Being nonbinary, I consider my body going through even an ideal pregnancy with trepidation. My partner and I are both 32, firm on wanting kids, and not quite ready for them. I am the sole carrying partner between us, though I have a heart condition that might prohibit pregnancy. There are other options; I’ve researched them intensively and come to no conclusions. As starting a family becomes a pressing question, I’m asking myself more and more what parenthood—what motherhood—means to me.
I have spent much of my adult life fighting to shape myself beyond my mother’s legacies. When she—an alcoholic who lost track of how to care for me—passed this past year, I realized I am as unsure of how to conceptualize motherhood as I was of how to conceptualize my mother. But literature always sheds light into shadowed corners.
The young narrator in Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness struggles likewise to conceive of her mother. Trudie leaves their Mennonite family, and after the fact Nomi reflects on Trudie’s qualities almost by bullet point: “She liked a made bed.” “She had an uncanny ability to predict the weather.” Trudie took private joy in small blasphemies, which eventually explains why she left the family, but Nomi lists Trudie’s indulgences on equal footing with her triumphs as a mother: “In the winter she’d warm up my bed for me by lying in it for twenty minutes.”
I was the natural choice, as a writer, to compose my mother’s obituary. But I was unsure how to craft a narrative of her life. I struggled to find a single good memory we shared, each tarnished by drunkenness, fringed by abuse. On a friend’s suggestion, I identified my mother’s positive character traits and extrapolated from there.
In the end I wrote her obituary in one hour, in one draft, sitting at her kitchen table as hummingbirds drank from her feeder nearby. She had shown me how to fill the hummingbird feeder as among her final acts. I described her love of nature, of animals. In my mother’s last days, I asked my aunt if she thought my mom resented having me. My aunt agreed that, after I was born, my mother never really recovered. It must have been terrible to find no joy in motherhood.
My mother did not leave, but she did vacate. The alcoholism that divided us eventually killed her. In the end, people found the obituary true to her character: She liked a made bed. She had an uncanny ability to predict the weather.
In the winter she… put a tarp over the garden, kept an almanac of the visiting birds. This year I hope to grow tomatoes on my balcony, to bring something from her nature into mine. To become like my mother in this one way.
What, then, is motherhood to me? It is more than biology. If I cannot or choose not to carry my child, I will not be less of a mother. I watch the mothers around me with a studious hunger: How do they behave? What signifies them as mothers? How might I behave as a mother, while I position myself apart from traditional womanhood?
Trans motherhood is ground less tread in literature, but it is found in Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby! Reese, a trans woman, is asked why she wants to be a mother. Initially balking at the audacity of the question—cis women don’t get asked such things—Reese gives one internal answer and another aloud.
Internally: “She likes to hold children. To smell a baby’s hair. To soothe a crying infant and feel his little frame let go of rigid fear… To rock a baby and communicate with your body: You’re safe.” What she says aloud is more complex:
“I want to be a mom for the usual reasons. … The kind of thing that people usually call a biological clock, which isn’t a term that works for me, but still describes something I feel in my body. … I ache when I see other moms with kids. I’m so jealous. … I want that same validation that other moms have. That feeling of womanhood placed in a family. … Everyone acts like moms are real women and real women become moms.”
Can motherhood also function apart from womanhood? I don’t feel the biological clock Reese describes. One consideration in shaping my gender presentation was my comfort with the trappings of fatherhood, less beholden to my body for the gift of becoming a parent.
Yet, like manhood—like womanhood—fatherhood doesn’t sit right with me. I shudder to think of growing new life, but once the life has been made, I shudder at nothing. I am comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding in a way I am not with pregnancy. I think, with the naive peace of the childless, about 2:00am wakeups to feed my baby. A child relying on me, biologically or otherwise—I think of this with aspiration. As Reese yearns for it, so do I.
Yearning characterizes motherhood—in myself, and in literature. In Alice Munro’s short story “Soon,” an ailing Sara says to her daughter: “When it gets really bad for me… you know what I think then? … I think— Soon. Soon I’ll see Juliet.” Yearning features, too, prominently in gender transition. I yearn for a motherhood of providership; I yearn to present in a masculine fashion. I yearn to warm my children’s beds, and to nourish my children with tomatoes plucked from the backyard vine. I yearn to stay up too late reading my kids’ books for class, and to show them a mother who trains for strength. I yearn to use muscular arms to carry my children, to protect them, to uplift them. I yearn to set up daily, weekly routines, to make lunches and playdates.
And I yearn never to worry whether I look like a mother. I want everyone to know it by the actions I take.
Motherhood and gender transition are each audacious acts of hope. They are beliefs in new futures, commitments to protecting them. When I imagine motherhood, I imagine looking at my children and thinking with simple reverence: Soon.
I don’t know how I will become a mother. But whatever the path—for all my transgressions—I know it will be built on a foundation of hope. This is the legacy I hope my children will carry forth: to look to the future for something to yearn for.
Leighton Lowry writes any chance they get. A recovering academic, they’ve pivoted with delight to speculative fiction, essays, criticism, and self-publishing romance novels. They are a full-time freelancer, editor, and voracious reader based in Montreal. You can find them at @leightonlowry.