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Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood
By Tomas Moniz, Jeremy Adam Smith
PM Press Copyright © 2011 Jeremy Adam Smith and Tomas Moniz
All rights reserved.
BIRTH, BABIES, AND TODDLERS
Notes from a Sperm Donor
Several times in the past twenty years I've been asked by straight and queer women to provide sperm for their baby-making. Until I was forty, I said no. Figuring out what family is or can be has always been problematic for me, a dissident gay male artist actively resisting masculine expectations while still prioritizing an art career. Donating sperm seemed too emotionally complicated and wrapped in my own desire for kids. Then one day a close friend, whom I'll call S., asked me to help her and her partner to have a baby. I surprised myself by saying yes.
And then we did it. Which means I came into a bowl, and then one woman, using a small syringe (I don't think anyone uses turkey basters), shot my cum inside her lover. Then we held hands, wished for a baby, and I left them to orgasm on their own. Conception happened the first time we tried. I'm not sure which day. I mean it happened on one of the four days that we did it. It's not always that easy. We — my boymanfriend and I — later tried to help another dyke couple that had already spent too much money and time on frozen sperm. They also got pregnant on the first round but miscarried within weeks. Subsequent attempts, although fun and bonding between our two creative queer couples, didn't result in a child.
There were days when my partner would ask, why aren't we having a baby? It was a question we never resolved. Maybe because I was already in my mid-forties, and he had recently survived cancer, and our incomes from freelance artist and teaching gigs didn't amount to much. Maybe it was because the seeds of our breakup had already been planted and we didn't have a strong enough commitment to support a child. During that time I also continued to explore the idea of being a queer uncle. I would watch the ways that my manfriend and I engaged kids and youth in our art projects and the ways that we interacted with our various nieces and nephews. I recognized a need for adults who are not parents to queer the space between adults and children and social institutions. I like being a role model for nonnormative affection and desire.
I think I only saw S. once while she was pregnant. The moms live in Los Angeles, and I live in San Francisco so I wasn't involved in their day-to-day lives. I told a few close friends but I didn't talk much about it, or even think that much about it, until the birth. After the baby was born, everyone wanted to know if I'd seen him and o my god how was it? Was it OK? Did he look like you? Some friends had been so concerned about me. I told them, yes, I saw him and he was asleep in the baby wrap and S. looked so normal as a mom and it was just so normal for me to hold her baby. And then he squirmed a little and he got a diaper change so I got to see him all naked and fresh. And yes somewhere there was this quiet shyness and awkwardness and somewhere deep inside I was aware of something happening, emotional and magical, but I felt protected and blessed.
I also felt protective of the moms. When I say protective I'm referring to the subtle yet relentless violence of the questions we were asked. People incessantly asked the moms, "Who's the father?" while I was being asked, "What's it like to be a father?" And this word father was filled with ill-considered assumptions and opinions. It was hard not to be defensive. I'm not a father, I wanted to say, I'm a sperm donor. He's not my child. I don't know who he looks like. He has her coloring. And actually he has traits that seem more like the mom's partner. Although California has many laws and practices that support nonhetero parenting, the history of prioritizing biology over family, intention, and love is thick with hate. It's surprising how many of us "alternative" folk can casually use language that erases queer desire and family, and that reinforces very specific ideas of what is a mother and a father. And by those standards, I am not a father, not a dad. Just a guy who jerked off for his friends as part of a larger strategy of feminist and dyke solidarity.
When they heard the news, my family seemed mostly thrilled yet also confused. My sisters seemed to get it more, because they're more worldly and queer-conscious, and because they're both feminists and mothers. One sister asked if it was appropriate to send her own congratulations card. My brother's wife, who also just had a son, wanted to know if in fact the boys are cousins, and if so, can they have a play date someday, somewhere? Good questions. There's no consensus on the ethics and etiquette of DIY baby- and family-making outside the married hetero norms. In the midst of all this, my family continues to smile. Everyone loves babies, and my family loves family-making. I've always been queering family, so even though this chapter is new, there's nothing but well wishing and positive curiosity.
Sometimes I'm concerned that people, including my siblings, think that I have a baby. Many people congratulate me — which is a form of blessing, for sure, but it's also weird. I mean, for what? I was introduced to someone recently and she said, "Oh, you're Keith. Well, congratulations." Not thinking about the new baby, I looked very puzzled and said, "Thanks, what for?" Then she got embarrassed and said, "I must be confused." Only later did I realize that she knows the baby's parents and it probably seemed like I just didn't want to talk about it in front of the others we were with.
