Toward an Ungendered Childbearing:
Deconstructing Assumptions of Femaleness in Pregnancy and Birth

November 14th, 2017

[For now this is a rough draft, as I get input and update this essay, originally written in 2006, with last major edits in 2008. Please let me know your thoughts as I catch up the last decade!]

Our society strongly links childbearing with womanhood. There is historical ground for this assumption—most of the people who give birth in our society are cisgender1 women. However, it is never prudent to generalize “most” to “all.” Some trans men and nonbinary people choose to bear children, and this assumption of birth as a “woman thing” is damaging to non-female-identified people who choose to become pregnant, as well as to their communities. Throughout time and across cultures, we see myths and images of non-female pregnancy and birth. This history, combined with a feminist deconstruction of gender, can serve as a foundation for opening the experience of childbearing to trans men without the current implication of femaleness.

The Birth of Athena, an ancient Greek vase painting, ca 560 BC.

The Birth of Athena, an ancient Greek vase painting, ca 560 BC.

Human obsession with male pregnancy and birth is not new; who knows how long people have related stories of cisgender men who bear children? Our earliest recorded example, in Greek mythology, is that of Zeus birthing two of his own children. The king of the gods swallowed his pregnant first wife, Metis; their child Athena later sprang from his head fully armed (1, ll. 924-929t). Similarly, Dionysus was gestated in and birthed from an incision in Zeus’s thigh (2, ll. 119-130).

The theme of male pregnancy in mythology shows up across cultures: Osset mythology tells of Batraz—his mother was a frog-woman, who became pregnant and spit the fetus into her husband’s shoulder. The baby Batraz grew into an abscess and was born when it burst. A Hindu tale relates how a lotus flower emerged from the navel of Vishnu and bloomed to reveal the infant Brahma. The Norse trickster-god Loki is said to have become pregnant while embodying a mare to distract an opponent’s horse; he later gave birth to the 8-legged horse Sleipnir, favored steed of Odin. Of all these, however, my favorite of the male birth stories I have found is a very sweet Inuit creation myth.

In the time that followed there appeared two small mounds of earth from which were born two men, two adults, the first Inuit. They soon wished to reproduce, and one of them took the other to be his wife. The wife-man became pregnant and when his time came, his companion, anxious to bring the fetus out, composed a magic song:
Here is a man
Here is a penis
May he form a passage there
A great passage
Passage, passage, passage.
The song split the penis of his partner, who was transformed into a woman. All of the Inuit descend from them.

(3, p. 252)

These tales have a few common themes in addition to non-female birth. Usually, the father is a god and the child born is special somehow—either also a god or someone else destined for greatness.

1994 film Junior

The 1994 film Junior features the pregnancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since the days of Hesiod and Euripides, extra-uterine pregnancy has remained on people’s minds, and the theme extends through the Middle Ages, when there were many rumors of pregnant men2, and into contemporary culture. Many writers have employed the plotline, often creating utopian or anti-utopian worlds, such as in Durrell Owens’ 2004 novel, The Song of a Manchild. Tabloids rely heavily on exceptional reproduction, including male pregnancy. Films have addressed the topic as well, starting with the 1976 French film A Slightly Pregnant Man and 1978 Rabbit Test to Schwarzenegger’s 1994 Junior.

Fictitious characters are not the only uterus-free people getting pregnant. Some men have themselves replicated pregnancies and labor within their own bodies. At least, they imitate the symptoms, like morning sickness, cravings, weight gain and contractions. This is called “couvade” or “sympathetic pregnancy.” The symptoms coincide with those of the pregnant person, usually a partner, though siblings and close friends have also reported symptoms.

Empathy Belly

Behold: the Empathy Belly

For those who don’t happen to have couvade symptoms, there’s always the Empathy Belly (4), a device designed to show the wearer what it feels like to be pregnant. Empathy Bellies have been used as part of sex-ed training for teens, but are primarily used by those with pregnant partners. The use of an Empathy Belly is said to “greatly increase [the wearer’s] sense of involvement, gut-level awareness and empathy…appreciation, communication and supportive behavior towards their pregnant partner” (4).

