My friends had a lot of reasons to be skeptical about my decision to get myself pregnant eight years ago, at the tender age of 40.
I had just spent months pursuing a long-distance romance with a recovering heroin addict living in her mother’s sewing room on the other side of the country, a person who was sublimating her drug of choice with compulsive lying. Meanwhile, I’d gone weeks existing on Tillamook cheddar cheese, Triscuits, and cigarettes. I had no health insurance, in part because I sabotaged a plum teaching job to avail myself of the opportunity to attend Paris Fashion Week (who wouldn’t, though?).
Basically, I lacked stability. Which was great in an artist — preferable, even — but not high on the list of qualities we look for in mothers. Plus, I had never, ever spoken of a desire to have children — not ever.
Once I was walking with a good friend, also a queer writer, who mistakenly thought I’d said that a mutual friend was pregnant. “Oh, thank god,” they gasped when I corrected them. My friend cleaved the queers they knew into two camps — breeders and nonbreeders — and tended to avoid the former. “No way, she would NEVER have a baby,” I said. Yucko. It was clear which camp I fell into — no kids, no way.
To be fair, childbirth is yucky. That mutated stomach, with something alive inside it, something that ripples your skin with its kicks? That’s sci-fi. Your body rearranges itself to accommodate the parasite, forcing your kidneys over there and your stomach way up here. Smells make you projectile-vomit; your feet swell into appendages that look evolved for swimming, not walking. You drink whole jars of pickle juice in a fugue state; you acquire carpal tunnel syndrome, take up snoring, and, at your most loathsome, become so ludicrously horny you lose whole afternoons to TubeGalore. At the end of it all, your vagina — that place made for good times — turns itself inside out to release a greasy, squalling creature somehow leashed to your insides with a fleshy rope.
At a packed queer comedy show I attended recently in Los Angeles, the emcee gazed out at the standing-room-only crowd, wondering if there were any pregnant women in the audience who needed a seat. “First — gross,” she said, to swells of laughter. “And second, you did it to yourself.”
In the 1990s, when I was coming of age as a queer, the people who wanted babies were the people who wanted marriage, were the people who wanted stable corporate jobs, were the people who wanted the same bigoted straights who were depriving them of their middle-class aspirations to understand that they were just like them. Ew. Who wanted to be like dumb, boring straight people who lived pre-scripted, unimaginative lives?
The real gift of being queer, when you got past the trauma and heartache of being cast out of the mainstream, was the infamous freedom of having nothing left to lose. You made your own rules about everything — the structure of relationships, your sex life, your work life. You chose a brand-new family who was way smarter and loved you more truly than your family of origin was capable of. With the dominant culture telling you that your very essence was essentially diseased, you were free to toss the whole of that culture’s morals out the window.
For me and many of the queers I shared subculture with, that meant prioritizing freedom, glorifying poverty, experimenting with our bodies in every way possible. The possibility of having children was raised only to highlight how absurd that would be, such as when my roommate joked about having a mini me to send to the corner store to fetch us a 40. I hazard to say that even subcultural queers who weren’t plagued by the substance abuse issues I contended with mostly viewed kids as a potential drag on their liberties, or simply an impossibility.
When the possibility of parenthood became interesting to me, most of my friends said it loud and said it proud: “You are out of your mind.”
Which is why, at the age of 40, when the possibility of parenthood became interesting to me, most of my friends — my radical, queer, artist friends — said it loud and said it proud: “You are out of your mind.” I was courting disaster.
As I began hunting for a cute drag queen willing to pass me some sperm, one friend went on at length about the miseries of her friend, a straight, single mom. Another urged me to reach out to an acquaintance who had birthed a little girl a year or so ago. That this acquaintance — someone I had met only once, who lived on the other side of the country — was suggested as the person I should talk to shows how completely baby-free my world was. (I remember my straight sister’s confusion at the stress I felt about being in charge of her baby shower. I had never, ever been to a baby shower in my entire life.)
It was as if I was contemplating signing up to work on an Alaskan fishing boat or giving away my belongings and joining an ascetic religious order: something that would take me away from them and effectively ruin my gorgeous, queer life. A life my queer ancestors had literally died for. I was going to fuck it all up by caving to some heteronormative desire that, knowing me, was probably nothing but a phase.
But I called the acquaintance, and guess what? She told me I should totally have a baby. So did my two straight friends with kids, both of whom had previously expressed tons of ambivalence about being parents. In spite of the way it had complicated their lives, having kids seemed to be a deep, if deeply strange, joy — one they now could not imagine being without. They urged me forward and even tried to help me source some free sperm from their handsome friends.
After spending a couple months getting rejected by all the men from whom I solicited genetic material, an ex shared that our mutual friend, a handsome gay guy with fierce politics and a fantastic drag persona, was simply dying to give his sperm to a lez. “Is this true?” I asked in an email. “And if it is, would you be amenable to coming to my place and ejaculating into a warm bowl?”
“You had me at ‘warm bowl,’” he replied cheekily.
To be fair, if all had gone as it looked like it would at my point of departure — single, no health care, a somewhat unstable nonprofit job in the city with the highest rents in the country — then I might be writing a different essay right now. But in the midst of my attempts to knock myself up, solo (but with the assistance of a very good friend charged with running a bowl of sperm from my kitchen, where it was produced, to my bedroom, where I lay waiting to plunge it into my vag with an oral syringe meant to feed medicine to babies) — I met someone.
“Would you be amenable to coming to my place and ejaculating into a warm bowl?”
