5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Being Queer and Pregnant
My partner and I are looking forward to telling her favorite uncle about our pregnancy, but we’re also deeply nervous. Stuffed full of food, expertly cooked by my partner’s grandmother, we sit bundled in warm clothes in the garage—our new pandemic norm. The rest of the family has gone back inside to warm up, but my partner’s uncle stays behind. It’s now or never.
With the angst and intentionality of two lifelong queers, we have spent hours talking through what to say, how to say it and his possible responses. We hope for excitement but brace for surprise, possible disapproval, even hushed counsel not to tell the rest of the family. We are not, however, ready for his immediate response:
“So, who’s the dad?”
Despite all of our discussions and preparations, despite a lifetime of navigating queerness and a year navigating deep homophobia in the fertility world, I freeze. Our child does have an additional parent, a friend we will share some co-parenting responsibilities with, but that wasn’t supposed to be the focus of this moment.
My partner buys us time; she laughs and raises her hand in response to her uncle’s question. She uses humor to carve out space, and explains that we’re both primary parents regardless of biology or provenance. Still, I feel lost—ill-equipped in both the logistics of responding to these questions and the feelings these constant interactions bring up.
In that moment—and many others ahead—I wish deeply that I had sought out a queer elder who could have helped normalize my experience and prepare me for the five recurring things I’d feel as a queer pregnant person.
When I tell my work colleagues that my partner and I are expecting, a flurry of celebratory emails immediately flood my box. A queer coworker swings by to give me a hug. I’m a very private person but I convince myself this exercise in vulnerability is a good thing—no matter how counterintuitive it feels. You get back the positivity you put out there in the world, right?
An hour later, another colleague stops by and wants to know details: IVF? IUI? Sperm bank? Friend? Turkey baster? I feel pressured to share and mumble a response I quickly regret. I knew to expect questions, and yet—just as with my partner’s uncle—I hadn’t envisioned so many, so public, so quickly.
The next day, another colleague mutters a muted “congratulations.” She seems annoyed. Am I imagining it? I say “thank you,” and wait. “You know,” she starts, “your email was very vague—and very confusing.” I don’t say anything. “You know what I mean,” she says. But I don’t. “It didn’t specify which one of you is pregnant,” she clarifies.
My throat tightens. I know she means well and just wants to understand. She is older and I should’ve been patient, but instead I just feel tired.
After a year of scrutiny from doctors and lawyers—even a psychiatrist, required for us to get IVF approval for our three-parent family configuration—I’m tired of the scrutiny. I long for joy, to simply celebrate this child we are bringing into the world. Does it matter which one of us is carrying her? Is it such a queer concept to bring a child collectively into being? Why do people—doctors, nurses, colleagues, strangers—even care? They don’t ask straight pregnant people this many invasive questions.
I work on my response to the infinite questions. I rest and cocoon at home, immersing myself in the world of pregnancy. I read books on natural childbirth, some published a decade or two ago. I’m not surprised that some of them use the term “husband,” and that nearly all of them normalize straightness, if not marriage. I take the wisdom I can from these books and seek out newer books, online apps and classes taught by nurses who declare themselves queer-friendly and affirming. And yet, even these resources feel alienating. I learn that others’ use of the word “queer” is not the same as mine. Married lesbian couples seeking a sperm donor, two gay men seeking a surrogate—these are the fliers under the rainbow flag in our doctor’s office. Scrolling through pregnancy apps on my phone, I note the persistent use of “partner” as the term of choice. An improvement over “husband,” sure, but what about “partners,” plural? Or pregnant folks without partners at all? Where are the trans folks? The poly folks?
I feel underprepared for the degree to which my queer body and queer family feel illegible—or simply invisible—in the wider birthing and pregnancy world, and for the loneliness of this feeling. I read pregnancy articles on sex positions during the third trimester only to feel disillusioned that they normalize sex with a single partner and penetrative sex with a penis. What about other types of penetration? What about sex with multiple partners? Where should I go for better and more inclusive guidance?
Not our hospital. In an online class taught by a nurse, sex is talked about as a way to activate pregnancy without mentioning that it’s actually semen—and not necessarily sex itself—that can help labor get going. She recommends wearing your husband’s boxers while laboring if you can’t find anything else comfortable. I write her a letter afterwards, thanking her for the parts that were helpful, and suggesting two ways it might have felt more inclusive. Two weeks later, she writes back, insisting I misinterpreted her intentions—that I have it all wrong.
On other days, invisibility comes less from apps and books and more from the streets of New York. Outfitted in hand-me-down dresses, an object of clothing I never would have worn previously but is now the only thing that fits my nine-months pregnant belly, I find myself regularly getting read as straight. It feels lonely not getting clocked by other queers, and it feels weird to both love wearing dresses for the restrictionless comfort they provide and hate them for the way they feminize me. It took me years to embrace being visibly queer, to not rely on my long hair or dressing choices to pass, to convince myself to risk being out at work, and it feels like it’s slipping away. I miss the nods of solidarity from queer folks passing by.
“It looks like a boy from how you’re carrying,” a stranger shouts. “Your husband must be happy,” he grins.
I miss my old body. My breasts have grown from a DD cup—a size that had already felt unmanageable—to an H cup. I hate them. I try to tap into my body positivity, my queer politics and commitment to feminist praxis, but I can’t. I hate them and so much of what is happening to my body. I try wrapping them as tightly as I can—stuffing them into various bras, only to feel shame at the lines that form by the end of the day and guilt that I could be messing up my baby’s milk supply. I hear people talk about pregnancy frustrations left and right—stretch marks, weight gain, backaches; but what about body dysmorphia? Do other people look in the mirror and hate what they see? I’m brought back to middle school, a closeted queer staring at their breasts—even then already a size D. I wanted them gone. I was a tomboy who hated being feminized, who wore baggy clothes to hide the curves, who ate less and less hoping they would slowly disappear.
I’m in my late thirties. I thought I was through with all that self-doubt. After decades of therapy and queer mentors and faking self-love until I made it, I had finally come into my own gender and sexuality. Why was pregnancy dredging this all back up for me? How did I not see it coming?
Between the homophobic medical roadblocks, the emotional turmoil and self-doubt and the regular ups and downs of pregnancy, the first two trimesters pass in a blur. As I approach my third trimester, I come up for air and seek out my people. I start talking to other queer folks more openly about what our queer family has been going through, what I personally have been feeling. They listen and teach me to be gentle with myself.
I start seeking out resources that are actually queer-friendly, queer-centered or queer-run. Classes that normalize that you may have multiple support people around you as you birth—or none. Doulas that ask whether you prefer terms like breastfeeding, chestfeeding, bodyfeeding or something else. Doulas that don’t assume you will even choose to feed in this way at all. Books that are body-positive, raw, honest—books with specific sections naming the extra layers of exhaustion and struggle that come with being queer and pregnant.
And I practice. Practice what to say to colleagues, to family members, to strangers, to care providers. Practice loving myself and my body and the queer family we are building. It still feels messy. I’m not always good at it. And it doesn’t help that the world itself is messy, homophobic, misogynist, racist, transphobic, anti-immigrant and just plain terrifying. I find myself wondering if my child will grow up in a world without abortion rights and gay marriage, whether the immigration status of loved ones in her life will still be in limbo 10 years from now.
I don’t know. But we have a community behind us—a community ready for all the fights ahead. And I want to believe, for all of us, that a different world is possible.
About the author: Jessica Lovaas, PhD, is a public high school teacher in New York City. She can’t wait to give birth so she can take scalding hot showers again.