When you’re broke off your ass, sometimes you have to reclaim joy by whatever means necessary. I chose burlesque. My pasties were made of scraps from an old dress I’d cut up, cardboard, and nail art gems. The routine consisted mostly of holding up and then dropping a series of signs, which would spell out a letter (the last line of which would be written on my stomach), but I could only afford one pack of signs, so my letter had to be 24 lines long, with no room for mistakes.
My monetary situation was kind of why I was doing this routine. I was seven months pregnant with a baby I was planning to place for adoption with a gay couple, and the letter was addressed to my unborn kiddo. My main reasons for choosing adoption were, as with many birth mothers, financial. I was not only broke: I had defaulted on two student loans and three credit cards, and my wages were being garnished. My bank account was getting down to single digits between paychecks, if not overdrawn.
But despite being totally broke and ill-prepared, I felt calm and even happy in the dressing room, looking in the mirror, my long hair made silky by pregnancy, big breasts, and round belly. Someone in the dressing room commented that I looked like an earth goddess, and honestly I felt like one. Wholesome, yet sexy as hell. In short, I felt like A Motherfucking Woman. This is complicated now, six years later, because I don’t particularly feel like A Motherfucking Woman anymore.
Eventually — just this year, in fact — I would come out as nonbinary. Eventually I would cut my hair off. Eventually I would forget what it felt like to have a person growing in me. Eventually I would claim “they/them” pronouns and buy a chest binder. Eventually I would stumble into a multifaceted, ever-evolving relationship with my AFAB (assigned female at birth) body, a gender-flexible relationship that holds all my body’s history as part of what makes it extraordinary.
But the year I was pregnant, despite knowing full well that pregnancy and uteruses ain’t what determine your gender, I felt like the most Woman of Woman. Reveling in my pregnant body was like a sexy vacation before the storm of grief that eventually awaited me.
* * *
The hot tub was too cold to use, so Didi and I just gawked at it, shivering in the frigid April air. We grabbed each other’s forearms as we gaped at the opulence of Pablo’s automated-everything, high-ceilinged, why-does-a-man-living-alone-need-this-many-bathrooms, what-does-this-guy-even-do-for-a-living loft apartment.
I’d broken up with my emotionally abusive ex the year before and immediately launched into the process of reclaiming my body through casual sex. Sex with him had, ironically, been one of the best things about our relationship, and I had needed to prove to myself that I could still have access to that pleasure without him. This quest had resulted in a lot of really lovely one- and two-night stands. When one of these trysts resulted in pregnancy, I saw no reason to change my behavior. After all, if I was already pregnant, I couldn’t get pregnant again.
So, four months into my pregnancy, I’d found myself at a kissing party with my friend Didi. Didi was someone I’d long been attracted to, but we were both a little too subby to pursue each other sexually or romantically. But in my post-breakup sluttiness, we’d established that bringing in an outside party — often via a threesome — was a way that we could act on our attraction without either of us having to be the instigator. Didi was someone I could be radically honest with, someone who would give me emotional aftercare when I caught feelings for one of the guys we double-teamed together, someone with whom I was completely and utterly safe. Going to a kissing party with her was a natural extension of our friendship.
Pablo, an attractive guy wearing pants covered with a print of the Virgin Mary, was the first person Didi and I talked to at the kissing party. When I turned down his offer of a drink because of my pregnancy, he said, “Wow, I’ve always had a fantasy about having sex with a pregnant woman.” Pablo was rich, though I wouldn’t realize it until I went to his loft for the after-party. He lured me there by casually mentioning the hot tub on his roof.
Pablo really wanted to take a picture of me because he thought my pregnant belly looked so good in my tight red dress, so I posed for him. And when the six of us who’d traipsed there together commenced an orgy in Pablo’s “soft room” (exactly what it sounds like — a room with basically a giant mattress for a floor), he could not stop fetishizing my pregnant body.
“Mm, pregnant boobies,” he said at one point. Direct quote.
My pregnant boobies, it’s true, were a sight to behold, but I was caught between enjoying Pablo’s enjoyment of me and feeling a bit squicked out. Thankfully, he started focusing more on Didi while another guy, Rob, ate my pussy for about a year. Rob was gorgeous, and gifted at what he did, and that was about all I knew about him. He gave me more orgasms that evening than some women have in their entire lives. Pregnant orgasms were different; they resonated deeper inside me somehow. When he was done, he kissed me a few times, told me he’d better go check on his girlfriend, and that was the end of that. He was like a mysterious orgasm fairy.
I was alone then, while everyone else was occupied, and I wrapped myself in a blanket and just watched. Pablo noticed me sitting alone, kissed me, and put his hand between my legs, which I didn’t resist but didn’t encourage; then he asked if he should just let me rest, and I said yes, so he stopped. I took myself to one of Pablo’s many bathrooms, looked in the mirror, and realized that what I wanted most was to go home.
When I got out of the bathroom, Didi was already getting dressed, apparently having had the same thought. I started to get dressed too.
“You don’t have to go just because I am,” she said.
“No, I want to go.”
“Are you sure?”
I said goodbye to Pablo, and he said, “Can we have sex before you go?” I said no, and he was disappointed.
“Sex with a pregnant woman is my one sexual fantasy I haven’t done yet.”
“We’ll fix that soon,” I said. This was a lie.
Didi and I went to a diner and gossiped about the evening. We compared notes: Didi felt as sketched out by Pablo as I did, but thought he had a beautiful penis. We both liked Rob, despite knowing basically nothing about him. And while Rob had been giving me orgasm after orgasm, his girlfriend Emma had been doing the same to Didi — apparently a talented couple. Then I walked Didi to her apartment and crashed in bed with her, cradling the teddy bear she would eventually bring me in the hospital while I was in labor with my son.
