'Becoming a Mom Helped Me Realize I am Gender Fluid'

My first crush on another girl was in kindergarten, and I have been coming out ever since—to myself, my family, my community, and the world—first as bisexual, then queer.

Yet for all of my acceptance of myself as a queer woman, standing next to other women, I have always felt a sense of not-belonging. Like trying to figure out the secret handshake or speak a language no one taught me, I kept trying to puzzle out what makes a woman. And why I always felt like I failed to measure up. I tried to alter my dress or my tastes to fit, but it always came off as try-hard. And, it was exhausting. It's as though I was constantly at risk of being discovered as a fraud or interloper, as though I was play-acting womanhood. For much of my life, I chalked this up to my more punk-rock sensibilities and my affinity for queer (and other less-mainstream) communities. I wasn't closeted so much as I was hungry for affinity.

While I had some friends my own age in high school, these relationships were frequently focused around hobbies and activities, like art, the newspaper and sports. When I got to college in San Francisco in 2001, I hoped to find my people.

And I did, in the misfits and activists who comprised my political life. Yet in college and beyond, many other women seemed to inhabit their womanhood, whereas I always felt like I was aspiring to it. Femininity was something I could occasionally put on, but once home, in the safety of my own space, it was something that I was happy to take off to feel like myself again. I was merely a traveler passing through on my way to my next expression of self.

When I found the word "femme," through the queer women around me in my twenties, I was elated. I have always found delight in reclaiming traditionally feminine expressions of beauty for my own power. The femme power-combination of lipstick, great shoes and statement earrings is, quite frankly, unmatched. To me, this expression feels like play. It's not a joke, but a continuation of the dress-up I loved as a child. As an adult, putting on lipstick and wearing a dress both feel like a delightful form of make-believe.

Pregnancy and birth in 2016 made me feel all-powerful, and not just as a woman. As well as being even more expansive, my body was a stranger to me, capable of things I'd never imagined. None of that felt gendered. It awakened a sense of knowing in me.

Becoming a Mom Helped Christy's Identity Evolve
Christy Tending now embraces her identity as a gender fluid person. Molly Kate Photography

While I appeared, and often identified, as "woman," I felt that I could stretch my capacity for gender beyond that label. With pregnancy, my body took on entirely different geometry, and since I basically had to start my wardrobe from scratch, I asked myself the question for the first time ever: How do I want to show up? How do I want to present myself? Rather than chasing trends or imitating the women around me, I discovered the presentation that actually makes me feel euphoric. Some days, this was feminine; other days, not so much.

When I got pregnant and gave birth to my son, I thought I had finally earned my golden ticket to the club of womanhood. I felt like I could finally relax; my belly gave me a way to make conversation and relate to women in a new way. I assumed that achieving this right of passage would finally let me blend in. I figured motherhood would grant me the credibility to finally fit in as a proper woman, and that I could be done pretending. Except, it didn't.

I struggled to adjust to motherhood, both in how people projected their expectations onto me—the ones I felt I was failing to live up to every day. And in how I still did not see myself in the models of motherhood in the media and online. The "mom uniforms" and benchmarks didn't seem to fit me or my child.

I dutifully joined groups for new moms, and tried to make friends with other parents at the playground, at baby music time and eventually at my child's preschool. All the other moms were so nice, but I did not see myself in them. I wanted to ask them, as I had wanted to ask the women who seemed so at-ease in womanhood, "We're all pretending we know what we're doing, right?"

But it seemed like they actually did know what they were doing; this was something that had not only come naturally, but had fit them once it arrived. They seemed calm and patient and certain about who they were going to be as mothers. They seemed to feel motherhood was magical in a way that I did not; very few of my friends had children and I felt like I was being carried away from the rebellious life I had loved.

As someone who has known myself as queer since before I could do multiplication, it's not surprising I'm raising my child, a son—as far as I know, though I'm open to being corrected—with an expansive view of gender and relationships. What I know through my own queerness is that attraction, gender expression, gender roles, and even identity can be fluid. They are allowed to evolve.

