One thing about me many people may not know: giving birth has always held a place of fascination for me. I love to collect women’s birth stories and to hear about pregnancy and labor. I was raised by a large extended family, many of whom were women, who shared diverse birthing stories with me and modeled diverse parenting constellations to me. My mother worked as a professor in early childhood special education and gave me insight into a diverse range of families and a diverse range of children’s abilities. She never made me feel afraid of disability—in fact she made me realize that every child is in one way or another, exceptional.
What excites me about parenting begins with pregnancy. This is the part of me that is astounded by the power of my birth body—a body that has ovaries and a uterus and a vulva, a body that bleeds every month, a body that can birth a new life. Perhaps something like my attraction to physical performance, I am excited and exhilarated by the body transformation of pregnancy and the intensely transformative experience of bringing a new life into the world – excited by the physicality of it, the raw physical strength and the emotional endurance required by it. I am challenged by the idea of meditating a new child into the world through the powerfully transformative and psychedelic experience of childbirth.
When I think about parenting, I am not excited about the idea of stability, settling, scheduling, routine, disciplining, or creating a little person in my own image. I don’t believe that stability, routine, settled homes or two parent households are the keys to happy childhoods or raising more proactive, happy adults. Not to say that those things cant also be positive for children. But mostly I think happy children and happy adults are born out of unconditional love, support and positive role-models of nonviolent communication and patience.
My true belief is that, while it is easy to try to categorize some parents as this or that, every parenting experience is, like every child, exceptional. Every parent of every generation has “done things differently”–in other words, they have worked around their specific set of constraints and difficulties in order to raise their kids the best they can. I want to be part of that multiple exceptionalism. Specifically in my case, I want to be part of generations of mothers and fathers who have made their artistic and creative lives and mothering mutually beneficially to their lives as artists, their lives as parents and the lives of their children.
Some people might think that being an artist or queer in the decadent streets of Berlin has disqualified me from caring about raising children or that my interest has waned. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pregnancy and parenting and being a pregnant woman are still part of my vision and my hope is that it will be integrated into my artistic world and life. I have never been quite sure why motherhood seems to be so far out of the picture for people like me. It seems that the queers and artists in my community live very intentional lives, and there is no reason why children shouldn’t be part of this—if they want to take on that adventure. I have always thought that queers spend so much time thinking about how to make the world a more ideal place. It doesn’t make sense that we wouldn’t want to pass these values actively to children. This doesn’t have to be done through birthing and procreating, but it seems like it can be done through various modes of parenting and modeling to young children. Moreover I feel like the world needs many strong positive examples of parenting within a queer, artistic, and anti-corporate context. That said, I’m not a crusader for queers with kids. It’s only important to me that having children not be viewed as the hobby of the unenlightened, the un-punk, the unglamorous, “mainstream” or bound. That’s where other queers can come in—helping to support queer parents and putting a stop to negative stereotyping of queer parents.
In our best moments my life partner and I laugh together about how soon we are both going to be fathers. We are preparing for children in our partnership that we did not expect during our nine years together. He is expecting a child with his girlfriend and I am expecting a child with my co-parent and birth mother Sadie. As many of us in long term relationships know, the bonds we form with our partners outside of sex exist in a much stronger way than the sex itself, yet sex is often the “it” that determines the grounds for with whom we co-parent. My partner and I are envisioning a life that breaks from that. It’s been, while extremely challenging to our polyamorous relationship, also really wonderful to have a partnership that supports our imagined and dreamed visions of a multi-parent community and long-lasting relationships built on commitments outside of sexual ties.
Why do I feel drawn to the word dad or father to describe my role as a co-parent? It’s not because I believe that a person must have one mother and one father, or that we must adopt conventionalisms like these in order to make ourselves understood outside of a queer context. In fact I hope that my partner’s child and the child that Sadie and I are expecting will have many mothers and many fathers and to be able to speak openly about it to everyone I encounter. But I feel personally drawn to the idea of calling myself dad. Perhaps it is because my girlfriend has put me further in touch with my maleness and I often find myself gender flipping with her. Perhaps it is because I one day hope to be a birth mother, and until then see my parenthood as fatherhood. Perhaps to take on some camaraderie with my life partner, a cis-gendered man. Perhaps because as Sadie suggests I’m given the opportunity to provide a positive role model of fatherhood for many queers and friends of ours who hold negative conceptions of fatherhood or who have no relationship with their fathers. Perhaps it is because I in fact experienced many positive fatherhood role models in my early childhood, including from my own father, and I hope to be part of their legacy and their inspiration.
