I don’t pretend to understand Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. The materials she has read, the level of her intellectual thinking, as well as the life she leads—and conveys in this memoir—are several levels of complexity and depth beyond what I can comfortably claim to know. What I can say about it is that after the first few pages of feeling baffled and doubting my ability to contend with this book, I was swept away by it, charmed off my feet and into this life of a woman trying to figure out how to be a woman and a mother; how to live with a partner who is happily sexually fluid; how to raise a son and a stepson. Stunningly, refreshingly, Nelson doesn’t look for final answers, making the search itself, the voyage, her destination. “How to explain,” she asks, “in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?”
As I lose myself in this book, I am grateful for a striking new development in my son, one that has allowed me to consume more literature. Now twenty-one months old: he is really getting into reading books to himself. On more than one occasion over the past month, we have found ourselves perched together on the sofa, each of us with book in hand. I read silently, quickly, trying to get the most out of these golden, fleeting moments, while he chatters or sings to himself in a charming mixture of Hebrew, English, and Baby, flipping pages back and forth, looking for Spot or visiting the zoo with Bunny. I am awe-struck by the idea that, like his parents, and like Nelson, he is discovering the magic of being alone with a book, the self-sufficiency of reading, the spark of a story.
A more perplexing development is his growing awareness of others’ bodies. While he still mostly ignores his own body, he is transfixed by other children’s noses and feet, and mesmerized by our nudity, when it is revealed to him. The other day he saw me stepping out of the shower and straight-up laughed, pointing at the parts of my body that he does not have. From a physical being he used to view as inseparable from his own, a versatile instrument to be used (a drinking fountain, a feeding trough, a bed, and a lounging chair), I am now to him an other.
I don’t mind him looking, touching, marveling. I think leaving myself exposed to him is the only thing I can do to keep physicality pure and healthy in a world that is already forcing gender on him. A quick visit to any children’s clothing store reveals the repetition in boys’ styles: the prints are all sports, vehicles, or dinosaur themed, featuring statements like “Daddy is my coach” or “Boys being Boys.” Even though I avoid the ones that seem most labeled to me, he ends up wearing a lot of blue. What’s more confusing—I like him in a lot of blue. When he holds hands with a girl, someone around will always ask if she’s his girlfriend. When I text a picture of him hugging or kissing or even just sitting around with other children, a family member will always assume the other children are girls. They use words like “chick,” “flirting,” and “naughty” to describe what they see in these images.
I want to tell my son that, when he feels ready, he can live within his own definitions of gender. I want to tell him there are many different ways to be a man, if that is what feels true to him. I want to tell him not to rush, that for the time being he has the privilege of remaining outside of that world, in a realm of endless possibilities, because it just doesn’t matter right now.
But is that even possible to do? Has remaining open and unsexed ever been a real option for anyone? And when the time comes when he transforms into a sexual being, how will I, as his mother, explain healthy sexual relationships to him? How will I clarify that consent means not only not hearing a “no,” not merely a reluctant “yes”, not even an enthusiastic “yes” spoken ahead of time? How will I make him understand that it is about truly seeing the other person, checking in with them, asking even when it is embarrassing, allowing for real intimacy, making sure they feel comfortable in their own skin? I’m not sure even Maggie Nelson, who injects her partner with testosterone and loves his ever-transforming body, would have a clear answer to that.
I think of my own sexual development; of how, in spite of my parents’ open and healthy attitudes about nudity and sex, I grew up trying to conform to society’s perception of my body’s role as female. If we are lucky, we are taught to celebrate our sexuality, but this practice often proves a disappointment. Nelson writes, “If you’re looking for sexual tidbits as a female child, and the only ones that present themselves depict child rape or other violations […] then your sexuality will form around that fact. There is no control group. I don’t even want to talk about “female sexuality” until there is a control group. And there never will be.”
While my son’s sexuality has been forced into being and definition from the moment he grew a penis, I find that in his presence I enjoy a much-needed break from this kind of identifying. In the essay “She,” published a few years ago in Blunderbuss, Lynn Steger Strong gives words to the surprising respite she felt during pregnancy:
I had this sign along my stomach that screamed ‘non-sexed being,’ even, of course, as I was the most sexed I’d ever been. But solidly entrenched inside my pregnancy, I could have conversations without my constantly considering whether someone thought what I’d said was some kind of not so subtle attempt to get them to acknowledge that I was also capable of offering them sex […] I often said exactly what I thought and what I wanted. I espoused opinions, excitement, interest. I apologized much less […] I remember waiting to meet a friend at a bar not long after I’d had our first daughter […] I talked to the guy next to me for twenty minutes before realizing he wasn’t actually interested in anything I’d said. I was sad then, that night, realizing I was sexed again.
With my child in a stroller or a carrier—quite literally concealing my sexual parts with his own body—the world sees a Madonna instead of a Whore. I never thought I would yearn for any part of that ridiculous dichotomy, but it turns out that in the dwindling options our society offers, this is a welcome relief. For the time being, we can both remain in this in-between state, hovering between innocence and knowledge, where the body is a bundle of warmth to be treated with love and tenderness.
I realize that in my mind, “sexed” has grown synonymous with “unsafe.” I know that this need not be the case. I know that I must refrain from imparting this equation to my son. Perhaps he could be the one for whom there is nothing scary, or stereotypical, or unsafe, about being a part of the sexual world. I know that it is my job to deliver him into a world where physical love exists in many forms while also preserving in him the sense of security that the parental love he receives from his father and me offers. Or, perhaps, I would do better to teach him that all physical love comes from the same place. As Maggie Nelson writes about the surge of hormones she feels when nursing or rocking her son, “Why the partition? It isn’t like a love affair. It is a love affair.”