Joy and Heartbreak in Queer Parenting and Pregnancy Stories from SWELLING WITH PRIDE edited by Sara Graefe

Over the course of one rainy day cooped up inside, I recently read a very interesting anthology: Swelling with Pride: Queer Conception and Adoption Stories, edited by Sara Graefe. Let me tell you about it!

There are some really stand out personal essays in here! A few brought me to tears, a few more discussed aspects of parenting and getting pregnant that I hadn’t thought about before, some were heart-breaking, and one in particular had strikingly beautiful writing.

My first favourite essay was “Pathway” by Patrice Leung. Her story is about how she, a Chinese Canadian lesbian, adopted two girls from China. Not only is it one of too few adoption stories in the anthology, it features the incredible and horrifying detail that she had to obtain a notarized document for the Chinese government declaring she was “not a homosexual.”As she looks into the face of the Canadian social worker, whose “salt and pepper hair was as short as [hers],” Leung says,

‘No problem,’ without hesitation. Oh the wicked irony. I tell my children not to lie. I tell them lying breaks trust. Damages relationships. And yet. And yet. I lied to get them.

My next favourite was also the most unique and experimental in terms of format: “The Difference between a Hard and Soft C” by Nicole Breit. Breit is one half of a two bi women couple, and she starts the essay with her own identity and the beginning of her longterm relationship with the woman she’d been friends with since childhood. Her bisexuality and interest in exploring polyamory are weaved in with the emerging interest in getting pregnant and potential parenthood with a cis guy. In short, often incomplete sentences and metaphor, Breit conveys her meaning in sparse, impactful prose that can, as she writes, feel like “a tiny fist punches me hard in the gut.” She also plays with sound throughout as the title indicates, and pulls the concept in for a striking ending to the piece. I think this essay is the best in the collection; that’s maybe because her writing explicitly about bisexuality spoke to me personally!

While Breit’s piece ends with no baby (yet) but hopeful, later essays in the collection are heart-breaking as they chronicle the writers’ attempts to have kids either through adoption or conceiving only to end up still childless after all their efforts. “O-heso (Belly Button” by Terrie Hamazaki is one of these devastating essays. She weaves in her experiences of ectopic pregnancies (where the embryo attaches outside the uterus) and multiple miscarriages with her fraught relationship with her own mother. Enduring horrific homophobic statements from her mom–including emphasizing that she won’t consider her daughter’s child her grandchild–she also yearns for her mother’s comfort and support throughout the process.

Other standouts in Swelling with Pride included a non-binary person navigating pregnancy in the context of their marriage to a cis man; a non-gestational lactating lesbian mom (I somehow had forgotten that this concept was even possible!); two friends, a cis gay man and trans masculine spectrum person, becoming family as they become co-parents; a lesbian who filmed her whole labour process and uses the video as part of the curriculum in a queer parenting course she teaches; and a woman who goes through the first steps of adopting a teenager only to have the teen return to her previous foster home.


One caveat I do want to highlight is that this collection is dominated by stories about cis mostly white lesbians having babies with donors (known and anonymous) and intending to raise them in their two-mom households. For me, these stories blended together somewhat and got a bit old. I could definitely have done with fewer of these essays. In my experience, these are the stories I know from real life too, so for me (and I think other queer women my age) there’s less of a need to read about them in a book.

Given that the best stories in here are about doing family, parenting, and pregnancy in ways that differ from two cis women households conceiving, it’s a bit disappointing there aren’t more of them. You’re halfway through the book before there’s an essay by someone who isn’t a cis woman! No trans women are included which is a major oversight. (There are a couple non-binary writers and one person on the trans masculine spectrum who doesn’t specifically identify as a man).

More people of colour would have been great too! Again, two of the best and most interesting essays were by Asian Canadian women writing specifically about their cultural heritage and how that impacted their journeys to parenthood. Why not include and/or seek out more essays like that?

Although the editor uses the inclusive acronym LGBTQ2 in the introduction and back cover blurb, there are no actual two-spirit writers included, which makes the “2” feel a bit like superficial lip service. You couldn’t find even one?? It’s also a bit odd to use that full acronym and not include any stories by queer cis men. Usually I’m all for not over-emphasizing perspectives of gay men in particular, as their stories tend to dominate media that supposedly covers the whole queer spectrum, but I would have welcomed some stories here about gay/bi/queer men adopting or exploring surrogacy or co-parenting with queer women.

Overall, it feels like the unstated focus of this collection is writing by parents who are assigned female at birth. I’m wouldn’t have liked that as an explicit choice, and it’s certainly strange as an implicit one. I mean, the title of the book is a play on pregnancy, so this is perhaps not surprising. I would have preferred an anthology that leaned into the strengths of the unique essays already included and collected a broader range of perspectives. That said, those unique, fascinating, and beautiful essays that are here in Swelling with Pride certainly make it a worthwhile collection as it is.

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
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