I remember feeling tense and removed as images of unidentifiable baby parts appeared and disappeared on the ultrasound screen. I felt like my future was being divined against the natural order of things. I wanted to extend the time of not knowing and all of its potential before shoving a map onto a primordial landscape. But I also really wanted to know what was between the baby’s legs and whether there were any “soft markers” for Downs Syndrome.
“You wanted to know the gender [sic] right?” The ultrasound tech leaned the wand, hard, at an angle in the gel, and I cringed even though it didn’t hurt.
“Yes” I said.
“Congratulations! It’s a boy!”
Me: what? [looking to Anne for clarificarion]
A: It’s a boy
Me: what do you even do with..?
A: love him!
Me: of course! But like how did I even make a penis? How does that happen?
U/S tech [raises her eyebrows, staring at the screen: “Yup, very much a boy. This baby is exceptionally active! I wish I had one of those cameras that can rewind for babies like this, he’s just moving too fast! Well, congratulations!”
We stumbled out of the dark room of possibilities back into the world of solid adobes and indiscreet sunshine, the evidently hyper and well-endowed baby kicking away, affronted by the ultrasound waves or the invasion of his privacy and primordialness. “I think it will be hard for Y to handle loudness and hyperactivity,” I say, as lines on the map fill in, tumbling over each other, freeways and road closures and mountains and craters and the dangers of uncharted territory. (Thar be foreskin.)
On Christmas Day I was 37 weeks pregnant and hadn’t felt movement for over 8 hours. I went to the hospital to get monitored. As soon as I was hooked up to the machine, the baby started doing cartwheels. The jolly-with-an-edge L&D nurse looked at me, “Just like a boy to make you come here and go through all this!” I felt irrationally guilty, like it was my fault she wasn’t home with her family on Christmas.”Boys are little punks,” she said firmly, standing over me, lights on her wreath necklace flashing red and green in a way that amazingly seemed to augment, rather than contradict her authority.
He was a mellow, satisfied, loving infant. “He’s here to bring balance and chillness to our family,” I postulated.
Then he was a toddler and got all his molars at the same time. He slapped us in the face repeatedly, scratched us, screamed and banged his head into the wall, butt scooted off in a huff, grasped our faces with both hands and forced us to look him in the eye if we were talking to someone else while he repeated his request. “I’m worried about him. He’s male, he has a temper, and he doesn’t respect bodily boundaries,” – Anne
I’ve been thinking a lot about narratives, the stories we create to define, explain, make sense of, predict what appears before us. To protect ourselves.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about drag queens.
Obviously gender is one of the first and most persistent and pervasive narratives that gets overlaid onto a tiny person, and of course it’s got the force of societies, religions, and power structures behind it. It’s easy to see when people are trying to force a particular gendered narrative, and I think it may be becoming easier to reject, or at least to question. Most people can agree that it is an absurd idea that girls should be drawn to nurturing and pink and boys need to play with warriors/sports/vehicles. It’s sometimes somewhat harder for some people to see that assuming a girl will be more verbal and a boy more active is also ridiculous, but after a minute, that’s also obvious to most. People are starting to get that creating a story of personality traits, particular skills, competencies, and interests based on whether you think someone’s genitals go in or stick out makes little sense and that society won’t collapse around us if we let go of it a bit. People also are seeing that it’s dangerous. Many of us know people who suffer so much due to not being able to embrace and perform the trappings of their assigned gender. And also, there’s our president.
Anyone who is part of a non-dominant culture knows the dangers that narratives can contain, especially when those who want to hang onto power are creating them. I have tasted this, being queer, jewish and female. I find myself feeling uneasy with the space I take up and undeserving of fair compensation at work as a woman, I also find myself feeling somehow not as psychologically or relationally healthy because I’m queer. Sometimes I feel a deep sense of not belonging and a not always totally conscious mistrust and fear in a community because of the trauma my Jewish ancestors experienced when their fellow countrymen turned against them and tried to destroy them. I can only imagine with absolute horror what is’t like to be Black or Brown and have to fear for your life, your children’s lives, your bodily safety because of the narrative that you are dangerous and/or don’t matter.
And of course there are all the narratives on the micro level as well. Our parents and other key people in our lives have their own stories about themselves and us, based on their own fears, experiences, traumas. We internalize these stories and they become a huge part of our sense of self and can dictate how we are in relationships. Once I read this really smart article that I can’t find now but the author argues that much of the rage and struggle that comes with adolescence happens because the adolescent stops believing the family narrative, casts it off, and no one can handle it.
