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Thomas Beatie electrified the world in April 2008 with his announcement that he was seven months pregnant and due to give birth in July. The news made headlines across the globe, but it’s only one chapter in a fascinating saga. Labor of Love reveals Beatie’s unique life experiences: his less-than-idyllic childhood in Hawaii, his feelings of being a young man trapped in the body of a woman, his fight to conceive a child, and the obstacles surrounding the delivery. This astonishing narrative permits an intimate look at a family that refuses to let other people’s definitions of family deter them from creating one on their own terms. Labor of Love is much more than the story of a unique pregnancy and birth it’s a beautiful and controversial love story about going against the tide, a powerful statement about the evolution of family and identity in the new millennium.
For Susan, my heart and purpose
I have been a daughter and a son, a sister and a brother, a boyfriend and a girlfriend, a beauty queen and a stepfather, a Girl Scout and a groom. But today I am just an ordinary human being in a whole lot of pain.
Today it is happening—it is finally happening. I am wearing an enormous, 4X white T-shirt, on inside out. The soothing, insistent sound of a heartbeat—around 140 of them each minute—is the only music in my otherwise quiet birthing room. My contractions are intensifying, and every couple of minutes I feel this surging pain that starts from inside my gut and radiates out. I remember trying to do a dismount from a chin-up bar when I was ten, and landing square on my back. That was the worst pain I ever felt, but this is way, way worse. Our midwife puts a cold washcloth on my forehead; my wife, Nancy, kisses me tenderly on my cheek.
It has been a long, hard, often surreal journey to get to this point, and now I have to summon one last big burst of energy for the final leg. "Gravity is your friend," says the midwife, urging me to walk around to try to speed things along. But the truth, I am finding, is that having a child is not in any way a passive act. You don't just show up and wait for the baby to arrive. You have to will the baby out of your body, and that means marshaling every last ounce of strength and resolve that you have.
Nancy puts her hand on my belly and feels our daughter thrashing around, and she tells me, "Don't worry, she'll be here soon." But the hours pass. I focus on odd little details to take my mind off the pain. Our midwife's left index finger is wrapped entirely in surgical tape; she cut it slicing whole grain bread that morning. This strikes me as neither a good nor a bad omen, just unlucky for her. I also notice she has a tiny diamond stud in her left nostril. You can barely make it out in the dimly lit room, but when she leans in to fix my blanket or move me from side to side, it sparkles. She's a wonderful woman, so calm and reassuring, and I like that she's obviously a bit of a hippie, too.
I am 100 percent effaced; I am also nearly fully dilated at nine centimeters. And still no baby. We got to the hospital in the early morning; it's nearly nighttime now. "Let us know when you feel the urge to push," says our midwife. "Not just pressure, but a real urge to push." Nancy starts watching out for what she calls my "pushy face," then asks if she can get her own epidural. That's Nancy: cracking jokes, making everyone feel at ease, and still remaining a tower of strength for me to lean on. That morning at home she sifted through a bowl of jelly beans and brought all the purple and orange ones—my favorites—to the hospital. She slips a couple of them to me—a simple, throwaway gesture between a husband and a wife—but it strikes me yet again, as it does every day, that I could never, ever have done this without her right by my side. Nancy gets up to straighten my sheets and touches my face with her hand. She says, "Your nose is really cold, like a puppy's."
A nurse gradually fills my IV with pitocin, which is supposed to increase contractions and speed along my labor. "Your uterus is really tired," the midwife tells me, and I think, That makes two of us. We're going on twelve hours now, but the nurse assures us, "That's the average length of labor for a first-time mother." Nancy gently corrects her by asking, "What about for a first-time father?"
A little earlier, our midwife brought over a red velvet sack filled with little slate tiles, each shaped like a heart and bearing a single word. "Pick one out and that will be your focus word," she says. Now I reach in, pull out a pink heart and show it to everyone. "Serenity!" says the midwife. But in fact, it's misspelled on the tile as "Sereinty." How perfect, I think—even my focus word is mixed-up, nonsensical, a deviation from what is known and expected. That has been the story of my entire pregnancy—no one has known quite what to make of it, or been able to truly understand what it means. To me, it couldn't be simpler. I am a person who is deeply in love and wants to have a child. But, just like my jumbled focus word, what I know it to mean and what the world reads it as are two very different things.
