PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT–Jenny Holzer
Being queer comes with responsibilities: the pressure to be more steadfast in my convictions than my straight friends, to reinvent relationship models, family structures, kinship networks even if it means disappointing my parents by depriving them of a marriage ceremony and grandchildren, even if it means my life might never feel all that stable, even if I find it all somewhat exhausting. Growing older has involved watching my friends achieve milestones that feel either unattainable to me or milestones I imagine I’m not supposed to want as a dyke. By “dyke” I’m referring to an identity more expansive than sexuality or even gender, but a striving for alternative progressive politics. A set of politics that tend to be anti. Anti-capitalist, anti-landlord, anti-monogamy, anti-private property, anti-cop, anti-marriage, anti-nuclear family, anti-trad. My politics are most conflicted when it comes to desire for the hallmarks of heteronormativity, which I tell myself I should be above lest these desires somehow translate to a failure of my own queerness.
I am the youngest of my siblings by over a decade. “The most divine accident” my mother likes to say. I spent nearly two months as a twin in utero before my mother miscarried them, leaving me to swim alone while my mother spent the next seven months on bedrest. I’ve often imagined how different things might be if I had a duplicate in this world. People like to ask if I subsumed my twin in the womb. I did not, but I feel intense longing when I imagine I could hold something of them inside of me. Instead, my once-twin is nothing more than an absence I spent much of my childhood longing for.
I suspected I was gay somewhere around the age of 9 or 10, but convinced myself for years that my obsession with other girls was only an innate longing for my lost twin. I was an extremely timid, soft child with an intense propensity for caretaking. I loved animals, babies, dollies, rocks, and my large troll collection. I spent hours grouping my trolls into large and complicated families: several mothers, an occasional father, and always many, many sisters. I played out their little dramas in my head. My troll families were constantly happening upon sick and abandoned trolls in their magical forests, nursing them back to health and inviting them into their pack.
For my tenth birthday (the earliest I could,) I enrolled in a babysitting class called “Smart Sitters” at the local hospital. Only four other people had signed up for the class, two teens and two adult nannies. We were given a jaundiced silicone baby to care for over the course of the next four hours. While my classmates took the course for school credit or to work at a daycare center, I was enthralled with the prospect of baby care. I was fiercely competitive and desperately outperformed my classmates in my obsessive attentiveness.
The course covered basic care for infants and young children including: reading hunger cues, proper ways to dress and change your baby, determining causes of distress in your little ward, proper holding techniques, and different scenarios in which you could leave your baby or child unattended. Then it was snack time, cookies and apple juice, followed by a section on “age-appropriate activities,” self-explanatory, and “professionalism,” which outlined how best to interact with parents and advertise your services. The course ended with a CPR demonstration and test, which I failed twice before the trainer tipped my baby’s head back for me and their lungs expanded. With that, I officially became a SmartSitter as did everyone else in the class.
At ten I got a few jobs watching the children of my parents’ coworkers. I was far too young despite my SmartSitter’s certification, but I was very cheap and parents seemed to have few qualms leaving me with their toddlers. Despite my early obsession with caretaking, I didn’t really like babysitting. I shrugged off anything that wasn’t watching T.V., eating snacks, and getting paid. While I was always kind to the children I cared for, I spent most of my hours glazed over, squirting hot breast milk onto my wrist, pushing toy cars from plastic ramps, and contorting figurines of violent war criminals into unnatural positions. My childcare career seemed to end as quickly as it started.
The summer before undergrad I moved to Iowa City, a small college town that seemed to me a metropolis compared to my hometown. I was in desperate need of money. I saw a flier tacked to the community board of the bookstore: a new mom was looking for childcare for her infant who I’ll call Angelica. I called the number and took the bus to the outskirts of town to meet the mother and her newborn daughter. I try now to imagine what the new mother had seen in me. I was dough-faced, painfully shy, and awkwardly dressed. She seemed desperate and I seemed harmless. I began working for her a few days later. Each morning I took the 6:15 a.m. bus to her house and spent the next 10 hours eating baby food, watching T.V. and changing dirty diapers. For the first few months the baby had colic and a bad face rash and cried incessantly and I followed suit. When my frustration gave way to anger I’d put her in her “4MOMS” brand rocking bassinet and pinch the soft, fleshy underside of my left arm so as to eat my aggravation. I’d planned to quit as soon as I could find another job.
A few months into my first semester, I met my first girlfriend, C, and I fell in love. C happened to be a nanny as well. Falling in love cracked me open. I felt a new rush of capacity for love and intimacy. I was brimming with happiness. I was desperately afraid. How could something that felt this good, this huge do anything but annihilate me in the end?