Couvade and the Empathy Belly are commonly perceived as non‑threatening and even a bit comical. In theory, men who share or even just understand how difficult pregnancy can be are more compassionate toward their pregnant partners. Couvade and Empathy Bellies can be seen as relatively inoffensive, even jokey, because no man is literally pregnant.

In the near future, however, uterus-less people may achieve literal pregnancy (and the corresponding scores of offended people). A small handful of scientists around the world are working to achieve this feat, although none have succeeded yet. The theory is built upon past cases of ectopic pregnancies3 being carried to term and born healthy. In people without a uterus, doctors would implant an embryo into the abdominal cavity by in vitro fertilization, in hopes it will attach to the peritoneum. After nine months, the baby would be born via Caesarean. The primary concern would be the very high and deadly risk of hemorrhage when detaching the placenta from the abdomen. Other researchers are working on the possibility of uterus transplants, though it seems they would be temporary, removed when the patient is done with childbearing, to avoid life-long use of anti-rejection medications.

There is much debate around the ethics of male pregnancy. Much of the argument against it pertains to the hormone therapy. Because a fetus is technically a parasite or foreign object, the immune system will destroy it unless adequate levels of progesterone are present4. For someone without ovaries, this would involve taking a large amount of progesterone and estrogen. Some people see this as unnatural, violating the biological order of things because it blurs the line between genders.

This objection is problematic for several reasons: firstly, it does not take into consideration the many trans women who are already taking “female” hormones (or would like to), and desire to bear their own children. One doctor, Chen Huanran, of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, does take this into account. As a prominent surgeon doing gender confirmation surgeries, Chen’s research in intra‑abdominal pregnancy is motivated by transfeminine patients who “expressed a wish to have their own children” (5).

The second problem with this objection is the assumption of a biological “line between genders” in the first place. This is closely related to the societal construct of the gender binary: when people are forced into one box or another, the line that separates them becomes very important. Societal panic surrounds this issue because the “line between genders” enforces the belief that women are “supposed” to be mothers. The Freudian concept that “biology is destiny” described an essentialist womanhood that innately depends on bearing children: “motherhood as natural fulfillment of female biological destiny” (6). One inevitable side‑effect of this theory is the corollary that pregnancy equals womanhood. When womanhood becomes motherhood, it is practically impossible for pregnancy to be seen as anything other than necessarily female.

From Zeus and Schwarzenegger to couvade and cutting-edge reproductive science, some scholars argue that these portrayals of pregnant men evidence an innate masculine desire to bear children. Karen Horney refers to this concept as “womb envy,”5 as her theories both correspond to and challenge Freudian “penis envy.” “Womb envy” is embraced primarily by essentialist feminism, which posits that women and men are inherently, biologically different. Essentialist feminism argued that women are “more maternal and nurturing, hence better parents and more likely to be peacemakers; more moral, hence better social gatekeepers and more ethical politicians or leaders; better communicators; less violent; less competitive; and just generally Venusian” (7, p. 64). Under this essentialist framework, “womb envy” seeks to explain male aggression and misogyny, but totally neglects anyone who does not conform to gender binaries, gender roles, or gender norms.

Most current theorists, however, reject Horney’s hypothesis and essentialism generally, leaning toward social constructionism, a theory that says most social phenomena, including gendered traits, are a product of our culture. Each framework has a markedly different interpretation of identity: “Whereas essentialists regard identity as natural, fixed and innate, constructionists assume identity is fluid, the effect of social conditioning and available cultural models for understanding oneself” (8, p. 8). As gender is socially constructed, so too is the assumption that pregnancy inherently falls within femaleness. Like most socially constructed beliefs, however, people remain highly attached to them, often unable even to imagine the possibility of other truths.

At the original time of writing, there was a media uproar surrounding Thomas Beatie, an Oregon man who announced his first viable pregnancy in 20086. He had been dismissed as a hoax and as a freak, but the truth is, he’s a garden variety trans guy. This means he was born with the parts society tends to associate with women, and can thus carry a healthy baby in his uterus. While tabloid headlines can be obnoxious and hurtful, the backlash that I find most concerning is that I hear from others in the trans community.