"Remember, Thomas, sereinty," Nancy tells me later. "Try to be sereine."
Things suddenly get serious; a doctor is hustled into the room. It is time for my baby to be born. "Let's get busy and push," the midwife says, and I push harder than I ever thought I could. The pain is searing, and I think I might pass out. But I keep pushing. I hold Nancy's hand tightly, and every once in a while I steal a look at my white, laminated hospital wristband. Just like my wife's hand, it's a source of strength for me. There's nothing all that unusual about it, unless you know my whole story. But a single thing on that band—a single, solitary letter—is, for me, a symbol of the most emotional and triumphant battle of my life. On the band, in simple type, it reads:
Never before in history has someone delivering a child had the letter M typed on their wristband.
"Okay, here we go," says the doctor. "I can see her head."
Now it is time for me to meet my daughter.
My name is Thomas Beatie, and I have a family. I have an amazing wife, Nancy, whom I love more than I thought possible, and a baby daughter who to us seems like an angel on earth. Sometimes at night I lie awake and think about how lucky I am to have the dream I dreamed so long finally come true. In my darker moments I've always feared that somehow I might lose what I have. But I know that we are a good and strong and loving family, and that we can withstand whatever the world throws at us. It has not been an easy trip for us to get here, and there are many, many people who would like to see us torn apart. But here we are, a mother and a father and a child—a family just the same.
This book is about many things, but above all it is about family. It is a subject I know something about. I have lived through the experience of an unhappy family, and the things I saw shaped me and led me to this moment in my life. I also know what it means to be part of a healthy family, to love someone unconditionally, to share all your hopes and fears with them, to make constant sacrifices for each other and to put each other's happiness above your own. I know the feeling of devoting yourself to making your family work—to prizing the intimacy of that bond above anything else in your life. I have some insight into this matter, if only because I have spent a great deal of time thinking about it, and because it means the world to me to have the family that I have. I hope that when you read this book, you will see something of your own family in my story, and that, if I have told it well, my story will make you take stock of the ones you love, and of how they love you in return.
Of course, the path I have taken to create my family is very different from yours. What Nancy and I have done is completely unprecedented. On the face of it, we do not look like an unusual couple at all. Yes, I am half-white and half-Asian, and Nancy looks Italian, but that alone would never earn us a second glance. It's also true that Nancy is twelve years older than I am, and sometimes we get asked if I am her son. But plenty of people in love come together at different ages. In many more ways we are just like any other married couple in our quiet community in central Oregon. We take walks around the lake and hold hands, we work hard and try to save money, we were thrilled to buy our first home together, and we practically live in Costco. And then, like millions of happy couples, we decided to have a family. In these things we are no different from anyone else. Our dreams are white-picket dreams.
But it would be naive to think that we are not different. I am, as far as I can tell, the first fully legal male and husband to get pregnant and give birth to a child. In 1974 I was born female, and I lived the first twenty-four years of my life as a woman. But for as long as I can remember, and certainly before I fully knew what this meant, I wanted to live my life as a man. When I was young I was a tomboy: I dressed in boys' clothes, I did boy things, I resisted the trappings of girlhood—dolls, dresses, all of that. I identified with the male gender in every way. I never thought I was born in the wrong body, however, nor did I ever want to be anyone else. I was happy being me, because I knew who I was inside. I was never confused about my gender identity—I always knew, long before I could articulate it, that I was really male. If anything, I was sometimes confused about how to make the rest of the world understand my situation. But I never struggled with my identity, or fought it or tried to change the way I felt. It was just the simple fact of my existence: Outside I was female, but inside I was male.
And so for most of my life I dressed like a man, wore my hair like a man, and cultivated traits that most would consider manly. This was never a strategic decision or something I imposed on myself—it was always just the natural, organic way I preferred to be. Later, when I was an adult, I learned there were things I could do to make my body look more like a man's body. This does not mean that I was unhappy with my body the way it was. It means only that I found a way to make the outside match up with the inside. I began taking doses of testosterone to build muscle mass, and I worked out strenuously to shape my body even more. The testosterone also gave me facial hair, and before long I looked completely and utterly masculine. I then went one step further, and had surgery to remove my breasts. Before the surgery I used to walk with a stoop to try to hide my breasts. But afterward I stood tall and straight, and I walked with a newfound purpose and confidence. I was finally the person I wanted to be, and believed I was all along.
