Interview A pregnant woman in red lingerie lays on a yellow couch surrounded by plates and cups

Published on November 15th, 2022 | by Cheryl Klein

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Optimism and Anxiety Stew: Michelle Tea Talks About Knocking Myself Up

I read Valencia, Michelle Tea’s account of 1990s queer life in San Francisco’s Mission district, when I was a newly out grad student hungry for mentor texts. She painted a world of kinky sex and gritty bar culture that burned and shimmered like whiskey. At the same time, Michelle-the-author wrote Michelle-the-protagonist as vulnerable, damaged, and even a little dorky. I was hooked.

The young Michelle Tea emboldened me to create a life for myself as a queer artist, so maybe it’s no surprise that the forty-something Michelle Tea helped me claim my voice as a mother. Michelle started MUTHA to publish the kinds of stories about motherhood that she wanted to read but couldn’t readily find. And she did it before she had a child. 

At the time of MUTHA’s founding, I was reeling from a miscarriage, angry at the world, and believed mothers were magical queens and I was a piece of gum on the bottom of someone’s shoe. But Michelle had just inserted herself in the motherhood discourse! Talk about a magical queen. And if she could do it…. I submitted an essay about my complicated relationship with a new-mom friend and got my first MUTHA byline. Before I was a mom. 

Michelle’s newest book, Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility, chronicles her attempts to get pregnant, first as a single woman doing home inseminations with a drag queen buddy, and eventually as an IVF client using her newish partner’s donated egg. Written in the present tense, readers ride the fertility roller coaster with her, from the inevitable anxieties to the necessary optimism. It’s universal to anyone who’s worked hard to build a family, but also specifically queer, and uniquely Michelle (she wrestles a lot with having a Scorpio baby). 

Not only was it an honor to interview one of my favorite writers, it was also a delightful full-circle MUTHA moment.

Headshot of Michelle Tea, a white woman with light brown hair, glasses, and a pink shirt

CHERYL KLEIN: There’s a tension throughout the book between anxiety—about everything from paying for IVF to the possibility of a stillbirth—and optimism. Do you think that’s inherent to fertility treatment? A function of your personality? Some combo of both?

MICHELLE TEA: Definitely a combo of both. I am very naturally optimistic. Sometimes it makes me feel like a simpleton, but mostly I really enjoy it; it gives me a lot of life and energy and helps me take leaps without weighing myself down too much. BUT it does not spare me from the General Anxiety Disorder that is my familial birthright, so that’s sprinkled in there, too. Plus, fertility treatments are so anxiety inducing. There is so much left to chance, so much beyond your control, but then there is the sense that you can control some things, like diet etc., so it’s easy to get super anxious around those things. And spending money is anxious, making financial decisions, especially ones with no concrete outcome—ack! Total anxiety stew, even for someone blessed with a Sagittarius stellium, as I am.

CHERYL KLEIN: If you could advise the fertility industry on how to better serve queer families, what would you suggest?

MICHELLE TEA: Gosh, they are SO BAD, and behind, at this point, I feel like there needs to be a freaking CONFERENCE (that they fund) where they just listen to queers of all stripes and backgrounds talk about their experience and what would have made it better. And, like, if you don’t have a computer system that recognizes same-sex relationships and trans and non-binary genders, you are in the negative. Get it together!

CHERYL KLEIN: I like how you address the financial mindfuck that is the intersection of your class background and the cost of fertility treatment—feeling wary about spending money, but then when you’re expecting something to cost $30,000, suddenly $14,000 seems like a steal. What particular challenges do you think people with a history of financial hardship encounter when pursuing fertility treatment?

MICHELLE TEA: In my experience, having a history of financial hardship can make you really predisposed to financial anxieties, and dysfunctional coping mechanisms, and there are so many varieties of this. For me, I get freaked out having to spend money. It’s like I should be so grateful that I have anything I have to hold onto it because this could just be a fluke that never reoccurs. And then if I wind up unhoused (this is literally where it goes for me) I will only have myself to blame. 

This avalanche of thinking and anxiety used to be catalyzed by like just buying a skirt in a store that’s not a thrift store; now it takes larger purchases to make me weird and sweaty. I think the amount of money you have to come up with for ART, coupled with the way it is such a gamble / an expense you might be expected to continue to pony up as you try and try again, plus the fact that it’s technically not “necessary”—you don’t HAVE to have a baby, right, it’s sort of a selfish desire, a luxury maybe—all of these things made it an anxiety landmine for me. If this was just covered by insurance—if we HAD universal health insurance, and it covered this, it would be far less of a nightmare for people!

Three eggs with different expressions (happy, mouth agape, scared) drawn on their shells in black marker
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

CHERYL KLEIN: Near the end of the book, you talk about how you wanted to create this loving, joyous picture of queer familyhood, even though some things didn’t go as planned. Did or do you feel pressure (internal or external) to sort “prove” that the queer family model works?

MICHELLE TEA: I feel like it’s already been proven that queer family “works” as well as any family does, so I wasn’t concerned about that. Family, and all relationships, are complicated, and famously can be dysfunctional, and I think we have AMPLE evidence of how straight families can be really toxic! So I didn’t feel I needed to show anything except what I experienced.

CHERYL KLEIN: When considering sperm donors, you note that while a predisposition toward addiction might be inherited, so might the ability to get sober. I love how strength-based that perspective is. What tenets or practices from sober life were helpful to you when trying to get pregnant and when pregnant?

MICHELLE TEA: Everything I learned in recovery was hugely helpful while doing IVF! Just knowing that everything is out of my hands, taking things a day at a time and trusting that there is some sort of plan for my life. Within that was of course the possibility that having a child wasn’t the plan, but having a larger faith that my plan is a good one, and larger than whatever I think I want at any moment, was really helpful!

A gloved hand squirts a white liquid into a cut-open pomegranate
Photo by Deon Black on Unsplash

CHERYL KLEIN: I read some parts of this story back when it appeared in xoJane, when you were writing about the process in real time. How was writing about it different from the vantage point of a few years?

MICHELLE TEA: I tried to keep the vantage point right in that moment of everything as it happened, and to not be looking at it from where I sit now. It was very hard to write about my defunct marriage from the time when it was all rosy and sweet, for sure! But I wanted the reader to have that love story, and it was helpful to me to recognize that it was a love story, regardless of how it ended. I did pull back on some of the praise I had originally heaped on my then-spouse in the blog, because it was too hard to swallow with how everything shook down, but I did allow the story to retain the sweetness and love that had been there at that time.

CHERYL KLEIN: To get meta for a moment, you write about starting MUTHA to publish the kind of stories you want to read about parenthood—the messy parts, the marginalized voices, the non-prescriptive narratives. How do you think cultural conversations about parenthood have changed since you launched MUTHA?

MICHELLE TEA: I think there are a lot more nuanced voices talking about parenthood and a real diversity in what it means to be a parent, a mother, to give birth, all of it. I would like to think that MUTHA helped sound the alarm that these stories are necessary, and it has really remained the most fantastic place to get a down-to-earth and real-life look at the many complexities of raising kids!

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.



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