Various online forums for trans folks contain lengthy, heated threads7 about Beatie and transmasculine pregnancy in general8. Some posters are supportive, but others express strong disapproval. Similar to reactions among some members of general society, I read of trans people questioning the masculinity and transgender status of trans men who choose to bear children. Apparently, pregnancy is seen as such a strong marker of femaleness that even in the trans community, it overrides the rest of Beatie’s life and male identity. After struggling to be recognized as men, trans men often feel they are forced to choose between parenting and their perceived manhood. This is disconcerting, and further evidences the need to break down the assumed connection between pregnancy and womanhood. In the nearly ten years since I originally wrote this piece, Beatie’s fame has waned. Many other trans folks have welcomed babies into their families—some hiding the entire pregnancy from everyone; others smothered by media and harassed by total strangers. While Beatie was the first to include the media in his story, he was not the first, and has certainly not been the last. For the most part, however, the social push-back has remained. As a care provider, as a trans person, and as a compassionate human being, I’m very alarmed at the refusal to acknowledge those pregnant folks who are not women. This refusal comes at the expense of trust and the client-practitioner relationship, in turn compromising prenatal care and their clients’ mental and overall well-being.

Trans men have inherited the legacy of Zeus and his “male womb” (2, ll. 658). However, they do not have to birth children from their navels or heads, but can carry children safely and naturally in their uteruses. Pregnant men may not be seahorses or gods, but they are still men, and need not give up their masculinity in order to grow their families as they see fit. We need to create a new social space for male pregnancy and birth. When childbearing can be no longer coded “female,” any parent will be free to bear and raise a child, seen and supported.

[Thank you for reading! I intend to add more about seahorses, the Sims, nonbinary folks, medical advances, and more recent and specific trans-antagonism, as well as a new conclusion and possible intro paragraph. Lemme know if you find any problematic outdated language, or just where you’d love to see this piece go.]

References
1. Hesiod. The Theogony. Trans. H G Evelyn-White. Out-of-print; available at: www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm Accessed Nov 2017.

2. Euripides (2003). The Bacchae. Trans. I Johnston. Nanaimo, BC: Prideaux Street Publications.

3. Rasmussen, K. (1929). Intellectual culture of the Iglulik Eskimos, Report of the fifth Thule expedition, Vol. 7. Copenhagen.

4. Birthways Childbirth Resource Center (2000). Expectant fathers and the empathy belly pregnancy simulator. Available at: www.empathybelly.org/about-the-belly Accessed Nov 2017.

5. China.org.cn. Male pregnancy now an option, Beijing surgeon says. Available at: www.china.org.cn/english/2002/May/33452.htm Accessed Nov 2017.

6. Gurel, P. (2005). In passing room 10: Motherhood and the beats. Quiet mountain: New feminist essays—A monthly journal of women’s writing, 2 (IX). Available at: www.quietmountainessays.org/Gurel.html Accessed Nov 2017.

7. Fudge, R. (2006). Everything you always wanted to know about feminism but were afraid to ask. Bitch, 31, 58-67.

8. Jagose, A. (1996). Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: University Press.

Footnotes

Buying Internet Sperm

August 23rd, 2017

I’ve bought a lot of things on the internet. A sub-section of those are things intended, in one way or another, for crotches (mine or clients’)…and we just added sperm to that list. This is the first time I’ve bought sperm on the internet, and it’s a lot to think about. My thoughts jump all over the place, and I ask myself endless questions. “Are you really really sure?” “Is that really all there is to it?” “How was this possibly legal? (“What if it wasn’t?!”) “What if we made the wrong choice?” “How does anyone ever choose from all these options?” “Is this overly impersonal?” “Am I strange for thinking this is the normalest thing ever?” “Did you really just hit confirm?!” “Do you think this is as bizarre as I do?” “How did we get here?”

