Ms. Fit Editor Marcia Talks to the Author and Mutha Publisher
About two years ago writer, editor, activist, and counter-culture heroine Michelle Tea decided she wanted to get pregnant. Approaching 40, single and queer, she started chronicling her journey on JaneXO.com. Since then has met the love of her life, located the very best fabulous drag queen-sweetheart-volunteer sperm donor money can’t buy, navigated the labyrinths of the homophobic American healthcare system, and become Bob Villa to her own uterus while tackling fibroids, hormones, coffee reduction, IVF, and a rotating selection of vaginal discharge, among other challenges.
Currently, she and her gorgeous Dasheill are engaged, planning a wedding, preparing to implant Dashiell’s fertilized eggs in Michelle’s uterus, and hoping the odds get on board. Michelle has built it; will baby come? Recently Michelle launched Mutha.com in order to fill the void she saw for moms in alternative families—those who have experienced pregnancies or motherhood in ways that might fall outside of Leave it To Beaver. Ms. Fit editor Marcia Brenner spoke with Michelle about her journey and her thoughts on family.
Ms. Fit: Readers of your XOJane.com blog have been following your incredible journey toward pregnancy. What is your personal definition of “family”?
Michelle Tea: Of course there are tons of different definitions of “family”—my crazy uncle who held up a Dunkin’ Donuts and doesn’t really know I’m queer is family, as is my best friend I met sleeping out for Billy Idol tickets when I was fifteen, as is my father who I haven’t seen in decades and have totally lost track of, as is my best friend who helped me get sober, as is the step-father who was sexually abusive toward me and my sister and is still around, as is my beloved fiancé who I’m in the process of beginning our own family with. It’s who you choose and who you’re stuck with. It’s all of it.
MF: Reading your XOJane blog and watching this network of people come together—Dashiell, Rhonda, Quentin and others—is really beautiful. As a straight woman with a wonderful group of friends, I still find myself envious of the fluidity (pun both intended and not) and commitment of your network. Do you think the LGBTQ community might have a leg up on straight folks in this area?
MT: Frankly, I think the queer community has a leg up on the rest of the world in a bazillion ways, and interestingly this truth is slowly leaking to the mainstream, as queers become more mainstreamed with marriage gaining traction and whatnot. There was that great article in the Atlantic about how queers may just rescue marriage from the dustbin of oppression that so many women see it to be.
I do think there are tons of straight women involved in radical communities whose family and gender roles are being played with and redefined, but I think that it’s probably a choice for those women to shake off what’s expected of them, while for queers, nothing is expected of us, so we get to make up everything as we go along. And there are ways in which that is frustrating and there are ways in which that is just phenomenal and beautiful.
As queers I think we have particular relationships with our queer bodies, and for me that manifests as a sort of openness, a frankness, that allowed me to invite my best friend to put a syringe up my vag and pull the trigger, and I do feel like it was her queerness that allowed her to be so totally game for it all. And fags have a long history of helping lezzies get pregnant, that is a real no-brainer, and I feel like Quentin’s amazing agreement not just to give me his sperm but really to show up again and again and again for the whole long process probably felt like a bit of queer activism for him. It did to me.
MF: You mentioned reading Ariel Gore’s book “The Hip Mama Survival Guide” at age 27 and having a revelation of sorts about wanting to be a mom: “I don’t know if the book triggered something biological or if it was right time/right place, but babies suddenly didn’t seem like grotesque hobgoblins. In fact, I began craving the feeling of being pregnant.” Many women talk about feeling a “biological imperative” to become moms while other women never have it. Can you describe how it felt for you?
MT: I do think I experienced some sort of biological alarm clock when I was about 27. I had always thought that whole thing—your body knowing time is running out and making you want a baby—was the worst anti-feminist propaganda. But I really did experience it, and while we’re talking about it, being in a long relationship with a trans man as he transitioned also woke me up to the reality of having a body, and that bodies are real and have drives and some of them are gendered.
I wanted it all to be human constructs so we could just think differently about stuff and banish gender roles. But it’s harder than that because there some are experiences that are biologically common. I didn’t at the time want to accept that I might have this female body that was programmed to want and do certain things. (Gross!)
But it’s not like I was intellectually interested in having a child at that point. Nothing could have been a worse idea: I was a dirt-poor alcoholic, but suddenly my body was craving the experience of being pregnant. Which is bizarre because I’d never been pregnant so how could a body crave something it had never known?
I like this story because it’s a reminder that I’m an animal. I can have a lot of lofty ideas and theories about myself, and I do, and they may be true, but also true is that I’m an animal. As far as other women never experiencing this, that’s not surprising. I think the problem with talking about body-based urges and desires is then there is this weird tendency to want to make that true for everyone. Every individual body is different and wants different things. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that some people want babies and some don’t. It’s true for every other thing in life so why not for this?
MF: The subject of ‘bad dads’ comes up several times in your blog, in both your personal experiences and your friends’. You mention your sister’s husband being a great dad, but being one of the only ones you know. (Full disclosure: my dad also fits that category, as do a huge majority of my girlfriend’s dads.) What do you think is up with dads in this country? Can we, as women, as mothers, make better dads?
MT: I get bummed out by the idea that it lies on women’s shoulders to fix men in this country. I don’t want to be responsible for much more than fixing myself breakfast. I think men get born into a culture that lets them get away with whatever they want, and so that’s what happens. I’m actually so ill at ease around most men most of the time I don’t have many in my life and so can’t speak too much to the topic. Obviously there is a huge problem, and most of the culture is in denial about it.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article about my experience having been a man-hater and how I got over that, and even though my experience sort of qualified everything, the editor still wanted me to make a point to say I’ve known some really great men. It was so annoying and offensive that I pulled the article. The entire culture is so quick to let men off the hook, even though we live in a country where 17.7 million women have survived rape or a rape attempt. Allowing for repeat and female offenders, how many men in this country are sexual abusers? 16 million? It’s terrifying.
