I. Girls and Boys
It was a well-kept secret, one I hid even from myself, wanting to be a parent. Looking back, the desire for a child was always there, circling the edge of my consciousness. It felt like I was on the margins of potential parenthood, too queer and too alone. As hard as it was to figure out whether I wanted to be a parent, perhaps it was even harder to look at my own family and understand how it shaped who I am and what I wanted.
I grew up in a suburban community of close-knit Taiwanese immigrants in San Jose, California. Friday nights after Chinese school, the families would gather together to play mahjong. I’d watch my dad scramble tiles while sipping tea and eating oranges and pistachios.
The other little girls, especially my sister Ernie, would receive compliments for playing with babies and toddlers. Adults would cast disapproving eyes toward my skateboard, Legos, and Ken dolls, and call me a tomboy. I would hear other girls gushing around babies and ask myself if something was wrong with me because I didn’t have an auto-coo setting. As the eldest of the younger generation, I would create and direct elaborate plays. There were always princesses and princes who rescued them, and I always wanted to play the prince.
Back then, I could be whomever or whatever I imagined. Sometimes I was a boy. Sometimes I was a girl. I loved being my dad’s little girl. Together the two of us planted morning’s breath next to the pond he’d constructed and seeded squash that ripened bigger than my head. As my younger brother Justin grew, my dad invited him to garden alongside him instead. His interest in teaching me diminished each year. “He’s a boy,” my dad explained.
There were other attempts to convince me of the limitations of girls. My grandmother watched us three kids while my parents worked. At noon, my grandmother would sit on her rocking chair, humming and fanning herself, facing west, waiting for the sunlight to hit her face. She smelled like tea, old newspaper, and Tiger Balm.
Once after Justin and I had raged at each other, she said, “You shouldn’t fight so much with your brother. You’re older.”
“He gets away with everything.”
She took out a newspaper clipping from her desk drawer. “Look at this article.”
I couldn’t read it despite attending Chinese school. “What does it say?” I asked.
“It’s the story of two little boys whose parents left them home alone. They took a nap, and the older brother woke up first to smoke everywhere. They ran to the doors, but they were locked. They were trapped, but the older brother thought fast, and he peed on the fire. There are things boys can do that girls can’t. Boys are better than girls.”
“Let me be a boy,” I prayed to God that night, tired of restrictions. “Let me be free of this body.”
II. Filial Piety
Shortly after I turned twenty-one, my father was diagnosed with stage-four sinus cancer. Radiation and multiple chemo treatments stole his hearing, fried his taste buds, and left him a skeleton. He beat sinus cancer by a technicality.
As it happened, I came out to my family as bisexual about a month before his diagnosis. For my mother, the biology that connected us was a betrayal of her good life. She wanted evidence and causality where there was none. “You know the water in the pipes?” she theorized. “Sometimes they put chemicals in that can affect you.”
She harassed me at all hours with desperate calls: “How could you do this when your father is sick?” In the blessed silence after the phone ceased ringing, I’d watch the shadows of the mulberry leaves lengthen on the bare walls of a studio that didn’t feel like home. After my aunt’s minister promised salvation for her soul and mine, my barely religious scientist mother renewed her Christianity, born again.
My father initially told me he loved me no matter who I dated. A couple years later, when we visited my grandfather in Taiwan, my dad, now worn and hunched, took me out for a casual lunch of noodles and beef. He announced that while I could do whatever I wanted, he would never accept my dating women. For my parents and me, estrangement was a slow drifting apart.
Eight years after the doctors pronounced my father cancer-free, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. I took a leave of absence from the Los Angeles Public Defender’s office to go home and say goodbye. Ernie and Justin joined me there, and the three of us took turns holding his hand and watching over him as he slept. While we laid there, my mother endlessly researched miracle cures and tirelessly called doctors and hospitals.
One day, when our father was too weak to get out of bed, Justin and I drove in his minivan to borrow a hospital bed. On the return home, we got lost and couldn’t stop bickering. He pulled into the narrow driveway of our parent’s house.
Justin yelled, “You think you know everything, don’t you?”
“I know how to get home. That way is the fastest.”
“Well, you don’t know everything.”
“I know more than you.”
“You don’t know that I’m gay.”
I laughed, thinking my homophobic little brother was trying to pull one over on me. The moon hung weighted and low, illuminating my brother’s tears. I could barely breathe. I remembered when I was five and Ernie was four, and our parents pulled up in their station wagon at the Montessori parking lot. We clambered onto the backseat, eager to see our mother.
“This is your baby brother,” my mom said and handed us an ugly, wrinkled dusky catcher’s mitt swaddled in a blanket. Eww. When I touched his bald head and he grasped my finger, I felt a wonder that’s never dissolved.
He’s a part of me, I thought again, as Justin gripped the steering wheel. His reflection in the side mirror was full of my own grief and guilt. I’d been living with so much self-hate, yet here was someone I loved. To keep hating myself, I’d have to hate him, too. I couldn’t bear the thought that anybody would ever feel the disgust I aimed at myself, toward him. Never again, I promised myself.
