It was high summer and I was at the riverbank, which in Oregon passes for a beach. Four dogs, off leash, chased and tackled each other at the shoreline. I was topless and so was most everyone else. It was my first time in the state, and my friends had promised me an excellent queer time. To my right, a group of women passed around cold fried chicken and a joint, and a lanky man glided across the sand in a sarong with a matching scarf around his ankle. I had met my person on a trip to Riis Beach in the Rockaways, which was also clothing optional, five years before. But she was at home in San Jose, five months pregnant.
The night before, my friend Liz had brought me to a hot tub party. I mentioned that I was about to have a kid and someone said, “Oh, you’re on a babymoon, except by yourself.” I learned recently that a “babymoon” is when you and your husband — it’s assumed you’ve got a husband — go on a trip before you give birth, because you know you’ll never have time for sex afterward. That’s what I assume, at least, since none of the internet definitions even mention sex. Regardless, it’s a pleasure trip, and I was on one, though I felt guilty thinking about it. Everyone in the hot tub started talking about strip clubs; Portland’s known as the strip club capital of America. I badly wanted to go to one, or five.
Before I left for the airport to fly to Portland, my alarm went off and my person rolled over to spoon me, wrapping her leg over mine in a way that she hadn’t done in a long time. “Do you feel that?” she murmured. The baby was kicking against my lower back, in very small movements, not even thumps. It was still small, about a pound, but the skin over her abdomen was stretched tight. We had 18 minutes like that — two snooze cycles — before I wrested myself away.
I’d been getting tension headaches after work, the pressure building around my temples at 3 or 4 p.m. I told myself it was because I’d been working too much; I had just gotten promoted, my person’s business was struggling, I’d been trying to freelance on the side. The headaches started around the same time her belly started to protrude.
People keep saying my entire life is about to change. “It’ll be amazing, the sort of love you’ve never felt,” they say. They are trying to reassure me and I need reassurance, because the level of terror I have about becoming a parent — Do I even want to use the word “mom”? I don’t use the word “wife” — is overwhelming. It feels like the queer pursuit of pleasure is about to disappear from my life, and I don’t know how to be myself without it. I can’t really imagine what we might gain, even though I’ve felt its feet against my back.
In Hook, released in 1991, Robin Williams plays a workaholic dad who’s forgotten how to have fun, a reversal of the classic Peter Pan who won’t grow up. It takes a trip to Never-Never Land and a wallop of whipped cream to the face for him to remember what pleasure feels like. Hollywood’s message: To be better parents, the money-obsessed dads of the late ’80s should have been starting food fights and acting more like their kids.
The manbaby dads of 2017, who escape to their iPhones while their wives keep everyone fed and clean, don’t need the same reminder. Everyone knows being a dad is fun now, like the gamer I saw in a “Fatherhood: Achievement Level Unlocked” T-shirt, or my friend’s husband who regularly riles up his 2-year-old right before bedtime. Less fun: motherhood in America, which for women who work long hours is a serious health hazard, since they’re still pulling a second shift.
Peter Pan dads can swoop in to enjoy their kids, but straight women are stuck playing Wendy — the mature, grounded girl in a nightgown who’s in love with Peter and in charge of her little brothers. Whenever things get rough, Peter flies away without a goodbye, leaving her pining at the nursery window.
Queer femmes often contend with a different version of Peter Pan, with less literal babysitting, since so many of us don’t have kids. The idea of extended adolescence isn’t new in gay culture. Straight people, historically, don’t take us seriously, since many of us don’t adopt markers of hetero adulthood like marriage and children. Queer Twitter recently loved the Peter Pan justification for an extended, long-partying young adult life: When your teenage years “aren’t yours to live,” you’ll act like a teenager when you’re 30. But a lot of those Peter Pans are gay men — and, it turns out, masculine-of-center dykes.
A few years ago, in Brooklyn and Oakland, buttons started popping up on backpacks and jackets that said “Not Yr Wendy” — a collective sigh of frustration from the femmes I kept meeting who paid their masculine lovers’ rent, soothed their hurt egos, and managed the petty daily misogynies of a person who wouldn’t care for themselves. Maybe a button on a jean jacket would fend off the lost bois, if it didn’t turn them on.