Choosing donor gametes to build a baby is a big decision with a zillion potential factors, and everyone’s path differs. Sibyl was DIYed with help from a known sperm donor, a longtime friend, and the clearly obvious best choice at the time. He and I had discussed the possibility for years, and I never really had to think about my other options. We would have loved to have him participate again, so the kids would share that, and be genetic half siblings. But Sibyl’s donor declined when we asked whether he would donate again, which I had more sads about than I would have expected. Now we had to choose between finding another known donor, or going with an anonymous donor. If we were planning to do home inseminations again, we probably would have found another local known donor, as it’s so much easier with fresh sperm, but we are going through a clinic this time. Which means a potential known donor would have had to freeze sperm, and that requires a bunch of tests and a six month waiting period. Very expensive, but it would have been worth it for the sake of having the same donor, or someone we wanted to have a relationship with Kid2. As it stood, we didn’t know who we might ask, so it was much cheaper and more straightforward to buy a single vial of ART sperm off the internet, since the reproductive endocrinologist can use one vial to make multiple embryos.

We looked at sperm banks. We knew that we couldn’t get a queer donor, due to the same fucked up regulations as those restricting blood donors (one of the potential pros of choosing another known donor). But we DID find a handful of donors, at various banks across the country, who mentioned being vegan in their profiles. (We did not read every profile, but found enough through google’s crawl bots. Also, FYI, searching “vegan sperm donor” gives just as…interesting…results as you might expect.)

We’ve been asked about why vegan sperm matters, and for us, it’s not about sperm health, but rather an indicator that the person whose genes will help create Kid2 is compassionate and shares some of our ethics. It’s the closest we have to a religion in our family. Plus, we chose a “willing to be known donor,” which means that upon reaching 18, any children can initiate contact. So maybe someday, he will think it’s cool that his vegan sperm ended up becoming a vegan kid.

So anyway. I made us a chart of all the potential vegan sperm donors, as I am inclined to make charts for everything, and we had a lovely sweet talk about our priorities and dreams. We like the idea of our family sharing some physical characteristics, and Rowan wanted to find someone who maybe looks like me, so we narrowed it down to the ones with blue or hazel eyes, since that’s what we have in our family so far. We ruled out the tallest ones, and anyone who seemed tedious, pretentious, and mansplainy. We got it down to two and read more about each of them. The donor we settled on is actually the first one we’d ever looked at, when we thought maybe this is the only donor we’ll find who mentions being vegan. He has blue eyes like me and imperfect vision, like both of us as well as Sibyl’s donor. He and I share some aspects of upbringing. He has puberty-induced backne, like Rowan. He works in an unusual field that my cousin happens to work in as well. He was a cute kid, and he’s from the Pacific Northwest, which seems fitting.

So now we have some sperm. And the whole thing feel so much less theoretical.

Exciting News!

August 17th, 2017

So this week my partner and I both started taking birth control pills. Which is not exciting, and hardly news, in itself. It’s also a bit unreal, and a bit humorous, as folks who are at zero risk of accidental pregnancy (I know there are many other reasons for being on the pill). But, counter-intuitively, us both taking contraceptives is the first step toward making a baby.

Because we want to make what I’m calling a “fancy baby” this time, and that requires syncing our fertility cycles. Oh yeah, and actually HAVING fertility cycles. Neither of us were bleeding at all, as Rowan’s has been suppressed with testosterone and mine hasn’t come back yet since I birthed a baby in March as a gestational surrogate for another family (and then went on testosterone myself for three months). So he’s tapering off testosterone, we’re both on the pill and prenatal vitamins now, and will hopefully both bleed during the week of placebo pills. The idea is to hormonally manipulate our cycles to give a reproductive endocrinologist (RE) more control, and more leeway if something needs to be adjusted. It also makes it possible for us to do a fresh embryo transfer using reciprocal IVF.

Reciprocal IVF has also been called Partner IVF, Lesbian IVF (fine when the participants identify as such), or, the clunkiest of the terms, ROPA–Reception of Oocytes from PArtner. Regardless of name, the process essentially entails dividing an IVF cycle into two parts, and each of us will do one half. Rowan will be doing a follicle stimulation and egg retrieval (lots of meds and an intimidating procedure), while I’m preparing my uterus to be as hospitable as possible (lots more meds). Once the eggs are retrieved, the RE will tend them through fertilization and growth. After 5 days, we select the most promising-looking blastocyst (“My mother told me to pick the very best one and You. Are. It.”) and transfer it into my uterus, while the rest are frozen for later. So if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be carrying the baby, but they will be genetically related to Rowan (and our sperm donor). It’s a way of allowing us to both contribute biologically to the baby’s creation. For me, the medical process should be very similar to what I did with the surrogacy, except that was a frozen embryo transfer, so I didn’t have anyone else’s cycle to sync with. It’s also, medically, the same process as if Rowan were an egg donor. Except within our family.

