As a Nonbinary Abortion Activist, Planning a Pregnancy Is Complicated — And Hopeful

The day I get my IUD removed in the summer of 2022, my doctor asks me if I’m excited to have another baby.

I’ve just gotten off a consulting call with a new client, a reproductive health organization offering abortion services. A week prior, I helped crowdfund $5,000 for abortion funds, helped another organization write gender-inclusive language practices for their communications team, and sent a baby shower present to a friend expecting her second baby.

“Well,” I say. “It’s complicated.”

***
In 2019, I spent my first pregnancy in the gender closet. I’ve been out as nonbinary for years, but while my gender presentation has flexed, it’s never been truly androgynous. As a fat person with a chronic pain condition and multiple preexisting mental health diagnoses, I knew managing the attitudes and microagressions of the medical world was going to be enough of an uphill battle without adding gender identity into the equation. I was out to my friends and to some of my family, but to my doctors, I smiled through every assumption of womanhood. It was easier, I figured, not to rock the boat.

My compromise was to hire a doula who advertised as gender-, size-, and health-inclusive. She was the only person on my care team who took care to clarify my pronouns, to ask how I felt about gendered terms for my body and my parenting journey, to ask about my relationship and my identity and my values. During my 38-hour labor, she was the person who asked me if I consented to interventions, if I wanted to pause and take time to think, if I was ready to continue.

Months after I gave birth, after an unplanned C-section and a postpartum depression diagnosis and a relapse of PTSD, I wondered how that experience might have been different if I’d felt like I could be open about who I am. If there hadn’t been a part of me that was distracted by keeping the glass door on that closet, would I have been able to take more time? To ask for more space? To be less afraid to push back?

Even in the best of moments, pregnancy is an exercise in the unknown.

***
When asked to imagine a healthcare space that was affirming and open to all people, queer birth worker and educator king yaa said, “I would like there to be an awareness of the fluidity, the openness, the expansiveness of people’s genders…Knowing that this person is the expert of their body, and feeling privileged, that they are being invited in as part of the team, to take care of this body.”

What if?

***
I find out I’m pregnant with my son a month after starting as a volunteer on a full-spectrum reproductive health hotline in the spring of 2019. I spend my pregnancy talking to callers who are unexpectedly pregnant, callers who planned their pregnancies, callers experiencing miscarriages, callers deciding whether or not to have an abortion, callers who need to rant or cry or process.

He moves for the first time when I’m in the middle of talking to a caller about her abortion experience two years prior. She and I are the same number of weeks pregnant. Her voice is uncertain, caught between anxiety and hope. She wants this time to be different.

When I tell a friend about it later, she asks me how it felt.

“Tender,” I say. “Honored. It takes a lot to trust someone with that kind of vulnerability.”

“No,” she says. “I meant about the baby.”

***
On my nightstand, a stack of books: Brittany Carmona-Holt’s Tarot for Pregnancy. Alissa C. Perrucci’s Decision Assessment and Counseling in Abortion Care. Krys Malcolm Belc’s The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood. Robin Marty and Jessica Mason Pieklo’s Crow After Roe. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby.

***
My partner and I consider another pregnancy a year and change into the pandemic. A list of questions I write down to talk about with my therapist:

Is it unethical to have a baby when the world is literally on fire?

Will the people I organize with think less of me for having a baby right now?

How much of wanting another baby is about wanting to heal the trauma from my first pregnancy? If the answer is “any,” is that too selfish?

I read even more femme now than I did with my last pregnancy — is it even worth it to try to be out to doctors?

Is trying to get pregnant right now hopeful or insane?

Her answer:

“Does it matter?”

***
There are days when the word mother makes my skin itch. The nurse at the pediatrician says, “Let’s let Mom hold you, kiddo,” and I’m grateful for wearing a mask so I don’t have to fake a smile. I claim motherhood only in relation to other identities: Jewish Mother Syndrome. The Mom Friend.

During my pregnancy, I start and stop half a dozen books, unable to get through the gender essentialism. Your body was made for this, mama. Women have been doing this for generations. This is the core of divine femininity.

In The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, Krys Malcolm Belc Writes, “Nothing about being pregnant made me feel feminine. This body is what it is: not quite man, not quite woman, but with the parts to create and shape life.”

Yes.

***
A week after my partner and I decide to try for another baby, I spend a full day doing a virtual abortion activism training. It’s been less than a month since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, and I’ve spent every single day since fundraising for abortion funds.

I take notes on direct action and legislative advocacy and clinic support in a FUCK ABORTION BANS T-shirt with a bottle of prenatal vitamins sitting on the corner of my desk. On the other side of my office door, I can hear my toddler sprinting through the house, followed by two attentive dogs and one attentive parent.

It is the calmest I’ve felt in weeks.

