Resisting Precious Narratives: Knocking Myself Up
A Book Review and interview with Author Michelle Tea
I stood in my kitchen opening up an oblong brown box from my Friend Amy. Prenatal vitamins, a pair of spanx, and a lively book with the title “I’m Pregnant!” I flipped through it briefly, and within, everything you could ever want to know about having a happy, healthy pregnancy. There was even a section called, “doing it alone.” Which I found particularly comforting. I had been looking online at sperm banks and had gotten a referral to an OBGYN for a fertility checkup. As someone on Medicaid, I wasn’t too pleased to hear that even an appointment simply discussing getting pregnant would not be covered, let alone any kind of prescriptions or procedures. As a queer woman and former sex worker, trying to “do it alone” was terrifying for numerous reasons, but also something I felt like I had to explore. As a queer woman on my own, I ran into more than my fair share of perplexed looks from medical professionals who probably wondered why I couldn’t just find a nice man and settle down.
This is where we encounter Michelle Tea in her new book “Knocking myself up.” A memoir of Tea’s journey to get pregnant without a traditional straight cis man in the picture was something I literally ate up, curled in my bed, within a day. I finally felt like I had another Queer woman using a sperm donor to talk to and I relished every minute of Tea’s cheeky sense of humor and delicate take on the journey of conceiving. Michelle tries everything from do-it-yourself insemination to medical procedures, on top of hormones, on top of medical procedure and she endures this both alone at times and with a partner of hers, who happens to be a Trans man. Nothing is successful until she has a brilliant lightbulb moment of an even less traditional method in which she can have a baby, after trying all the methods she could think of.
Michelle Tea, for those who aren’t familiar, is a Queer author who is extremely well-known within Queer literary circles. Her most famous works are undoubtedly Valencia (Seal, 2000) and Rent Girl (Last Gasp, 2004) as well as the speculative fiction book Black Wave (Amethyst Editions, 2016), among others. She is the curator of Amethyst Editions, a imprint of the Feminist Press, is the founder of Sister Spit, a traveling collective of female artists, and is the winner of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel award for Against Memoir (Amethyst Editions, 2018). As a baby gay, I first read Valencia at sixteen when I knew I was Queer, but didn’t know I was Queer, if that makes sense, and Michelle opened up a whole new world to me with her writing. A world where being gay was the norm; where being LGBTQ wasn’t stigmatized because everyone was LGBTQ. When I was eighteen and living in New York, I read Valencia for the second time when I was getting up my nerve to go to my first lesbian club. When all I knew were straight people at the time, I was afraid of what embracing my “gayness” would mean as far as changes in my life. I desperately wanted a change and didn’t at the same time, but Michelle’s work was a window to a future I couldn’t imagine and yet desperately needed to.
What I felt the most is what Michelle really rails against in this memoir, which is that of “precious birth narratives.” Children do not need to be conceived vis a vis a cis man and woman in a kind of fairytale romance in order to be part of a real family. Michelle calls to the carpet what it means to be a parent and what that role is “supposed” to look like from the very first paragraph.
When I started telling people around me that I was going to get myself pregnant, they reacted in a variety of ways, and not always as expected. My two best friends, with whom I have a very codeFRIENDent relationship were skeptical. ‘You can’t just go and put the baby in the other room when you want to have sex.’
When Michelle’s friend reminds her that similarly, she can’t just pick up and jet off to Paris anytime she wants, Michelle replies with ‘why?’ and argues she could immerse her baby in the French language, and give them the gift of dual citizenship! As a former sex worker wannabe mother, I too have felt like, why do I have to be a Madonna? Why do I have to be the mother/martyr that sacrifices everything for their child while wanting nothing for herself? Does nothing get to remain mine? Do we have to raise our children the way heteropatriarchal society tells us? With this book, first and foremost I think Michelle is putting it out there that maybe we (gasps) don’t have to. That maybe there is more than one way to be a mom, or a parent, or a family.
On the contrary, Michelle wants to reflect that the desire for parenthood and family is a universal one that is not relegated just to “baby-mad straight ladies.”
“We may not relate to the baby-mad straight ladies who post about their yearnings on the internet, but we now have far more in common with them than I ever thought we would.”
Knocking Myself Up is centrally a book about queering the American birthing complex. Part of this queering is bringing sexuality back to pregnancy, bringing sexuality to the Madonna of straight religious lore.
“Having had it with my sexual frustration and the attendant dirty dreams my psyche was screening for me each night, I call the nurses station at the fertility clinic and bluntly ask if I am now allowed to have orgasms.”
One of the things I have always loved about Michelle’s writing is her consistent rally against the stigma’s cast upon the feminine body. From period sex to drunk sex to, now, horny pregnant masturbation, Tea wants us to feel and be conscious of the shame we all have when reading about these things — and then she wants us to hail a big fuck you to it all. Birth is messy, birth is gross, pregnancy is gross, and yet it is also sacred and beautiful and transcendent in ways not everyone will ever know. Tea wants us to feel embodied through her experiences with blood, semen, and orgasms. This to me was one of the tenderest parts of the book, because mothers are usually sequestered from having any kind of sexuality. As a former sex worker and Queer woman, and as a writer who has written extensively about my own experiences in the sex industry, if I do decide to have a kid — they will be forced, for good or bad, to be confronted with their mother’s very public sexuality. I believe and know that this will be both traumatic and humiliating, and, perhaps when they’re older, badass and inspiring.