I’ve been interested in reciprocal IVF for as long as I’ve known about it, but it’s generally prohibitively expensive. We love the idea of RIVF, but also knew that any child in our family will be just as valid, just as loved, regardless of genetics and how they came to us. So we ruled it out, and figured we’d make Kid2 at home like I did with Sibyl. Then I heard of a clinic in New York whose tagline is “making priceless affordable.” They don’t cater specifically to queer families, but they do talk specifically about RIVF, and I’ve found them refreshingly trans friendly and competent. So even though we don’t need to make a kid this way in order to love them, it feels very sweet and very…something I’m going to call “geometrically complete.” Not sure how to explain. It’s symmetrical and collaborative and just feels right. We’re super excited and feel so lucky to be on this adventure in growing our family.

My Miserable Lonely Lesbian Pregnancy

August 6th, 2017

(I wrote this book review for a class in midwifery school, November 2009)

This book is a memoir by Andrea Askowitz, a single woman going through a planned pregnancy. I believe the intended audience is “people who think she’s funny.” Being written by a lesbian, it will probably be read by a greater percentage of lesbians than if it were the same book written by a straight girl, but it’s being marketed to society in general: as the review by Jill Soloway on the cover says, “You don’t have to be miserable, lonely or a lesbian to…” That said, the book is a pregnancy memoir, so the audience is more likely to be pregnant folks, or those who have been through a pregnancy or may want to at some point.

I would probably not recommend this book to clients who are looking for information about ART or even those who want a story about someone going through fertility treatments, as only short portions of the book are about preconception. For the most part, the book is an exercise in self-pity, although to be fair, the title should have clued me in to expect some whining.

This actually isn’t even a pregnancy memoir I’d really recommend to clients: Askowitz has a mainstream pregnancy, even though she does switch to a birth center for her birth. The book is thusly full of allopathy-induced freak-outs, which may not be helpful for those who are pregnant, as well as information that’s just wrong. For instance, she quotes a doula as saying “A doula is cross between a nurse and a midwife” (p 127). If a doula actually said that, I’m rather concerned that they’re doing their job wrong, or rather, doing someone else’s job! Regardless of whether the confusion is the doula’s or Askowitz’s, I’m not a big fan of falsely informing the public, especially as the public is more likely to be a mainstream pregnant person who may never have heard of a doula before.

I probably wouldn’t even recommend this book consistently to queer clients who are looking to see themselves in literature. Yes, Askowitz is a lesbian, but she is actually a homophobic, sometimes misogynist lesbian. We do watch her deal with her parents’ reluctant acceptance of her life, but it’s no excuse for her butch-bashing or anti-feminist rants. I do applaud Askowitz’s willingness to be honest about her thoughts and feelings, but much of the reason queer people want to read books by and about other queer people is avoid hearing an author’s bigotry and assumptions.

All that said, Askowitz is pretty funny at times. Some people, perhaps those who are also miserable, might enjoy reading about the author’s misery to feel better about themselves, either because they don’t have it as bad as she, or, more likely, because even though they have it worse, at least they don’t whine as much as she does and ostracize everyone they know. I might recommend this book as light reading for someone (queer or not) who is both fairly knowledgeable and firm in their own decisions about pregnancy care and the birth process, who can take Askowitz’s perspectives with a grain of salt. As for me, I was consistently frustrated with this book, as a care provider, as someone who identifies as queer, and as someone who likes others to take ownership of their actions.

Free Trans/ Genderqueer/ Intersex Health Clinic

March 14th, 2015

I’m so excited to announce that I will be working with Jaqxun Darlin, the newest (only other) trans midwife in Portland, and Angela Carter ND, offering health care including Pap smears and STI testing for trans, genderqueer, and intersex folks. Clinics will be held once monthly at Asha Wellness. We will take insurance, but otherwise operating on a sliding scale/ free basis. No one turned away for lack of funds. Contact me for more info!