"The Natural Mother of the Child" SwatTalk
with Krys Malcolm Belc '09
Recorded on Wednesday, March 30, 2022
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Okay. Well, welcome everybody. My name is Emily Anne Jacobstein. I'm class of 2007 and I'm a member of the Alumni Council. And it is my honor tonight to speak with Krys Malcolm Belc, class of 2009. And this is a SwatTalk, which is a program brought to you by the Alumni Council. We are recording tonight's session. And tonight Krys is going to be talking about his book, "The Natural Mother of the Child." And, you know, I read the book when it first came out last spring, early summer, really, really enjoyed it. And in leading up to tonight, I, you know, was refreshing myself on the book, reading a couple of different other interviews that Krys has done. And I'm going to introduce Krys, tell a little bit about the book, and then Krys is going do a reading. Then we'll have Q and A. So feel free to send any questions throughout the night in the chat, and we'll be getting to those in the second part. But a little bit about the book. So this is from the Chicago Review of Books. Krys Malcolm Belc's memoir, "The Natural Mother of the Child" is a non-linear exploration of what parenthood means outside the gender binary. In the memoir, composed of a series of interlocking essays, Belc works to get a sense of who he is as a parent by reaching back to his own childhood and delving into how his son Samson has shaped him. I thought that that was just a nice little summary, a little teaser of what the book is about. And so now I am going to pass it over to Krys. And Krys, if you wanna introduce yourself and do your reading, that'd be great.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Of course. Yeah. Thanks so much for that intro. Thank you everybody for coming. This is such nice attendance for an evening event. I appreciate it so much. So I'm Krys. I was class of '09 at Swat and I am married to an '07, Anna Belc, who is very central in the book, if anyone has read it. So yeah, this book is a collection of, it's kinda like a memoir in essays. It has six sections. They are thematically linked, and there's a lot of kind of aesthetic overlap, but they all have their own little kind of closed loop universe of how they look and feel. So I'm gonna read a little bit just to give a sense of the book for folks who haven't read it. My favorite section to read from is actually towards the end, but it's okay, 'cause it's a non-linear book. So you don't really have to have been along for the whole ride in order to kind of pick up what I'm talking about. The only thing that you really need to know in order to follow along with the short passage is that I have three children and I gave birth to one of them. His name is Samson. And this is a selection from an essay called Wildlife. And I'm gonna read for probably about seven minutes. After the pediatrician calls me Sam's mother, you say you will come with me to Target to buy cat litter and a couple of sticks of butter. You feel bad, I can tell. In the car, you run your hands through my hair and say, "It's just so thick." You say it sexy like. Sometimes you think sex can fix anything. In the backseat, our boys whine for lollipops and complain because it's snowing again. "This is Marquette, Michigan," I say. Your fingers are long. Your nails are sharp. You pull my hair so hard it hurts. You never wanna hurt me, but you do. When the pediatrician said while looking at me that most boys get as tall as their moms around 12, we both looked down and pretended she was talking about you. Samson stood in front of her, Samson, with his thin muscular legs and wide chest, Samson with my face, her stethoscope placed over his wildly beating heart. So alive this child I made, nobody had mistaken me for a mother in years before the doctor. "You have a beard for God's sake," you said in the car on the way to get cat litter and butter. When I looked back up at the doctor, after she called me Samson's mother, she looked at me like she did not know what I was. In moments like that, I pretend to be someone else, a downhill skier, a news anchor, a grocer, a ticket taker on the train. I could stand in the quiet car while people held out their tickets. Nobody ever looks at the ticket taker. And everybody says thank you in the same satisfying tone. There I'd be holding my hole punch, tiny white punched out paper circles fluttering to the train floor. I'd give a warm smile, having all the power, but wanting people to know that everything was okay. The doctor said that Samson's too skinny, but he's like me, too full of not knowing what to do with his body to stay still for very long. He was born in Philadelphia, a city with hundreds of parks and recreation centers, places to burn all that energy off. He's always been like this, so thin you joke that I made skim milk. You and your jokes. You're the one who joked about my height. You said, when the doctor said Samson was in the 85th percentile, you said, "Wow. "I wonder how old he'll be when he's taller than you." You're the reason the doctor called me Samson's mom. In the bottle, my milk always looked blue when held up to the light. I remember that the whine and squeeze of the breast pump, the blue milk, barely a wisp of fat on top, sitting in our fridge in Philadelphia. In the backseat our kids fight over bouncy balls they got from the free bin in the doctor's office. Strapped in like they are, there's only so much damage they can do. She called me she. She called me his mom. A thousand-mile move away from everyone who knew me before, away from everyone who saw me carry him after years now of testosterone, still this word, mom. I can never get away. On the way to Target you pull my hair. You say, "You're so lucky to have this hair." And this is what every woman who ever cut it off completely has said to me, as it fell to the floor. On testosterone, my hair keeps getting coarser. After I say nothing for a long time, you say it must have been his birth certificate. Once someone sees Sam's birth certificate, you say they can never unsee it. It must have been in his medical file, the one we transferred when we moved here to this small town where it is always snowing. "Yeah," I say, "the birth certificate says mother, "then my name." The doctor was never seeing me. She saw a mother. We used to love taking our kids to the pediatrician. Their doctor in Philadelphia knew us, ended every visit with, "Keep up the good work." The doors at this Target in Upper Michigan whoosh open with the same sound you can hear anywhere in America, a sound not unlike a train door. Warm air whooshes over the five of us, you, me and the three children we took turns making. Rows of items weighed the same way here as they do everywhere. So many ways to make us feel better. Lightweight cat litter has changed our lives. With four sticks of butter I can make dozens of cookies, white chocolate macadamia, brown butter oatmeal. I'll rest the dough in the fridge. So they come out absolutely perfect. You wanna make me, your children's dad, feel