As uncomfortable as I felt being fetishized by Pablo, in a way, he was almost beside the point. I got to experience ecstatic pleasure alongside someone I loved, and then when I was done, I was done. I was living life in my gorgeous pregnant body, on my terms. Three months later, as I prepared to do my burlesque routine, Didi was one of the people beside me in the Williamsburg dressing room, helping me get ready to go onstage.
* * *
By the third trimester, sex had become a logistical challenge. My belly was growing, and growing, and stuff had just moved. But by the second date, Irving and I had figured out what angles worked for us, and sex with him had stopped hurting. Actually, sex with Irving was great. He was coming out of a three-year dry spell, and I was full of sexy pregnant energy, so our sex was pretty vigorous — basically two people attacking each other, which is the kind of sex I like to have.
About an hour into date three, just a couple weeks after the burlesque show, Irving abruptly asked, “Can I talk to you?” which confused me, because I thought that’s what we were doing. I was sipping water while he pounded one Jameson and ginger ale after another.
I knew what was coming: Irving was clearly catching feelings for me. And frankly, so was I. Sure, he forced laughter when he was nervous, but we were tender with each other in bed in a way I hadn’t been able to find through group sex with Didi or the one-night-stands. So what did that mean when I was eight months pregnant?
“OK,” Irving said, “I really like you.”
Here it comes, I thought. “I really like you too.”
And then he said, “Sex with you is weird.”
This was not remotely what I expected to hear, so I said nothing while he monologued. The sex was way too intimate, he said. He could feel the baby kicking him when we cuddled, and he couldn’t get past the fact that I was “having another man’s baby,” so he was cutting things off.
This was the beginning of feeling like my pregnant body was a burden, rather than a sexy adventure. From that point, I just kept getting bigger and my feet kept getting more swollen and my pelvic floor was starting to ache with its load. And I was tiring of explaining to strangers that my son would be adopted by another couple. I hated feeling like I had to put them at ease, to convince them that everything was fine so I didn’t have to deal with the burden of their pity.
All I wanted was to just have the baby so there wouldn’t be so many unknowns. I knew that I was probably going to grieve pretty intensely once my son was born, but I really hadn’t started that process yet. When I wasn’t in pain or annoyed, mostly I regarded my pregnancy with bemusement and awe. I stared at my protruding belly in wonder, watching the flesh move as my son moved some limb from one side of my stomach to the other, feeling like I’d been occupied by an alien. There is nothing quite like seeing your body move without your permission.
* * *
The clichés are true. The minute you meet your child, you fall in love. You are done for. You cannot help yourself.
I pushed for three hours, which probably accounted for the bone-aching pain I had throughout my entire body the next day, as well as the enormous hemorrhoids I discovered the first time I took a shit post-childbirth. I had thrown up from the pain several times, and I had stitches in my vagina. But when I first held my kid in my arms, all I could do was gush, certain that he was objectively cuter than every other baby ever born. (I’ve since looked back at photos and realized that this was just new-mom brain.)
Two days later, when my son left the hospital without me, I doubled over in pain. I couldn’t stop crying and I couldn’t stand up straight. My torso would not support me. It felt like a physical part of me was being ripped off of my body. Which, in a way, it was.
Childbirth transformed my alien-occupant into a little human; it transformed my adoption from theoretical to devastatingly real; and it transformed my body from a sexy fertility palace into a broken home. I spent the following weeks bleeding, teaching my leaking breasts that no one would be feeding from them, and overcoming symptoms from the flu shot I’d gotten in the hospital.
I did rediscover my access to pleasure pretty quickly; Irving came back almost as soon as the baby was out of me, and the minute the doctor gave me the go-ahead, we got back to being unable to keep our hands off each other. I was in a weird mélange of grieving and fucking, of figuring out all the ways I needed to put myself back together anew. I found out that I could not stand to be around crowds of acquaintances, that I felt assaulted if the other person in a conversation talked too much, that eight times was too many times in one night for your first time after having a baby.
I’ve never been an earth goddess since. My stomach is still soft, never bouncing back to its pre-baby flatness, and tattooed with stretch marks that make my lower abdomen look like the water shining through a swimming pool. I’ve come to love my new tummy quite dearly, but it took a few years. My vagina, honestly, has never been the same; sex still hurts sometimes in ways it never used to, even six years later, and my labia minora is lopsided now. There are still ways in which my body feels like a storm hit it, and although most of the damage has been patched up, you can still see the cracks. I guess, as Leonard Cohen said, that’s how the light gets in.
But before all that, the night of the burlesque show, I stepped out onto the stage proudly, with my markered signs covering my breasts — peak Earth Goddess, Most Woman of Woman. The soft glow of the stage lights illuminated my round stomach, my long brown hair, my swollen tits, my long legs. I knew the crowd was full of my friends, and I beamed at them as they cheered for me. The song playing was Garbage’s “Beloved Freak.” In the photos, you can see me glowing.
The letter read:
(Or whatever your name ends up being)
I hope things are nice in my uterus.
I will miss feeling you kick me
And while part of me wishes I could take you home …
Your future daddies are AWESOME
And I’m excited about this open adoption thing.
I know your dads will do a great job preparing you for the real world
But here’s some life advice from mama:
People suck sometimes.
You will be no exception.
Apologize when you fuck up
But don’t suffer any fools gladly either.
Respect everyone you have sex with
(And everyone you don’t)
If you get a girl pregnant
BE NICE TO HER
Time goes faster than you think it does
So when you go to bed at night
Leave the world more loved and joyful than it was that morning.
Gratitude makes everything better
(But still insist on a fabulous life)
And please know that I will always
(always always always always always always)
And here I dropped the last sign to reveal the final words written on my seven-months-pregnant belly: