In the introduction to her new fertility memoir, Knocking Myself Up, Michelle Tea writes: “The whole story of a birth begins with that decision to say yes, and the roller coaster that loop-de-loops you to the delivery table or at-home birthing pool or what have you—there is so much in it. All of life, every hope and fear, joy and sadness, the understanding of yourself as a mammal, an embodied animal, is in that story.” Tea, the author of 15 books ranging from memoir to young adult fiction, has decided to detail her unorthodox path to motherhood in her latest. It’s quite a story and involves semen from a gay drag queen, eggs from Tea’s nonbinary partner, a makeshift vessel referred to as the “sperm bowl,” a designated friend to transport said bowl, and a lot of modern medicine.
Recent events have given an unfortunate context to these exuberant shenanigans. Had Roe v. Wade not been overturned, the phrase “decision to say yes” would not provoke a wince or haunt the pages that follow. But any motherhood narrative now carries new weight, or at least it can resonate differently. The freedoms displayed everywhere in this book—to make choices about one’s body, to marry whom one wants, to safely exist as a queer or trans person—hang in the balance. Who can have a baby and how have always been difficult political questions, but now they are dire. And so there’s a feeling of urgency throughout Knocking Myself Up. There’s an unfair pressure to make its story—and other stories about the choices of reproduction—universal, to explain things to those who insist on ignorance. There’s an imperative to try to persuade people (never mind that many are probably unpersuadable) of one’s humanity.
This imperative is already at the core of good memoir writing. Every memoir seeks to discover how to universalize an experience that a lot of readers will never have. How do you render the specifics of your life with such candor, and artistry, and depth of feeling, that anyone can relate? How do you hold the general reader’s attention in spite of a narrow focus on, for instance, the mechanics of getting pregnant via in vitro fertilization? How do you make someone understand? Tea mostly pulls it off. Although she’s not immune to some of the minor pitfalls of the genre, her writing is winning, companionable, and intimate; she has a talent for letting you know her.
Knocking Myself Up begins with Tea realizing, at age 40, that she wants a baby. She is single, queer, and sober after many wild years of drug and alcohol abuse. Financially stable at last, she has a now-or-never moment one night in San Francisco: “From where I stood, deep into my fortieth year on earth, my remaining eggs hobbling down my fallopian tubes each month, tennis balls wedged onto their walkers, it seemed like having a kid was the only adventure I hadn’t undertaken.”
In her 20s, Tea thought of pregnancy “the same way I thought of any STD, but with a dose of the movie Alien”; but now she’s ready to “find someone hot and not insane” who wants to have a baby with her. From there, she sees a doctor, secures ovulation tests, and hatches a plan that does not necessarily require a partner. Enter the drag queen donor, the sperm bowl, and a generous friend named Rhonda.
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The plan is simple and DIY in spirit: The donor, Quentin, will ejaculate into a bowl in the kitchen, and then Rhonda will transport the bowl to Tea in the bedroom and help her inseminate herself. Before the three of them fall into a routine, Tea begins a romance with Orson, who is kind and dashing and not put off by either the plot to get Tea pregnant or its particulars.
The convening of this crack team is fun, like an Ocean’s Eleven of queer misfits. Everyone has a role and there’s an animating esprit de corps, except that the big job is not robbing casinos but creating a new life. Tea is conscious of how outlandish some of the arrangements seem and plays them for comedy. When Quentin is busy around the holidays and the team must figure out how to fit in another attempted insemination, Tea writes: “We decide that he can come over between his office’s holiday party and his menorah drag prep, but he might be drunk…. A lot of people got conceived that way.”
In addition to using science, Tea and company hedge their bets by leaning into New Age approaches. Tarot is one of Tea’s areas of expertise (she is the author of Modern Tarot and also hosts the tarot podcast Your Magic), so it’s no surprise when cards are drawn and birth charts are considered. A “shaman doula” is introduced; the perils of a Scorpio baby are debated. In her attempts to get pregnant, Tea tries both holistic treatments and methods one could label “folk superstition.”
“My witch, Lulu Twilight, sends me a jar of honey, decorated with star anise and charmed with a fertility spell,” Tea writes. She is tasked with drinking the honey and making a “baby altar.” Later, receiving acupuncture, she reports, “I can feel my heart chakra open up as I lie back in the recliner. A spinning throb in my solar plexus.” It’s all got the feeling of a caper.
But in the end, it is science that helps Tea get pregnant. The DIY method doesn’t work, despite several months of trying, and with Orson on the scene, Tea decides to pursue medical interventions. Orson is younger, only 32, and a doctor describes their eggs as “infinitely healthier” than Tea’s, though Tea will be able to carry the baby. And so now the memoir begins to follow a typical IVF trajectory, with the focus shifting from the people involved—the eccentric little family gathered round the sperm bowl—to the drugs and doctors’ appointments, the counseling and injections involved in IVF.