better. So you buy me a hot coffee, load the kids all into a single cart and insist that you steer. And there's a little section break. Just as fetal cells can be detected in their gestational parents long after birth, we transmit ourselves into our children. Our cells can persist and multiply in them for decades too. Chimera, an organism containing two distinct sets of DNA. In addition to through pregnancy and birth, cell transfer can occur during breastfeeding. Maternal cells can infiltrate the progeny via the digestive tract. While pregnant I was concerned that my child would inherit what I consider my worst traits, especially my anxiety. And yet I continued to infiltrate his body with my own cells for two full years after his birth. I think all the time about when I was at jujitsu camp and you nursed him, because he could not go to sleep without me. Do you ever think about it? The problem with reading about the science of pregnancy is that I cannot help being angry at the words mother and maternal. Maternal fetal medicine describes the medical care provided to those in the relationship between one woman and one or more fetuses of unspecified gender. Instead of mother, I say gestational parent, but the phrase often confuses people. Gestational implies only the bodily act while maternal nods to the relationship that follows. In Greek mythology, the chimera is a lion with a snake for a tail and a goat's head protruding from the middle of her back. In architecture, the word can be used to describe any fantastic or mythical creature used for decorative purposes. In architecture, this is also called a grotesque. Sightings of the deep sea chimaera or ghost shark are rare. The pointy-nosed chimaera was first caught on video in 2016. Looking back, perhaps I should have used the word uncommon when talking to Samson about our relationship instead of rare. Rare imbues a specialness that perhaps Samson has blown up. "I'm rare," he says proudly. "Everyone came from someone," I say. I admit the ghost shark is a terrifying creature scarier to me than the mythical chimera. The males have retractable sex organs on their heads. The females are believed to have a pouch in which they can store sperm for the future. Our sperm remains in storage at a bank with the understanding that you may or may not use it and I may or may not use it. In online support groups, I learn that many doctors still tell transmasculine patients that they need to have a hysterectomy within five years of beginning T, despite little evidence to support that recommendation. I think about having another baby all the time. It's not something I often talk about. When I watch the video of the fish swimming slowly near the ocean floor, I feel like I'm seeing something I should not be seeing, something that should remain hidden. "They literally look like a fish put together "by a committee," the director of a shark research center says. Their faces look stitched together, monstrous. Is this how people react to seeing pictures of me pregnant? It's hard to talk with you about who should have our next child, if we have a next child, without feeling like it's a selfish thing to do, making another person whose history even their body will forever be entangled with yours. When I'm told I should include pictures of my adult self in my writing, I resist. Isn't that just giving people what they wanna see? The secretary calls soon after we enroll our boys in a local elementary school. "I just have a few questions "about your children's birth certificates." I have tried a number of different condensed speeches to explain our family in situations like this, when someone is just looking for a simple understanding of who is what to whom, but they always leave everyone feeling uncomfortable. I like pictures of me pregnant. Samson's difference from other children follows him around wherever he goes. I had my doctor write the letter I needed to change my birth certificate, but I never sent it. Infiltrate. Samson and I are invaders of each other's lives. Chimera can finally refer to a dream or illusion. "How will you feel," you ask, "if he lies and says I made him?" I'll stop there.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Wow. Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that. Well, to kick things off, I am going to put a link to Bookshop.org for the book in the chat for everybody. If you have not read it, it is, as you just heard, it is fantastic. So I really encourage everyone to get a copy and read it. And please everyone feel free to add questions to the chat. I'll be monitoring that and asking them as we go. But I'd love just to start, if you could share how you went from a student at Swarthmore to writing this book and to being an author and what that path looked like, where Swarthmore influenced you. It'd be great to hear that story.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Sure. So I was a Black studies major at Swarthmore. I didn't, like English and writing weren't my main thing. I took a lot of classes with Anthony Foy in the English Department, like literature classes. And I took a lot of classes with Allison Dorsey in the History Department and a lot of education classes. 'Cause I was like an educational studies minor. And I thought I wanted to be a teacher, which I did end up doing. So writing was something that I also did at Swat. I took fiction workshops, but it wasn't like what I thought I would do with my life or anything. I took fiction classes with Gregory Frost and Betsy Bolton. And then I took a class that really, really influenced me with Chris Castellani, who's an alum who taught an advanced fiction workshop while I was there. And yeah, I loved writing fiction. I did occasionally think about going off to study it, but I had what I believed to be more important things to do. So I became a special education teacher in Philadelphia. I taught high school for a few years. Then I ran a special education department and taught elementary school for a few years. And that's kind of, I was having kids, we were having our kids in between all that. And then after, you know, Anna, my partner, would be like, "Have you thought any more "about going to grad school for writing?" Like I would sometimes write stuff, but she was always like, "I feel like you should go study writing." And I'd be like, "But I have more important things." I was literally like, "I have more important things to do." And then I think eventually around the time I decided to do medical transition, I was like, "Wouldn't it be awesome if I just did all the good things "like for myself in one shot?" So I applied to graduate schools in creative writing. I got it, with fiction, like writing short stories. I got into a couple programs. We decided to move to Northern Michigan, about eight hours north of Detroit in Marquette on the shore of Lake Superior. And I started testosterone three months before I got there. So I kind of just made all the life changes at once, and when I got to the program, I thought I'd continue to write short stories, just like Chris Castellani had taught me