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Permission to Feel Normal


When I was bent over in the sex club donning my crotchless corset and taking it from behind, I never imagined I would one day be stocking up on low-fat toddler yogurt and Dr. Seuss books. As the stranger who was pounding me bowed in gratitude and, in full shadow, took to the labyrinth of basement corridors and forever disappeared into the night, I never would have guessed I’d happily trade Saturday night sexcapades for fully-clothed baby vomit laundry sessions, sweatpants and saggy bra and all.

I would have blown a blood vessel in my cornea laughing if you told me I would know the theme songs to no less than half a dozen insipid cable TV kid’s shows. Or that I would snot-cry to have to leave a screaming, pooping pile of tiny human the first time I had to leave home postpartum for work. That my heart, unbeknownst to me, would tie an invisible, near-impenetrable line of fishing string from my aorta to my child’s such that every time we distanced, it felt like someone was tearing my literal insides out because that’s how much I loved him and didn’t want to be away.

I never in a million years thought I wanted to be a mom because I never in a million years thought I deserved it. Domestic life wasn’t in the cards for people like me. Fat dykes who wore men’s clothes with the waistband tucked beneath my generous belly fat roll. Masculine women who did uppers down on the Pier with the homeless queer kids and the voguing drags queens and the trans hookers. Family life wasn’t for us. We weren’t allowed to join that club. We could party and we could fuck, but we couldn’t breastfeed. We couldn’t rock a bye our babies.

I have spent my entire life on a perilous tightrope between convention and anomaly, always feeling simultaneously banished by mainstream expectations of monogamy and binary gender expression and by the sexually mischievous subcultural groups with whom I gallivanted. I'm not normal enough to be a valid mother; not feminine enough to be beautiful; not queer enough if I leave the sex parties and the nightlife to step into the banalities of marriage and parenthood. 

“Are you the real mom?”

It was the question I feared I would be forced to field. An inquisition I knew I had unwittingly signed up for when I dared to be an impregnated butch dyke. It was, in fact, the question I thought I deserved to receive. And yet, it still stung like a thousand hornets the first time I heard the question from another human’s mouth directed at me.

The day my entire calculous changed started out like any other. It was sunny, unseasonably humid, even as the seasons shifted from fall to winter, the light taking longer to show up each morning only to disappear behind Manhattan’s skyscrapers earlier each day.

I met my sidekick at the Whitney for free Fridays. We would check out the art and then hit the lesbian bars, cultured and ready to devolve into whatever shenanigans two-for-one happy hour drinks would afford.

We rounded the corner in the cavernous gallery at the famed museum and there it was. There on display was the singular photo that would change my life, the image that gave me permission to feel normal.

The image, a self-portrait snapped by the great Catherine Opie, reveals the artist -- a fat, butch queer woman -- breastfeeding her infant. Tribal tattoos line her left arm, and scars from her S&M days outlining the word "pervert" are carved into her chest, just above where her blond infant’s mouth suckles. It is ten years since she published, “Self Portrait – Pervert,” when the now-faded self-mutilation burned red on her chest, her face covered with a devious-looking black leather mask, spikes protruding from her arms. The same chest that bore the pain of homophobia, of bullying, of forced and then reclaimed celebration as an outsider, now giving life to another human being. Opie’s incredibly hot, thick dyke fingers, rounded at the edges with short nails that were primed for penetration, gently grip her baby’s hip, steadying him as he feeds from her nipples. Opie, as represented in that image, is a radically nontraditional person in a fantastically traditional pose, screamed of the paradoxes I have wrestled with my whole life. She is Madonna and whore, mother and dyke, sexual invert and the very center of all that is good and holy in this world. She is me and all that I realized in that moment I could be.

I wanted to cry until there were no tears left in me, until I had purged every last bit of unworthiness from my fat, butch body. There she was, right in front of me; the physical manifestation of the fears and dreams that were circulating in me for so long but which I never found the words or the courage to admit.

As a young, fat, butch queer woman who came of age in the "deviant" Greenwich Village Christopher Street Pier and sex club culture, Opie's photograph took my breath away that well-fated day in the museum. It saved me.

I was still ripening, still malleable, still looking for trouble to get into. But the thickness in Opie's dyke fingers and short nails, the sexy female masculinity in her posture and slovenliness of her choppy butch haircut and saggy breasts, made me ache for a life I had buried so deeply into the protective chambers of my heart I didn't understand just how much I wanted it until I came face to face with that image.

I kept a faded computer printout of that image in my desk drawer for nearly a decade, an electric fondness for the creases where I folded the cheap paper and laser-printed lines that streak across it. I would take it out from time to time and cradle it in my hands, treating it like a wishing stone that could somehow magically transform the hopes wedged deep in the crevices of my psyche into some semblance of reality.

I carried the wholeness that I felt when I invoked Opie’s image with me for another decade before I would actualize the promise that it filled me with.

“Are you the real mom?” asked the rude stranger in the parking lot at Marshall’s.