So many femmes I knew were straight-A students, girls who knew how to put food on the table, like the femmes of decades past who’d done sex work to keep their unemployable butches in whiskey. Some of us still did the same work for the same reason. We rejoiced in talking shit about our lovers after they’d treated us badly. It was easier to identify with calm, responsible Wendy than to worry we’d all been suckers or too in love to say no — valuing a relationship over our pride, just like our moms had taught us.
Back then, when the buttons showed up, I was a femme but couldn’t tell if I was a Wendy or a Peter. Most queer relationships don’t fit neatly into butch-femme boxes — there isn’t one of us who’s “the man” — but we were raised in a culture that teaches feminine people to be one way and masculine people to be another. Many of us reclaim those gender roles, making them powerful and consensual instead of restrictive, but old ghosts of those lessons can still haunt our relationships. I called my ex “Daddy,” but I paid their rent for months before we broke up, spending down my savings to keep our apartment. I agreed to an open relationship because they wanted one. I watched them type “I love you” to someone else on a screen, and I flipped out — but I got over it, for the sake of staying together.
But I cheated on them too. Other people felt like relief, so I kissed them against buildings on stolen work breaks. I let someone cut a dress off me with a knife. I got big news and texted someone else about it first. I came home smelling like other people and lied about it. We both flew away. We were both lost.
When my current person and I first started talking about pregnancy, it was sexy and weird and almost a joke. On our first road trip, after we’d fucked in nine states, she told me about a dream she’d had, where she was “hot and sweaty and pregnant.” It sounded dirty, an idea I could get behind. And I was thrilled that she could imagine our future, even in passing.
A couple of years later, we’d find ourselves talking about a kid after the third drink, but no earlier; we’d have to be good and sloshed before we could admit to wanting one. We joke-posted on Craigslist for a sperm donor, watching replies from all kinds of Bay Area men roll in. Out of about 60 responses, one was interested but said he was skeptical because anyone who’d seek a donor on the internet was probably not a fit parent.
We got serious and found a friend to donate instead, and after three attempts, a pregnancy finally stuck. She lost two pounds from nausea, which kept her on the couch for the first five months. But I kept trying to cook for her: lentils with bright bits of tomato, stuck-pot rice, black bean nachos with pickled red onions and cilantro clipped from our pots outside. The meals rotted in jars in the fridge, because leftovers turned her stomach. She told me she just wanted saltines, but I kept cooking, because I didn’t fully believe that she couldn’t eat. For me — living in a body that was the same as before she conceived, with the same taste buds I’ve always had — the baby she was growing wasn’t quite real.
Then, suddenly, it was. We told everyone late, nervous about miscarriage, and by then, her belly had begun to expand.
“You’re going to need help,” said a friend with grown children. She didn’t tell me directly; another friend relayed the concern. That I heard it secondhand worried me; it meant people had such little faith in us that they were gossiping about it.
I told an older friend who didn’t have kids; she teared up and then said my recent promotion wouldn’t be sufficient. “You’ve got to stop with this community organizing thing. You can’t survive with a kid on that income,” she said.
We had vague plans to put the baby in a box for sleeping, and friends had volunteered to donate hand-me-down clothes. We both found garish baby stuff almost universally ugly. We wouldn’t need to buy much; we could raise a child on the cheap, like millions of parents do every day, without buying thousand-dollar strollers or becoming Republicans. I scanned job ads online, in case we were wrong.
Last year, in a postcoital daze after probably 20 orgasms, I told my person that the sex we’d just had was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I laughed about how high I had sounded later, but it wasn’t untrue. In our bed, in our old Victorian with thick walls where I can cry out as loud as I want without bothering the neighbors, I watched the light from the bedside lamp glance off her shoulders, muscled and moving above me, catching the smell of her at the back of her neck, where it’s sweetest. She is intermittently gentle and hard when I need her to be.
