Of Children Born: The Journey of an Agender Lesbian Mother

Simone Kolysh is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. They are also an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College and Lehman College, teaching in Women’s Studies and Sociology. Their work addresses intersections of gender, sexuality and race.  In this post, Simone reflects on being an agender, lesbian mother of three children that parents against dominant narratives of gender and sexuality in their queer household. 

My body is a mother’s body. It is not a young body with smooth lines from the thighs to the small of the back. Mine is a body of valleys, soft and reminiscent of uterine battles and pain. It is a jagged, unshaven landscape full of stretch marks and cowardly veins that collapsed under pregnancy weight. Mine is a body that managed a labor without contractions and the darkness of postpartum depression, as the light of my first child was brought into the world on a hot July day. I rocked this body around the bed unable to loosen it free of panic but kept it close to my child so that no matter what was breaking inside me, I’d keep him whole.

My body is a mother’s body. It is not a dancer’s body with perfect posture and well-shaped legs. Mine is a body that knows what an obsession dance can be but that movement no longer comes first. Though it responds to an inviting embrace of the Argentine Tango, it does so with a reluctant and bothered ankle, broken weeks before the light of my second child was brought into the world on the day I, too, was born just twenty-five years prior. I crumbled under my own pressure, onto a mailbox at the corner of Kings Highway and West 8th street. Cursing, I hopped home thinking that to labor with a broken limb is just what I needed.

My body is a mother’s body. It is not my mother’s body with frail shoulders and cheeks full of Botox. Mine is a body of risks, piercings and tattoo ink. When the light is right and the mirror is bribed, I can see what my lover finds gorgeous. And though I claw at my body because it does not always make sense to me, I remember how bravely it got me through my only labor without pain meds, as the light of my third child was rushed into the world at the Brooklyn Birthing Center. When I now feel my three children collapse onto my breasts that have struggled to breastfeed, I know that my body is a mother’s body and it is well worth the worship.

______ ~ ______

There is nothing like a slurred ‘You’re so sexy, baby’ from some guy on the street to remind me that I am seen as a woman despite holding an agender identity. Even men that aren’t strangers have said that I am ‘so obviously a woman’ because I turn them on. Such experiences of sexism, laced with homophobia and racism when I am with my Black female partner, make it obvious that my struggle around gender takes a backseat to our collective struggle as people of marginalized gender and sexual identities, trying to navigate a world where white, cisgender, and heterosexual men hold a significant amount of power.

Yet white, cisgender and heterosexual men may be the future demographic of my three children, ages eight, six and one. Therein lies the paradox of an agender lesbian mother trying to raise feminist kids in a society that teaches boys to put down women and people that don’t conform to mainstream ideas of gender and sexuality. As a scholar of gender and sexuality, a sociologist and a Women’s Studies professor, I have given my kids a critical eye towards gender, sexual and racial hierarchies. It also happens that my middle child has taken a gender non-conforming path, linking once more our gender journey as mother and child.

Shortly before he was born, I began to struggle with the category of ‘woman’ into which I was born and raised. Once I admitted to myself that I could not finish the sentence, ‘I’m a woman because,’ and explored identities beyond the gender binary, I was able to more fiercely carve out a safe space for my children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first battles took place between me and my biological family that not only rejects and erases my gender and sexual identities but also believes I am causing my children great psychological harm. So before I can think through my gender identity and how it has evolved through my motherhood, I must face how my own mother shaped my ideas of womanhood.

My mother’s main lesson was that one’s power as a woman comes from seducing men and appealing to the heterosexual male gaze, in addition to becoming a mother and a wife. Whether it was because our family is Russian-Armenian or that the prevailing attitude across most cultures is one of patriarchy does not matter now. When I showed interest in taking charge of my pleasure or being with women, she took me to see a psychiatrist. When, at twelve, I came out as bisexual, the closest word I knew at the time to describe being attracted to more than just men, she cried. When I married at twenty, she was glad, hoping it was all a phase.

Rather immediately, I became obsessed with getting pregnant since that meant ‘having it all.’ Three years later, I was a mother of an eight-month-old child, banished from my house for breaking up with my husband. I was in love with another man, someone who was my equal. He helped me come into my motherhood by taking over my child’s care from my mother who tried her hardest to teach my son traditional gender norms. To this day, my first child is more aligned with ‘boy things’ because at the time I did not feel strong enough to stand up to my family.

