A Lesson in Courage and Tenderness: On Krys Malcolm Belc’s “The Natural Mother of the Child”
By Emily PérezAugust 15, 2021
The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood by Krys Malcolm Belc
If there are “natural” mothers, are there “unnatural” ones? The phrase evokes scare-tropes of “unnatural” queer relationships. For Belc, the word “mother” — its package of gendered expectations and a specific kind of parent-child relationship — may be even more problematic. It misrepresents the true nature of Belc and Samson, a child who says he “came from his daddy.” Belc’s memoir troubles easy understandings of gender and parenthood. At the same time, the author’s particular journey demonstrates a universal truth: parturition brings not only a baby, but also transformed adults, into the world.
Readers come to know Belc, Anna, their families of origin, and their offspring, while getting an education in the history of gender confirmation surgeries, ultrasound technology, and the bureaucracy behind second-parent adoptions. The nonlinear narrative is broken into sections ranging from “The Machine,” which looks at the medical industry and how it treats nonbinary parenthood, to “Breasts: A History,” a collage of notes on binders, breast feeding, top surgery, and boob jobs. The six major sections comprise short prose meditations interspersed with photographs, legal documents, definitions, and even recaps of Law & Order episodes (the series was one of few points of connection Belc had with his own father). Belc’s wryly humorous book appeals to both heart and head, like spending an evening with a friend watching a documentary. The second-person address to Anna, featured in a few sections, has the effect of making the reader an intimate confidante. We are drawn closer to Belc, even when he confesses his faults.
Belc opens the book with a metaphor from his own childhood. As Krystyn Marie, he used to compete in Irish dance competitions, and once he froze up on stage. “Why this story? The girl, standing on the stage, waiting for the dance to start, though it has already started, and everyone waiting for me to do what I’m supposed to do.” Gender is revealed as a performance, responsive to societal demands. He, the five-year-old in the dress, refuses to perform. At the end of the book, the image recurs. Belc looks through old photos; Samson, now a child, remarks, “It’s good that your mom is the type of mom who let you wear dresses, even though you were a boy.” Belc has to remind his son that his mother thought he — Krys — was a girl. “There is no way to tell our child that I pretended to be somebody I wasn’t until he came along. For everyone else’s comfort.”
Belc wants a different world for his child, yet he worries that world doesn’t exist: “Other children love [Samson] and I live in fear that they will turn on him. I cannot separate my understanding of his life from the one I’ve had, but I have to try. His freedom is something I never could have imagined and it is terrifying to me.” Readers who are parents will recognize this fear. Even if the world evolves, it is difficult to believe that it will treat our children differently than it treated us. Still, we must trust both in the world and in the child’s ability to navigate it.
Belc’s uniquely trans experience of parenting will resonate with all kinds of parents; similarly, Belc’s complex feelings about his body will resonate with anyone who has ever felt critical toward or uncomfortable about their own. As a female preteen, Belc develops an eating disorder, which has the desired side effect of halting menstruation. Belc admits to being alienated from this body, not having masturbated or explored it before meeting his college girlfriend. So, the mechanics of pregnancy lead him to consider — in some ways for the first time — how his body functions. Belc weaves his personal story into a history of ultrasound technology, touching on the fraught relationship of trans people to the medical establishment: “People like me don’t get pelvic exams unless under threat of something. I didn’t want to see those parts — women’s parts — and know they were abnormal, or normal, or even there.” Belc watches Anna birth their first child and wonders if it’s something only women can do. In this momentary concern, he seems to suggest that labor and delivery are not just about body parts — a uterus and vagina — but about some power that goes along with identifying as a woman.