I get the sense that my father loved fatherhood, that for him it was an opportunity to have a particular kind of companionship that he didn’t or couldn’t have with adults. My father had a rather quiet reverence of the world—he liked to explore it, and he would gladly do so on his own. Having a child along with him gave him the excuse to go off on his own exploring the world with childlike reverie, and I as his sidekick made an appropriate alibi. I loved these adventures with my father and I look forward to those kinds of adventures with my kids. I want to explore and see the world with fresh eyes. I want to enjoy that particular aloneness you get to have with kids. I want a child to teach me all the things that they see in the world with their fresh eyes and to show a child all the things that I love about the world with my older eyes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how the words fatherhood and motherhood need not be gendered, or rather, can be multigendered. Birth mother is my name for the person who gives birth to the child. This is a special moment that can never be taken away from either mother or child, but the relationship itself does not have to remain tantamount emotionally to “mother(s)” or “father(s)” for the rest of a child’s life. Some birth mothers are never again in their child’s life after labor, and this does not diminish their important role. Neither does it diminish the important role of the many other mothers and fathers who hopefully can take on the emotional support and care of children. Once we are not talking about the specific instance of pregnancy and labor, it seems that it’s important to acknowledge and find focus around those who DO the mother/fathering, not on those who DON’T do it.
I also like the word father or parent—as opposed to necessarily mother—because I want to find an explicit language of queering my parenthood as I contribute to the generations of parents—mothers and fathers, step-mothers and fathers, grandparents aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, straight and queer—who have been excellent parents without being birth mothers. Even though the idea of being a birth mother still excites me, there are too many negative images in the world about women who never become birth mothers, and too many negative stereotypes about “alternative family” formations. It would be too easy for a person to view me, a cis-gendered woman, as my child’s “mother” without considering that I am in a queer family.
On a more personal level, it has been transformative for me to envision myself as something other than a birth mother. Because my life partner is a cis-gendered man, I suppose it was easy for me to assume the heterosexual privilege of viewing myself as a future birth mother and him as future father. The experience of queering our family through an alternative modality of parenting—him as father to a child which is not mine by birth, and me as father to a child who is not mine by birth—has queered my life-long identity around parenting, which up until this year was centered around birth-mothering. Though I have long imagined setting up a queer family of multiple parents, it was hard for me to break the fundamental assumption of me as birth mother and my partner as father. This break from assumption has been healthy for me.
Societal pressure about the “ticking biological clock” only further increased my sense that, after hitting age 30, I better become a birth mother relatively soon. But re-envisioning myself as a queer parent/father has allowed me to see that whether or not I ever become a birth mother, there are so many other ways to parent. Furthermore, I see that it would be a personal disservice to use fear as a motivating factor for birth mothering (or parenting at all), and secondly, it would be letting down a large community of parents who can’t or don’t want to be birth mothers but who are figureheads in their children’s lives.
In the past nine months I have had the privilege of witnessing some of my co-parent’s pregnancy and that of my partner’s girlfriend. In reading and witnessing, practicing rituals and engaging physically with them and their pregnant bodies, especially with Sadie, I have gained strength seeing how our visions of pregnancy and motherhood are similar. I have seen Sadie’s body grow in power and her visions of an intentional parenthood grow in power. I have also seen my own power grow as I feel further confirmed in trust—trust that I place in the body’s ability to do what it needs to do when the time comes.
I do not know if and how I will ever become a birth mother, but I do feel even further confirmed in my instinctual feelings about the pregnant and birthing body. I trust that an engagement with the body throughout pregnancy and into the birth, a connection with the various parts of the body—the physical, the sexual, the mental and the metaphysical—are as important to me as they are to Sadie. I feel solidly committed to maintaining that connection and that it will be a positive experience for birth and baby. Familiarizing myself with a wide range of birthing stories and diverse models for pregnancy and labor have deepened my commitment and belief in natural childbirth, further away from the medicalization of the birthing experience. I trust and see a vision of “ecstatic birth,” that is, acknowledging the naturally healing and soothing presence of sexuality in the birthing experience. I don’t mean that every woman will or should experience orgasm as she gives birth, but that welcoming the possibility of sensuality and sexuality into the birth experience, as opposed to denying or rejecting it, can allow for a more pleasurable and natural experience (incidentally, oxytocin, the hormone released by the laboring woman is the same that is released during arousal).
