Not like a regular mom: The Argonauts and queer family-making

The Argonauts opens with a description of the first time Maggie Nelson told her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, that she loved him: ‘the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor.’

In this way, Nelson swiftly introduces the key ideas of her text. Through the loose parallels of her pregnancy and Harry’s transition, she explores the changing dynamics of their love. Though its parts may be changed over time, the ship the Argo remains the Argo, just as with every claim of ‘I love you,’ the phrase’s meaning ‘must be renewed by each use’. To paraphrase Mean Girls, Nelson positions herself as ‘a cool mom’. She proffers the figure of the sodomitical mother, the mother who remains in control of her own pleasure and reproduction.

As her work is based in memoir, Nelson reflects on the element of privacy that vetted, longform work provides her: ‘it was an act of grace that I got sober before I got wireless.’ The production of a considered work allows the couple to go over the draft of The Argonauts together, and to raise questions of representation and ownership – how much of the story is hers, given its considerable focus on Harry’s gender? Should anyone write about their child before they are born, long before they will be able to read the account themselves? Nelson demonstrates that she is thinking about these questions, even if she is not able to answer them. ‘How to explain, in culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?’  Transness and queer family-making do not exist only as liminal phases between fixed points.

The way the text is organised, in fragments, represents the failures of the heterosexual family metanarrative – the couple do not meet, fall in love, and then find their identities subsumed by a child or children. Instead, Nelson leads the reader through her experience of queer family-making. Nelson and Harry discuss moving in together before she is aware of Harry’s preferred pronouns. Binaries collapse. The birth of their son is presented alongside the death of Harry’s mother, the text mirroring labour itself, going through a place where you touch the sides of both life and death.

The Argonauts also touches on the ‘seduction of normalcy’. Harry is greeted amiably by other men in public, the pregnant Nelson occasionally ‘literally saluted’. On T and after top surgery, Harry increasingly passes as male, and the pregnant Nelson as archetypally female. Nelson’s mother buys her a mug with a picture of the family printed on it, and she wonders at how heterosexual it all looks. Imagine another writer discussing their presumption that giving birth would ‘feel invincible and ample, like fisting.’

Nelson critiques the ‘assimilationist, unthinkingly neoliberal bent of the mainstream GLBTQ+ movement,’ and posits the rise of ‘homonormativity’. Nelson states that rather than maintaining the distinction between assimilationist/radical, it is the ‘binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable’ – a challenging notion for those who identify as being on either side.

After identifying that the most prominent figures in child psychology are all men, Nelson investigates the work of other women artists and their representation of motherhood. Of particular interest is Catherine Opie’s work ‘Self Portrait/Nursing’, in which the word ‘pervert’, scratched onto Opie’s chest, is visible as a scar as ‘she holds and beholds her son Oliver while he nurses’. It encapsulates an important part of Nelson’s stance on motherhood – it does not erase, but, like Opie’s photographic work, ‘gains meaning in series, in context’.  The sodomitical mother figure that Nelsons proposes is not just a mother, but also remains a discrete individual; ‘the pervert need not die … nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden.’

Nelson seems, then, to be advocating for the compartmentalisation of identity in order to preserve the parts of the self that exist before/outside of motherhood.

As Alice Notley phrased it: ‘Having another child…for two years, there’s no me here.’ Nelson does not identify with this feeling; as an ‘old mom’, she ‘had nearly four decades to become myself before experimenting’ with the loss of her identity. The figure of the sodomitical mother is offered as an alternative to the obliteration of the self in motherhood – the woman with an excess of and access to ‘non-normative, non-procreative sexuality’.

Rather than making a ‘fetish of the unsaid’, Nelson attempts to contain it ‘in the sayable’. The language we have available to us is not adequate for expressing everything that we want – to each other, about ourselves – but this is no reason not to try. Language cannot hold things together indefinitely; Nelson notes that, by the time of the book’s eventual publishing, her son will be out of his infancy. The life she is describing is transient. But she has ‘an outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection’ – in asking questions, and listening.

This is Nelson’s best advice for navigating the unclear or uncontainable in motherhood, queerness and sexuality: to listen to people, ‘and try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours.’

To quote Regina George’s mother from Mean Girls: ‘There are no rules in this house.’ The Argonauts demonstrates the fluidity and happiness allowed to us when we undertake the labour of remaking love, over and over again.


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Alex Gerrans

Alex Gerrans is a nonfiction writer from Meanjin.

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