COVID, My Kid, and a Conference

“One way that I know I am a writer is that either I am writing, or I’m wishing that I was.”
-Jericho Brown, Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, 2022

As I reflect on this in the wake of the conference, it occurs to me that this is also one way that I know I am a mom.

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference was an absolute delight this year. The weather in Homer was flawless, the faculty phenomenal, and the conversation among the attendees was a much-needed jolt in the doldrums of the pandemic.

Yet, amidst the sun and soft breeze, a small, dark cloud hung over me and still hangs over me, keeping the memory of those four days from perfection: missing my kid.

During the conference, with masks optional for attendees and airline passengers, I isolated from my kid, husband, and parents, forgoing the comforts of our camper, and instead sleeping in the back of my car. In the little time I had with my daughter on lunch or in the evenings, I watched her play or shared meals from a distance, always outdoors and masked as appropriate. I write this from the confines of a self-inflicted, post-conference quarantine in my parents’ guest room, waiting to find out if I got sick or am in the clear to return home and finally snuggle my panik.

So many—certainly the government, virtually all businesses, and most people—are starting to view the pandemic as a thing of the past, forgetting or blissfully ignorant that there are still 18 million children under 5 in the United States who are ineligible for vaccination.

As I reconnected with writers I knew before the age of COVID and connected with some for the first time in person, many inquired as to the state of my daughter, who recently turned four years old. I explained our situation with a longing ache. One friend was particularly kind and told me I was a great mother, a salve on my constant questioning if I’m doing the right thing keeping her isolated. She’s had three of her birthdays in the pandemic. She barely remembers playing indoors with other children, eating in restaurants, or visiting the homes of others. She talks longingly of all the things she’ll get to do and people she will visit with, “When I get my shot!”

Still, she thrives, and most importantly, she is healthy. She is one of the estimated 25 percent or so of kids who haven’t caught COVID, at least not yet. “We don’t want to trip at the finish line,” I keep saying, but that finish line keeps moving further away, and nobody seems to hear the pleas of parents to expedite the approval process. Delay after delay dash my hopes, and I am tired. So, so tired. I want my kid safe.

Selfishly, I want to go back to real life, too. Those four days of the conference, masked and anxious though I was, were the closest four days to “normal” I’ve had in more than two years. Despite my little dark cloud, I was invigorated, happy, reassured that I knew who my people were. I dreaded coming home to Anchorage, back to the environment that slowly eats away at my extroverted personality, poisons my mind into depression, separates me from so many and so much that I love.

I am a writer, because either I am writing or I’m wishing that I was. Right now, I am writing, but wishing I was momming. Sometime soon, I’ll be momming and wishing I was writing.

A Second Coming Out

When I was around 9 years old, a boy—who I went to school with for several years before and after—teased me about being a girl. I don’t remember what he said, precisely, but I recall he was attempting to gatekeep one of my (many) traditionally masculine interests. My response has stuck with me for two decades: “I’m not a girl.”

“Then what are you?” he sneered? “An it? Look,” he looked around at our peers and pointed at me. “That’s an it.”

The “It” moniker followed me for several years. Now that I’m older, I understand the real meaning behind that statement: that if I was not a cisgender girl, I was not a human. I was an object. I don’t hold anything against that classmate of mine. Twenty years ago, society was not as woke as it is now, and that kid was as clueless as I was, probably just parroting what he’d heard from adults. He was only nine or ten, after all, and I have no idea his stance on gender issues now, nor do I care.

The thing that nagged at me for many years later was, why did I respond that way? Why did I say I wasn’t a girl? Especially since, most of the time, I do feel like a proud Indigenous woman. A happy and confident mother. I wrote it off as internalized misogyny.

But other things over the years nagged at me as well. Alternating between a desire to dress masculine and feminine. Periods of body dysphoria I dismissed at times when the pendulum swung toward comfortable. And why, in my fiction writing, did I gravitate toward male protagonists? Was it just derivative, defaulting to the options presented to me as a young reader of young adult fantasy?