how to do. But in the program I found it to be almost like an unstoppable force to write about my family life. I think because I was in this like period of transitioning. And I started reading a lot of memoirs by trans people and really not finding, I wasn't finding myself in a lot of them. I thought I would. I was like, "If I read memoirs by trans people, "I'll find a lot of myself," and I really didn't. So yeah, I just totally changed what I was doing. I switched to being like a creative nonfiction person and writing essays and reading a lot of memoirs. And I wrote the book in Michigan. I just felt very like isolated from my former life in good ways and bad ways. So I think I was in an angsty mood and I wrote a pretty angsty book about all that. And then as soon as I finished the program, I was very fortunate to sell the book pretty quickly, which I think doesn't happen to a lot of folks who go to graduate programs in creative writing. So I feel extremely fortunate that that was my luck, but I was already back in a special education job, because I had more important things. I really like pivoted back to, I moved back to Philly and I had more important things to do. So I kind of still work in the special education field, and writing is like my other career that I think should be front and center, but I still won't. I stubbornly won't let it be.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Wow. Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing the book? Because I believe it started more as separate essays, and they kinda came all together to create it.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Yeah, I began studying essays as a student, in creative writing, like creative nonfiction workshops. I took my first one because my fiction professor said that maybe I would have more fun if I tried to write nonfiction. 'Cause she was like, "You seem so uptight about your fiction, "and it's really, you're really turmoiled "about your short stories. "So why don't you just try another genre? "Maybe it'll be fun to try something new." So I tried something new. And while I was reading all these essays, I found myself kind of emulating their style or trying my own experiments. And I had no visual art background, but because I was like, I'm doing all the new things in my life. I moved to Michigan, I started testosterone. I'm the new me. I taught myself to use Adobe InDesign and just like Photoshop. And I took kind of my family archives, all the images I had and legal documents that had kind of followed us throughout the machinations of becoming our children's legal guardians over the years, and I started just messing with them. And I realized that I thought I was writing separate essays, but they really were all one thing. They were kind of about the same thing. And at first I was working on all these essays separately and I wasn't like publishing them yet or anything. They were just like different documents. And I started berating myself, like, "Krys, "why can't you write about anything except the fact "that you had a baby?" Like, "Don't you have anything else to say?" And then I was like, "That's literally what a book is." You know, you talk the same thing for a while. So while they were separate projects, a lot of times they were occurring at the same time, just because of their visual nature. I would kind of work on, you know, the one with lots of family photos and I would get stuck on exactly what it was supposed to look like. So I would pivot to like the one with the birth certificate. And I feel like, you know, out of the six sections, probably the one that's text only was the first one that I completed. 'Cause there was no like, you know, there was no aesthetics to really figure out there. But with the other five, I really kind of was figuring them out simultaneously, which I think helped me, because while I think in some ways the sections stand alone, I also think that they stand in contrast to one another in the way that they look and the role that visuals play in the essays. So I think without working on one, I wouldn't have figured out the other and that kind of thing.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 So we just got a question, and it actually, my next question is going be about your use of photos and legal and medical documents that for those who haven't read the book yet, but are about to go on Bookshop.org and buy it or check it out from their library, can you share some examples of these images and how you wove them into the story?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Yeah, I'm gonna try to find, some of them are published stand alone, but I'm not sure that they still, you know, the nature of literary journals is that they kind of come and go. So I don't know if there's like good images. 'Cause the most visual one was published in a journal called Redivider that I don't think has it online archived. But I'm gonna take just a second to try to see if I'm lying about that. And what I mean by visual is actually a number of different things. So some of the essays are kind of just like photo essays where it's kind of image and text. It's like images about, like images related to the text, but not necessarily like illustrated. And then other sections have kind of like, I can also show some 'cause I have the book.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 I think it starts even with the cover of the book and then dissecting the birth certificate.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Yeah, so the cover of the book is a collage of family photos, and they're actually all photos that are in the book. So the cover designer, Dana Li, did an amazing job I think of like capturing what I was doing in the book. But there are places in the book where like, okay, there's an essay about how my dad's a kind of angry dude and I'm kind of an angry dude. And there's like a very tender and loving picture of my dad to kind of like illustrate that, and other tender and loving images of my dad are in that essay, but then it becomes a little bit more kinda weird in the way that it is visual when later in the book there's an entire section that's annotated legal documents. So I took kinda like my marriage certificate, my children's birth certificates, all the adoption paperwork, and I sort of like juxtaposed the images. And then the text is actually all footnotes of the images of legal documents that we had accumulated over the years as I repeatedly changed my identity. And we had all these kids in different sorts of ways. So yeah, it's photo essays, but also then legal documents that have been kind of cut up. And there's a section where I use my own birth certificate. It's sort of like the beginning of the section is just an image of my original, unamended birth certificate. And then the subsections of the essay use like blown-up images from the birth certificate as subheading. So like mother's name, Helen McIlraith, that like leads into a subsection about my mom.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 So, you know, you talk about as part of your writing process, you were reading these other memoirs, looking and trying to identify with them and not finding the representation of yourself in them. What audience did you have in mind when you were writing?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 I think of my book as being more in conversation with motherhood writing than a lot of like queer and trans writing. I'm like in queer community with a lot of folks, and I love to read queer books and celebrate queer books and trans books and all that. But like there aren't really children in them, I noticed. Even in the novels, like the gay novels that kind of make it big or that a lot of folks are reading and talking about, there's just like really not children in them, which is why when there is a child in a book, it really stands out. So I did kind of see like Sheila Heti's "Motherhood" and Lydia Kiesling's "The Golden State" and like a lot of motherhood memoirs to be more what I was talking, the space that I was talking into, because I think that I'm not a mother, but my book is like essentially about motherhood in a lot of ways. So that was kind the space that I wanted to be a part of, but like also I'm queer and trans. So I feel like I am slightly on the outside of that conversation. So I wanted to like participate in the conversation, but from like a slightly outsiderish point of view and also kind of bringing, you know, it's not like I don't get anything out of reading queer and trans literature. So bringing some of that lens into the party of talking about motherhood.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 And I feel like in that motherhood genre, there's the pregnancy period. And then I'd say an extended postpartum period where you feel like you're in the thick of it for a while. How old was Samson when you were in the actual writing process? And did you feel like you were still in that extended postpartum period or beyond?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Yeah, the book, the like action of the text and also when I stopped writing it, he was five. And he was in his last year of pre-K. So I do think that that's like the end of having a little kid in a lot of ways, you know, like they go to kindergarten and then they have more of a normal life. And they also have a lot more self-help skills at that age. My youngest of three is a kindergartner now, and they can like shower on their own and like fix a snack, you know, put a Pop-Tart in the toaster. They kind of start to do stuff, but in pre-K they couldn't do a lot of those, you know, that's like the hump. I don't know if that's just like my parenting or actually child development, but I did feel like that time when your child starts like real school, or there's just like so much cultural meaning around that. So Samson started kindergarten the day after he turned six. So at that like age five time, I considered that like a separation time. And I think that that's what was kind of driving a lot of the book is kind of like kids are walking away from only being a part of family world and now they're a part of the friend world or the soccer team world, or, you know, like whatever their extended situation is that, because we had like a pretty insular nuclear family situation, especially living in Marquette. We didn't have any, we didn't know anyone when we got there, and we didn't have family nearby or anything. So we were very much like a tight-knit family unit. And I was kind of like, "He's getting older and he is like making friends "and starting to do stuff." And now I have to deal with all the things that led, you know, like my whole life is gonna be in some ways hinging on the fact that I created this person and breastfed him for two years. And like, I have all these feelings about it, but he doesn't necessarily really share with me. He's just like a person growing up and living his life. So I was really like reckoning with that, that I had gone through this stuff that I felt like was very life-defining for me but was only the beginning for this other person and that most of his personality development and when he was really starting to make memories was when that time was ending for me. So that was kind of like, you know, I wasn't someone who like cried when my kids went to school or anything, but it was, it was like a time for me. And I think for me especially, I had presented in a more androgynous way where I was assumed often to be a mother before, you know, when he was really little. So I had had that like motherhood experience and then I lost it. And I think that there were really good things about losing that, 'cause I'm like not a woman or a mom. So it's like great not to be misgendered or misperceived. But I also think that a level of like expertise and intimacy is assumed when you assume that someone's a mother and you no longer assume that level of like intimacy when you think that someone is a kid's dad or even worse, because I appear a lot younger than my partner and also other people my age, people would assume I was like a babysitter or something pretty frequently. So yeah, it was like a double reckoning, like reckoning with normal, your kid's growing up stuff and then reckoning with like my kid's growing up and nobody even recognizes all the things that I did to bring him into this world.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 In the book it is, is so extremely personal and raw. And it doesn't just involve you obviously, you know, Samson is a very key figure in the book. Anna plays a very large role. Your parents and dissecting your own birth certificate brings your family into the picture. What conversations did you have around or did you around consent to share stories, awareness of what was happening and how did you manage that given Samson's age?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 It's really hard with Samson's age. I actually talked directly in the book about talking to Samson about writing the book. And I'm like, "I can't write about myself "without writing about you. "How do you feel about that?" And he's like, "It's good and not good," which is like literally what he said. You can't really get meaningful consent from a four or five year old to write about them. And my older child who's 13 months older than Samson, 'cause we did like wacky back-to-back kid-making, he's barely in the book at all. So I didn't have any thoughts about that. And then our youngest is barely in the book at all. So I didn't really have thoughts about that. But with Samson, I was kind of like, I have to be extremely intentional to make sure that the writing about Samson is actually about me. And it's clear that it's like a reflection of my thoughts about parenting and not an effort to capture who he is as a person. 'Cause I don't feel like I have permission to do that or to really tell a lot of like very detailed stories about him. It's more like he's the driving force behind this like genre of feelings that I'm having. And I think that that leads to like his name being in there a lot, but he's not, he's kind of like a little bit shifty in terms of like who he is, which I feel comfortable with. Although he, as it turns out unfortunately to be the most private of my three children by like a lot. So he was like, you know, "A lot of people know who I am now." And I'm like, "It's not like I'm famous. "So it's not that many people." And he's like, "I see the book in bookstores a lot. "People know who I am." And I'm like, "They don't know who you are. "They know how I feel about you. "It's not really about you. "It's my memoir and you're a baby in most of it "or a fetus." Anna reads a lot of my work before it's published, just because I trust her more than other people in terms of like being harsh or saying something's not good or whatever. But she gave me like blanket permission long ago to write about anything. She just doesn't care. So that's great. And I know this is very controversial. I'm very unlike most memoirs, but I never spoke to my parents about anything that was in the book before the book came out. I took out everything that I thought would like need to be like fact-checked by someone. I kind of kept it very like sketchy, like sketchy in a sketch kind of way, like impressionistic, but I don't go easy on them. Folks who have read the book or who interested in reading the book, they're like we're roasted a little bit, but I made sure that I'm the most roasted of all. That was kind of my, you know, like I'm gonna talk about how my dad was like a rough guy and yelled at us a lot. And we were scared of him in order to talk about the fact that sometimes I'm a rough guy and I yell too much. It's all kind of about how my parenting was really like influenced by them. And I also know because I have two younger brothers who are filmmakers who have made some autobiographical work that my parents just don't really care that, they just know we have these six kids and they're all artsy and they're gonna go, like, my sister does stand up. And they're like, "She's gonna go on stage and roast." You know, we're all kind of artists in our own way. So I think that I just knew it would be fine. So I know a lot of people really like rigorously run things by people. And I was like, "I don't really feel like I need their permission "or it's gonna do any damage to our relationship." And it didn't. They both read the book and it was fine. My mom said she once saw someone reading it on the beach and she kind of like walked away. You know, she walked away. She's like, "I don't need to be here for that." But yeah, I didn't. And any like minor character where I, I just took people. I just didn't put people in if I thought that it wouldn't be okay. So like friends who are quoted as saying one thing, they like liked that. I knew that it would be cute for them. And other than my dad, I didn't really go too hard on anyone. The one person that I feel very sad that my mother-in-law died while I was writing the book, because I think it would've been meaningful for her to read the book. She's in the book a lot. I think she's portrayed like fairly warmly, but also in a mixed way. And I'm really very sad that she didn't get to read it.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 I felt when I was reading it a sense of respect towards her that I think definitely comes through, if you-
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Yeah.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Go ahead.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 No, I was just gonna say, she didn't get the whole queer thing but like was very, she thanked me for taking very good care of her child, which I was very touched by. Anna doesn't know how to cook or anything. So I literally do keep her alive. I think her mom knew that, and her mom was also a special ed teacher just like me. So we did, we had our moments, and I did have just a lot of respect for her while recognizing that it's complicated, just like my own mom.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 I do feel like if you have a sister who's a standup comedian, like your parents were probably ready. She's taken care of any of those issues about being roasted. You know, it's interesting, your mom spotted the book in the wild. Samson sees it in bookstores. What has surprised you the most about the reception of the book?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 I feel very grateful for opportunities that I've had to meet other writers through the book that especially because so much of the editing and production happened during the pandemic, when I felt very isolated. I was able to kind of be in touch with a lot of people that I really admire about the book and was very grateful that people agreed to read it in advance or review it. And I've just met a lot of the people who participated in the book and have felt very warmly about that. I always feel very grateful when like people who don't read weird stuff, read it. 'Cause I do think that it's a little bit unusual, and I think when you pick it up and flip through it, it doesn't really look like how a lot of books look. But I think a lot of the readers who've like sent me an email saying they liked it were just kind of like random people who usually read regular, you know, most people who read memoirs are used to just like a story that has a narrative arc. And it has kinda like a main lesson or a takeaway. A lot of commercial memoirs is structured in a very similar way. And this book just has a very strong refusal to draw conclusions or have any like neat arc. So I feel surprised by all the straight-seeming readers who send me very polite messages saying that they enjoyed it, because I just thought it would be like queer weirdos reading it and no other people. So I've been happy about that. And I've been a little bit, I've been a little bit disappointed in some ways by the way that this one essay about my dad that's in the book that was like kind of torturous to write, so many people ask about it. And a lot of people like out in the world who write like reader reviews are very focused on how that essay means that I'm actually like a terrible person, which is like, I don't know. It's like about how I like yell at my kids too much. It's like, you know, it's interesting how little nuance there can be in conversations that are like trying to deal with bad things about masculinity and violence and trying to like reckon with that and be better and be like, I'm not the best, but I wanna be better. And people are like, "Wow, this dude's bad. "I don't know why his book about being violent "is like out there." And I'm kind of like, "That's such a flattening "of all of that." That I've been a little sad about how focused people are on that essay. But also I do remember that I read the audiobook myself, and I was dreading reading that section. So I knew, I know that it has like extra emotional import or it stands out in some kind of way. So I was like prepared for it, but also like, you know, it's kind of an easy target.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 But in a society where we need to face and reckon with male violence, I think there needs to be space for being raw and being honest and reflecting on yourself. Do you feel like that you are being attacked for being open about that element?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 I don't think I'm being attacked. I mean, nobody has to read the book. And it's not like I got, I mean the only like hate mail I've gotten is how like trans people are ruining the universe. It's not about that. But I just think that, I think that's something I'm trying to do in the book is have a nuanced conversation about parenting and how it's like good and not good, as Samson would say, how there are so many joys in it. And I obviously went way outta my way to have kids, because like, you know, my partner and I both have uteruses. So it's not like a clear path to parenting for us. But at the same time, it like brings up a lot of really difficult stuff and it is challenging and it's tiring and it tests a marriage and it tests someone's relationship with their own parents. I'm trying to talk about some of the nuances and some of the nuances is like kids make you mad. And if you have not great coping mechanisms because of the way that your parents reacted when they were mad, you gotta learn something new, but that doesn't happen like overnight. And I guess it's something that I could have come to the place that I'm at now in my mid-30s before I had kids, but I had kids when I was in my mid-20s. So I didn't have time to do that. Maybe I could have made different life decisions, but I didn't. So I just, I always want conversations to be more nuanced than they are. And I wish that I could talk to people who wanna talk a little bit more about it, about like why I think it's important to name it and talk through it and talk about it and not be like secretive about it. Yeah.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 And I think in the genre that you were speaking to of the parenting or mothering memoir, there is a lot of guilt, a lot of shame, and a lot of people trying to pretend that they're better or more perfect than they are. And seeing people be honest about, you know, their weaknesses or flaws can be really comforting and reassuring to others and really helpful. We've got some questions coming in. Can you share more about what motherhood means to you?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Yeah. I think that that's so much of the thought that was driving writing the book, because I think that the only before, I mean, I don't think that memoir is like your journal where you work out stuff and it's not therapy. It's like an art form, but it involves working through stuff. In order to have something to say about your life, you kind of have to think a lot about your life. So when I started writing the book, I hadn't really done a whole lot of this kind of writing, like nonfiction that has some research in it and just has some of the visual elements. I'd never done this kind of writing before. And I feel like when I sat down all that I knew about myself as a parent was that I wasn't a mother. Like I was so insistent on defining myself against being a mom, because I had felt like that was a label that was incorrectly affixed to me by like the universe and like my kids' doctors and school and like all that kind of stuff that I hadn't actually taken any time to figure out like what I was or what motherhood was. I just was like, I'm not that, but also I think that what I was reacting against is a lot of what, like a lot of women and people who identify as moms in whatever that means to them. Like a lot of them are reacting against the same things that I was reacting against, like the idea that you have to be self-sacrificing and like somehow magically like have a career, but also have everything together for your kids and always model gentleness for your kids. And I was like reacting against some of that and the physical bodily sacrifices that many, but not all mothers make to kind of like carry their kids and then breastfeed their kids and all the pressure around, like what it means to have a, you know, I use the word natural in the title, and that's not only a reference to the fact that the court system referred to me as like the natural mother of my child, because we're related as opposed to like their other mother. But also I think the word natural is so weaponized against women. You have to have like a natural birth, and you have to be a natural parent, whatever that means. So I think I was like reacting against so many of those things, but then in actually writing the book, I did have like a catharsis of thinking through all the positive mothering figures that I kind of work through in the book. So I write a lot of about my own mom who's like extremely crass and vulgar and very like blunt. And she like, you know, grew up working class in Brooklyn and isn't afraid to get in someone's face. And she didn't act like those mothers at all when we were growing up. She watched R rated movies with us and got drunk all the time at family events and was just like such a character. But I was like not even thinking of that when I was so strongly reacting against motherhood in my own life. I wasn't even like the main model of motherhood you have isn't that person, you know, it's someone else. So then, you know, I was thinking about my mother-in-law, who was an immigrant from Poland and made just like a lot of really big cultural sacrifices for her family, which was like, you know, in that like negative vein of motherhood that I had associated with. But then she went and got her own career and was super into being physically active and was, I don't know, like I was just thinking through all of these women in my life who aren't actually like the motherhood that I was reacting against. So I came to see motherhood as something like, that I felt much more tender towards when I realized how expansive it was. And of course in considering like transmasculine parenting and whatever that means to me, I thought a lot about transfeminine parenting and how there are so many people who are opting into parts of motherhood that they're like very violently excluded from and very unfairly excluded from and all the kind of mother-adjacent people who are like foster mothers or like bonus moms, or I just, I think that my original idea of motherhood was like Mormon mom blogger. And then I really came to have just much warmer and more expansive feelings about motherhood through writing, even though I still don't think that I'm still not a mom. I just kind of usually use the word parent, but my kids call me their dad and like, that's fine. But yeah, that's like a really long answer to like my journey with the word motherhood while writing this book.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 That's great. Is there anything that you hope people will learn from your book that they might not considered before?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 I don't know. I think there's a moment in the book when, you know, one of the few times that Samson is really like seen, he comes home from school and says that he told his class that he came from his dad, that like his dad gave birth to him and the other kids didn't believe it. And they were just like, "That's not a thing." And he said that the most upsetting part was that his teacher didn't say anything. Like she was our neighbor. She literally knows us. 'Cause it's like a small town. So like everybody, you know, all the teachers are just like people who live in the town. And he was very upset, I think, not because she said the wrong thing but because she said nothing. So I think like if there's, when I read from sections of the book, I often read things that I'm like, "I'm not sure I agree with that anymore. "I've read like more trans voices on this. "And I don't know that my take on this was as nuanced "as it could have been." I'm still kind of learning about all the different ways that families can kind of like conceive of themselves and of gender within the family. But I think the worst thing is like not to have the conversation at all. So I definitely want people to just think about it and talk about it. I know that, when I had Samson in 2013 and was like 26 and didn't know any other parents, I went to this breastfeeding support group in West Philadelphia. And I was so embraced and supported there, even though I was like a weird androgynous person who was, I was very open about the fact that gender dysphoria was like my major breastfeeding concern and not like my supply or any of that. And I was just so warmly embraced and so grateful that people were willing to have that conversation. And I just like want people to talk about how to include other kinds of parents in parenting. I think that that would help everyone.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Well, my next question kinda relates to that. So I personally work in healthcare finance and recently was having a conversation with some healthcare professionals. We were talking about creating a more welcoming patient experience. We were specifically focusing on patient registration. And so I recommended your book to them and thought that they might find it beneficial. You know, you work for a hospital, you're married to a clinician. What would you like healthcare professionals to take away from this book? And I'm guessing we probably, knowing that we've got Swarthmore alumni, we probably have a bunch of clinicians that are listening to this as well.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 I mean, I think that, so, you know, I'm always kind of like, during these talks, like referring back to moments in the book that you're like reminding me of. So there's this moment in the book. I obviously have been with my partner a very long time. We met at Swat when I was 19 years old, and we're still together. And I have three children now. And one of them is almost 10. So we've been together for quite some time, but it's been a journey for her too. She's a labor and delivery nurse and also an emergency room nurse. She kind of has two gigs. And she was taking lactation classes at one point, and she was writing a paper and kind of like using women for everything, you know? And I was like, "I wonder "if you could use gender neutral language "when you're talking about this." And she was kind of like, "Yeah, just like, let me write my paper," like, I don't have time to think about this right now. And that to me is like way worse than kind of like, and then over the years, as we've all evolved in many ways, including me, she's kind of brought back things she's like tried out, like in the emergency, you know, when she worked in a rural emergency room in Michigan. She would see a lot of queer and trans people, unfortunately, and would kind of like test out ways to talk to them, like as a clinician. In addition to like reading stuff about how to do that, it's also like stories about how she's had an evolution in what she does. And now that she's back working mostly labor and delivery, she always says birthing person. I noticed that change. And I was just like, "Wow, this is someone who was like, "'Don't try to make me not say mother' pretty recently." And kind of, I think, just through like exposure to the ideas has changed language. So I think, you know, being neutral whenever possible and also just giving people space to answer open-ended questions, I know that forms and registration is so difficult. And I also think that the like 11 options for your gender is kind of silly. 'Cause I'm sometimes like, I'm kind of a lot of these things. I don't know what, you know, I could choose any of these five things and that'd be fine. They'd all fit just fine. But I think if you're actually having like face-to-face interactions, like a lot of these things don't actually waste time. If you're like, "What does your child call you?" that's not that different from saying like, "Remind me of your name" if you're trying not to call someone mom. 'Cause I work in a pediatric hospital. So I'm always trying not to call people mom, 'cause like that's not their name. And it takes just as much time to figure out what a parenting term is versus like what their name is. I just think asking open-ended questions usually elicits a much better response, or having an option to clarify is helpful. I notice that a lot of like birth certificate paperwork and clinical forms are now having a little bit more of a like choose your own adventure style to them, which I think is really helpful, because I do sometimes feel, like I'm not trying to be a butt and be like an annoying non-binary person, but I literally don't know what would be most helpful to the person. And to share like a personal anecdote, I was seeing a reproductive endocrinologist like a year ago and on her intake form, she had male, female and non-binary as the three options. So I clicked non-binary 'cause that seemed most like what I was jiving with. And then when we actually had the telehealth visit that I had filled out this form for, she was like, "Unfortunately if you click non-binary, "I don't get any of the information that I need, "because all the questions about like your anatomy "are not part of the follow-up." So she's like, "I don't know "like your last menstrual period "or how many times you've been pregnant "or any of those things, "because my form is like inclusive, "but also erased the information that I needed." So I get that it's like really, really complicated. And I think on a forms level, it's like almost impossible to have forms that do things right. But on an interpersonal level, it's actually pretty easy to ask people questions. Like what organs have you had removed instead of like super weird invasive trans questions that people get asked.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 That's very helpful. So we've got just a few minutes left. So a couple of fun questions for you. When you were at Swarthmore, did you ever think you would be interviewed by Vogue?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 No. I definitely didn't think I'd be interviewed by Vogue until Vogue emailed me and said, "Do you wanna be interviewed by Vogue?"