We bonded over nannying, we met at the library with our kids, and swapped our nanny family gossip. I noticed my love for C fertilized a love for most people in my life, but especially Angelica. C was a celebrity nanny. The granola moms of our Iowa City threw themselves at them and regarded me circumspectly at first, then with a modicum of respect. A city as liberally white as Iowa City regarded a lesbian nanny as a diversity prize, granting me a level of social cache I haven’t found since. My nannying career took off. I watched Angelica during the days, went to class, and then went to whatever evening gig I’d lined up. I’d become a surrogate family member to so many families in town. I almost never had to buy my own groceries. Soon moms began inviting us both to watch their children. Nannying with C was more fun than working alone, but wasn’t good for our relationship. I found that I was competitive with them. Children liked them better than me, which was understandable. They had a natural wonder that made children light up. I, on the other hand, was always performing, which even children don’t respect.
We were the first queer people some of our nannykids had ever met. At times it felt as though our presence in their life had been a sort of teaching moment for parents. Apropos of nothing, kids would indicate that their family thought it was totally fine for “a girl to like a girl or a boy to like a boy” and anyone who didn’t was a bully. It seemed clear I’d been the topic of more than one dinner conversation. Sometimes I’d witness the lessons in real-time. While one of my mothers was getting ready to leave for the day she overheard her child ask if I had a boyfriend, then, why not? The mother was horrified and quickly corrected her child. “Remember we talked about how Alyse has a girlfriend and not a boyfriend? And when you grow up you might choose to have a girlfriend too?” I wondered who benefitted from this correction.
Frequently, moms treated us very strangely. C, who was more masc than I was, seemed to activate some shadow queerness in them. “You look so much like a young Leonardo DiCaprio,” so many moms told them. When we worked together some moms encouraged us to “play house” or consider this a “trial run” for our own children. I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted children myself, it was just assumed. While it wasn’t just moms who seemed to feel this kind of eagerness for us, it was mostly moms. Almost exclusively moms. Many told us we should “have a little date” after the kids went to bed. Then implored us to drink their alcohol, watch a movie, sleep over if we wanted, order whatever food we wanted, do whatever we wanted. Despite the generosity, it was not lost on me that the families we nannied for would never regard their straight nannies with the same kind of aggressive acceptance. It didn’t seem to bother C, though. “She’s basically begging us to fuck in their bed, it’s weird!” I used to say.
I began to appreciate my solo mornings with Angelica. A few months into caring for Angelica I’d already witnessed three major milestones, to the distress of her actual mother. She rolled from her back to her stomach under my watch, lifting her bobblehead in an extraordinary show of strength, to meet my gaze. She smiled for the first time, (not because of gas), but because I swore loudly after a boiling pot of water sloshed over and burned my palm. A month after she rolled, she began to hoist herself up onto her forearms, first dragging her fat little legs across the carpet, then balancing her weight on her knees to crawl. Each time I was the ecstatic witness to her latest feat. I loved her, even if I waited anxiously for her mother to return home and relieve me each day. When her mother returned home from her job as a home health aide, I’d report her daughter’s latest achievement. I watched as her mother feigned excitement and tried to mask her hurt. I found myself unable to resist my needling desire to stake my claim over this baby I’d spent so much time with but with whom I shared no blood.
By the end of my first year of school, Angelica was sitting up, laughing, eating puffed rice, and cutting a tooth. I began to feel an ache in my left breast, which was hot and pulsing, a thoroughfare of blue veins newly apparent. I looked at myself naked in a full-length mirror. I grabbed my breast primally, squeezing my areola until a bead of white liquid formed at the nipple. The more I squeezed, the more I secreted and the less my pain became. I booked an appointment at the student health clinic, donned the blue paper robe, and let a medical student palpate my breast while a few doctors-in-training looked on. When she was done milking me the head doctor asked if I’d been in contact with any newborn babies recently. I told her I was a nanny and she shook her head slowly and smirked. She told me she was going to order an ultrasound and a hormone test, but she suspected there was nothing seriously wrong, that I was sympathetically lactating. My body was, she explained, mistaking Angelica for my own offspring, my maternal instincts were producing milk so I might provide for her. A few of the residents sucked in audibly. I imagined I was exactly the kind of freak show these medical students lived for.
My body horror made me wary of Angelica, as though I were on some kind of slippery slope to motherhood. After a few years of dating C, they began talking about how much they wanted a baby. I imagined we were only storytelling, riffing on a far future where we played house, grew ambitious gardens, and sent our feral children to Montessori schools. I grew restless in our stability, in our queerness that too closely modeled the straight families we nannied for, yet a part of me yearned for what they had: a familiar trajectory.