Maybe everyone feels relieved if they find a person who’s agreed to fuck them well forever, but for me it’s a triumph. I dated girls before it was cool, and I was not cool about it; I was sad and desperate, falling for anyone who’d sleep with me and many who wouldn’t. As a teenager, I lusted after waitresses and actresses and my best friend, all of whom were straight. I angled for threesomes at straight parties, then went home alone; I absolved my girlfriends of cheating and drug problems and, once, of spitting in my face. I let a limp little baby dyke use green terry-cloth handcuffs on me, because at least they were handcuffs.
When I could find it, physical pleasure felt like a victory every time over fear and shame and silence. It was as if enough orgasms would balance out the times men followed me home, the principal who told me not to come out to my students, or every minute of loneliness that I didn’t understand. The basement sex parties, the outdoor sex parties, the times a hangout turned into a hookup, the awe on their faces, the high-five afterward for both of us getting laid, the moments after as our heartbeats slowed and our sweat cooled: For other people, it might be fun. For me, it has always felt life-saving.
They say sex just ends when you have a child. You’ll be too tired, you’ll have a million more things to clean, and giving birth destroys your body. I thought maybe we could put the baby in the hallway so we could close the door and still fuck. But a friend told me she was in too much pain in the first weeks after birth to get out of bed for nighttime feedings, much less walk to another room. The baby sleeps between her and her husband now, so that she can just roll over when the baby needs to eat.
If I had to choose between having a husband or a baby, I’d choose a baby any day. According to our cultural scripts, husbands are assholes who don’t do the dishes, won’t go down on you, and might kill you. Babies look at you adoringly, enjoy hugs, and are small enough to physically control. Apparently their heads smell good, also. Sacrificing your sexuality on the altar of motherhood might not be so bad, if the other option is a husband.
But what happens when your partnership doesn’t follow those rules, when you’ve got a genderqueer, feminist coparent instead of a dudebro? What happens when the choice is between dirty queer sex that it’s taken you decades to find and a squalling blob who can’t wipe its own ass? Will a good-smelling head make up for the loss of the best thing that’s ever happened to me?
There’s a particular queer joy in fucking with zero risk of creating another human. We have our own sexual fears, but we also operate in a parallel universe that removes us from the capitalist grind of raising future workers. In queer Never-Never Land, nobody gets pregnant by mistake, and no one has to buy a minivan and move to the suburbs.
But we were curious. We picked this baby, this salty little kicking thing, created from two sets of genes from two genderfucking people, because we wanted to try to raise someone. We wanted to know: What would it feel like to be pregnant? And I had the universal arrogance to ask a question that can never be answered: Could I do a better job than my own parents?
The baby will plant me firmly in Wendy territory. In a few months, I will not be able to leave the house at all without considering the needs of a small person. But we’ve agreed: We have to fuck, no matter what, even if sex looks physically different than it used to. We can still throw long, maximalist dinner parties and stay up too late. We can keep jam jars of pocket change on the counter, labeled “Never-Never Land” with a piece of tape, so we don’t forget to save up for visits.
If queer people have taught me anything about gender, it’s that we can be Wendys and Peters at the same time. Peter, when he’s not flying away, is a person who seeks out and celebrates pleasure. Wendy, when she doesn’t resent Peter for leaving her the grunt work, is devoted and trustworthy. We can take care of ourselves like Wendy so that we both can take care of a baby. We can keep that queer taste of pleasure in our mouths, rejecting picket-fence capitalist parenthood like Peter. It’ll take effort, but I think it’s possible.
At the beach in Portland, Liz said it was a new moon, a good time to set new intentions. She went to the labyrinth behind the shore to smoke weed and I stayed in the river by myself. I hadn’t been to any strip clubs, and I knew there wouldn’t be time for any before I went home. I felt my feet burrowing into the warm wet sand underwater, and I dug my toes in so I could stay in one place. People on pleasure boats with life jackets and beer koozies sailed downriver. The current wasn’t strong, but I could feel it faintly against my thighs. I closed my eyes, and I felt like maybe it was possible to stay in one spot, even with the river running past me, without flying away. ●
Tori Truscheit is a community organizer in San Jose, CA.