One can imagine that this play-by-play would be a balm for someone going through the same process, especially a queer person who has not found much previous representation that isn’t heteronormative. For the general reader, though, while the first part of the story is dynamic, the IVF part becomes stagnant. There’s just not much tension or narrative juice in swallowing pills or in describing who gets shots where or in the question of whether the medical professionals who treat Tea will be brusque (sometimes yes, sometimes no). By necessity, IVF is a cyclical process that’s repeated until the implantation succeeds or the money runs out. So it’s predictable, but still unfortunate, that the book gets a little, well, repetitive.
Tea has made a career of writing and rewriting the story of her life. Across memoirs, novels, and young adult books, her focus has been largely autobiographical, reimagining her story in different forms. The facts are these: Tea grew up in working-class Chelsea, Mass.; her father was distant, and her stepfather bored holes in the wall to spy on her and her sister. She felt like a misfit, became a goth, ran away, abandoned college, ended up in San Francisco, got involved in activism, drank and did drugs. She cofounded a feminist performance series, had an untold number of bad love affairs, and finally got sober. Along the way, her life was shaped by art, music, writing, and her participation in queer communities.
This material makes up the bulk of Tea’s books. She rearranges it, finds inventive ways to say it anew. Even when she is writing fiction, she cannot resist the facts. Alcoholism bubbles up. Chelsea, Mass., insinuates itself. Working-class parents smoke cigarettes. The books are tonally similar, too: Like Knocking Myself Up, they are all warm and funny and chatty, friendly and a little corny. They invite you in. Sometimes, as in 2018’s Against Memoir, which won the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, the humor and accessibility are delivery systems for subversive criticism. One essay reconsiders Valerie Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto; another, a reported piece about the 2003 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, is an impressive work of journalism that both entertains (the trials and tribulations of camping) and cuts to the core of a significant cultural shift that was then occurring within the lesbian community (the widening chasm between TERFs and everyone else).
How to Grow Up, published in 2015, takes a different approach: A faux self-help book, it informs the reader in its introduction that the author will follow her “messy journey to adulthood” by showing how it could have been “a little less rocky, a little less lonely.” But instead of offering advice, Tea uses the form to give life to her material—that is, to her own experiences. It’s a clever way to write a book, even if the conceit of wisdom being delivered from on high can sometimes make the effort a bit cloying.
After How to Grow Up, Tea turned away from chronicling her life to work on a novel, Black Wave, which she published in 2016. A speculative novel about the apocalypse, Black Wave does not appear to be autofiction at first. But the protagonist, named Michelle, soon reveals herself to be a lot like her creator: a lesbian alcoholic, “a poet, a writer, the author of a small book published by a small press that revealed family secrets, exposed her love life, and glamorized her recreational drug intake.” Later, the narrator breaks the fourth wall to inform the reader that one character in the story, Michelle’s love interest, is a replacement character for the person who existed in real life. The fictional parts of Tea’s metafictional experiment begin to fall away.
Knocking Myself Up shares many similarities with these works: It is a book about forging a life for oneself beyond addiction, and the story is told with humor and without pretension. But it also diverges from Tea’s earlier projects in its comparative lack of breadth. Formally, it adheres to the timeline of her attempts to get pregnant, followed by the pregnancy itself, making it less sprawling than her other books—and I wondered, in contrasting it with them, whether something has been lost in this laser focus. The Michelle Tea of the new book has it together: She’s a successful adult with a nice apartment and a healthy relationship. Time has softened her sharp edges. But the book is smaller overall, and its stakes feel lower. One gets the sense that the Michelle Tea of Knocking Myself Up will be fine, regardless of the outcome of her pregnancy journey.
Yet something is gained, too, by the book’s confined scope. It gives Tea the space to go deeper, to think about why she wants something as conventional as motherhood after a lifetime of not just living unconventionally herself but of worshiping outsiders. In the opening of the book, she promises to resist the idea that pursuing motherhood is “the most important, most sacred thing I could ever do.” That vow complicates every decision Tea makes, from who should donate the sperm to what a family should look like to who should be in a baby’s life. The central question becomes: How do you have a baby and not lose yourself?
Approaching the end of Knocking Myself Up, I was braced for sadness, and the book has its fair share: There is loss inherent in all fertility struggles. There are setbacks and moments of faltering faith. There is heartbreak and the potential for failure. But Tea gets a happy ending, even if it’s somewhat qualified.
Does the book capture “all of life,” as Tea promises in its opening pages? I don’t think so, but then that’s an unrealistic expectation to place on anyone’s fertility story—and anyway, I think Tea had already come close in her previous work. She’d already located that universality in her stories about growing up poor and weird and in the many interesting things she has written about art. Does she speak for all of us? No—how could she? No one person does. But she speaks for herself, which is all you can do. You speak for yourself and hope the world opens its heart chakra.