In Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility, Michelle Tea chronicles her path to pregnancy and motherhood as a 40-year-old, queer, uninsured woman. The tone is irreverent, the storytelling is hilarious, and the topic—choosing to exercise one’s reproductive freedoms—is extremely timely.
Tea’s journey is full of ups and downs, from a series of insemination parties that involve a drag queen’s sperm in a warm bowl, to buying black market fertility drugs online, to ultimately entering what she calls the “Fertility Industrial Complex,” undergoing multiple rounds of IVF. Along the way, Tea falls in love and gets married, consumes a jar of honey charmed by a witch with a fertility spell, and wages a constant battle against “how straight and white and middle class the whole baby world is.” She doesn’t shy away from breaking down the astronomical costs, particularly for those who rely on assisted reproductive technology, of having a baby in the US, either.
Tea is a multitalented writer, performer, activist, and (more recently) podcast host—on her Spotify show Your Magic, she’s done tarot readings for folks like Eileen Myles, Alexander Chee, and Phoebe Bridgers. She is also the co-creator of the legendary spoken word roadshow Sister Spit, the founder of the literary nonprofit RADAR Productions, and was a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow.
We spoke over Zoom on a sunny Friday in July, about a month before her new memoir’s launch.
Shayne Terry: Let’s start with a heavy question. The project of this book—to document one way (of many) to have a baby and one way (of many) to create a family—will always be important, but it feels especially important right now, particularly with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. How are you feeling about the timing of the book’s publication?
Michelle Tea: It’s really weird. I mean, we’re always having weirdness somewhere in this country around all of these things—queerness and queer families and reproductive freedom—but we are in such an intense place right now. It’s hard to figure out what’s being realistic and doing your due diligence, and what feels paranoid, but the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs jeopardizes the entire artificial reproductive technology world, which is how I had my child and how many people have children. If life begins at conception, then what are we doing with all these “lives” that are sitting in freezers all over the country? So that’s really disconcerting.
And if they continue down this route, it would affect my entire life. I have a trans husband. This is a Court that doesn’t believe that trans people exist. They don’t believe that queer people should be married or that we even have the right to have sex in our own homes. Everything that the Court is doing right now affects me really directly. I still don’t know what the fuck to do about it, beyond voting and taking to the streets and doing the things that we all know how to do. I take a lot of comfort in knowing that there are people who have more access and power through their vocations—like that incredible Berkeley professor who testified in Congress [Khiara M. Bridges]—who are fighting really hard right now, and I just want to support them.
ST: And also, your story, this first-person account, might change people’s minds. It happens.
MT: Oh my god, you are an optimist! It does happen, I do believe that, but I feel like people have their heels dug in more than ever right now. I mean, I sure know I do. I certainly didn’t write it to convince anybody of anything. I kind of gave up doing that when I was much younger. I spent a good amount of time back then trying to change the minds of everyone around me. It was very painful and stressful. So yeah, I didn’t write it for that. I wrote it to educate, entertain, delight, reflect people’s experiences back at them, give them hope or a guide. Some people will read this who have no interest in having a child ever. Maybe they’re not even queer, maybe they don’t have a uterus. It’s not just for people who want to have babies. It’s about being alive and having a body and taking a chance.
I think it’s hard as an author or as an artist to have a political agenda. I mean, I’m a political person, and lots of creative people are, we really care about the world. But for me, I will insert my political agenda if it’s effortless and artful, and I really value those moments because they are rare. But that’s not necessarily the point of art making.
ST: Totally. Rather than trying to make an argument, the tone you chose for this book is more like your best friend telling you a wild story. It’s lighthearted and fun, even though you cover serious topics—homophobia, racism, miscarriage, colonialism, the state of the US healthcare system . . .
MT: I really wanted to capture the optimism and the lightness with which I took on the whole project of trying to get pregnant. It was an act of optimism. To go into it any other way—I just wouldn’t have done it. There were a lot of strikes against me. I didn’t have a partner, so I didn’t have that support of a second person. I was doing okay financially right then, but historically I’d lived most of my life pretty broke. I had only recently been able to figure out how to make an income that felt really abundant to me, so part of me was also like, “You want to jeopardize that by having to feed another mouth, when you’re still not completely confident that you can keep feeding yourself?” I didn’t have health insurance. It was before Obamacare and I was getting my healthcare at free clinics in San Francisco, which is actually a great system in that you can get treated, but it’s a shitty system in that it’s hard. I didn’t realize how hard it was until I then got health insurance, and the compare-and-contrast blindsided me.
But if I focused on all those things, I would have felt really defeated and given up, so I had to focus on taking this life-affirming gesture—affirming that life is, in the grand scheme of things, inherently more bright than it is sinister, more generative and abundant than it is scarce and punishing.
