PHOTOESSAY: “Modern Conception” Perfectly Captures Queer Pregnancy, Features Michelle Tea

Someone finally got it right.

You know all those maternity photos of ladies gazing dreamily toward their swollen bellies while golden light streams in from the background?

Yeah. That is NOT what pregnancy is like. Much less queer pregnancy.

Photographer Sophie Spinelle explores queer pregnancy and medically assisted conception in the photo series Modern Conception, with queer writer Michelle Tea as the model. Full disclosure: Sophie is also a friend of mine, and supported me and my wife Anita through years of fertility treatments. She has said that watching our journey helped inspire this series.

Like most queer couples, Anita and I approached the project of growing our family with open minds. We considered all the different ways to get a baby, from foster care to adoption to pregnancy. Anita said pregnancy would feel to her like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and as a family lawyer I knew too much about the uncertainties of adoption, so we decided that I would carry the baby. I was actually a little nervous about spreading my genes, which distinguish themselves mostly by bad teeth. But I was excited to join the ancient sisterhood of women who had shared the experience of pregnancy. I thought it would feel instinctual, animal, natural.

We asked a gorgeous, creative friend to be our donor and were giddy to learn that his wife was just as excited about our project as he was. Whenever I was about to drop an egg, we took the subway to his Bohemian, cat-ridden apartment. He and his wife went into another room and came out with a cup full of the fresh, warm “genetic material.” Then my wife and I went to a different room to inject it with, of all things, a Baby Tylenol dropper. The process felt intimate, exciting and a little naughty. One magical night, after the insemination, we all drank wine, ate Moroccan pheasant pie and noticed a full moon out the window. We were sure our child had been conceived. We were wrong.

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Sophie’s image of Mother Nature in stirrups captures the tension between the way women are taught to conceive (naturally, instinctually) and the way most queer women actually do conceive. After our nights of wine and moonlight produced exactly nothing, Anita and I escalated to fertility clinics, where we learned that at the relatively young age of 34, my egg supply was low and we were “scraping the bottom of the barrel” (yes, a doctor actually said that out loud). We began a monthly procedure called Intra-Uterine-Insemination (IUI) that involved injecting needles full of fertility drugs into my stomach and monitoring my eggs as they grew. Every two days, I had a 7 AM tryst with the transvaginal ultrasound, a shockingly long, cold, condom-covered wand that we promptly named “The Dildo-Cam.”

Our poor donor was working hard, too. No clinic would inseminate me with his fresh sperm despite the fact that we had swapped fluids at home. They required STD testing, genetic testing and psychological evaluations. To prevent HIV transmission, they also demanded that his sperm be frozen and quarantined for 6 months. It enraged me that straight couples could just show up at the clinic with their marriage certificates, while we had to prove we were sane, genetically sound, medically immaculate. Of course, the reality of depositing sperm in a bank is not as immaculate as one would hope. Our donor later told us that they made him fill out a “bible” full of paperwork, then put him in a room lined with red padding, where he watched a porn called Milkmaids in Manhattan.

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After eight IUIs, dozens of dates with Dildo-Cam, and hundreds of needles full of hormones, I began to forget my feminism and feel like a failure as a woman. I even forgot about all the family-growing options Anita and I had considered in the past and became desperate to have a baby in my belly. I knew that I had become obsessed when I found myself drinking carrot juice, eating bitter pineapple core and listening to a meditation CD called “Help for Infertility,” in which a soothing yoga type urged me to close my eyes and imagine sperm meeting egg. Anita and I were advised by well-meaning morons that it was all due to stress and we should “take a vacation.” Meanwhile, our doctors urged us to try the most stressful and expensive procedure to date: IVF. It involved harvesting eggs, growing them in a test tube and implanting them back into my uterus. In comparison to other families who suffer failed IVFs and miscarriages, Anita and I were incredibly lucky. Our first IVF was covered by insurance, and resulted in a healthy twin pregnancy.

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The last two pictures in the series depict pregnancy in all its gore and glory. In contrast to cheesy maternity shoots or tabloid “baby bumps,” Sophie’s photos show our animal hunger, our exhaustion and our inability to keep up with the housework. Was pregnancy my happy ending? Partly. I was admitted into the sisterhood I had hoped to join, a sisterhood of strange and secret symptoms. Random acquaintances (and one family court judge) told me about their own swollen labia, leaking nipples and heartburn. As I lumbered through the city streets, women called out to me: “God bless you, you gonna have a football player!” and “You got it, baby, you’re almost there!” (I was only 6 months pregnant). But there was also the night when I woke Anita up to ask: “Do you think acid reflux could actually kill me? I feel like I could die. Could I die?” Spoiler alert: I didn’t, you can’t.