Testosterone therapy also raises questions about the masculine body and its ties to violence. Belc confesses to a therapist, “When I get mad, I explode,” and he reveals that neighbors once called the police on him. He’d screamed at Anna and “kicked the bedroom door. Cracked it.” This raw, vulnerable section of the memoir contemplates a lineage spanning from Belc’s father to himself and his brothers to Samson, all of whom use physical force to express themselves. These strands are countered by questions of what it is to be a father of a son. Notably, Belc’s anger subsides when he has bodily contact with his children. “Taking long naps with Sean changed me, changed us. I became gentler, less afraid of myself.” Belc again shows how it isn’t hormones or gender roles that lock us into one way of being, that we are all in a constant state of evolution.
Soon, Belc is both pregnant and transitioning. Neighbors confide in mutual friends, “You know that new couple across the street? […] Well, I think the man is pregnant.” But just as he does not fit easily into the expecting mothers’ club, or even in the waiting room of the fertility clinic, so he is also an outlier in his transmasculine support group. While others look forward to their top surgeries, Belc feels deep ambivalence, and decides to breastfeed. He refuses to conform. “Nothing about being pregnant made me feel feminine,” he asserts. “This body is what it is: not quite man, not quite woman, but with the parts to create and shape life.” By giving birth, he “felt I had done something strong, made me ready to be me.” Belc does not minimize the challenges his ambiguous body brings — he is even the victim of a transphobic stalker — but he boldly accepts the body that serves him at each stage of his adult life. His arrival at acceptance of and gratitude toward his body are instructive.
Belc deepens and complicates the happily-ever-after tropes of “life after baby” and “life after transition.” In a beautiful meditation on the way the fetus leaves cells that stay in the mother’s body forever, Belc acknowledges positive change: “Do I love life more now because our children are in it or because [Samson] left happiness behind in me?” For a couple whose union was originally specified as a same-sex marriage, however, the very personal making of a “family” is bitterly entangled with the law. Krys must file second-parent adoption forms for Anna’s birth children, and Anna must file for his. The book includes legal documents marked up with his own footnotes. On the verification document for Samson’s adoption, the first footnote says, “Before this proceeding, Samson had one legal parent.” Belc continues:
a. This often led to Anna’s claims that she had no legal obligation to change Samson’s diaper or scrub yogurt out of his hair.
b. […] [I]n Samson’s adoption, I also had to provide information about myself, such as fingerprints, background checks, and testimony, even though I was his birth parent and had custody of him from the moment of his birth.
This juxtaposition of family quirks with bureaucratic demands is typical of the book: Belc pairs humor with the insult of having to provide a background check. In order for Anna to adopt Samson, Belc also had to legally renounce the sperm donor, a man who Belc says is not a close friend, but a person to whom he owes immeasurable gratitude. “Every time I see [Samson’s donor] I fight back the urge to say thank you in response to every single thing he says.” Thus, it is another point of sadness that, in forming their family, Belc and Anna must legally excise another person from their history. Later, when a male-presenting Belc has to explain to a pregnant woman he admires that he gave birth to Samson, he realizes that he cannot “have both my past and present at the same time.” “Life after baby” does not connect easily to life before. He either has to explain his own medical history or else stay silent and pass as Samson’s father.
There are things one gains by transitioning and the things one loses. There is the new body, the confidence, there is the title Dad, the power granted to men. And there is what one loses, the assumption of connection. […] The assumption of gestation, of birth, of true creation, that falls away.
This desire to be seen and understood is thwarted by narrow ideas of mothers, fathers, and their respective bodies. The shorthand of mother’s body alongside child’s body communicates, whether real or not, an unbreakable bond. Belc leaving that body results in another loss.
The Natural Mother of the Child offers, along with an ever-surprising, multiform structure, a lesson in courage and tenderness. Above all, it showcases the ability to live in and tolerate discomfort if it is the surest path to your desires. Though the book has its dark moments, it is undergirded by gratitude: “Some people may have been born in the wrong body; I was not. I was born in a body that gave me the freedom to carry a baby.” Belc’s excavation pushes readers to look deeper at what is natural, what is manmade, and what makes a man.
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone and the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood. Find more at www.emilyperez.org.
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