A Letter to My Partner on My Non Binary Parenthood

This is an excerpt from The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, in which nonbinary transmasculine author Krys Malcolm Belc explores how the experience of gestational parenthood—conceiving, birthing, and breastfeeding his son Samson—eventually clarified his gender identity. In this excerpt, Belc writes to his partner Anna about raising their three young children.

When your friends at work become pregnant you come home and tell me everything. The boys are still half in their pajamas and they are all running around the house yelling and scattering their toys as widely as they can. It is eight in the morning and I am emptying the dishwasher and washing berries in a little colander and I am cutting the kids’ pancakes and trying to find Samson’s lunch box. It is under the couch. My eyes are closed at the breakfast table waiting for coffee to hit me. Nobody bother your dad before his first cup of coffee, you say. You are passing out plates and forks like playing cards. You want to talk about your pregnant friends. When they are due and what their partners are like and where they plan to give birth and whether they are sick and what I never say is that I hate these conversations so much.

When I am around a pregnant person I feel an emptiness where Samson used to be.

At my CrossFit gym there is another pregnant woman and every other woman wants to talk to her about their births. I make sure not to stand too close because I don’t want to seem interested in their birth stories. Trying to look like I am not listening only makes it worse. This is when I see flashes of the bathroom where I had Samson, of his slimy new head. He came out so sleepy he had to be roused to cry. He was saving energy, we said once we knew him. You told me you learned in nursing school that some women with dementia remember the day they gave birth with great clarity even as everything around them crumbles. It has defined my life, too. When I am around a pregnant person I feel an emptiness where Samson used to be. A professor I respect deeply tells me she is pregnant and I know it’s irrational, I know it isn’t fair, but the surprise on her face when I tell her about Samson hurts me. She doesn’t seem repulsed, just surprised. Who would think. In that moment I know I can never have my past and present at the same time. I hate having to explain how Samson and I are related. I don’t want my life, his life, to be a surprise. Most of the time, I don’t have to explain. No one asks. Because who would think.

I know I can never have my past and present at the same time.

There are things I miss. Before Michigan, before testosterone, sometimes people in Philadelphia would look at me and Samson and know he was mine, think I made him, and they would call him beautiful. No one says that anymore; now they say You’re such a good dad because now they think I am a man and no one thinks men can do anything related to children, least of all make one.

Sometimes I mourn that Samson cannot make his own child, the way I did. He can be connected with other people by genes but he can never have what I have with him, with just one other person. On a screen, my back crinkling white paper, my legs lying limp and restless, my belly lubed up, a wand pressed into me. BOY, the machine said. In that moment, I was relieved. It seemed an easier life, the life he would have, this boyhood. Now I know better, or at least I know different. What I did was beautiful. Sometimes I miss women, how they loved and accepted me before I took too many steps out of their world. I miss my mother even though she likes me more now, likes this me who has a beard and broad shoulders and who smiles, smiles all the time. But she used to think we were the same.

Before testosterone, sometimes people would look at me and Samson and know he was mine

I am not sure how much, in those months Samson lived in me, I belonged to me and how much I belonged to him. When I was pregnant I made so many decisions to protect him. When a co- worker put her hands on my shoulders to pull me away from fistfighting students, she admonished me—You’re pregnant, Belc. In those moments I had forgotten I was no longer by myself, never would be again. I look at him, five and a half years later, so many years past our physical connectedness, and feel like it’s possible he made away with a piece of me. How could someone who looks so much like me have taken nothing with him on his way out? Is it wrong to blame him for some of my loneliness? Did our other children take from you? Samson has left his marks on me, too—these widened hips, these spent breasts, and beyond that, his cells living on inside me. In 1996, a geneticist at Tufts University discovered male fetal cells in a woman twenty-seven years after she had given birth to her son. These cells have been detected as early as seven weeks into pregnancy and have been found inside the brains of deceased mothers. These microchimeric cells, in the first few years, seem to migrate around the human body causing both damage and healing. In wounds they make repairs to their makers. In tumors they have been found trying to rip their creators apart. We have opened ourselves up to them this way. Parts of our children live on inside us, in our very blood, long after they are on the outside.

When I was pregnant I made so many decisions to protect him.

Samson is curious about how often I look at old pictures. Of us, of you. He isn’t old enough to look back. I am obsessed with the photograph of you at Sean’s age. You’re missing two teeth like he is. Your nose is freckled like his. You’re standing in front of a body of water, a lake, I think. You grew up in a housing complex in Warsaw; were you on vacation? You smile big. You talk about a happy childhood. In the picture in which he looks the most like you, Sean is frowning. He is a serious child. He likes books about science. He likes everything to be noted on his calendar. When Sean is having a hard time we talk about your stubbornness, those days you wake up in a bad mood and refuse to let anything make you happy. How you are alike. When he argues with me, about putting his underwear in the hamper, about putting his books back on the shelf, I feel like I’m arguing with you. Having children made you more serious. When Sean smiles, I feel I have cracked a code.

Parts of our children live on inside us, in our very blood, long after they are on the outside.

Samson wakes up excited nearly every day. When I started writing about Samson, about how he and I are connected, I often wrote about jealousy. He was a toddler then. My body was still soft from him. He wore Sean’s old clothes, jeans and T-shirts with dinosaurs and baseballs. I wore him on my back everywhere we went. He talked a little, mostly about snacks. The border between his body and mine was porous for years: nine months of pregnancy, two years of breastfeeding. I was angry that I would have to stand by and watch someone who looks exactly like me get the childhood I feel I should have had. That I had created, nourished this boyhood. In the last few years, though, things have changed. I got on hormones. Samson is still wild and he laughs more than anyone I know but that doesn’t mean his life is easy. He asks when we can meet other families like ours and I say, honestly, that I do not know. Samson,I ask him. Would it be easier if our family had another kid made by me? He thinks for a long time. I don’t know, he finally says.

The border between his body and mine was porous for years

And then there is ZZ. He is still in diapers. Our first two children are thirteen months apart. ZZ came later, after we had practiced a bit. We know now that we can do all the setup we want, but we cannot make their childhoods what we want them to be. When his brothers ask if he is a boy or a girl or both or neither ZZ says, I am a baby. In this family there is always a chance to redefine how you see yourself. We catch ourselves comparing him to Sean, to Samson. Unlike our other children, who were conceived at home in our bedroom in West Philadelphia, ZZ was conceived in a doctor’s office. I was not there. ZZ is our only child who has always known me as his dad. We are growing up together in a way the other boys and I did not. He was five months old the day I started testosterone. The night ZZ was born, Samson stopped being at the center of our family life, the way the newest person always is.

Excerpted from THE NATURAL MOTHER OF THE CHILD: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood by Krys Malcolm Belc. Published with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2021 by Krys Malcolm Belc.

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