As I said, making these changes did not mean that I was miserable or confused before I made them. They were instead convenient ways to strengthen my image of myself, and to make it easier for me to adapt in a world that defines gender strictly. There were two further steps I could have taken, and chose not to: surgically removing my female reproductive organs, and surgically constructing a penis. But I didn't feel that either step was necessary for me to feel any more like a man. The latter surgery, in particular, is a grisly, drastic, and difficult procedure, and most people who transition from female to male elect not to have it.
But there's another reason I kept my reproductive organs. The other driving impulse in my life, besides the certainty that I am male, has been the desire to create what I lacked in my childhood—a loving and nurturing family. Nancy, the woman I fell in love with—and married as soon as I was legally classified as a male after my surgery—had had a hysterectomy when she was younger, after having two children of her own, and could not carry another child. I had always wanted to have a biological child, so I kept my reproductive organs, figuring that I could have a surrogate use my eggs to conceive.
Yet when the time finally felt right for Nancy and me to have a baby, we thought long and hard about how to go about it, and the idea that we would use a surrogate mother started to make less sense. After all, I was fully capable of having a child myself. Getting pregnant had never been part of my plan, or even in keeping with how I lived my life as a man, but it was still biologically possible and thus an option we had to consider. After careful consideration—and after a lot of discussion about the hardship it might cause—we decided that no surrogate could ever care for her body or our child during the pregnancy as diligently and lovingly as I would. And besides, why would I ever pass along the privilege and responsibility of having my child to someone else, when I could, and should, carry the baby myself? I am not saying it was an easy decision—it was not. But in the end, the concerns we had about people not understanding or supporting our decision were not enough reason to farm out the pregnancy to a surrogate. Nancy and I decided that I would carry our child, and that she would breastfeed the baby. I would be the father, and Nancy would be the mother.
Once we reached this decision, I stopped taking testosterone. Nancy and I bought donor sperm from a cryogenic bank, and I got pregnant. It was an ordinary pregnancy in many ways, and in others it was not: While expecting, I appeared in People magazine, had carloads of paparazzi camp outside my home, fielded an offer from an artist who wanted to make a life-size marble statue of me, was besieged by tabloid reporters from countries around the world, and became, literally overnight, at once the most famous pregnant person on the planet, and the least understood. Nancy and I did not go public with my pregnancy for fame or money. We actually turned down offers worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell our story, and instead chose to be in People for free. We came forward because there was simply no way I could hide from the world—a pregnant man is, after all, pretty hard not to notice. We knew that people were starting to talk about us; we could see them whispering about us in grocery stores or at the gym. I could slink around and wear really baggy clothing, or I could stand up proudly and face the future head-on. Nancy and I chose to stand up. Yet neither of us was prepared for the media frenzy my pregnancy created, or for being seen less as human beings with feelings and dreams and more as symbols or inanimate cutouts on whom anyone could project their perceptions and prejudices. At one point I was the most searched-for person on the web, with nearly a million references on Google. The vast majority of items about me, I would discover, were negative.
At every step along the way I looked hard to find some precedent for what I was doing, to learn about anyone anywhere who could help me or give me advice. But there was no one. I wanted to look into the legal issues involving my pregnancy, but, again, I found nothing. And so I had to learn from my own mistakes, to rely on my own instincts, and to have faith in the sureness of my fight. It is one of the reasons I have written this book. I think my story is worth telling, for anyone facing long odds and daunting obstacles on the way to achieving the life they want.
I realize that what I am doing is strange and new, and that my situation confuses people. I know that sometimes when people are confused they get angry and lash out. Nancy and I have received dozens of death threats, been called monsters and freaks, and confronted a hatred so deep that it can wish our innocent daughter damned to hell. As much as we try to steel ourselves against the inevitable backlash our situation creates, we have been staggered by some of the comments directed at us.