Michelle says within the first part of the book that she wants to resist precious narratives, and I believe this is the greatest gift and hopefully legacy of this book. Break away from the precious, resist the precious. We are not Madonna’s, we (mother’s and mother’s-to-be) have the right to exist outside of the expectations placed upon us. And nothing is quite as precious as that.
An Interview with Author Michelle Tea on her new book Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of my (In)Fertility
LL: One thing that stuck out to me as a former sex worker reading this book was how stigma-breaking it was to include your high libido and masturbation sessions during pregnancy. I think we tend to regard mothers as Madonna’s, devoid of sexual wants or needs and selflessly just existing for their children while requiring nothing for themselves. What do you think about this idea that mother’s shouldn’t be/aren’t sexual beings?
MT: I agree with you, I think the virgin/whore thing is really still very much alive for mothers in our culture. American culture is so deeply sex-negative and sex-phobic, while also being sex-obsessed, which is how you wind up with this idea of moms as like very wholesome and self-sacrificing and asexual on the one hand, and then, like, MILF porn where they’re insatiable ho’s screwing their step sons. I think a lot of it has to do with proximity to children, that you can’t be close to kids and also be a person who has a sexuality. In think it has to do with the Christian damage the country has, where their savior was literally born from a mom who miraculously never had sex. It’s so deep and layered. We’re seeing it also in the attacks on Drag Queen Story Hours in libraries across the country, drag queens being largely gay men, and then other queers, people who have really claimed their sexualities to the point that we are partially identified by them. I really love writing about sex, partially I think because it is still taboo, which is ridiculous but then allows for a lot of uncharted territory, which is exciting as a writer.
LL: Everyone’s pregnancy and birth experience are naturally going to be different, but if you had to generalize, what would you say are some of the unique challenges that Queer mothers/parents may go through that perhaps straight mothers/parents do not? What were some examples you could give from your life?
MT: I think queer parents are probably more likely to have a very medicalized experience, because so many of us have to utilize assisted reproductive technologies, which brings you into clinics where your vag gets wanded and there are blood tests and psych evals and constant monitoring. I feel very lucky — because I really had a good doctor, my constant visits were enjoyable because they seemed to be always about increasing the likelihood of my having a baby! I was always very excited to arrive at the clinic. But even my doctor was sort of clueless about things that to me felt rooted in my queerness and queer community — for instance, he was very discouraging about using known donor sperm, in spite of how OVERWHELMING feedback is from donor kids that it is way, way better for them. I do understand that people can be unpredictable monsters, even queer people, but I just knew that my sperm donor — a gay male friend — was one-hundred-percent a chill person regarding their sperm donation, and I’ve always been really open to the idea of him having more of a role in my kid’s life should he want that, so I forsaw no issues but whenever I expressed that the doctor acted like I was terribly naive.
Also, the fact that, if you’re a queer needing to source sperm or an egg, you get this weird feeling that you can (and should?) totally design your baby. Like, straight people are just hot for each other and fuck and get pregnant, but I was in this predicament, especially when I was briefly considering a sperm bank, to like pick an ethnicity, etc. It was a real headfuck, because I’m like, well, it would probably be nice for everyone to have one less white person in the world, but then also, there’s something creepy about a white woman deliberately giving birth to a child of color, so I felt really trapped. It was actually my DNA missing from the child, so there was a sense I should find an Irish-Polish-English mutt but then I was like, yuck (lolz). I know other people who went nuts finding a tall donor, or one with a prestigious occupation. It’s a really unfortunate aspect. Thankfully I just was able to get sperm from my friend who is a gem, but if I were to use a sperm bank I think I would have to just do eeny meeny miny mo. It felt wrong to be so designing a baby!
LL: I really enjoyed when you said in the book, and I’m paraphrasing, that you wanted to avoid “precious narratives” about pregnancy. What does this concept of “precious narratives” about pregnancy mean for you? How do you think your experience of pregnancy, as written about in the book, might have challenged these narratives?
MT: Well, I mean, sure, obviously it is a precious thing to be growing a baby inside you, it is sacred, and magical, and I felt all those things, but that’s just not my sensibility, overall, it’s not how I express myself. I’m too influenced by punk culture and John Waters, the dark humor of queers in the ‘90s when so many thought we had no future. Even growing up in a rough town sort of abrades a certain amount of preciousness out of you. What was inspiring to me was to wonder how would I with my particular perspective, style and humor, go about processing pregnancy, and how would I write about it. It felt very exciting. I was very influenced also by The Hip Mama Survival Guide by Ariel Gore, which I read in my 20s and really introduced me to the idea that having a baby could be a punk thing, a revolutionary act, another way of having a life that was artistic and lived wildly, and so that has certainly contributed to my outlook. It’s the only piece of parenting writing I’ve ever been influenced by — that and Kendra DeColo’s collection I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World, which came out just a year ago, when my child was already 6, but it was such a revelation to read work about the experience of motherhood that really resonated and felt tough and punk and wild. There are a lot of pieces on Mutha, the online magazine I started, that also have that non-precious attitude, written by deeply real women who are sexual, or troubled, or wild, and putting that site together while trying to get pregnant I think also helped me understand I could be myself through this process. That it was actually really necessary.