I’d almost sworn off dating after surviving a swarm of scrubs, but there was something about this one that seemed different. Kind, competent, sane. And hot. I didn’t tell them I was in the process of giving myself a baby; I figured it was only a matter of time till they did something awful or dumb and I broke it off.
But they kept on being wonderful. And then I was trapped in a terrifying scenario: dating someone, growing steadily closer, and neglecting to tell them I had a cervix full of a generous donor’s sperm. I felt I’d missed the window when you were supposed to disclose such information, but really, who ever has to disclose such a thing?
After allowing my secret to work me into a nervous wreck, I suddenly disclosed, mid-makeout, on my bed. “I’ve been trying to get pregnant. A drag queen comes to my house every month and jerks off into a bowl, and then my friend Tara you met, the one who’s so good at karaoke, she runs it to me and I lay in bed with my legs in the air for a bit and then have a vibrator orgasm because that’s supposed to help and also who doesn’t always want a vibrator orgasm?” I was babbling. My date, whom I expected to rudely dump me then and there, looked at me with deepening love in their extremely pretty eyes.
“That’s so cool,” they said, admiringly. “I totally want kids too.”
It took a few months, but eventually my solo project became a group project: me, my partner Dashiell, and a fleet of reproductive specialists who let me know that my aged eggs were never going to cut it — but my younger lover’s ovaries were chock-full of plump and healthy golden eggs. With my uterus, my queen’s sperm, and my partner’s egg, we made a baby.
Even with the most supportive partner ever and the resources they contribute — including health insurance — raising a kid is hard. If I hadn’t unexpectedly fallen in love and changed the story, I might have fallen into my friends’ arms, weeping, “You told me so,” and begging them to drop my baby off at the nearest fire station. But probably not. All over the world, single moms figure it out. I do not know how the fuck they do it, but they do.
Having a baby has changed my queer friendships. We still love one another, but my life is now centered on something they find boring, or weird. Childless people are famously annoyed by the dull-as-fuck yammerings of parent friends going on about their kids. But our lives are made up of our days, and when you are a parent, your days are made up of the dull-as-fuck — and hilarious and poignant and disturbing and sweet — yammerings (and doings) of your children. It’s hard not to talk about them; it’s also hard to feel like I’m boring my friends.
And so I have found a new community where I never really expected to: in the circles of straight people, mainly women, who are parents at my child’s playgroups and preschool.
Granted, I am lucky to live in Los Angeles, and in my particular part of Los Angeles — the east side — where other moms are likely to be sound-bath energy healers or stand-up comedians or writers, ex-punks and weirdos who sometimes, frankly, regret not having married a woman. Sometimes mom’s-night-out excursions feel one tequila shot away from a game of spin the bottle.
Though primarily straight, these women honor and adore the inherent queerness of their young children. Because here is something I hadn’t known when I was writing off kids as boring, needy time thieves: Children are naturally queer. They inhabit a world of formless possibility outside of cultural norms like “male” or “female” and “straight” or “gay.”
Of course, we all have seen straight families who dress their 3-year-old boys in shirts reading “lady killer” and uphold strict pink-is-for-girls protocols in their homes, but my friends are not part of these families. On any given day, boys arrive at my son’s preschool wearing dresses. Drag queens serve as their role models for beauty and creativity. Recently I overheard a dad at the park telling his 2-year-old, “When we don’t know if someone is a boy or a girl, we say ‘they.’” The kid just nodded and ran off.
Here is something I hadn’t known when I was writing off kids as boring, needy time thieves: Children are naturally queer.
Having a child exposes anti-gay prejudice and the gender binary for the brainwashing they truly are, because the fact is, kids don’t give a shit. They don’t think it’s weird that a girl likes a girl, or that a girl is a boy, unless you make it weird.
Seeing boys swish and sashay around the playground makes me think of the spot-on queer posturing that straight (as far as we know) actors Rami Malek and Richard E. Grant were recently Oscar-nominated for. All men have this range of physical expression — it’s just often bullied out of them. What if it weren’t? What would masculinity look like if it were allowed to grow wild, unpunished, and unpruned? Now we might get to find out. Thanks to the progress made by those boring, we’re-just-like-you gays that my friends and I used to scorn, it is less of a big deal to be queer in many parts of the country. And that means, hopefully, a return to promoting the innate values of childhood: acceptance, curiosity, play, creativity, imagination.
In a culture where queerness is valued, even kids like my son — a tiny brute whose favorite pastime is making his impossibly burly, Tom of Finland–esque supervillain toys kill each other — enjoys a swipe of neon-green eyeshadow above his lids and a blot of pink lipstick on his mouth if we are going someplace “fancy.” When his (genderqueer) teacher asks the class how they know that a character in a book is a boy, or a girl, my son suggests they’re perhaps both, and the other kids nod thoughtfully.
As my kid gets older and I continue to emerge from the survival-mode fog of his earlier years, I am seeing more of my queer friends again, and it feels so great. My being a mother is sort of a weird quirk I have, a kink they don’t share, and it’s rude, after all, to yuck another’s yum.
Having two different worlds each supporting the most essential aspects of my identity — my queerness and my parenthood — isn’t wholly strange to me. When I first got sober and pulled back from what was then a very boozy queer scene, I experienced the novelty of suddenly having more in common with a whole mess of straight people: struggling alcoholics who were helping me understand my disease, more so than the queer people who had previously been my only support system. I still share lifesaving community with these people who share my affliction, and in a similar way, I now count these moms — and their husbands — as connections crucial to the ability of my little queer family to really, truly thrive. ●
Michelle Tea’s essay collection Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions and Criticisms won the 2019 PEN/Diamondstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She is the founder of Drag Queen Story Hour and other cultural interventions.