My new partner supported my being queer, the label I took up during college, and my exploration of gender. When we married, I was pregnant and determined to raise this child differently. As I became more involved in LGBTQ scholarship and activism, I struggled with my gender identity and it took about three years to publicly come out as gender non-conforming, during a panel on transgender identities. It was a fleeting moment of being true to myself in a public setting since, without constant coming out, no one can ‘tell’ I am not a woman.

I have to come out again and again because it never quite sinks in and some people simply forget that I am agender or that my pronouns are ‘they/them.’ Generally, I never correct people if they use ‘she/hers’ because I am glad to align myself with women and do, to a large extent, experience the world as women do. Though I would like to not be perceived as any gender, changing my physical appearance was never essential – I do not want to change my body, just the way others link it to womanhood. Not making a physical transition makes it difficult for people to see me as agender.

Even though mothering, to me, does not mean I’m a woman, it adds to my invisibility as an agender person because of the assumption that if one has been pregnant and birthed three children, that they are even more of a woman. It certainly made my biological family like me more, because I gave them ‘three healthy boys,’ a marker of status within a sexist community. It is as if the assumed gender of my children helped solidify my womanhood. And, as a mother, I was now responsible for raising them properly, to become grown men able to provide for their families through upward mobility.

Which is why I am glad that my oldest child’s first Barbie was the Halloween Barbie, scary not only for its lack of realistic measurements. Growing up in Russia, having a Barbie meant you were better off than other families. When naked ‘pupsiki,’ which happened to be gender-neutral dolls, were all we could afford, Barbie symbolized a ‘better life,’ a life sought in the United States. Now I am raising my own children in Brooklyn, New York, but there is little place for the Russian-Armenian values of my past. After all, it was not in my parent’s dreams to have their grandsons play with dolls.

Instead of being groomed to be ‘real men,’ my kids are raised free of gender norms, which allows them to develop their identities safely as they learn more and more about the world. And, prior to learning about gender, each of them gives me a gift. As an agender person, moments when I am not gendered are essential to my wellbeing and how I see myself but they are rare. When my children are young, they are able to see me as Simone or Mommy without gendering me or seeing me as different from them. Even when they have noticed physical differences between their bodies and mine, I have explained everything from menstruation to genital shape without attaching biology to gender.

So when my kids look at me during those early years, their eyes are a place of freedom. In a way, motherhood has given me a way to find moments of validation for my agender identity, even if they are short-lived. I cannot say enough of these transformative experiences because I know what it feels like when a person with no pre-conceived notions of gender is able to see me. The intrusion that takes place when the outside world teaches them their mother is a woman is always disturbing and requires significant re-education. Long ago, I made a blog called Gender/Detki – Rearing Logical Children. In it, I had hoped to provide concrete examples of how I addressed gender and sexuality with my children.

Looking over the blog now, it is clear that my children knew little of gender until they interacted with their maternal grandparents, who live downstairs, or their Russian preschool environment. Their father and I never called them boys and they were allowed to play with any toy and wear any article of clothing, including dresses, tutus and fairy wings. Their hair was never cut and they never heard a single thing about their behavior not ‘being appropriate for boys.’ Naturally, what they learned from us, their chosen family made up of multiple parents and family friends, clashed with what they learned from others.

It was quite a surprise for my children to learn that boys and girls are often separated in preschool throughout the day, that boys and girls have to go to different bathrooms and that specific recital roles, of gnomes or princesses, are reserved by gender. The length of their hair became an issue, because other kids would say they look like girls and their ‘girly shirts’ got laughs. When I dealt with the administrators, I did not disclose my agender identity or any additional details about my family. I argued that if girls were getting their hair styled on a daily basis, the same can be done with my children’s hair and reminded them of the fact that we paid generously for tuition.

Once my kids got attached to their teachers, they wondered whether gender was good or bad. I taught them that people have different opinions and that nobody has the right to police how their gender is expressed. Sadly, because of their encounters with other adults and children, they have learned to expect harassment based on their choice of clothing, toys or behavior. Some of the time, they would give in to the pressure and, for example, ask me to cut their hair. Because it is their body and their choice, I have done so but with tears in my eyes. The pain and the anger I feel on behalf of my children exacerbates my own trauma.