My brother was my Wonder Woman. His coming out relieved me of loneliness and shame. Yet a couple weeks later, my father died, and the joy of learning I had a queer brother mixed with the pain of my father’s death. I held myself responsible for weakening my father’s spirit, which in turn, had weakened his body.
Perhaps it was always a form of self-punishment that I fell in love with several unavailable women in my twenties and thirties: I imagined having kids but picked partners who weren’t ready. Each woman left me and married a man, terrified at the thought of bringing someone home to be rejected by their family. I felt less stable after these relationships. After a particularly bad breakup, I sobbed to a friend, “Maybe my dad cursed me to be alone.”
My friend said, “You’ve got so much filial piety, boo. You’re still trying to honor what he wants even though he’s gone.”
Her observation frightened me because it was true. I worried that I was denying myself love by trying to prove I was worthy of my father’s love. Before he died, I pleaded with my father to accept me.
He shook his head and said, “I want you to have children. History is full of great mothers, but there aren’t any great women who are with other women.”
I actually thought my father was saying he’d rather I be a single mom than queer. He likely meant that I should have a husband and kids. But my gut tells me what he meant to say was that I could still salvage something. My father used to remind us kids that he’d escaped from poverty in rural Taiwan to give us a chance at greatness. He’d grown up with so little that he wanted us to have more. Someday I’ll be great, I decided. Maybe then I’ll deserve more.
Perhaps the cruelest thing about death is that it robs the dead of their ability to learn from their mistakes and fixes the memories of the living, for whom forgiveness was only one more moment away.
Right before Ramadan 2016, I was footsteps away from the completion of my first novel draft when my partner left me. Our plan was to move from New York to California to have children of our own. I came home one night to our Flatbush apartment, and she told me she wasn’t ready to have kids. A week later, she moved out.
I’d be forty-one soon, and newly single. It was irrational to still want kids. I asked myself if it was a leftover remnant of heteronormativity that I still clung to in the hopes that it would restore lost privileges. The desire to be pregnant was a pressure in the back of my head I didn’t want or need, and now there was no escaping the land of geriatric eggs. I scarcely knew myself without this ache. It had a voice. Keep a stable job. No big expenditures so I can save for the kid(s). She’s cute, but she doesn’t want kids so don’t date her. But that voice was met with another one, pragmatism: I was earning way less as a writer than as a lawyer. I hadn’t finished a book. Even though I wanted kids, I didn’t want to want them. Life would be easier without them.
Yet the more I tried to push the desire out of my mind, the more it intensified.
I looked into sperm donation and called a friend to ask him about the possibility of donating. I had brought up the topic to this friend years ago. I explained that I didn’t want to co-parent with him. Initially, he wanted to help, but he agonized about the connection he would feel to the kids and the impact it would have on his family because he was gay. Eventually, the worry won, and he said no.
Over drinks in Prospect Heights, I fretted to a different friend over the process of obtaining sperm. She said, “A donor you know is a lifetime of potential drama. The primary benefit of being a single mom is that nobody gets to tell you what to do with your kid. Why forfeit that?”
Trump was elected and malaise hung in the air. I was a middle-aged, single, queer, heartbroken woman of color with a modest administrative assistant’s salary and without enough family and community to help me care for a child by myself. I didn’t have the resources to go it alone, and I didn’t want to return to legal work and give up writing. It felt irresponsible to intentionally choose pregnancy. I told myself it was best that I not try. I was out of options.
As if she’d merely been waiting for her cue, my mother showed up.
Within a year after my father’s death, my mother stopped attending church. Eight years after she stopped attending church, she said she would go to my wedding if I ever married. Now hearing me say I wanted kids and couldn’t do it alone, she offered to help, “Whatever you need, but you have to move to California.”
She was stronger and more skilled than I’d ever understood. She had taken over my dad’s small, struggling biotech R&D business he’d started about four years before he passed. With each of her kids serving a rotation at the company, my mother transformed the business into a thirty-plus employee blockbuster, moving it from the red to the black.
I had a hard time being civil to my mother, though. Years of resentment still sat in my stomach. I didn’t know if I had the strength to allow her to change. Moving home, I could save rent, still write, and try to get pregnant. But it would feel like defeat. My father’s presence would be everywhere. He had terraced the grounds, built furniture, and planted a fruit orchard out back. Accepting this offer would be like living with their shame again. The suburbs could become my personal Hellmouth.
As I struggled with the decision to move, I reminded myself of how Ernie had comforted me when, after my recent breakup, I’d taken temporary refuge at her house in the Bay. A high school friend called to say she was pregnant. To my horror, I wept.
“Your dreams can still come true. They just have to come true in a different order.” When my sister said it, I knew that I wanted a child of my own.