As any group who has found a way to preserve and tell their own story, and any individual who has ever been in (good) therapy can attest, rejecting an assigned narrative and creating another, richer, more spacious, more complex, more fabulous narrative is the ultimate liberation and power and healing. But positive narratives are tricky too because they limit our ability to understand and embrace the fact that we and everyone else we encounter are super complicated, dynamic, ever-changing creatures. And they eventually stop fitting us. It’s like being wrapped in miles of cotton candy and at first you’re like “this is delicious and amazing!” and then eventually you’re like “I’m going to fucking suffocate and die!”
So is the solution is to reject the idea of the narrative altogether, to resist ever telling stories about ourselves or anyone else, to see every person as a primordial landscape with no possible map? Maybe. But it’s not how our brains work. We can’t do it. We need these stories. Sometimes they protect us. Sometimes they are just really satisfying. It feels good in the not-quite-right way that locking yourself in the bathroom and eating chocolate while your preschooler is writhing on the ground screaming that she can’t walk to the table to eat her frozen blueberries because her arm hurts because she bumped it two weeks ago feels good. Like a stepping out of the crazy and into the predictable, even though you can still hear her screaming that you gave her an Olaf bandaid instead of an Elsa bandaid and you know you’re going to have to emerge back into it sometime very soon. Maps are useful, if technically inaccurate. We can operate within a system while understanding it’s a flawed one.
Which brings me to drag queens.
This is what drag queens are absolutely fucking brilliant at. We love drag because it just calls out the absurdities of the narrative, it plays with it, it owns it, it’s such a relief. It spins it out into something amazing and ever-changing with total awareness of itself.
Our family went to RuPaul’s Drag Con this past April. The kids’ fairy god mother (donor daddy’s boyfriend) is Valentina on Season 9 of RuPaul’s drag race. (Forever #teamvalentina but since her epic elimination, I have to come out as #teamsasha as she is my long lost best friend)
There was a kids zone at Drag Con with a bouncy house and a story time. Eureka O’Hara read the kids stories of affirmation, love, acceptance, belonging, justice. All body types, all genders, all family structures, all that matters is love. On one of the last episodes of this season of Drag Race, RuPaul acknowledges the young viewers watching, trying to find a compass and a map for themselves, trying to illuminate a path in the dark. The four remaining queens are each shown pictures of themselves as young children and asked to tell their baby selves what they feel they need to hear. It is so powerful to see these incredibly fabulous, self-possessed superstars turning such struggle into love and acceptance and peace and wisdom and art and badassery. To consciously make their own narrative with total awareness and power.
Of course, I’m thinking about all of this with regard to parenting.
This morning, for the 5 billionth time, Y refused to get dressed for school, because all two of her “school shirts” (shirts she deems subpar to home shirts, and thus she’s willing to let them be defiled with school germs) were missing. The narratives about her, about us, instantly snaked out of my head until I was a crazy medusa of panic and irritation – “you always make us late, you want to wear the same ripped pants and stained shirt every day, which people might find weird, you are vulnerable to being hurt or rejected, I am going to be judged, you’re spirited/hard/a handful. I’m a shitty mom…” all in a microsecond. Over all the hissing and noise in my head, I raised my voice at her and scarily demanded she put a specific shirt on. Then I apologized and she happily took my hand and chatted to me about loggerhead turtles and actually, drag queens and where they poop. What was actually happening was she couldn’t find a shirt she wanted and I was feeling annoyed for a moment. I could have stopped there. Or, if I had had it in me, I could have acknowledged that she super cares about her signature look and her comfort and she fiercely decides what goes on her body and that’s awesome and is going to serve her.
N and his penis, Y and her school shirts are creatures that I love desperately, that inhabit vulnerable bodies in a fucked up and unpredictable world. I’m scared, I want to be a good mom. I have had a bunch of experiences, and so have my ancestors. All these things are going to clash together and my brain is going to make narratives like it’s evolved to do. We all will, about ourselves, our kids, gender, cultures, the world. We might not be able to stop, but we can see it as drag. We can make space within it, we can refuse to be harmful with it. We can call out its absurdity and own it and play with it and we can teach them to do it too. We can be aware, watch the stories form, and then sometimes make the decision to change it up and give them better wigs and some well-positioned sequins. It is so deeply important to me that my kids realize that whatever I, or the world puts on them, and equally whatever they put on anyone else, is completely theirs to take off, tear up, re-sew into something fabulous and “gag-worthy”, or just sashay away from altogether.
As RuPaul says, simply, the way you say the truest things, “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”