***
Healer and reproductive justice organizer Adaku Utah was asked how to respond to the wave of hopelessness in the wake of the Politico leak of the original Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision. They replied, “Ask yourself: What are the things you can do that support hope growing inside of you?”

***
Between my legs, casual the way only someone who sees 20 vaginas a day can be, my doctor says, “What’s complicated?”

“Well,” I say. “It’s kind of a weird time to have a baby.”

“Oh, honey,” she says, picking up her forceps to remove my IUD. “Isn’t it always?”


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Shelly Jay Shore

Shelly Jay Shore (she/they) is a writer and nonprofit fundraiser in New York/Colonized Lenapehoking. Her creative fiction and nonfiction celebrates diverse characters and perspectives, and her activism centers on expanding civic engagement and social justice. In her limited free time, Shelly reads a truly alarming number of books, experiments with home bartending, wrestles with her dogs, and attempts to raise a functioning human being who will only need the normal amount of therapy. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Shelly has written 6 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this article! I’m very content in my gender as a woman, but I still pause at the word “mom.” My kids sometimes call me by my first name and sometimes call me mom. I say I’m a parent/their responsible adult instead of mother. I love parenting, but mothering has so many cultural expectations attached that are untenable. I’ve called my mom by her first name since I was 16, as an acknowledgment of all she is outside of just her parenting role.

    I can’t imagine how much more complicated the term becomes when one doesn’t identify as a woman to begin with. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I don’t understand why non binary folks pressure the medical professionals to replace the word woman and mother with several gender « inclusive » terms that demean women and reduce them to their reproductive organs.

    Stop trying to make things more difficult for us. We are not vessels!

    • I’m a pregnant cisgendered woman, with multiple children I gestated and breastfed, and I am more than happy to be referred to as a ‘birthing parent’/’pregnant person’/’lactating human’if that’s the cogent fact about me in the context. I don’t find it dehumanising at all and actually prefer gender neutral, more specific language in my pregnancy care (and not just because it annoys JK Rowling).

    • Hi Charlotte,

      I’m Autostraddle’s Sex & Dating Editor. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this article, or at least part of it. At no point in this article does the author refer to women as “vessels,” demean women, “reduce” anyone to their reproductive organs, or “pressure” medical professionals to use specific language (in fact, the author acknowledges that they’ve felt uncomfortable with the words medical professionals have used in the past and they haven’t felt empowered to say anything, which sounds like a really tough experience!).

      It sounds like you’re having a difficult time with the larger conversation around trans and nonbinary folks and birth/parenthood. Here’s the deal: whether you like it or not, trans and nonbinary people who can get pregnant are going to keep giving birth, raising children, and using words for that process that feel affirming for them. That’s a beautiful thing, and it doesn’t take anything away from cisgender women who choose to give birth and raise children.

      Pregnancy and birth can be incredibly difficult, scary, and traumatic—even for people who have always dreamed of parenthood—and everyone who’s going through that process deserves to feel safe, comfortable, and respected, especially in a medical setting. For some trans and nonbinary folks, feeling comfortable might mean calling themself a “parent” rather than a “mother,” and they might ask their medical team to do the same—because, again, everyone deserves respect.

      If you have additional thoughts, please make sure you review Autostraddle’s Comment Policy before sharing. Thanks!

    • As a mother and person who gave birth to one of my two children, i like and identify with the mother/mom/mommy . I was excited and enjoyed being called these terms before baby was born. I would not have preferred more gender neutral terms. My expectation is that Drs/nurses should be using whatever terms the patient prefers. I often had to correct dr/nurses that there was no dad in the picture, we were a two mom family…and after knowing they were always nice/respectful/used more inclusive language. I understand we are a very small percentage of the people that they see and while i think (in the relatively progressive places i have lived anyways), people want to be respectful, its just not nearly as common to have a family like mine…so they go with the understandable (?) default.

    • Honouring someone’s individual choice is not making things more difficult for others.

      As a WomanTM who is going through IVF, you absolutely do not speak for all women.

      I personally feel less reduced to my reproductive organs when drs use inclusive language. “Person” does not exclude “woman.”

  3. Shelly, your writing is gorgeous and I love how you describe the interplay of the political reality and working/advocating for reproductive health with your family and reproductive life planning. Your writing—this essay and also your previous one on binding/nursing—has been extremely meaningful for me processing my own thoughts about pregnancy, parenting, and reproductive life planning as a nonbinary person. Your exploration of what it means to be out (or not) as nonbinary with pregnancy health care providers was especially meaningful. I can’t overstate how grateful I am that you’ve written and shared this here!

  4. Shelly, thank you for sharing this. As someone who is very firmly pro-choice and also doing IVF, it has definitely been a strange time to balance both my beliefs that abortion is healthcare and should be available for all who need it when they need it, with the emotional rollercoaster of attaching “life” to the smallest of gametes with each step of IVF.

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