It took me a year to get my act together and move back to California. I arrived a few weeks before Ramadan, nervous, stacking boxes against the walls of the childhood bedroom Ernie and I had shared. I didn’t know whether or not to fast or to inseminate. I’d been so depressed the year before that I skipped fasting. This was my chance to reconnect with Allah. Yet I was self-conscious of my age and the difficulties of getting pregnant, even without the added deprivations of the fast.
My mother had never fasted herself and was uncomfortable with my fasting for Ramadan. She couldn’t break her routine of cooking pork for me or offering me water. “Won’t dehydration affect your chances of getting pregnant?” she’d worry. As my copilot, she really wanted to help out.
“When are you ovulating?” my mom asked.
“I got my period yesterday.” I said.
“Count ten to twelve days from day 1 of your period. That’s when you’re ovulating.”
We counted out loud. “Oh crap! I wanted to drive down to LA.”
“No, you’ll be sitting in a car too long. The egg will have a hard time attaching to the uterus because of the vibrations from the car. You’ll shake it loose.”
Realizing that old wives’ tales and “getting lucky” was the extent of my knowledge, I began researching the facts. I was confronted by issues of reproductive justice—everything from who can and who can’t afford to have a child to the endangerment of abortion rights and contraception. There’s so little respect for the bodily autonomy of women, genderqueer, and trans folk, especially people of color, and those without means. Society is invested in controlling our bodies, denying us fair wages and fair work. I rankled, thinking about the amount of sperm being flushed down toilets and how men are encouraged to share the gift of their sperm. Now my not wanting men to be front and center in my life capitalized sperm into a rare commodity. Empowered reproduction is largely a myth.
Life entered a twilight zone where everything I did implicated the likelihood of my getting pregnant. I saw a doctor at a free clinic offered by SprOUT Family, a nonprofit devoted to queer family building, who recommended that I start trying immediately: “You’re never more fertile than you are right now.” My mom found an amazing acupuncturist who scolded me about my stress level. I looked very, very hard for my cervix. (I’m still not sure I found it. Also, it moves around.) I made an appointment with a midwife to teach me about home insemination. I took prenatal vitamins and other interesting herbal supplements.
Knowledge is power, but information isn’t knowledge. For all its advancements, the question that science still couldn’t answer was, “Can I get pregnant?”
V. The Morning Song
I had so many unanswered questions that, as Hafiz would say, my need for God became absolutely clear. When day one of Ramadan rolled around, I woke up unsettled and grumpy at 4 a.m. I fumbled around my mom’s dimly lit kitchen and felt confused as I fried eggs and drank grapefruit juice.
The next day, I waited for the sun to rise in the morning and to go down in the evening. I became present, more at ease with the unknown. Fasting for Ramadan was a coat of amber, sparing me the energy of trying to control things or to do too much.
I couldn’t worry. I blogged every day, said thank you more often.
I’d put it off as long as possible, but if I wanted to try, it was time to pick a donor. Unlike traditional couples who make decisions based on baby-reflecting aspects of both biological parents, I put my mom, brother, and sister on a conference call to help me pick.
“That guy has the sexiest voice.”
“Can you rank them in order of gayness?”
“Big lobes are good luck for Chinese people.”
“Is it okay if he’s an ugly baby?”
“He’s a doctor, but this guy says he looks like Daniel Henney. Daniel Henney is so hot.”
“Wow, these sperm bank men are much nicer than the ones you meet on the street.”
Who would my father have chosen? I wondered. I felt anger that he’d died before this moment. He’d probably want me to pick somebody Taiwanese, even though few Taiwanese donors are available. But he wasn’t willing to talk when he was alive. It struck me hard—I was acting as if he would’ve cared. It was a benefit of Ramadan: The fasting helped, removed my confusion.
As the days went by, I was scared to bleed and to stop fasting. When I did stop, I felt a sense of loss as if Ramadan had protected me from my anxieties. But in trusting the process of prayer and fasting, I also felt peace. Maybe I didn’t have to make every decision. Maybe some choices had been made for me, and my life had its own meaning. One I couldn’t yet perceive. I learned that getting pregnant was, for the most part, not under my control.
One day I rode out the fast in the library, lonely, my head throbbing, watching the sun stretch its arm through the window. I drove home only minutes before Maghrib, having forgotten to buy a shake or to otherwise prepare for Iftar. On the table, there was a feast, beef and green onions, a stir-fry of garlic, ginger, celery, and bell peppers.
“I’m cooking for you all of Ramadan,” my mother announced. “Don’t worry. You’re going to have a baby.” Her smile filled with sweetness. She extended a mug of tea, her wedding band glinting in the curve of the handle. In her presence, in their house, love had circled back for me when I was most alone. I hugged her and held on tight.
During Fajr, when the birdsong was just beginning, the sky was dark and wrapped around the house like a cocoon. The peace of morning remained unbroken. When my head kissed the ground, I asked Allah for a baby.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.