about having a trans son.

I felt horrible. I just knew he was going to say something like that. But accurately predicting it didn’t soften the blow. Still, my brain helped by drafting the safety plans. I’d waited until I’d gotten a full-time job before telling my dad; he has a history of threatening to remove financial support. I needed more independent resources, just in case. Admittedly, I had a ray of hope that maybe he’d understand. That, maybe, since I’d been a girl who’d played on all-boys sports teams and who’d done activities that he’d deemed “manly,” being a trans man wouldn’t be a leap. My heart couldn’t let go of it.

Driving back to my apartment, I held the positives up to the light: At least he hadn’t kicked me out. He hadn’t yelled and slammed things, like when I told him I wasn’t straight. I steered toward empathetic skies; his support shined on me in other ways, ways that his dad hadn’t done for him. I know that was intentional. But looking back, I see a child begging for his father’s love, over and over. My heart splintering into a hundred pieces and me piecing back together what I could, surviving because of the ocean of love that my chosen family carried to me.

That was nine years ago.

I’m now a stepdad in a divorced family caught in custody battles. Fueled by his insecurity, the kid’s dad — my partner’s ex-husband — started the custody case as I was getting more involved in the kid’s life. Imagine: two trans parents nurturing their kid’s exploration of gender and expression. Two disabled parents cultivating safe spaces for their kid to talk about mental health and chronic illness. Two parents demonstrating that masculinity can be soft and nonjudgmental.

The gender dynamics aren’t lost on me. The kid’s dad, who may not know that I’m trans, didn’t start this when my partner had significant others who were women or nonbinary people. His masculinity recoiled upon seeing my gentler influence, anger smoking from the friction of where his beliefs about men and my presence in his kid’s life met.

One night before a visit last summer, the kid’s dad unleashed sudden punishments and berated them at his house. They felt scared; isolated. Unbeknownst to them and as this was happening, I’d been working on an art project to give to them. Something that was vulnerable and challenging. It became an expressionistic piece with the words “my heart is in bloom and you are the flower” on it.

I think every day — more often around Father’s Day — about how toxic masculinity burns everything it touches. How it ignites intergenerational cycles of harm and abuse. I grieve what could have been: being my dad’s son, being the kind of stepfather I wanted to be, being on a parent team that truly supported the kids. I channel these waves of grief into the antidote: healing-centered, anti-oppressive solutions.

I choose to be at Family Values @ Work because our communities need more time to care, and to heal. This Father’s Day, I invite you to reflect on what and who is healing in your life and what it would look like for them to have a bigger, shining presence.

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Family Values @ Work

27 state coalitions working to win for Paid Sick Days, Paid Leave and other policies that value families at work in your city, county and state, then nation.