Krys Malcolm Belc’s memoir The Natural Mother of the Child is a nonlinear exploration of what parenthood means outside the gender binary. In the memoir, composed of a series of interlocking essays, Belc works to get a sense of who he is as a parent by reaching back to his own childhood and delving into how his son Samson has shaped him.
Throughout the memoir, Belc addresses moments where cisnormative concepts of motherhood clash with his experience while growing and giving birth to a child. The book addresses the larger implications of being a transmasculine birth parent. But The Natural Mother of the Child is at its heart a profoundly personal story. Belc makes this clear not only through writing but by weaving in photos, sometimes contrasting images of himself as a baby and his son as a baby. This is not the story of what it means to be a nonbinary parent in general. This memoir is a journey to discover what it means to be Krys Malcom Belc and, most importantly, what it means to be Samson’s Krys.
I was delighted to have the chance to talk to Krys about his memoir.
As a nonbinary parent, I was so excited to discover this book. What audience did you have in mind when writing it?
Krys Malcom Belc
Thanks! Though my life’s project isn’t to explain transness to anyone, and I believe that if cis people are interested in gender and parenting, as they should be, that they’ll figure it out. They don’t need to know much to get that pregnancy and birth are powerful and transformative bodily events and that they permanently mark the body and the self.
I do feel a deep kinship with writers exploring motherhood, especially the dailiness of it, the meaning in a broader sense to a life of all this time spent caring in a nation that often casts that work aside as meaningless. That creates a difficult situation because so many creators and consumers of parenting-centered works are cis. And I wanted to be in that conversation. At the same time, I do feel like I have to elbow my way into that conversation a bit as it’s deeply, just so deeply, mired in gender essentialism often masquerading as feminism. So many parents are left out of that, not just trans ones. But if I focused on my feelings of exclusion, I knew the tone would be off, and I wouldn’t be getting into the hard stuff of my life in a way that was the art I wanted to make. That’s why the formal play became so important to me. It allowed me to approach my own life as a game. And I am incredibly lucky to have had early readers who were either trans or trying in earnest to be trans competent. They helped me see the need for trans stories of parenting but also to feel I belonged in a wider conversation.
One of the first stylistic things I noticed while reading The Natural Mother of the Child is the use of the second person. What informed your use of “you”?
Krys Malcom Belc
I don’t think of the book as being in the second person, though I know that is where people will go when they see all the yous peppered throughout. The book is in first person with many sections of direct address. Most of the direct address is to my partner, Anna, but there are also brief moments of addressing my mother, my son, and even a stranger in a party store. I have cycled through a lot of versions of who I thought I was writing for and to, especially in compilation and revision. Is it for other trans people? Is it for myself? I was never writing to educate the masses about trans people or about queer fertility and I know some people will come to the book wanting to learn in a traditional sense, in the acquiring content and information through the text sense, and I hope they are not disappointed by the reality that the book is more about excavating and exploring the complexities of feelings I have about parenting and identity and might not answer any of those questions definitively.
In writing, I thought a lot about whether I should stay “consistent” with point of view, whether the direct address belonged at all, or whether it should be there all the time. Ultimately I think its variability is vital. Letter writing is an act of both intimacy and distance. You’re explaining something to just one person, and at the same time you are doing so because they are either not there or they’re not someone with whom you can bear face-to-face discussion. In the case of communicating with my partner specifically, there is a deep connection there but also a vast divide between us because of the centrality of her cis identity to the story. There’s a tension in direct address that I think was vital to many of the sections but not all, because some of them I felt a quiet confidence in what they were communicating, and others I wanted to maintain that heat of intimacy and distance.
Walk me through your revision process. How has the structure of the book changed over time?
Krys Malcom Belc
Some of the sections were published as standalone essays in earlier forms, and each section has its own little project. When I was writing any one section, I became very engrossed in what the specific project of that essay/chapter was. But then as I had two and then three and then all of them I realized they were really all circling around the same themes using different forms. They belonged together in a way. I hope that together they have a cohesiveness. A lot of revision was about making sure the visual nature of the essays were creating not only a thematic but also experiential arc. More than story points I wanted to hit, I wanted the book to be almost like a feelings map that people would circle through. In all the sections they’d be reading and looking at things about gender and parenting, but they’d be approaching the ideas from a new angle.
Toward the end of The Natural Mother of the Child, you mention talking to your son Samson about this book. How did you approach that discussion?
Krys Malcom Belc
When I finished the book, he was five. I felt like that was the end of the period in which his birth and early childhood had been truly transformative in my life in the particular way I write about in the book. And how much consent can you get from someone who isn’t yet in kindergarten? So I tried always to be clear that it’s memoir and it’s centering me. It’s not a biography of Sam. Nobody’s story is mine to tell in any deeper sense than saying what their life means to me. He knows there are baby pictures of him in it and that I wrote about him. Like me, he is a very indecisive person, so I imagine we will have solidarity in our waffling about the book and what it means.
How do your children influence your writing now? Has that changed since writing The Natural Mother of the Child and if so how?
Krys Malcom Belc
The project of writing about my family life isn’t over for me. Because children are not only the center of my home life but also my work life (I work at a pediatric hospital), I’m still going to be influenced by kids even if they’re not at the center of whatever it is I’m writing. There are very few children in the queer work I love, fiction and nonfiction both, so I think it’s cool if I keep ruminating on this topic a bit.
On the topic of the pandemic and kids and writing, it’s been brutal. Luckily for me, the major work of the book was done when it really kicked in. I think every parent who makes art is in this situation. I’m privileged to have full time employment and a partner who also has stable work, but working a 9-5 from home, often while she was sleeping off the night shift, and having my kids constantly around isn’t inspiring or fun. I am burnt out from supporting patients living through the pandemic.
But on the other side of that events are way more accessible to me than they’ve ever been. I’m married to a night-shifter and I have one child who requires skilled care, and it’s also a pandemic and we didn’t want people in our house. Going to readings or events is so hard. I can’t say how grateful I am that I got to go to so many events and book launches and readings all over the country. I got a scholarship to Tin House to work on some new stuff and didn’t have anything to arrange, which was a real gift. I just logged on. I hope not only for parents but also for disabled folks and disabled parents that virtual options are here to stay.
What’s next for you and your writing?
Krys Malcom Belc
I am right now in a time when I have a few slowly expanding projects and I haven’t fully dived into one. Anna decided to turn our bathroom into a darkroom and I’ve always wanted to step into that world, so I’m excited to become a photography hobbyist, as I obviously think about and write a lot with images. Recently, I was feeling stuck. I was starting to have that isolated and excluded-feeling doom-scrolling threads and articles about gender and domestic labor. So I started writing these micro-essays about the things I was making for dinner. They’re play, and they’re not shaped, and that’s where I want to be for now.
By Krys Malcolm Belc
Published June 15, 2021
When they're not chasing after their toddler, Kirt Ethridge writes YA fiction about queer teens growing up in southern Indiana.