Here’s the honest truth, or at least my truth: Trying to conceive sucks. Pregnancy mostly sucks. Birth totally blows. But here’s real happy ending: Our beautiful twin daughters are now four. They wear tutus everywhere, even the beach. They know they were in my belly, but they love their Mommy and Mama equally. And the other day, we played an entire round of Candy Land without a meltdown.

Erin is a part-time public interest attorney and a dyke-mom-about town. She spends her mornings advocating for low-income New Yorkers and her afternoons picking up her kids from school, playing Candy Land and cooking chicken nuggets. Her bedtime is 9:30 PM.

Erin has written 1 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. This is really great. We grow up hearing and expecting certain things about pregnancy and getting pregnant that just don’t pan out for everyone, especially queer people. And if you’re me, you grow up thinking it won’t apply to you, and you’ll end up with a long-term girlfriend and a cat and that’s your lot (which is totally fine). But then science makes pregnancy more approachable for a lot of people, and marriage equality happens, and suddenly (not at all suddenly; after years of talking/planning/dreaming) the world is different than you expected it to be–you’re married now, and settled, and you find yourself eligible to join this baby-making club. But the thing is, the club is not what you imagined. Trying to conceive is hard, and unless you’re magic you probably won’t get to conceive in your bed at home with your wife like you want to. And once you’re finally pregnant, pregnancy is weird and it’s different for you, as a queer person, than it is for your hippie straight friends who embrace their big boobs with open arms. Luckily there are people out there like Michelle Tea willing to write about their experience (check out her column on xoJane if you want to ride a wonderful conception/pregnancy emotional roller coaster) and Sophie Spinelle with these brilliant images, and Erin Dow writing about them. It’s a really weird club, this Queer Pregnancy Society, but it gets easier with every new voice.

  2. Wow this was a GREAT article! Thanks so much for sharing! Its something Im definitely sharing with the wife. These are the types of articles that I really look forward to on the site. Honest, a peek into someone else’s life and experiences.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story and the pictures. I had always thought about all of the options, adoption, foster care, getting pregnant. Like you said, I never thought there would be a doctor involved. But now since my wife has material from before her transition and we both want to become parents, it makes sense to at least try. Which means three hours drives to a doctor, taking time off from work, trying to get my thyroid levels in the proper place. So yes, thank you for sharing! Also it is in part such a private journey while also being strangely interlaced with many strangers.

  4. Love this! I’ve got room in my life ALWAYS for Michelle Tea as divine saint-figure. Her xoJane column is def worth a read for all the ups and downs of a queer pregnancy (and the longgg journey to it).

  5. The most amazing part of all this (and it is all amazing) is the getting through Candyland without a meltdown. That game ended up banned in our household when I was growing up because it is such a tantrum catalyst. My bad.

  6. WAAAAAAAH. All the AS articles about queer parenting make me really happy (also weepy)- more please!

    Sidenote: one of the only reasons I still check xojane on a regular basis is for the Getting Pregnant With Michelle Tea articles. I strongly recommend binge reading them.

  7. Oh, DildoCam, I don’t miss you even a little. I don’t miss those jerks at that place either (shall it go unnamed?)
    I knew they were bad, but the ridiculous screening measures are beyond the pale even for them. “the clock is ticking and you’re at the bottom of the barrel, but how about freezing this nice sperm for six months?”
    So glad I dumped them and went to Weill-Cornell.

  8. I have seen the discomfort of being pregnant. The nausea of morning sickness. Then the giving birth…..well, not exactly, sense I forgot to breathe when my mate was pushing out our daughter…..and almost passed out. But……after I realized that I am female gender, I wish so sincerely…..with all of the discomfort and pain…..that I could be pregnant with a child inside my belly…..What an amazing female privilege it would be….for me to be able ….to give birth to my gf’s baby….if it is a child of love.
    Its a feeling I have.

  9. After for about 3years, I started to think I may be having some infertility issues. I began taking different medical prescription for me to get pregnant and to ensure i produce a healthy baby, but all i do did not work out for me. i thought i may never get pregnant again, so i came out for help online, on how to get solution to my problem. my husband, family, and friends, i think you will be fine they were telling me. i could not stop thinking my life will end like without having a baby, so one day i saw some people online saying things about this sorceress woman called Mama jaja, on how she can help people get pregnant. i contacted her, i told her what my problem is. she did a spell for me to get pregnant, also she told after two weeks i should go for check up, which i did, i took a pregnancy test and sure enough it was positive wow! I was so excited. all thanks to the Mama Jaja, pls keep on the good work, for i know there are people out there that still need your help just like me. if you ever need the help of the spiritual woman, you can reach on her email address (mamajajasorceress@yahoo.com)

  10. I need a little help. Two of my dear friends are trying to get pregnant via IUI in a clinical setting so there’s little fun to it. They’re on about the fourth disappointment. I need some tips for the best ways to be supportive and anything you can suggest to make the process more enjoyable. Thank you!

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