Now older and in public school, my kids manage a lot more backlash, which is hard for me to watch. As an adult, I have not yet figured how to freely express my agender identity without having to constantly educate uninformed cisgender people. Why should children as young as five have to face a similar struggle? Because knowledge is power, I have taught my kids about the construction of the sex and gender binaries, the link to sexuality and how gender and sexuality are affected by one’s race, class and any number of other social factors. These topics are hard enough for my college students to grasp but the way people react to my kids’ gender ‘deviance’ makes such discussions necessary.

I am proud to say that the more I learn about gender and sexuality and about myself, the more my children are able to benefit and feel supported in their own exploration. They have shown resilience and courage by resisting harassment and trying to live truthfully. Here, I would like to return to my middle child’s gender non-conforming path. Most recently, he has become quite interested in wearing a ‘girl’s bathing suit,’ which is not going to go over well at his swim classes, summer day camp or with my biological family. Part of my motherhood journey is to be an advocate for my child and so I am gearing up to have several conversations so that he may be able to wear his turquoise bathing suit full of ruffles. When I caution him, I am sad to say that he may not be allowed to wear it and that his grandmother and others will continue to make comments. He nods and answers, ‘I will ignore them, Mama, I will just ignore them.’

When I speak to others on his behalf, part of me wants to say that I am also like him, weird and proud of my ‘deviance,’ and that I would love for my kids to be part of the LGBTQ community. But their mother’s deviance makes it hard for others to accept my children. Now that I am firmly at peace with my lesbian identity, there are new definitions to go over since their peers are throwing around casually homophobic remarks. To me it is not difficult to reconcile being agender and a lesbian but trying to explain to my kids why the label ‘lesbian’ still applies even if I am not a woman is a bit of a challenge. What I say is that others perceive me as a woman which means having to face sexism and homophobia.

If I did not have to explain to my kids why much of the world thinks our family is ‘wrong,’ they wouldn’t need an explanation because they have been raised to embrace difference. Regardless of divorce, changes in family structure, new gender and sexual identities, like their mother’s lesbianism or future children, they are surrounded by loving adults who will help them usher in a new world. Along the way, they will offer acceptance in return. Want to see an example? I recently asked my middle child about his feelings on my not wanting a gender, on being agender. Not looking up from his video game, he replied, “I feel fine because it’s your choice and gender doesn’t matter at all.”

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The Dreaded Should

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on interactions with other academics who experience considerable stress due to structural and interpersonal conditions encouraging them to focus on “what they should be doing” instead of what they have accomplished. 

I “should” be working on project x. I “should” be doing work-related task y. I “should” be preparing for academic meeting, gathering, conference z. I “should” be more productive in comparison to this person, that goal, or this norm. I “should” be doing more in my work about this issue or that problem or this population or that concern.

I should…

I should…

I should…

“Should” is a word I find myself hearing rather often from colleagues in my career to date, and it often carries with it an expectation that one is not doing enough in some way, shape, or form. In such cases, people I happen to know are hard working, incredibly talented, deeply committed, and quite impressive by any measure I can come up with downplay whatever they are doing, accomplishing, or achieving at a given moment based on what more they feel they “should” be doing, accomplishing, or achieving at that moment.

I should note that I am not in any way disparaging the people in question. Rather, from what I can tell, the dreaded should – as I call – is something they feel and experience deeply that causes them pain, turmoil, or other forms of anxiety and stress. I further recognize, as others have noted, that this “shoulding” is encouraged in academic contexts as well as broader capitalistic contexts. People are constantly exposed to messages suggesting they are not doing enough, requirements that are often incredibly vague and subject to interpretation, and very real fears concerning job security, opportunities, and resources in the academy. Put simply, I am not knocking the people who feel this way, but rather I find it quite impressive that they manage to do so well while feeling these things on a daily basis. For me, their management of such feelings demonstrates a special type of strength wherein one feels regularly that they are losing a game, and yet somehow manages to continue on, do solid work, and inspire and connect with others.

