It’s hard to think of a human experience more fraught with gendered expectations than giving birth, but as more and more LGBTQ+ people begin to start families, it feels long past time for the cultural conversation around birth and parenting to move beyond the gender binary. That’s precisely the topic of Krys Malcolm Belc’s deeply felt and wide-ranging new memoir, The Natural Mother of the Child (Counterpoint), which presents Belc’s own experience as a nonbinary, transmasculine person giving birth and raising a family in a world that still often expects parents to present in a specific way.
Recently, Vogue spoke to Belc about his writing background, his search for queer and trans parenting communities, and what he hopes people take away from his memoir.
Vogue: First off, what was the process of writing The Natural Mother of the Child like?
Krys Malcolm Belc: It took me about two and a half years to have a draft of the book. I left an elementary-school teaching job and moved to the middle of nowhere with my family to attend an MFA program, and started writing coming from a very not-writing career. I went for fiction, and I started writing long, Alice Munro-style short stories. Then I just got sucked into this memoir project; I kind of worked on each part separately, and at first I thought they were essays. I spent a lot of time trying to make them coalesce into into one thing.
Were there other books you looked at as reference points before you started writing this memoir?
Yeah, there’s a graphic memoir called Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by A.K. Summers, and there’s an interesting moment where the speaker is considering the role of transmasculine people in the community. That had my spidey senses going in the best way, because it was a physical representation of a masculine person being pregnant, so that was big for me. I know a lot of other folks in the “trans guys who had babies” community who have similar feelings about that book. I read a lot of Facebook groups and blogs more than literature, but Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? is great, because she has a lot of really smart things to say about queerness and gender in general. Plus, that book is a reckoning about motherhood, so I think that hit me at a really important time.
There was recent discussion of gendered terms in parenting after Rep. Cori Bush used the term “birthing people.” Did that conversation resonate with you?
It did, partly because I’m actually married to a labor and delivery nurse. [Laughs.] Birth is a conversation at our dinner table; I’m married to a cis woman, and she has had a personal evolution in terms of moving towards gender-neutral language over the course of her career, like many birth workers. We talk a lot about words that don’t take anything away from anyone, but the perception is that you’re sucking motherhood out of mothers’ experiences by not calling them a “mother” constantly. I think it’s a disingenuous conversation that only really takes place on the internet, because in real life, a lot of people get irritated that when you go to the pediatrician’s office, everyone’s calling you “Mom” and not by your first name. I work in a health care setting—mostly sending emails and making phone calls—and I’m always writing the parents’ names over and over again, because that’s active work that people should do, and nobody objects to their name.
Do you feel like you’ve cultivated a queer and trans parenting community?
No, not at all. I don’t really have queer parenting friends or connections where I live; I have some lovely cis-het neighbors with kids who are my people that I call to watch my kids for a few minutes so I can run and get something, but I have had to rely on online means to connect with other trans people. I have some queer parent friends scattered throughout Philadelphia, but they’re not in my everyday life in a way that’s necessarily useful, parenting-wise.
Do you wish you had more of that queer and trans community around you and your family, or do you feel OK as is?
That’s something that I think a lot about and I don’t know where I end up falling on it. All my closest friends that I talk to about parenting are moms that I met at, like, breastfeeding groups and play groups and those kinds of things, and I feel like there is a queerness and weird gender aspect to those relationships as a baseline. It’s like, you can’t be in a friendship with me without it being a queer thing, almost! But yeah, I do sometimes feel a little bit like, “I wish I had more of a queer parenting community.” Living in Philly, though, it is nice to see queer people everywhere. I don’t feel like it’s remarkable. It’s just that most of my queer friends don’t have kids, and I think that has to do with my race, class, and education level. We moved to the area of Philly that we’re in from an extremely queer area where I’m sure there would have been more of that community, but we couldn’t actually afford to stay there long-term. I don’t think we were like, “What will making queer family friends look like?” We were just not in that stage of our life when we came over here. And now we do talk about it, because our kids are older, and they don’t really have friends who have queer parents. We’re kind of like, would that be a good move? Or are we just projecting this desire that we have onto them in a way that they don’t seem to need or want?
Have you talked to your kids about the book and the process of writing about your family life, or do you keep it separate?
Well, the book covers a period of my life that ended, both because the book had to stop at some point, and because I mentally moved on from feeling like I was in an extended postpartum period when my gestational child turned five. He’s about to turn eight, and he’s my middle of three. So the younger one is not really very much in the book, as a character. Nor is my older child; they understand that I wrote a book that’s about our family life, but as people, they’re not robust characters. I’ve tried to explain that to them, but that’s not a very kid-friendly concept. They’re honestly not particularly interested, which has made it very easy for me. They’re just like, “All right, cool, man. That sounds great.” The child that I gave birth to is a pretty private person, and at the time I was writing, he wasn’t at an age where I could get meaningful consent about the writing that I was doing. So I think that is tricky. I just kept telling myself, “Don’t make it a biography. It’s about your perceptions of what these relationships mean, not about the actual people.”
Is there anything you hope people will learn from your book that they might not have considered before?
I think that people still really balk at the idea of men and women’s spaces. I personally attended a breastfeeding support group for two years as I was breastfeeding, and our partners were allowed in as support people, and there were a lot of weird gender-essentialist conversations coming out of that, in a “We don’t want men in a women’s space” kind of thing. I think there’s a lot of importance to keeping cis men out of things that their bodies are not involved in, especially when they violently make laws against other people’s bodily autonomy, but I also think that trans belonging and parenting are much more nuanced than those conversations can make them out to be.