I have also grown in my trust of the birthing community around me and that I am allowed to have high expectations of those around us at birth. I am allowed to choose the parents of my children and to make affirmative, conscientious choices about the parents of my children that do not have to be connected to sexual relationships. It seems that too many women have grown up with low expectations of their future partners. Some seem to believe that their partners should not be expected to engage with the female body in the birthing process—that it might be scary, gross, or overwhelming for them. While I do believe that the birthing process can be scary and overwhelming, I also believe and trust that I can find a queer parenting community that sees the pregnant female body as beautiful, magical and wise; that a woman’s cunt, blood and vaginal fluids are beautiful; that the birthing process is one of the most beautiful and interesting experiences to have in our lifetime. I believe that Sadie has found this in her birthing circle and I believe that if I also become a birth mother, that I want the people who experience me and my labor to be supportive, active and like-minded in their love of the female body. I do not think that this should be viewed as “alternative” or “new-age.” This seems like the easiest expectation to have of others, especially since as a society we seem to be perfectly adept to seeing the blood of violence and the fluids of death. There is no reason why birth should not be held in just as high a fascination for all of us.
It has been sad to learn to what extent pregnancy is treated in some countries as an “illness” and that birthing is looked at as “medical,” which can sometimes sever the connection between the birthing mother and the process her body goes through in giving birth. In Germany, midwives always attend births, in the hospital and at home, so there is an emphasis on the importance of midwifery and in general a connection between body and birthing. There seems to be a fair amount of support for natural, vaginal childbirth—in the hospital and at home—though even in Germany the system has become increasingly medicalized and an increasing number of children are born by Caesarean section. I was shocked to learn that in several states in the United States, it is illegal for a woman to give birth at home with a midwife and that yoga birth practices, ecstatic birth practices, and even such wise practices as waiting to cut the umbilical cord until after it stops pulsing, are regarded as “alternative practices.” Too many women are not given all of the information that they need in order to make informed decisions about their labor. Furthermore, as knowledge around birth and motherhood is often treated as insular to the parent community, it seems that there is a divide between those with children and those without. There is much work to be done to return birth and motherhood to a place that is regarded with high esteem—even within the queer community, a community I hold in high regard and to a high standard.
I have always thought that nine months was a very nice length of incubation time. When I first moved to Berlin, I booked my ticket for nine months because I thought that would be a good length of time for me to decide whether or not to stay. When I have experienced significant deaths in my life, or significant breakups, I have found that nine months has been about the length of time that has given me time to transform into a new stage or perspective. For the entire length of Sadie’s pregnancy and the pregnancy of my partner’s girlfriend, I have been thinking about all the parts of these new familial relationships that are and will be difficult. I am soul-searching with my partner as we still adjust to the partnership-parenting structure we are entering together.
I see a wide range of difficulties in the process—from my own change in personal identity around mothering, to my partner’s feelings of fear around fathering, to my family’s and friend’s difficulties in understanding how to speak about our arrangement. Will the family that raised me—the many parents who raised me—view me as a parent if I am not a birth mother? Will I view myself as a parent if I am not romantically partnered with my co-parent and someone else is? Important to me is that there is support for my mom who no doubt feels confused and maybe saddened about how to find socially appropriate language to describe her daughter and her daughter’s family. She is brought into a situation that is difficult on at least two levels: one, she is not near me physically and two, she longs to take on grandmother as an identity, and yet finds this hard without seeing me as a birth mother. I know that I have grown a lot over these nine months and this has allowed me to feel safe and more relaxed even as I am still thinking through these questions and understanding all the complexities of this situation while I wait for the imminent arrival of two new children into the world.
It would be really wonderful to have these births acknowledged by my family and understood in our queer context. That said, I know that this is not necessarily an easy thing to ask. My family and friends were witness to the commitment ceremony I held with my life partner in 2006 and they may find it difficult to see how polyamory could exist within that partnership, and now, whether polyamory and parenting can co-exist. These are questions that my partner and I also struggle with. Many of our witnesses have not been able to see the changing nature of our partnership in order to adjust to our new visions. But it is obvious to me that when I asked my family and friends for witness in my partnership, I committed to being honest about my journey, including its challenges. I do not want to run in fear from the family and friends who are the mirrors of self. Most importantly I want to continue to engage actively, conscientiously, and intentionally with my partners and the future parents of these children to provide each other with the love that we need.