In a diary entry from 1941, Virginia Woolf writes: Yes, this is what I was thinking: we live without a future…that’s what’s queer. This negativity is the foundation of Lee Edelman’s book No future, which I read the summer after I graduated from college and moved to Minneapolis, just months after my breakup with C. Edelman argues against reproductive futurism and instead encourages a form of resistance in queer negativity, which favors anti-production, anti-sociality, anti-logic, self-destruction, and masochism. Queerness, to Edelman, rejects notions of time, history, and queer cohesion. Queers are not in the project of becoming, and instead seek to embody a hedonism beyond pleasure, or what Lacan called Jouissance. In the wake of my first breakup, it was easy to embrace this kind of bad-attitude queerness and pleasure-seeking.
While his punk-ass polemics are entertaining and provocative, Edelman doesn’t leave much room for desire. I care about the future and the past. I care about communality. I wouldn’t know how to stop caring and I’m not sure I’d be better for it. Of Edelman’s tenets, I’ve found I only have an aptitude for hedonism. Someone as social as me could’t employ Edelman’s conception with any real determination. I’ve often been in the company of rude, apathetic, and masochistic queers, and I can tell you a politics rooted in cynicism isn’t for me.
Yet Edelman is right that it’s a project of narcissism to imagine that children hold the hope of a future. If I had first encountered No Future in a bookstore and not a Gender Studies lecture hall, I would think it was about climate disaster. It feels cruel to bring new life into a world in flames and yet sometimes the greedy, twisting toddler inside of me screams But I want, I want, I want. I don’t want the marriage but I want the party. I don’t want the legally binding document but I want to be certain I will be loved for the rest of my life. I don’t want the Suburbs but I want to drive to the Target on a Saturday night and feel a thrill. And sometimes I want a child.
I know I can have all of the hallmarks of stability, so why do they still feel mutually exclusive from my queerness? I’m jealous of the queer people I know who are reviled by the trappings of straight culture. They’re so cool and confident in their certainty.
More common, at least among my friends, is indecision. (Edelman loves indecision.) Recently I was drinking with a few friends, all queer. We were talking about what we always talk about: romance, the future, the past. My friend asked, do you guys want kids? I do and I don't, you know? We all knew.
Indecision aside, I felt a pervasive, yet unspoken understanding that we were supposed to be above wanting children, above a traditional family structure. I feared I lacked some innate reversion to heteronormative institutions it seemed my queer friends had. My nuclear family has rarely been a source of comfort for me. Puzzling, then, why I spend so much time fantasizing about recreating it. The dissonance between what I want and what I feel I should want are not entirely external, though, but stems from a fear of having to make a deliberate choice to have children. I resent that I will never find myself giving birth to a divine accident.
When I asked one of my closest friends (another dyke) whether or not she wanted kids she said “I try not to think about it.” Then: “Nothing about child rearing seems appealing to me but when I imagine a cozy future with someone it probably involves kids. I think maybe I want to be in a relationship with someone where I would be like ‘I want to have a kid with you,’ but not necessarily have that kid.”
It resonated. Being part of a unit would always feel safer than being alone, and falling in love requires such a specific set of supernatural criteria to click into place. To then create a whole person from that bond is something of science fiction, a guarantor of future love. And I am always in pursuit of new and intense forms of love. What else is there to do?
Late one winter night, I sat on the couch drinking a glass of wine with the mother of twins I’d been nannying for a few months. I was 25 and nannying again. I fed the children dinner, gave them a bath, and put them to bed while their parents went to a birthday party. When they came home I was watching a documentary about people who are sexually attracted to balloons. “Looners,” they’re called. I’d meant to close out of the Netflix window and delete my history before they reached the doorway but I was too slow. As soon as they walked in it was clear they’d had a miserable night. When I arrived earlier that evening it seemed as though I’d interrupted a fight. The air was thick with unresolved tension and the parents interacted stiffly with one another, unable to muster the artifice they might have in front of a friend or a stranger.
