Becoming a parent is a profound, life-changing experience. For Philadelphia writer Krys Malcolm Belc, giving birth to his son Samson solidified his gender identity as nonbinary and transmasculine. In The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, Belc charts this journey and meditates on gender, bodies, and the act of parenting young children in all of its joy, discovery, and mundanity.
Belc’s title derives from how he is identified on the legal documents generated when Belc’s partner Anna adopted Samson. He includes images of the documents themselves, from the petitions to adopt, to the affidavit of conception, to the “Consent of Birth Father.” Belc meticulously annotates each form, recalling intimate details such as his insemination, the early days after Samson’s birth, and their amiable but distant relationship with their donor, while simultaneously showing how these forms fail to acknowledge the queer parenting experience.
One particularly egregious example of this absurd and cruel process is the Orphan’s Court Division, which informs Belc that he can have “continuing contact or communication following an adoption between an adoptive parent, child, a birth parent, and/or birth relative of the child,” when he and Anna are married and live together. “This one makes me really sad to look at,” Anna says.
Gender, bodies, family, birth
In addition to the adoption documents, Belc’s “visual memoir” includes sonograms and photos of his infant son and himself as a newborn, as well as photos of his pregnancy. He uses his birth certificate as a jumping-off point to trace his history growing up in Rockaway Beach as the oldest of six, his meeting and dating Anna, and the knitting together of their extended families. Belc breaks the book down into six thematic, nonlinear essays that feel fragmentary and collagelike.
Belc is candid about his complicated and at times ambivalent feelings about gender and bodies. He begins taking testosterone during the adoption process and, despite his rage at the “natural mother” label, he feels the loss of his public appearance as the gestational parent.
“Of course, sperm is a connection, biological fatherhood is a connection, but it is not the same,” he writes. “The assumption of gestation, of birth, of true creation, that falls away.” He processes many of these feelings directly to Anna, who is the gestational parent of their other two sons, Sean and Isaiah. “People ask about your births and they mean all three,” he writes to her. “You were so beautiful pregnant, in a way that made sense.”
Change and challenge
In his final essay, “Wild Life,” Belc meditates on what we inherit, what we pass on, and how our children change and challenge us. “I cannot separate my understanding of his life from the one I’ve had, but I have to try,” Belc says of Samson’s fierce energy and blending of gender, like combining Phillies T-shirts with a rainbow skirt, which Belc fears will spark a backlash from his son’s peers. “His freedom is something I never could have imagined and it is terrifying to me.”
And yet, letting go of this sense of control is one of the hardest and most inevitable parts of parenthood. By their third child, “we know now that we can do all the setup we want, but we cannot make their childhoods what we want them to be … In this family there is always a chance to redefine how you see yourself.”
In The Natural Mother of the Child, Belc redefines who we imagine a gestational parent to be, adding a necessary new voice to the parenting narrative.
Image description: The cover of The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood by Krys Malcolm Belc. Against a gold background are the title of the book and author’s name in white capital letters with the subtitle in red handwriting. In the corners of the text are photos of a white family and their baby, ripped into triangular shapes.
What, When, Where
The Natural Mother of the Child. By Krys Malcolm Belc. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, June 15, 2021. 287 pages, hardcover; $26. Get it on Bookshop.org.