Book Review

When Krys Malcolm Belc became pregnant with a son, he began to see his identity—not only as transmasculine, but as a parent, partner, and child—reshaping around the fetus growing inside him. Belc’s memoir, The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, considers the fluidity between a body in relation to others, as well as a body in relation to itself.

Using a scrapbook approach to construct his memoir, Belc assembles photographs alongside medical and court documents to trouble the lines between language and reality. In a relationship not recognized—nor likely considered—by the judicial system, Belc and his partner, Anna, went through the process of formal adoption so that Anna could become a legal guardian of Belc’s child Samson. Although Belc never considered himself a mother, court documents listed him as “the natural mother of the child.”

“My relationship with Samson could be natural without my having to stand up in court and say I was a mother,” Belc writes, teasing out what is, to him, natural: “A human who smells like the inside of the body once he is out: natural. Split open, stitched back: normal.” The placement of court documents alongside Belc’s annotations exposes the distance between the cold, inexact, and even dehumanizing language of the legal system and the lived realities of the people those documents claim to represent.

Outside the courtroom, Belc experiences the same denials of his complex existence. From websites assuming an inherent connection between pregnancy and motherhood to medical visits that leave him questioning the body he inhabits, Belc runs into systems that fail to acknowledge his existence. “The doctor was never seeing me,” Belc relates. “She saw a mother.” With Anna giving birth to their first child and Belc the second, Belc sometimes finds himself struggling to explain his family’s reality to others, employing simple language to avoid having to explain the family’s nuances: “When I must disclose that one of them is not mine I say, simply, He is not my genetic relative.”

Within Belc’s relationships, familial perceptions fail to honor the wholeness he works toward. Belc navigates a lifelong distance between himself and his father: “I always thought my father wished I was a boy, but by the time I was it was too late.” As he recognizes the person he would become in baby photos (“You’ve always been you, even then”), he wonders of his mother, “Do you look at those pictures and see me?”

Belc navigates both real and imagined perceptions as potential threats to his actualizing process. He worries over what he imagines are his partner’s feelings (“Sometimes I worry you miss me even though I am right here”) and fears a neighbor who terrorizes him with homophobic language and violence-laced glares (“Do strong men scramble back like this”). Within each dynamic, Belc’s efforts to know himself as a body and a person are subject to the emotional and psychological tolls of queer identity in a world frequently hostile to anyone deemed “other.”

In conjunction with these relationships, both pregnancy and parenthood present irresolvable questions for the complexities of Belc’s gender identity. When people who don’t know Belc’s family see a mom, dad, and children, even this appearance collapses their dynamic assemblage into assumptions of a “normal,” nuclear family. “I never thought about fatherhood when Anna was pregnant,” Belc muses, “or when Samson was growing inside me. I knew I wasn’t a mother. How to fit? I always said parent.”

At every turn, Belc is caught within a world that doesn’t really see him as he is, and the question of “how to fit” drives his scrapbook investigation. Ultimately, Belc’s own experience with pregnancy gives him the tools to love the person he is in the body he has: “This baby helped me know the person I had to become.”

As trans identities are often collapsed into seemingly immutable categories, Belc pushes against such simplifications. “Some people may have been born in the wrong body,” he writes. “I was not. I was born in a body that gave me the freedom to carry a baby, one who stays around this time.” While pregnant, Belc grows to understand his own body like never before:

Nothing about being pregnant made me feel feminine. This body is what it is: not quite man, not quite woman, but with the parts to create and shape life. To expel and care for that life. Creating Samson, given such a strong name because I felt I had done something strong, made me ready to be me.

At its center, The Natural Mother of the Child is a testament to the complexities of any body, and a challenge to readers to understand our own without defining the terms of another’s. By queering the oft-assumed terms of parenthood, family, and self, Belc illuminates how a family can grow to be more than what society deems functional, normal, or natural. Belc encourages the reader to question those flawed terms through his own example. “In this family,” he writes, “there is always a chance to redefine how you see yourself.”

About the Reviewer

Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX. He is an MFA student in Antioch University's low-residency program. His essays and reviews appear in The Adroit Journal, New South Journal, Oyez Review, No Contact Mag, Postscript Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, and New Critique, among others.