Having a child is a very stupid idea.
This response to Merve Emre’s forum is in Boston Review’s summer 2018 print issue Once and Future Feminist, where you will also find half a dozen other responses, as well as concluding thoughts from Emre. To read all of these, plus five other provocative essays about gender and reproduction, order your copy of Once and Future Feminist today.
Having a child, like heterosexuality, is a very stupid idea. It will not end well—for you, your friends, the planet. Others may applaud and encourage you. Do not be deceived: they are just being nice. Children are a cancer. Shulamith Firestone’s program in The Dialectic of Sex (1970) isn’t just insane for wanting to outsource childbirth to the machines. The automation of gestational labor is a modest proposal next to the notion that humankind should be reproducing at all. What’s crazier, believing in people pods or just believing in people? Compare Valerie Solanas in the SCUM Manifesto (1967), skeptical of even her own plan for cybernetic parthenogenesis: “Why should there be future generations? What is their purpose?”
Pregnancy is a form of body modification so extreme that its result is another person. In this, it resembles sex change.
But I banked my sperm anyway, begrudgingly persuaded by childful friends who counseled, with the sagacity that grows, like a polyp, in every woman’s womb, that the urge to procreate might strike me later in life with all the flexibility of a midnight craving. I did it early in transition, before hormones, using money I had extorted from my parents, then still in sackcloth and ashes over the death of their son. At the cryobank, I was directed to a small windowless beige room, like an examination room in which you were expected to be your own doctor. On one wall, there was a television, vaguely operable by remote; they must have assumed that everyone would just use their phone. On the adjoining wall hung a pair of penciled nudes that managed, somehow, to signify tastefulness without actually going to the trouble of being tasteful. There were tissues, and magazines, and a sink. It was a place empty of sex, but full of its idea.
They were the most expensive orgasms of my life. At my third visit, the technician told me she’d collected thirteen vials—four times the average. It was as if my reproductive organs, anxiously aware of their imminent unemployment, were putting in the best job performance of their careers. The pride ashamed me.
I have no desire for children, which is easy to say when you’ve got spunk in the bank. I’m sympathetic with the idea of it, though: the idea of submitting your very substance to a senseless, deleterious, and basically selfish science experiment more or less guaranteed to run your politics off the road. Sex change, like having a child, is a very stupid idea. I’m not even supposed to write sex change; I’m supposed to write gender confirmation surgery, as if all the doctors did was to throw your inner woman a big thumbs-up. That’s ridiculous, obviously. Later this year, I will pay another person a lot of money to carve me into a different shape. She will probably do a good job, but it will be disappointing anyway. What I want isn’t surgery; what I want is never to have needed surgery to begin with. I will never be natural, but I will die trying.
Merve Emre presents the stories of her interviewees as evidence that all reproduction is, and should be, assisted, not “natural.” But these stories are equally proof of just how hard it is to give up nature as an object of desire. Even queer theorists are sobered to learn the sex of an embryo. So when Emre proposes we expose the lie of nature, I’m not so sure. I’m alienated by the discourse around the natural, sure, but only the same way I’m alienated by the skinny white girls with dead eyes and bare midriffs who herald, like dandelions, the arrival of summer in New York City. Unfold my political critique at its creases, and you will be left with nothing but flat, blank envy. That doesn’t mean nature isn’t a lie. It just means that we never believed in it because it was true; we believed in it because we wanted to.
This is my way of saying what I think Emre means when she writes, “people’s bodies are unruly sites for politics.” It’s an observation she makes of micha cárdenas’s Pregnancy (2009), to which it applies if only by accident. cárdenas does indeed perform the ambivalence of reproduction, but not without arming herself with political buzzwords clearly intended to pack a moral punch. “oh the privilege of / cis-hetero reproduction!” the poet exclaims, a laptop sticker of a line sure to win righteous snaps from the mostly cisgender queers who are spending their Tuesday night at this independent bookstore in Oakland. I prefer Joanne Spataro, who longs in the New York Times to make a baby with her trans fiancée “the way fertile cisgender people do.” She makes no attempt to justify this desire politically. She wouldn’t be able to, anyway.
In childbirth, there is too much blood, too much meat, too much of the thinginess of the thing for politics. Remember: pregnancy is a form of body modification so extreme that its result is another person. In this, it resembles nothing—except, perhaps, sex change. In the course of each, you will finally come upon the edge of something taut and smooth and, though you cannot see it, palpably immense, its hard surface slowly rolling beneath your palm like the tide, a pattern that, after hours or months of standing there, you will suddenly recognize as breathing. Call it nature, or don’t; call it reality, or having a body, or none of those things. It is the Elephant in the Room, and you may call it anything you like, for it is a gentle thing and terrible, indifferent and alive, and intentionless as the sky.
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