Many of his beloved people are queer and trans. We intentionally read diverse stories, like "Julian is a Mermaid" by Jessica Love and "Bodies are Cool" by Tyler Feder. We do not differentiate between girls' and boys' clothing, toys, or activities. We spend a lot of time at the library.

Becoming a Mom Helped Christy's Identity Evolve
Christy Tending became a mother in 2016. She is pictured here with her son shortly after he was born. Christy Tending

While I'm relieved to have the privilege of living in an area where book bans aren't part of our daily lives, a group of Proud Boys recently aggressively interrupted a Drag Queen Story Hour in a city close to where I live in California. This feels like a terrifying encroachment of hatred in a situation that is meant to express queer joy and the fabulousness of complicating gender.

As a mom, I constantly have to assert my identity: not just as a maker of snacks and wiper of noses, but as a complete person with complexity. Fortunately, queer culture reminds me that my beauty as a mom is not in fitting in with the other moms, but parenting from my whole self. Instead of flattening myself into a particular view of motherhood, my queerness reminds me that I am allowed to be complicated, to still be in progress. It reminds me that my existence is a rebellion and that there are people who are willing to hold complications. My sexuality and gender and expression are not straightforward. My queerness means that, in my parenting, I try to celebrate joy, transgression (within reason), and authentic expression—for myself and my child.

Since Roe vs. Wade was overturned, I have intentionally spoken out about how we should all be including trans and non-binary people in the conversation. I think it's important to use gender-inclusive language when we talk about abortion because this is not an issue that affects only women. Trans men and non-binary people are also greatly impacted by reproductive justice. Talking about their reproductive justice does not diminish my humanity or my experience of motherhood.

And yet, the more I talked about this, the more I realized that it was I who felt erased when non-binary people were excluded from the conversation about reproductive justice. I know first hand how dysphoric and disorienting pregnancy, birth, and early parenting can be. I felt like a stranger in my own skin, and like an interloper among new moms.

When I talk about inclusive language, it is because even though I read as a cis-woman (and often as a heterosexual one, to people who have never talked to me), I am not sure the language of cis-womanhood fits me anymore. I have discovered, with a mix of shock and delight, my self-identity is still shifting. This year, I'm turning 40, and my gender is more flexible and festive than ever.

Becoming a Mom Helped Christy's Identity Evolve
Christy Tending writes that becoming a mother led her to a better understanding of her gender identity. Molly Kate Photography

When I think about living outside the gender binary, it sparks something in me: A sense of permission to interrogate and imagine my gender in new ways. I am femme, still, but in a way that has always been incompatible with cis-womanhood. Now, I wear the appearance of femininity not out of obligation, but from a place of joy. The earrings, the dress, the flip of my hair—those are for me.

I am not not a woman, but also not quite as certain as I used to be that I am a woman. I feel a sense of freedom—to embrace the joyful parts of gender and to leave the rest.

I now think of myself as gender fluid: while I still love my femme side, there are seasons where a dress feels wrong, where I crave more masculine shapes in my clothing. It's not so much like a pendulum, but it's cyclical, always rediscovering the joy in a variety of expressions.

The people in my life—the activists and artists and misfits who have always been my people—haven't batted an eye. When I began using they/them pronouns in addition to she/her, everyone was immediately accepting. The people who are dearest to me have given me grace in letting me evolve: whether in motherhood or in my expression.

If I hadn't become a mother, I likely would have discovered this about myself in some other way. But in watching my son become unabashedly himself, I'm inspired to do the same. I'm not sure how my gender or expression will express itself in the future, but in the same way I encourage my son to listen to his own inner voice, I'm committed to staying curious and open to letting myself continue to evolve.

Christy Tending (she/they) is an activist, writer, and mama living in Oakland, California. You can learn more about her work at www.christytending.com or follow her on Twitter @christytending.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.