But at the same time, we have received an outpouring of love and support far beyond what we hoped for in our wildest dreams. We have had neighbors rush to give us hugs and offer to help with yard work; strangers send us baby booties and expensive blankets; people from Fiji and Australia and China write us to wish us good luck. We have had a Christian pastor tell us he is rooting for us. Before our daughter was born we had a baby shower, and we hosted several couples with young children of their own. I had all but given up on ever having a baby shower; I figured it was just something that, sadly, I would have to do without. But my neighbors chose to rally around me, and their support surprised me and touched me profoundly. At the shower I watched all the little children run around, and realizing that they were a part of our world was one of the most emotional moments of our lives. To feel accepted, to be part of a community, is—especially for us—a very precious thing.
This book, therefore, will not try to change anyone's mind about us. We know that we will always get our share of good and bad reactions. All I can do with this book is tell my story, plain and simple. It is not for me to force anyone to approve of what I am doing, as if I could anyway. But I do believe that my family deserves a fair shot at happiness, same as anyone else's. I feel that we deserve respect, as well as equal treatment. These are things I have fought for, and will fight for until I die. In this I am no different from any father—I am passionate about my family, and determined to give them a life full of love and happiness.
In the fall of 2007, I went in for a checkup soon after a home pregnancy test told me I was expecting. I had an ultrasound and watched the monitor intently as a grainy image appeared. All I could see were two blurry, microscopic dots, indiscernible as human life but at six weeks all we have to go on—an embryo and a yolk sac, either healthy or not. At six weeks there is no allusion to a child, no wishful hints of a family chin, no names that suddenly seem right. No hopes or expectations, other than please, please, let everything be okay.
But then something happened on the monitor, a weird pulsing, some kind of flashing, and quickly the most awful thoughts took over. Was this a warning light? Was something wrong? For some reason, in this frantic moment, I focused on how the walls in the exam room were bare of any posters or framed pictures, save for a calendar with the image of a baby and the slogan "We believe the little things make all the difference." Was this what I would remember forever of this day of terrible news—some cheesy calendar? After all the people who rejected me because I transitioned to a man; after so many questioned my love for Nancy and believed we should not get married; after all the taunts and threats and even bottles hurled at us; after doctors turned us away and told us we made their staff uncomfortable; after psychiatrists rooted around for signs of deviance and mental illness; after relatives shunned us and hurt us in ways we could never have fathomed; after my own brother told me my baby would be a monster—after all of that, it had come down to this strangely blinking light on an ultrasound? To a barren womb in a barren room?
I held tight to Nancy's hand and asked the ultrasound technician about the light.
"That," the technician told me, "is your baby's heart."
This is the story of that little blinking light.
I grew up in a castle. An old troll lived in our fruit garden, and alligators swam in our moat, and a beautiful blond princess in a pointed pink hat stood atop our tower, along its stone-block railing, waving to everyone below. Or at least that is how it all looked in a drawing I made for my parents when I was five. That drawing is not the very first thing I can remember precisely about my life. I have a fuzzy image of myself as a little girl, maybe two years old, with my long brown hair and my little quilt-patterned overalls, wading in the low surf of Kawaikui Beach Park and stepping on the thorny branch of a kiawe tree. The pain and the shock of it is still pretty clear, but I can't recall who picked me up or how much I cried. My first sharp memory comes later, when I was five, and it has to do with the drawing I made for my parents.
I remember, quite clearly, that this is how I perceived our home when I was young—as a fairytale fortress, impossibly big and magical, though in fact it was a 1970s-style, five thousand-square-foot, two-story house that my father designed and built himself on a bluff called Waialae Iki, an upper-middle-class residential area in Honolulu. I remember sprawling belly-down in the upstairs playroom, fists full of crayons, eager to imitate my father, an architect who fashioned great plans on the drawing board in his downstairs office. I remember the little scribbled circles of red and yellow meant to signify fruit, and I remember the jagged lines I used to create the top of the castle. I remember also the finishing touches I put on my little drawing—across the top, in scratchy letters that may have looked like birds, the inscription "To Mommy and Daddy. I Love You." And along the bottom, floating across the blue moat: "From Tracy."
One other thing: I remember the small figure I drew next to the princess, a smiling girl wearing an identical pink hat. The beautiful princess was my mother, Susan. The little princess was me.