At the same time, as someone who – thus far it appears – is immune to “shoulding” or thoughts about what I “should” be doing, I think this is a pattern that should be noted, discussed, and recognized because the effects of such stress on people likely – and from what I’ve seen empirically do – take an incredible toll on their happiness, health, and well being. In many cases, for example, I see people who experience their lives in ways where “I should be doing x” overshadows all the things they are doing, takes them away from important self care, and / or leaves them constantly feeling like nothing will ever be good enough. This is a recipe for negative outcomes, and yet it is encouraged in academic fields in many cases.  I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to feel this way – I tend to live in the moment to the point where even when I need to plan for the future I don’t do so all that well – but I wanted to talk about how these patterns feel or appear to me as I often serve as a source of support for many people who experience such feelings.  In many cases, I am lucky enough to be helpful to them in such cases, but in so doing, I am continuously struck by how powerful and damaging “should” can be in the current academic climate.

As such, I wanted to focus here on what we may miss when we become – or are trained to become – focused on “should” instead of “did” or “done.” If you are one who often feels like you “should” be doing more, take a moment and ask yourself what have I done instead. I ask this simple question all the time when colleagues start talking about how they “should” be doing something. Universally, the answers reveal a lot of accomplishments – for example, well I did submit that paper; well I did inspire that student; well I did something special for my partner, friend, or other loved one on Tuesday; well I did rest and relax this weekend; well I did get to the gym; well I did start outlining that grant; well I did just present at a conference last week; well I did some volunteer work or charity last month; well I did get better at “insert hobby here” this week; well I did come up with that new teaching technique I wanted to try this semester; well I did get to hang out with my partner, friends, kids, etc this week; or well I did think about a paper idea that could be really cool.

I could go on, but odds are you are doing lots of things – personally and / or professionally –  that you could be giving yourself credit for, and when I have asked people these questions and they have answered they often feel better at least for a little bit. Ask yourself how your life might be different if you could learn – or be trained to – focus on what you did do instead of what you “should” be doing. I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but in many cases, I have seen people realize that they accomplish far more than they have been giving themselves credit for.

I also think we need to look at where the dreaded “should” comes from in most cases I have seen. Whether it is comparisons to other people or norms within a given department or program, the dreaded “should” tends to arise from the conditions of contemporary academic life.  People face serious concerns about, for example, job security; time for lovers, friends, family, and self care; deadlines tied to advancement or even landing one of an increasingly small pool of decent paying jobs; and a culture that is focused on “what are you doing next” rather than “what have you already done.”  These pressures are greatly exacerbated for academics from marginalized backgrounds, and scholars in search of stable employment in the present market context.  Each of these factors – and many others – feed the idea that one is never quite good enough, should be constantly working toward something new to set one’s self apart or meet some (often vague) requirement for a job, for tenure, or other potential source of stability, and should spend as much time as possible working on that next thing that will make all the difference.

We see these patterns translate into a continuous series of “shoulds” and “somedays.”  When I have the job, then I’ll focus on my self care, my personal life, that study I want to do, or other factors, but for now, I should be x, y, and z.  When I have tenure, then I can have time for a family, take that trip I’ve been planning, write about what I really want to write about, or otherwise do something else, but for now, I should be x, y, and z.  These types of feelings and statements are not only commonplace among academics from what I can tell, but also understandable when we consider the broader context of academic norms, markets, and opportunities.  In all such cases, however, we are encouraged by these structural and interpersonal patterns to downplay right now and what we have achieved or are achieving for the sake of some future possibility.

As a result, I find myself wondering how much of right now people miss due to these patterns?  What might academia be like if we were encouraged to celebrate the moment instead of wishing for the future?  What might it be like if we came together against the broader cultural patterns that create these conditions?  Until such conditions can be changed, I also wonder what little things each of us may do in our own lives to ease the dreaded should we or our colleagues face, and help lessen the negative consequences of such patterns?

I’m not saying it would be easy to change the culture of “should” or the economic and political conditions that facilitate such stress, but I think we would all benefit if we came together, and gave ourselves and one another credit for the tremendous amount we all do accomplish personally, politically, and academically.  At the very least, I think we should talk about these issues, help each other as we face and experience these shared conditions in our own ways, and look for ways to create better conditions for ourselves and our colleagues individually and on a broader structural level.

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