Like many queer people coming of age over the last 20 years, Michelle Tea’s work has been integral to my becoming. Growing up with an alcoholic parent as a queer, gender non-conforming person involved in my local punk scene and community organizing work, Tea’s work over the years has made me feel less alone, less angry, and much more equipped to handle whatever gets thrown at me as a result of my identity or the trauma I experienced as a young person. In a weird way, it always felt like because of our age difference, Tea’s books came out right around the time I was entering a stage in my life where I desperately needed to read them. And the timing of the release of her new memoir, Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility, is no different.
For most of my life, I was convinced that some day, somehow, I’d be a parent. I talked about it with my friends and my parents, and when I started getting deeper and deeper into my twenties, I sought out partners who felt the same way. After failed relationship after failed relationship and many years in the classroom, I started to feel uncertainty about both the possibility of becoming a parent and my desire to raise a child in the first place. Now, in my early thirties and in the most stable relationship I’ve ever been in, I’ve mostly decided that parenthood isn’t something I want to pursue, though the ambivalence that has washed over the whole thing over the last few years sometimes pushes me into the “I guess it’s possible” zone once in a while. To my surprise, Tea’s journey actually begins in a similar state of ambivalence some months after she turned 40-years-old.
At that point, the ambivalence quickly turned into a decision to give getting pregnant a try: “From where I stood, deep into my fortieth year on earth, my remaining eggs hobbling down my fallopian tubes each month, tennis balls wedged onto their walkers, it seemed like having a kid was the only adventure I hadn’t undertaken.”
With the help of her friends, her sister, and some internet research, Tea devises a plan to inseminate herself at home. She contacts a young drag queen named Quentin, a friend-of-a-friend who is “dying to give his sperm away,” to ask him to be part of the process. She enlists the help of her close friend Rhonda to make sure the sperm makes it to its final destination. Eventually, she falls in love with Orson — the person who she will eventually co-parent with — and they become part of the process, too.
The quartet tries and fails to get Tea pregnant, and as she gets deeper and deeper into the process of trying to conceive, she realizes that the decree she believed in at the beginning of it all, of accepting whatever happens — pregnancy or not — is a lot harder to accept than she initially thought. After another unfruitful home insemination attempt, she says, “I had started this getting-pregnant project determined to graciously accept any inability to actually have a baby, but the feelings that accompany the surge of blood in my underwear are not so mild.”
The frustration of the failed inseminations leads Tea to enlist the help of a fertility specialist, who finds she has fibroids in her uterus and that her eggs aren’t very viable for insemination. Orson, however, still in their early thirties, has plenty of viable eggs, and the couple decides to get Tea pregnant using Orson’s eggs and Quentin’s sperm. Much like the at-home insemination process before it, the processes of IVF and embryo transfer prove to be similarly difficult, but their resolve to have a child only gets stronger and stronger.
Written in the present tense, we are given a front row seat to these three years that Tea and Orson (and their friends and their families) spent consumed with the hopes of them eventually becoming parents. Tea narrates the ups and downs of the process with her trademark humor and doesn’t shy away from giving us all of the gory, sad, disappointing, and heart-wrenching details that became parts of their paths to parenthood. Along the way, she reminds us how deeply heterocentric the birth industry is from the doctors’ intake forms only listing the possibility of women birthing children with husbands to the prenatal yoga class instructors who refer to everyone’s partners as male. She provides us with a heavy dosage of education on the subjects of insemination, IVF, and childbirth, but it never feels overwhelming. In the parts of the story that are the most devastating, Tea’s faith in the universe and in the world around her shines through her writing to show us how courage and resilience are powerful tools we should utilize in the face of any hardships we may encounter, whether they’re related to Tea’s journey here or not.
As with all of her other work, Knocking Myself Up is, of course, extremely queer — and not just because Tea is or just in the cast of past lovers and friends who show up in the narrative — but also in the way Tea approaches the memories of this journey overall. There are several instances in the text where she ruminates on the power of our chosen communities, of showing up for your people no matter what they need. She is constantly calling on her friends and her younger sister to ask for advice, to get guidance, and just to crowdsource opinions of what she should do or shouldn’t do. Sure, close friendship isn’t a hallmark of queerness, but as Tea shows in these ruminations, we often think about our friends as being as inextricable as our blood relatives, and Tea treats them as such throughout both the course of her journey and this memoir she’s written about it. The people she holds (or held) dearest are written about in the highest and sweetest regard, and it’s obvious that her faith in their abilities to take care of one another helps buoy her spirit in the most difficult parts of this journey.
These meditations on community make it clear that just as the original plan for at-home conception took a team of people she loves to complete, Tea knows that it will also take a team of people to help her and Orson raise their child — and that’s a good thing. In every way, Tea’s journey to parenthood already upends the ways people think about conception and about the people who want to conceive, and the reflections on the importance of delegitimizing the structure of the nuclear family in favor of a queerer, more open kind of family life provide another important and emotional layer to this already evocative narrative.
Some might see the subject of this book and think it’s simply not for them, but taken as a whole, Tea’s work here absolutely transcends any expectations someone could possibly have simply by looking at the description. She didn’t necessarily change my mind about parenthood, and I know that is not her intention here either. Tea’s insights offer much, much more than that. She provides us with new and powerful perspectives on not only childbirth and parenthood but on our understandings of our lives, of our bodies, of friendship and romance, and of the possibilities and potential for change that exists within us all. Like all of Tea’s best work, Knocking Myself Up embraces all of the joys and miseries and miracles that are part of existing in this world as a human being and gives us an opportunity to bask in that enfolding along with her. No matter what your stance is on the subject or who you want to grow up to be, every single person who decides to join Tea on this journey through reading this book will definitely learn something new about themselves and the lives they lead by the end of it.
Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility is out now.