I didn’t wear frilly maternity clothes and coordinate a baby bump photoshoot. I sported men’s button-down shirts and Doc Martins that I clobbered around Manhattan in at 37 weeks gestation. I looked more like I had shoved one too many hamburgers down the hatch than that I was incubating a fetus. It might have been why no one offered me a seat on the bus or subway. Or why people asked me if my own baby that I grew inside of me and birthed was actually, really mine.

What is real anyway? Does a child need to come from a skinny, blond feminine womb to be counted? Was my child born the Velveteen Rabbit, forced into a life of having to prove his worth before he would become real?

Are you asking about my ovaries and uterus? I desperately wanted to quip at the stranger in the Marshall’s parking lot who callously destroyed my Saturday afternoon with her interrogation into the nature of my child’s genesis.

Women weren’t masculine. And when they were, they weren’t allowed to do feminine things. It messed with the order of things too much. It confused the people.

Women in strip mall parking lots must feel their brains scramble when they stretch their necks to identify something that isn’t immediately clear to them. A woman, or is it a man, with short brown hair and a stocky stature, but with breasts that are too large, surely, to be man-boobs, but wearing men’s clothing. It hurts their heads. The suburban ladies are forced to interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to wrestle with the cerebral tangle of why this very masculine, fat woman is pushing a baby stroller. She doesn’t fit the profile of mother or nanny. They have a right to know.

“Where did you adopt your son from?” my plump-faced corporate colleague asked me.

His skinny lips formed a half-grin, small brown eyes blinking too quickly under his thick glasses. He was nervous, trying to be nice and make small talk, trying to say the right thing. Even though he had already said the wrong thing.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, my dad always said.

Well-intentioned corporate tool’s question was chocked full of preconceptions, misconceptions, stereotypes from outmoded world views. He scrunched his nose and adjusted his glasses as he awaited my response. She’s a lesbian so she must have adopted. I almost felt bad for him even as I died a bit inside. How many people had chipped away at my truth? How many people had deflated my life story, the tremendous hurdles I had overcome to go from undeserving lesbian aunt as a high bar to a mom who gave her birth to a beautiful child of her own?

The truth was, while I raised myself to believe I didn’t deserve, maybe didn’t want, the white picket fence life with 2.3 kids and a spouse and hell, even a pet, I didn’t have to dig deep to know it was a lie I had been feeding myself to protect my broken heart.

Sure, I enjoyed the heck out of happy hour at the dyke bar with my gal pals and a rotating cadre of sexual partners. I pitied my hetero peers from high school and college who were wiping infant asses and turning down brunch invitations while I was playing tonsil hockey with the cute girl at the back of the bar, six margaritas in. There were orgies on Fire Island and topless summer breezes, sweaty softball games cooled down with cold beers, motorcycle rides through treacherous Brooklyn highways, belly dancing Turkish dinners out, and so much more. I had a rich life with friends and lovers and social activities that sometimes involved multiple orgasms.

And still.

That ache. Deep in my belly as it worked its way up, sometimes choking my larynx, making me sit upright and question it all. I was fiercely jealous of my hetero friends with their clean-ass houses and their perfect tiny humans. At the same time that I loathed that life, I wanted it so much sometimes I couldn’t breathe.

“One of the greatest things about being an artist is, as you get older, if you keep working hard in relationship to what you want the world to be and how you want it to become, there is a history of interesting growth that resonates with different moments in your life,” Opie said of her craft and her life. I had watched Opie’s work evolve over a decade from multifaceted deviant to multifaceted mom. In the decade that followed, I watched my life evolve along a parallel trajectory.

"You are more beautiful like this than I've ever seen you before," my wife said lovingly, as she took our newborn son from my arms so that I could, cow-like, hook up tubes to my leaky and sore nipples, to collect breast milk. My hair was askew, my stretch marks only hidden by the layers of belly fat that flopped over my even larger c-section scar. I could only laugh. "There is no way I look good right now," I said, thinking of the times I elaborately plotted out my seduction, donning sexy attire with toys and other accouterment, stomach flatter, face clearer. But at the same time that I readied myself to poo-poo my wife's compliment as trivial pleasantries, I was struck, as if by a lightning bolt of awakening, by Opie's picture, the pure sex and sensuality pouring out of it, perhaps the way my wife now saw me. And I understood.

There was no lady in the strip mall parking lot, no meager colleague at the water cooler, no great pile of heteronormative social mores that could take away my deep fulfillment in the life that I realized I could enjoy. I accepted that I had at long last stepped into my fate, a most unconventionally conventional life.

 

BIO


Allison Hope is a writer and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television, and coffee over sleep.Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, Slate, ELLE, New York Daily News, New York Post, Vice, Allure, NBC, InStyle, Refinery29, Health Magazine, Parents Magazine, and more. She is working on two books, Urban Inbreeding, about sex, drugs, and parents who are cousins; and Pants on Fire, about the history of lying (the world's and her own). She is actively seeking representation.

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