I see it as a big delightful improvisation, with so much unknowing, but that doesn't help to explain. To folks who act like I'm now a parent, I tell them that I gave my sperm up for adoption, or I tell them that I simply helped my good friends have a baby, or I tell them that the child has two parents, that I'm neither of them. The boy is now five years old. He's happy and creative and imaginative. It's a delight to see him and play a couple times a year. I keep a current photo on my wall or fridge just like I do with the kids of other friends, but I know that somewhere I hold a slightly more precious place for him. I don't use the words biodad or even uncle because they either confuse or mislead, and continue to confer an importance to biology that our trans friends have reminded us to let go of.
I'm reminded of one of my teachers, the pioneering aerial dancer Terry Sendgraff. She once told me that her students were her children. I love Terry for being an inspiring and supportive queer aunt. Her witness and encouragement of my work is motherly, in the best sense. In recent years I've put a lot of energy into mentoring young artists, and I often joke that I have children in all the countries where I travel to teach. I have a magnetic daddy vibe, whether it's a two-year-old who wants to play, a twenty-seven-year-old who seeks mentorship, or a thirty-seven-year-old woman whose baby clock is ticking.
But where do we get the desire to be a father? To plant our seed and reproduce from our own genetics and family lineage? I watch some of my straight guy friends wrestle with this and I'm surprised that I feel a little wave of contentment that I actually did it. That I reproduced. Regardless of how queer the situation. And I think this is something that others feel too, including my siblings, although no one actually speaks it. Being a sperm donor continues to provoke self-reflection and social reflection that I value.
Born in the Caul: My Journey Inside
I used to think of birth as something women and doctors did. Like the new fathers in the movies, I subconsciously believed that men simply waited outside or watched. As I became more aware of issues surrounding birth and pregnancy, I learned that men play a much more important role in the pregnancy and birth process than I'd previously thought. But, that new role was still a relatively outside role ... helping to decide stuff like whether or not we go through with the pregnancy, which midwife to choose and the countless other baby-related choices that need to be made. When Genelle told me she was pregnant, I suddenly felt inspired, full of energy, happy, scared, and awed. I never imagined I would feel this way! I noticed that these feelings were coming from inside, not outside of me. And once I'd experienced this surprisingly transformative power of pregnancy and birth over myself as a man and a father-to-be, I didn't want to go back.
We found ourselves a home-birth midwife and enrolled in the closest thing to an alternative parenting class we could find. In the months leading up to the birth, I discovered how strong Genelle is and how capable her body is of going through the changes that are necessary for pregnancy and birth. Oh, and I found out that I really enjoyed making love to my newly pregnant partner. I had heard stories about men not wanting to have sex with their pregnant partners or pregnant women not wanting sex. But for us, it seemed to work out just right and the sex was wonderful.
I also began thinking of myself as a father and of how I might interact with my child. Genelle's son, Nick, was eight years old at the time, and I was beginning to get used to the idea of being a parent. For the past two years, I'd been involved in Nick's life, whether it was helping him with his homework or playing with him with his toys. We had a lot of fun together. I was slowly learning that being a parent didn't have to be a dreaded position of authority with life or death responsibility and no fun. Nick helped me learn that it's best for me to be myself, mistakes and all, so that both he and I could learn from them. He was very helpful in turning my perception of my parents as these perfect, untouchable, authoritarian people on its head.
One hot Sunday afternoon, 115 degrees in the sun — about two weeks before the ultrasound due date and four weeks prior to our midwife-predicted due date — we decided it would be a great idea to take a small road trip into the desert. Our midwife was on vacation, but I figured we had plenty of time until the baby was born.
Genelle had been feeling a bit uncomfortable in the car and when we got home, she told me she thought she might be experiencing false labor pains. Even though she was on vacation, our midwife took our call. She agreed with Genelle about the false labor discomfort because we were still two to four weeks away from the due date. She told us to start timing the surges and to let her know if they're coming closer together.
We started timing. Even though Genelle seemed to be uncomfortable, she handled it well and I agreed that it was probably a false labor. I helped Nick get ready for bed and started watching something on TV. I don't remember why I was watching TV except that I found that it helped me to relieve some of the stress from work and this new family life I was experiencing. And also, I guess, because it was there.