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 That was one, I was like, "Oh, wow, "this book has broader appeal than I thought." It was a great interview. What is the last thing, 'cause I happen to know and you referenced it earlier, you enjoy baking quite a bit. What is the last thing you baked or what are you planning on baking next?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 I have a date with my 9 1/2 year old to make peanut butter pie on Sunday. It's even on the calendar so that we don't forget.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Sounds perfect. And then the final question. What is next for you and next for your writing?
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 I write now, so like what I'm working on and what it ends up being could be two totally different things. But I think I'm writing a food memoir, because I was trying to write fiction again. That ship has sailed, and it's not going anywhere for me at the moment. If you're a fiction lover, I'm sorry. Maybe one day it'll come together for me. But around the time the book came out, there's a lot of like stress around that. Just like you're talking to a lot of people about the book and worried about saying something dumb to like Vogue or like Harper's Bazaar or like one of these places. And I was just really stressed about like my personal business being out in the world. So I was really struggling to write, and I am someone who likes to like self-assign writing prompts, even if they're not, you know, they're kind of just like weird and made up, like write seven short essays about books you read recently. I'll assign myself stuff. So I assign myself a prompt that I can't let go of, which is to write about what I made for dinner. So I've been writing all these short essays about dinners that I made and it's kind of just like a jumping off point to talk about other stuff, but I've been writing a lot about food. And now I'm taking a food writing class, and I'm just trying to learn about how to do that. So I've been just writing a lot about kind of like domesticity and gender and cooking, 'cause I'm kind of like the house mouse here at my family abode. I do have a job, but I mostly do the house stuff. So I've been trying to kind of parse through that in my writing.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 That sounds fantastic. I look forward to whatever that ends up being when it is published. Very, very exciting. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your book, for sharing your time with us tonight. And we're getting lots of wonderful feedback. I do know there are a couple questions that came in that we didn't have time for. I don't know if you wanna touch on them. We've got two minutes left. Question around breastfeeding. I know I said those were gonna be your last questions. Breastfeeding, I do think that's a really interesting topic. You know, how that affected you as a parent. And then a question around when you decided to transition, become male and the birth experience with that. Don't know if you wanna touch on any of those in two minutes.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 I can totally do it in two minutes. So breastfeeding was so central to my parenting experience. I really thought that I would do it for six weeks. That was how long I told myself I was gonna try it for. Anna had breastfed our first child and was like into it. And like, should I like use the word lactivist and make people annoyed? Like she's really into it. It's not really my thing in that way. I also like politically don't agree with all that. So I was just like, "I'll try it for six weeks. "It's free. I have the correct anatomy, whatever." And then I did find my main parenting support in this breastfeeding support group. And I think that that really like kept me going. I made so many friends and we were all struggling to breastfeed together for different reasons. And it, I don't know, it was just it was so I felt like I was so tied to this person. And I also think that pregnancy was a deeply like body alienating experience for me. I didn't feel that like in my body, during it, but breastfeeding allowed me to kind of just be close to Samson and like experience the postpartum period in a positive, I had a very good postpartum experience. So I think a lot of that bodily repair was about breastfeeding, but I do think I did it for too long. Two years is too long. I should have just said, "I did it a year. "That's enough self-sacrifice for me. "I'm moving on," but I just kept going. 'Cause he wasn't even like too mean to wean as a friend recently said of her child. He just, he was very sweet about it. I have a hard time like saying no in my life. So it was really hard to say no when he was like, you know, asking for breast milk. But I do think that it was really meaningful and also something I'm not sure I would ever wanna do again. So I'm glad that I had that one experience, but it was also like very, very much over a long period of time. And then about transitioning. I, yeah, I really think that the whole like being done with breastfeeding and then Anna had another kid. So I was very much like, now I have the chance to just be a dad. I don't have to be like, you know, always like whipping out my boobs to breastfeed someone and like causing a public spectacle, which I had done for all of those years. I sort of did see this like opportunity in moving to Michigan that I was able to like leave my classroom and my career. I was really concerned, 'cause I was teaching third and fourth grade about transitioning in front of the kids and just like how awkward that would be for me, not how awkward they would be. 'Cause kids are really great. But it's more just like my own social awkwardness. I didn't think I could do it. So I just sort of, it was more timing. I had always thought about transitioning, since teenage years, Swarthmore. I'd always like a lot of my friends who've known me knew that I've been like, "Should I take testosterone?" like literally since I was a teenager. I just like never really did it. So it wasn't like a decision that was, it wasn't a decision that was gender defining. It was more just like, when am I gonna take the medication to change how people who don't know me see me, 'cause most people who knew me well knew that I wasn't a woman.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Well, thank you so much. It is 9:01.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Thank you.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 I'm very impressed. Those were like two very big topics and questions to answer so quickly. Thank you to all of our attendees. I did post another link to where everyone can purchase the book. Krys, this was fantastic. The book is incredible. I obviously highly recommend it to everyone. And thank you to Alumni Council for coordinating the SwatTalks and Lisa Shafer for her support. And yeah, thank you everybody and have a wonderful night.
Krys Malcolm Belc ’09 Thanks for the awesome questions. See ya.