I made my usual small-talk while waiting for the parents to pay me, but tonight the father went right to bed. The mother, who had always been kind, but shy and sort of strange, had recently begun texting me in the hours I was not with her children. At first, a photo of one of the boys with a description of their day, then she texted to ask what brand of coat I had, then a poem she thought I might like. It was clear she’d begun to see me as a potential friend which complicated our social dynamic. Tonight, I’d seen her vulnerable, a boundary neither of us meant to cross. She poured herself a glass of wine, then one for me, and asked if I’d like to stay and talk awhile. We sat for a few minutes silently drinking before I asked if everything was alright with her husband. She began to cry immediately. I put my hand on her thigh, a gesture I’d seen so many straight women extend to other women but one I’d never dared myself. Instead of flinching, she took my hand and then apologized profusely for it. “This is so unprofessional of me to demand your emotional labor,” she said, as though she’d just encountered the concept. “It’s so hard on him…being a father.” After a long pause she added “That’s why we’re just so grateful to have you here, lessening his burden.”
I wondered if she had indeed believed this: that his burden was more than hers. I thought of all the Post-It notes hung around the house signaling basic instructions on self-care tips for him and his children when she was away. “Pre-prepared dinner in fridge” the one hanging to the fridge would read and “[redacted] needs to brush their teeth before bed.” Notes I never required when caring for their children.
We were doing a strange yet familiar dance with one another. It seemed she wanted me to validate her motherhood, to remind her she was a doting wife, and maybe to demand that she demand more. I didn’t disagree but I minced my words because we were not exactly on a friend track. Had I been too honest, I might be seen as a threat. In the process of validating her, I might make the implicit disorder of her relationship explicit in a way that would urge her to act on it, and shake the core of her family dynamic.
Instead I settled for a diplomatic yet honest compromise. I told her I admired the love she had for her family, that I had yearned for this kind of love myself as a child, and that I hoped to someday have a partner that expressed their care as much as she did. The next day she Venmoed with the note: “for your care, which is priceless,” but had been priced at $40.
What happened that night wasn’t uncommon in my years as a nanny. I was often brought into the fold with an intimacy that seemed to aggravate the conception of the nuclear family. A nanny always understands a family’s drama from a peculiar distance. In my career I’ve nannied for families through their divorces, custody visits, affairs, addictions, financial crises, deaths, vacations, and even homebirths. A nanny is an agent of possibility, mediator of sorts between parent and child, a bridge between the insularity of the nuclear family and a more experimental kind of love that extends care and closeness beyond romantic and biological tethers.
I could romanticize forever, but shame must have overcome my nanny mother. She became overly formal in her interactions with me. She stopped texting pictures of the boys, stopped calling me for date nights, then sent her kids to the bourgie Waldorf after-school program and I never saw them again. In the end, I was reminded of my transient presence in these families' lives: swooping in at odd hours, loving their children as a freelance project, collecting my Venmo payments, and never asking what would replace me.
My first and closest friends in Minneapolis were a queer couple who worked as nannies. They lived together and worked together and made the idea of starting a family feel desirable and even queer. I watched some of their nannykids when they went out of town and hung out with them while they worked. They provided a day full of activities, fresh produce, art, and alone time for the kids but never seemed beholden to them in the way I assumed all caregivers did. Instead they were simply living alongside someone else’s children but caring for them as if they were their own.
My friends and I began referring to one another as chosen family very early on in our friendship. We cooked meals together, went on trips together, processed our relationships together, and met one another’s biological families. So when they told me they were trying to get pregnant, it felt as though something huge was also happening to me. I worried our friendship would change drastically. I knew I would love their child as I loved them, that my love would simply expand to include another person, but secretly I worried our friendship might dissolve into diapers and naptimes and tantrums.
I’d been with them through their early talks about conception, their fears, their many attempts at IVF, I’d looked at their sperm donor profiles, I watched them prepare for their son’s arrival. When he was born they asked me if I would be his auntie. The first time I met him I held him and he reached his tiny fingernails to my chin and I cried. My friends and I still drank and laughed and they still had more social energy than me, but our friendship did change. It changed significantly. Their love conceived new love that extended to me. To invite me into their pregnancy signaled that they loved me enough to invite me into their future.
The fall of my 28th year, I moved to Brooklyn to be with my girlfriend and began nannying again. I had feelings about what it meant that I was still nannying late into my twenties. It had been the only job that seemed to come to me. The network of parents in need of care was large and national. Former nanny families made good on their promises to connect me to other families whenever I moved cities. It seemed that while I struggled to find work that offered benefits or paid above minimum wage, I was always able to find a family.
A friend put me in touch with his friends and I began watching their three-year-old, L, at the end of the first wave of the pandemic. I felt like a country mouse in the big city. I was always late, never knew where my train was heading, never knew what neighborhood I was in. My new nanny family was endlessly patient with me. They consistently overpaid me, fed me, read the writing I published, asked me about my life but never intruded. I loved their kid instantly. She was goofy, spookily wise, and unbelievably kind. Sometimes she’d look up at me from her stroller, squint her eyes like a cat and laugh. In the mornings we’d walk to the park and throw water balloons at the ground for hours. I showed her pictures of my cat, of myself as a child, and she told me about her stuffed animals and family members far away. Can one have deep conversations with a three-year-old? In my memory we did.