I didn’t want the story to be a drag, because it didn’t feel like a drag. I had a lot of hope. And honestly, so did everyone around, and I didn’t necessarily expect that. I mean, I definitely had some queer friends who were like, why are you doing this? I’m 50, so my experience of my generation’s queer culture or subcultures or whatever, it’s a lot of artists and radical queers who are like, who fuckin’ wants babies?
But my mother was like, do it, which is wild because my mother is always worried about everything I do. And my sister, who I respect so much and who is so wise and an incredible mom, she was like, do it. My AA sponsor was like, do it. Everyone I knew who had a kid and who really knew me was like, do it. My doctor, once we progressed to the point that I was getting IVF, was like, Oh, we’ll get you pregnant. (You know, for a million dollars.) But we’ll do it. There was so much support that it was easy to keep that kind of lightheartedness.
ST: This is a pregnancy and birth story, but it’s also a love story; after you decided to have a baby on your own, you fell in love and got married, and the two of you ended up having the baby together. But—spoiler alert—you reveal in the afterword that the marriage ended six years later. What was it like to write about the magical years of falling in love, knowing how it ended?
MT: It was super hard in all the ways! I wanted to really take you through it the way that I experienced it. When I fell in love, I fell in love, and I was in love, and so I wanted to be true to that. But also when you’re in love, you have a lot of ideas about a person that might turn out not to be true. I definitely thought it was really important, for the book, to give people the love story. I mean, going back to having an agenda, I think it’s important to see real queer love, and so I wanted to offer that. At the same time, it was really important for me to, at the end, reveal where I’m at now, and that was also really hard because I didn’t want to take that as an opportunity to just revenge-write about my ex. I wanted to be as honest as I could be about the fact that it wasn’t a sort of conscious uncoupling where we’re like best friends now. I wanted to allow for it to be very messy.
ST: You could have just ended on the happy note of finally having this baby after so many years of trying, and the memoir would have simply documented a specific period in your history. Can you speak to your instinct to add the afterword and burst that happily-ever-after bubble?
MT: This is not my first book, and it’s not my first memoir. I’m aware of the questions that come up and the assumptions that people make when they read a memoir and think they know you. You’re always sort of trapped in that moment of the memoir on some level. And so it was important for me to not make it seem like I was still with this person. For my own sake, for their sake, for the sake of our new partners. And going on a book tour, did I want to have to be like, “No, we’re divorced now” to an audience?
This is my life. I’m aware that I’m spinning a tale about my life, but it’s still my life and how I primarily experienced it. But for other people, it’s a story and they get invested in the characters. My M.O. with writing memoir has always been to be as truthful as I possibly can. Not doing that, it would have felt like I was putting a lie out into the world.
ST: The cover of the book features this amazing photograph of you as a pregnant pinup girl—blonde wig, red panties, unmissable belly—who’s kicked off her heels and is reclining on a couch after gorging herself on cookies and donuts. It’s part of Sophie Spinelle’s Modern Conception project. What was it like to pose for those photographs?
MT: It was a really long day. They were all shot over one day in Sophie’s studio in San Francisco, and I was very pregnant. It was a lot. But I was taking the long view. I was like, I’ll be very grateful that these pictures exist. My favorite, which is also the one that I suggested, was when I was sitting on the mountain of cheeseburgers in a stained tank top. That was really my experience of pregnancy. I was just hungry all the time. Food tasted delicious. I’m always sort of a messy eater and a bit of a slob in the best of circumstances but, you know, my body was just really different. Like, really, every single part of my body was affected by the inflammation, down to the joints in my fingers—I got carpal tunnel! You just swell. Not to mention just like all the meds and stuff that you’re on that can fuck with your system. So I loved that one the best, and I love the one where I’m like an earth goddess with my feet in the stirrups. I don’t love the Virgin Mary one, but I think it’s just that I’m vain, I don’t like how I look in it.
ST: That’s actually my favorite one. There’s something really powerful about co-opting that religious imagery, knowing the story behind your conception.
MT: Yeah, I forget that that’s maybe offensive!
ST: You founded Amethyst Editions, an imprint of The Feminist Press, to champion queer writers, and I know you read a ton in general. Whose writing are you really excited about right now?
MT: I’m reading Fariha Róisín’s book Who Is Wellness For? Edgar Gomez’s High-Risk Homosexual is really great. I love everything that Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore writes. I’m always reading a bunch of books at once. This morning I was reading Ashley Ford’s book Somebody’s Daughter. I’m a huge fan of Raquel Gutierrez, who has a new book out called Brown Neon. And I just got White Magic by Elissa Washuta.
Then, I was at a reading last night and I bought a book. It’s called My War by Matt Roar. It’s 90s San Francisco skater kid poetry dealing with boyhood and encroaching manhood and, like, what does it mean to be a kind of sensitive straight skater kid who’s deep in that culture. It’s good. And then I got a book called Post-Traumatic that I haven’t started yet but it looks awesome.