A child's drawing is not complete, however, until it is held up by small clutching hands or displayed on the laps of mothers and fathers and praised as brilliant and beautiful and purchased with a pat or a hug. And so I ran down our hallway that day, my drawing flapping in my hand, searching for my parents to show them what I made. What happened next is something I will never forget. I heard a sound I knew to be my father's voice, but distorted. It was a loud, ugly, jarring yell, a ragged, sawtooth blade of a noise that even today evokes fear and dread as I recall it. I heard this sound as it shattered the silence of our echoey home, and I froze in my tracks and grabbed the railing that ran along the hallway. Slowly, I began to work my way toward the sound, down the flight of stairs carpeted in Cookie Monster blue, past the empty family room and into my father's office, where I finally saw them. Many times as a child I would stand behind the aquarium that rested between the office and the living room wall and watch my parents through it, enjoying how they looked like a shadow-puppet show with Silver Dollars and Bala sharks flying incongruously over their heads. I can't be sure that I watched my parents through the tank on that long-ago day, but the memory of it has absorbed the blurry aquarium view just the same, and that is how I remember seeing them screaming at each other.
And then this—an eruption. I am in the open doorway, unnoticed, when my father snaps. His hands crash down on the drawing board, splitting a plastic ruler into slivers. A wooden cup of pencils explodes in the air. His office chair jolts backward and topples as he springs to his feet. The whole thing is as fierce and sudden as thunder. And then it is I who is screaming, and I run away as fast as I can. And when I reach my room I realize my drawing is still in my hand, and that, during my father's burst of fury, I have crumpled it in my fist.
It was the first time I truly saw the violence that lived inside my father—a turbulence that came to torment my mother and me. His punishing rages were awful, destructive, and, as much as anything else, defined our family life. My father, with his broad shoulders and his round biceps and his jet black hair and the green jade ring he always wore, large as a Spanish olive, and the thick fold of hundred-dollar bills he always kept in his wallet, and the strong clean smell of aftershave that went with him everywhere, and the dark, glazed, glaring eyes that never smiled even when he did. My father was a larger-than-life figure to me, at first an all-powerful king, a builder of castles, and then a sort of monster, menacing and impossible to defeat—sort of like the troll beneath the bridge. "I will put the mean daddy in the dungeon," I once told my mother, as she explained to me yet again how my father had not meant to scream at her, and how he loved us and would never hurt us. But before long my image of my father was set—he was unpredictable, dangerous, a villain.
Conversely, my mother was the hero of my story, fair and good and beautiful. She was born in Minnesota, and her blond hair and pale skin contrasted with the features of Hawaiian women, and with those of my half-Filipino, half-Korean father. It was easy to see her as a force of light, and my father as an agent of darkness. And once I learned of his capacity to harm us, that's exactly how I saw them. My mother was everything I wanted to be—kind and loving and graceful, dignified and soft-spoken, a picture of elegance and in every way the opposite of my brutish father. My mother was a magnet to me; I had absolute freedom to touch her, to grab hold of her arm or her leg, to climb all over her and play with her hair and feel, when she hugged me, entirely embraced. I cannot remember, to this day, a single time my father hugged me. I have seen fraying photos of him holding me right after I was born, but the only time I remember having any contact with him at all was when I leaned against him once in the water of our backyard pool. He also liked to lie on the carpet and have me walk back and forth on his back while he watched TV. I knew that it helped him relax, so for years I was happy to do it, but now I find it sad that nearly all of the physical contact we shared was between his back and my feet.
These stark differences between my mother and father—her softness and vulnerability, his savagery—created a schism that destroyed our family. Looking back, I feel it was inevitable that we would not survive the ill-fated pairing of my parents, and that their marriage would end in tragedy, as it eventually did. All families, I now realize, are made up of different fabric. Some are tough like leather, and some flimsy like cotton. Some families are woven through with enough love and tolerance to accommodate any trauma, any sin. Some have the toughness of muscle and sinew. But others are made of weaker stuff. These families can take only so much wear and tear before they come apart at the seams. My parents were both strong, determined people; my father made it out of the slums of Kalihi and my mother worked hard to earn her master's. But as a family they were not nearly as strong, and I think I know why—because they were, from the start, a flawed, doomed pair.
- On Sale
- Nov 4, 2008
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Seal Press