Labeled 'Mother' When Not A Mother At All: On Being A Non-Binary Gestational Parent
The language we use to talk about the act of giving birth to a child is highly gendered. We speak of pregnant women, we speak of mothers, we speak of motherhood.
In the crowded genre of memoir about mothering, Krys Malcolm Belc's debut, The Natural Mother of the Child, asks: What do we do with someone who is parenting the child they gave birth to, but is not a mother at all? Where do transgender and non-binary parents fit, especially in a world that is determined to force them into a box labeled "mother?"
To ask — but not always find answers to — these questions, Belc uses fragmented essays that are shaped around the supporting documents of his life: his birth certificate, with the name and gender he was assigned at birth; his marriage certificate to his wife, Anna; the birth certificate of his gestational child; the adoption paperwork that allowed Belc's wife to adopt the son Belc carried (Belc is the non-gestational parent to the two children his wife carried); photos from his childhood and pregnancy. It is the necessary and long overdue transmasculine account of carrying and birthing a child.
Belc's family structure often confounds the people around him. Anna carried their eldest and youngest children, while Belc carried the couple's middle child, all three conceived using the same donor. Belc carried his pregnancy before his medical transition — he knew he was not a woman, but the world often read him that way — and credits the pregnancy and birth of his son, Samson, with helping him realize that he needed to go on testosterone. "Without him," Belc writes of his son, "I never could have believed in myself enough to say yes. Yes to hormones, yes to finding out how to live."
Belc's gender often occupies an in-between space that defies categorization, both for himself but also for the world around him. People do not know how to make sense of a child who was "made by their dad." There are no models of other transmasculine parents that Belc can turn to for support, or to show his children that they are not alone in the world. "[Samson] asks when we can meet other families like ours and I say, honestly, that I do not know," he writes. Even an interaction Belc has with Anna, a nurse who is seeking lactation support certification, shows how much of an outlier gestational parents who are not women are thought to be: Belc suggests Anna change the word "mother" to "parent" on worksheets she is creating for a class; she brushes him off, telling him not to "take everything so seriously."
The book is not linear in structure, and skews literary and lyrical, told as a collection of fragmented essays. Belc seamlessly weaves in primary source documents with historical references, including the history of ultrasound machines, and of mastectomies to treat breast cancer ("The problem with reading about the science of pregnancy is that I cannot help being angry at the words mother and maternal," Belc writes). He explores anger, a common trope associated with transmasculine people who begin testosterone, turning it on its head by explaining that he has gotten less angry since starting T, not more; the anger he felt before was a result of not being able to live as himself. He struggles with feeling conflicted watching his son have the childhood he felt he should have gotten, to be raised as a boy, while also leaving space for his children to discover their own gender identities: "In this family, there is always a chance to redefine how you see yourself."
The book switches between first and second person, which can sometimes be confusing for the reader. Belc writes from the trans perspective and it is clear that he is unconcerned with overexplaining his experience to a cisgender audience. His experience is far from universal, but nearly everyone can relate to the transformative experience of falling in love — with a person, with a child — and the ways that love can shape our identities.
And for readers like me, who can relate to the experience of being a non-binary gestational parent, who are so used to being erased and invisible from conversations around families and parenting, the book looks us dead in the eye and says, unflinchingly: I see you. I am you.
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, The Washington Post, Bleacher Report, The Ringer, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and other media.