She got a ‘Mr. Incredible’ shirt for Father’s Day. It secretly broke her heart.

Penny Sterling of Rochester, New York, recently shared photos of herself online rocking new shoes and a "Mr. Incredible" shirt.

Photo courtesy of Penny Sterling.

"Casual Monday look, with my new cute Chucks!!!" she wrote on Twitter. But the cute selfies carried a much deeper message, too.


"Cool story about the shirt," Sterling continued in a series of tweets following the photos. "I got this shirt for Father's Day 2014."

That was a particularly pivotal Father's Day for her: The holiday marked seven weeks since she'd truly accepted herself as a trans woman — but it took six months before she was able to come out to her children.

Sterling (right) and two of her children, Fred and Zoe, apple picking in 2017. Photo courtesy of Penny Sterling.

"They were so excited about giving me this shirt," Sterling wrote. "'The Incredibles' has long been one of my family's favorite films."

"Drop any notable line from the movie in front of my kids, and if they're in the mood for it, you'll get the next five minutes of dialogue delivered to you. Or more," she continued.

But for Sterling, the lovely and well-intentioned gift also reflected a heartbreaking reality in how her kids saw her. "I was their Mr. Incredible," she wrote. "The strong, flawed father who would stop at nothing to help them."

She wore the shirt many times — but it secretly tore her apart to do it.  

"I put it away and it migrated to the bottom of my dresser," Sterling wrote. "It just wasn't me. It would be a lie to wear it."

Sterling's gift shows how Father's Day or Mother's Day can come with complicated feelings and experiences for many trans parents.

The day can feel especially worth celebrating to some — a moment when they finally feel seen by loved ones as the person they truly are.

Sam, a trans dad, told The Advocate in 2014 that the first Father's Day he celebrated after coming out sparked a powerful moment. "My own mother made a point of saying to me, 'This is your first Dad's Day,' with a smile," he noted. "That seemed to make a big difference. I kind of like [Father's Day], as it makes me feel special."

Sterling (left) at her son Fred's graduation in May 2018. Photo courtesy of Penny Sterling.

But Mother's or Father's Day can also highlight how our society still grapples with (and fails at) understanding the nuance and complexities of gender and identity.

"Every year since [transitioning] has made Father’s Day a source of discomfort," Brynn Tannehill wrote for Salon. She's a trans woman whose kids decided to refer to her as "maddy" — a combination of "mom" and "daddy" — after she came out.

To her, a day like Father's Day reflects our world's failure to recognize the experiences associated with being a parent who's trans: "I continue to exist in a gray space where our language and culture just can’t wrap itself around the whole notion of being transgender."

For trans moms, dads, "maddies," and everyone else, Mother's or Father's Day may be a day like any other. Or it could mean a morning they get to eat breakfast in bed. Or it could bring about painful reminders of why they're seen as different by our world.

We need to get better at seeing and respecting transgender people and the range of their unique experiences for what they are.

When Sterling came across her "Mr. Incredible" shirt again — about four years after first receiving it as a gift — she felt comfortable putting it on.

"I thought, what the hell," she wrote.

"I may not be MISTER Incredible, but I'm still fairly spectacular," she continued. "And I've got incredible kids."

Sterling and her daughter, Zoe, in Zoe's dorm in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Penny Sterling.

"The thing to remember about life-altering decisions is that not everything gets altered. Even things you have to give up will come back, if they're important enough," she said. "The T-shirt's not really an important thing. The love that comes with it is. Love always comes back."

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