Sometimes I ate dinner with her family. When my relationship began to fail, I took more comfort in their family. To watch the three of them together gave me a deep ache. For something I wish I’d had? For something I wish to have in the future? Once, her mother told me that at bed time she asked for one story about her Mama, one about her Papa, one about her dog, and one about me.
As usual, my love produced fear. I worried I’d never be a mother. I worried I would be a mother. I worried I would be a bad mother. I worried if I had a child they wouldn’t be nearly as perfect as L and that I wouldn’t love them enough.
Then L moved away to LA to become a famous actress and I stopped nannying. “I’ve retired,” I say, but who really knows.
Near the end of our relationship, my ex signed us up for a “fertility lottery” at a clinic upstate because she’d gotten a Black Friday deal on the entry fee. We had talked about having kids together, somewhat casually, then with a bit more determination. I was fine to adopt but she wanted to conceive. We wrestled with what it meant to have kids, how as queer people it felt like a much more deliberate decision, one that aligned us with what we feared most: being trad. We read articles about “queering motherhood,” “queering the nuclear family,” and “radical kinship.” Often we joked that gay people would stop at nothing: “did you read that article about queering hegemony? It’s by the same author as “queering weapons of mass destruction.”
As we worried we were teetering too closely to tradness and perhaps in an attempt to fend this off, we decided to open our relationship. We read a few pages of Polysecure and had many endless, painful fights. We said things like “love is an infinite resource” and “if we can’t do it no one can.” We went to couples therapy. I cried in many public places. Why did love never seem like enough? When the fertility clinic sent us their welcome kit we left it unopened on the kitchen counter. As though acknowledging this thing we maybe wanted once could release the death rattle of our relationship.
Then, of course, we broke up and fertility, and queering the nuclear family, and genetic testing kits felt far away. A bad joke. It was back to my hedonism, my no future, and most of all, my indecision about being a parent. I do and I don’t. You know?
After our last couple’s therapy session I walked to Brooklyn Bridge Park to sob on a picnic bench alone. I was thinking of L, of the mornings we watched boats dock to the pier, all the times she climbed way too high on the jungle gym panicking me, the anger I had to suppress when another child was mean to her, the pangs of love I felt when I put her on my shoulders and she leaned over to cover my eyes, laughing hysterically as I shrieked and spun in circles. Maybe I’d never have that? Those were some of the best times I’d had all year. Didn’t I want that?
A beautiful woman in linen cut across the promenade towards the waterpark. She held two coffee cups. She looked sculpted, poreless and sheening with wealth. She greeted another woman, younger, stylish but lacking that nearly imperceptible crispness that money affords. She took one of the coffees. They hugged for a long time, as though they had just been reunited after many years. A child with wavy blonde hair and boat shoes ran up to them, the mother pulled away from the nanny and took him into her arms, kissed his cheeks and grabbed something from their UppaBaby stroller and shooed him off to play. The nanny relayed their day to the mother, who touched her shoulder lovingly many times. She’s the nanny, but they are friends. They are more than friends, they’re something like family. Then they talked about their lives with one another it was clear they’d crossed this boundary many times. When their child yelled to them from the top of a slide they turned to watch him. They laughed when he screwed up his face, baring a mouth full of missing teeth. God they love him. The mother was laughing so hard she leaned her head on the nanny’s shoulder. God they love one another.
As I watched the mother and her nanny, I tried to picture the living rooms of some of the families I’ve worked for. I’m surprised by how well I can do it: the signed John Ashberry broadside that hung over a dog’s urn on the mantel, the “Live, Laugh, Love,” plaque on a baby grand piano that belonged to a very serious, very well respected poet, the plush leather couch with a torn cushion that sprouted synthetic stuffing in a chilly finished basement, a water spot that grew from a corner of the ceiling, looking not unlike a large, plump ass, growing a little each week until a plumber came. Yet, I cannot for the life of me remember the layout of my first apartment. There I am sitting in these rooms at 12, 18, 22, 25, 28. Many thankless hours for very little pay. So many weekend nights spent on someone else’s couch, eating family sized boxes of goldfish, sneaking nips of wine and holding a toddler to my chest with one hand while swiping on Tinder with the other. A picture of profound intimacy. There I am swaddled in the love and obligations of someone else’s family.