As someone with very little allegiance to men—I’m queer, I’m a feminist—even I have to sort of ignore this reality to function in the world. So imagine the levels of denial of not-seeing among women who have to deal with men in real ways all the time. I don’t know what to do with it. I could wind up giving birth to a boy, and would actually take a lot of joy in helping to put a sweet and sensitive and smart man into the world, even though the reality of him being influenced by sexist and patriarchal culture is very real.
MF: I love Mutha! Can you talk about why you decided to launch it?
MT: I just really love building community around my interests, and since I am so interested motherhood right now, and pregnancy and all that, the idea of starting a sort of zine around it was very natural. An online zine seemed the way to go because it is just way faster and less effort than a paper zine, plus my paper zine-making skills have really atrophied over the last decades. I need it to be a fairly easy project if I’m going to do it because I haven’t got a ton of free time.
Basically, I wanted to build a community of women and other people I relate to who are involved with having and raising kids. I don’t have a ton of people around me who are on this particular path—the only kids I have in my life are my sister’s children. I have a couple couples around me who are trying to get pregnant, but only a couple.
So it felt like a great way to reach out to the world, and have the world reach back to me, and it has been. I also love sharing people’s stories with the world. The same impulse that led me to create Sister Spit, and host a ten-years-strong reading series, and edit an imprint for City Lights inspired me to create Mutha.
MF: Healthcare and the medical profession have traditionally been a hetero and male-dominated system. How do you think this has affected your—or other women’s—journeys to motherhood?
MT: I’m reading Ina May Gaskin’s Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta right now, and she really lays out exactly how pregnancy and childbirth came to be a male-dominated arena, with the very deliberate expulsion of midwives from the birthing rooms. It’s stuff you already know, but it’s powerful to read it. We are still very much living in the success of those efforts. Getting pregnant through IVF, the process is totally medicalized. Every night I inject a drug into my stomach, attach hormone patches to my abdomen and put Viagra suppositories up my cooch.
This morning I read Ina May’s chapter on DES, the experimental estrogen given to pregnant women in the 60s that caused all sorts of rare cancers. I’m supposed to take the Viagra through my embryo transfer and up until my pregnancy test. Is it safe, for me and for the embryo? I doubt a lot of studies have been done; using the drug for fertility is too new. It has great success rates in helping women with busted uterine linings conceive. It also is making people—I’m going to guess a lot of dudes—really rich.
I very much feel like I am in the system, I’m supporting it and ambivalent about it and in denial about it and buying into it (literally) and benefitting (I hope) from it. I feel like this about a lot of life. I accept being part of my life and times, and there is so much about it that’s abhorrent. There are a lot of things that my particular clinic can do to be less alienating to queer couples, like have a computer system that allows for same-sex couples and couples where one female is giving an egg to another female but it’s not a stranger/surrogate arrangement.
But my clinic is in San Francisco, and the staff is fantastic even if the computer system sucks. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for queers in less progressive cities to go through this. We are friends with a trans male couple who are about to use our clinic and I am truly worried for them. It’s going to be even more alienating for them.
MF: You talk in your blog about your own history of disconnection from your body, some of which you link to your past drug use, and how much more connected you have felt since trying to conceive. How has that relationship with your body evolved during this experience?
MT: I actually enjoyed drugs so much because it helped me to feel in touch with my body in this particular way. I seem to be able to register my body most through extreme experiences, though that has changed some as I get older. I don’t know if my relationship with my body has evolved through my pregnancy attempts, I think it’s the same weird body whose signals I have a hard time reading.
What I’m doing in order to get pregnant has definitely altered my body, though. I’ve had to gain weight on doctor’s orders and I’ve struggled with my body changing and no longer being able to fit into clothes I love. The reality is I was probably underweight, but I liked it that way, so there is a lot to grapple with there.
I also had to come off medication that helped my anxiety at the same time as coming on fertility meds that have anxiety as a side affect. In a way, being so disconnected from my body has made it easier to turn it over to the demands of IVF and conception and eventual pregnancy. I am looking forward to two years from now when I can do a month-long cleanse and get a personal trainer and go back to popping Celexa, though.
MF: Having journeyed this far, is there anything you wish you had known, or anything you wish you had done differently that you’d offer as advice to other women considering an alternative pregnancy?
MT: Don’t listen to haters or naysayers. That’s good advice generally. You can get free children’s medicine syringes from the pharmacy at Walgreens if you’re inseminating at home. Don’t hold your feet way up in the air because sperm like to swim up so you’re screwing yourself. Just put your hips on a pillow and lay around for a bit.
You also don’t need to shoot the sperm all the way up there so crazy. There’s a little pool under your cervix that is the best place for it to go. You can hire a midwife to come to your home and put the sperm right into your cervix. Don’t order fertility meds from India and take them without doctor supervision. Get a sperm donor who lives in the same city as you because if you are doing it without medical supervision he is going to need to come over your house like all the time. Make sure he understands that.
MF: If it’s not a spoiler for your XOJane blog, what’s the latest happening with baby-watch, the wedding, and the extended Tea family?
MT: I’m getting ready for an embryo transfer next week, and I was just told that my uterine lining is “excellent.” (Thanks, Viagra!) Dashiell and I are getting married in a couple months; our RSVP cards are coming in and that is really exciting. Everything is really exciting, actually.