We called our midwife a few more times and each time she held onto the belief that this was false labor. Even though she wasn't in the room to make a really good judgment, we trusted her experience and her knowledge. After a few more time-recordings, and with no end in sight to Genelle's discomfort, our midwife told us to go ahead and call the backup midwife to come over just in case. To Genelle's surprise, the backup midwife insisted that we keep timing and call her back when we get more accurate times.
At the backup midwife's suggestion, Genelle got into the bath in an effort to relax, but it didn't seem to work; she remained uncomfortable and worried about the midwife not being here. I sat next to the tub, trying to offer any comfort I could, and Nick was sleeping in his bedroom. I was beset by uncontrollable, misplaced frustrations, a little bit peeved at Genelle for not being able to distinguish an actual from a false labor. While I was inside myself wishing everything was going smoothly and that she would magically regain control over her body, she made a loud moan and told me that she felt the baby moving down as mucous (or something) came out of her.
I called the backup midwife and told her that she better come over now — though we didn't even know how far away she lived from us and she had never been to our house before.
I rushed out of the bathroom and gently woke up Nick. I told him as calmly as I could that we were having the baby tonight and I needed him to come out of his room in order to answer the front door when the backup midwife arrived. He was happy to help and later told us that he had been awake for a while and was wondering what was happening. Once I got him situated at the front door and explained to him what to do, I returned to the bathroom.
At this point, I started to feel very, very nervous. Genelle was in the tub and thought the baby might be coming really soon. I realized at that moment that the baby might come out before the midwife got here and that we would have to trust in the universe and Genelle's body that all will be as it will be and we will deal with whatever it is. I mumbled something to this effect to Genelle, who probably didn't hear me at this point because she was now focusing on strong surges. After one of them, I looked and I saw something that looked like the very tip of a head.
"OK," I thought. "That's the baby."
But it didn't look like a baby. I had seen plenty of birth videos before from our midwife and in the birthing classes and I didn't remember babies looking like that! I thought, "Oh no, something must be wrong." I didn't say this because I knew how important it was to be calm and help Genelle be as comfortable as possible. But I considered all of the horrible things that could be wrong and how messed up the baby might be. As soon as those thoughts entered my mind, I pushed them out and forced myself to focus on Genelle and the baby. "Everything was going to be as it should be, this is a natural process, everyone will end up the way they will end up ... relax ... relax," I thought. I called the backup midwife and let her know that we could now feel the head. She said she was on her way. What else could she say? In fact, we were on our own.
Almost as soon as I hung up, Genelle experienced another big surge. Now, I could see a round ball that looked like a head, but not quite. It had this purplish-bluish thin sack around it. I had never seen anything like this in the videos. As I gently touched the sack, I realized that I could see hair through the sack. That was my baby's hair!
"This is really amazing!" I told Genelle, "I can see the baby's hair!"
Genelle was between surges so I just enjoyed the moment, awkward as it seemed, and realized that because I'd never seen something like this before, this may be the last time I see either of them alive. I will never forget that moment, the very first time I saw Paxten, alone with Genelle in the bathtub, amidst the swirling emotions of fear, excitement, Genelle's discomfort and fear of not having the midwife there, and my complete connection to Genelle and Paxten.
Again, I called the backup midwife and this time she remained on speakerphone and told me to tell Genelle to go ahead and push.
I told the midwife that the head was still inside a sack and the midwife assured me that it was OK. Genelle pushed during the next surge and Paxten moved out a little further. The midwife told me to try and break the sack. As I felt around the emerging baby, I must have gently hit something because all of the sudden, the sack popped and now I could see the baby just like in the videos.
Paxten was face down and I could see the cord wrapped around the back of his neck. I gently removed the cord because I could see that it might be preventing him from coming out, and out he popped, right into my hands.
At this point, I was in some kind of strange trance-like-calm-everything's-fine mode. In the homebirth videos I saw, the midwife places the baby on the mother's chest. So I immediately did this and Genelle was so very happy and relieved. So was I. And apparently, so was Paxten, who coughed a little, gave a little cry, and then started breathing normally. His skin started turning what I thought was a really healthy color. All seemed to be well for now.
Excerpted from Rad Dad by Tomas Moniz, Jeremy Adam Smith. Copyright © 2011 Jeremy Adam Smith and Tomas Moniz. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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