Those of you who know me probably know that I have been open about being bisexual and queer for… well, forever. I went through an awkward period in my late teens/early twenties where I wanted to eschew labels, but as long as I was old enough to be attracted to people, I have openly acknowledged an attraction to multiple genders. There was no “coming out” moment with most of my family. They’re intelligent, educated, and accepting people (and a few of them are openly in the LGBTQ+ community as well).

But I’m sure many other queer people could tell you that “coming out” is a repeated process with every new person you meet. When is the right time to share this info with a new acquaintance? Your work buddy? Your boss? Your in-laws? (Small note: I use the term “right” here to mean “right for the person,” not “right for society.” Fuck society. Queerness is not validated by your status as in or out, nor does society or etiquette dictate the “right” time to make that transition, if ever.)

So, most people in my life know that I am bisexual and have known I am bisexual for a long time. But it is time for a sort-of-second coming out, not because I was closeted, but because I was figuring things out. Now, rapidly approaching thirty years old (no, seriously, my birthday is this week), and thanks to a lot of interactions online, I have realized I am genderfluid and sometimes genderqueer.

This might be confusing or foreign to some of you who are cisgender, but the best way I can describe it is that sometimes I am a woman and other times, I am just… not. When I told my husband, I used some comical descriptions I saw on TikTok: sometimes I am Girl… sometimes Girl Lite…  Girl+ …. and—my favorite—Girl you ordered from Wish (mostly girl, but something is a bit off).

As unsettling as this realization has been for me (and may be for you who have known me a long time), I find comfort in the knowledge that nothing about me has changed. All I am saying by coming out as genderfluid is, “Here is a label I feel fits a certain set of characteristics I already possess.” Characteristics I have always possessed. If someone close to you comes out, I think that’s important to remember. They’re the same person before and after.

This experience is my own and should not be taken to represent the experiences of any other genderfluid, genderqueer, bisexual, or other LGBTQ+ individuals. Best policy is to always ask the individual about their pronouns and labels, and to subsequently not be a dick by arguing with them about those pronouns or labels. Since some of you lovelies will likely ask, I am happy using she/her pronouns, but they/them or he/him don’t bother me in the slightest. The shirt pictured depicts the genderfluid flag and was created from a Lord of the Rings content creator @donmarshall72 on TikTok and comes in a variety of flag options, with 20% of profits during Pride Month going to The Trevor Project.

Immuk and Cookies

I set my laptop down and get up from my parents’ couch. I walk into their kitchen, where my mom stands chopping potatoes at the dining table. My two-year-old sits on her knees on a chair, spectating. “Water!” she says proudly, pointing into a silver pot next to her. The potatoes’ destiny.

“What is all over your face?” I tease. She has a dark smear of… something… under her chin. A little goatee, fitting for a tiny demon.

“Immuk and cookies,” my mom says. It’s no lie… the unmistakable smell of Oreo finds me.

“Immuk and cookies!” I grab a damp paper towel and wipe my wriggling child’s face, laughing at my mom’s joke.

This week I made the announcement on Twitter that my micro-chapbook, Immuk and Cookies, is available from Kissing Dynamite Poetry. It’s my first book and a dream come true for an emerging writer. The KD website describes it as, “a song of matrilineal heritage, a symbol of the mother-daughter bond, and a tribute to Iñupiaq culture.” I like to think this kitchen is happy to be housing three generations of that matrilineal heritage, especially after nearly four months apart.

Immuk and Cookies is a seven-poem collection documenting my love for my daughter and the legacy I pass onto her as a biracial woman—a legacy I inherited from my mom. The title and cover (by KD’s amazing EIC Christine Taylor) capture the duality that is ever-present in my life and my poetry, as an Iñupiaq and white person who grew up in both California and Alaska. “Immuk,” as you might have guessed, is “milk” in Iñupiatun.

My daughter loves immuk and cookies, and I hope the world does too.

Why I Started Writing about Parenthood

I guess you’d call me an “emerging writer.” I also consider myself primarily a fantasy novelist, though I have yet to publish anything in the genre. It’s what I’ve been doing the longest—since I was in third grade. I have eight novel drafts in various stages, but just recently completed my first draft.

I only started writing poetry (aside from an angsty teenage phase and some school assignments) less than two years ago. My first published poem appeared in Alaska Women Speak last winter, and since then I’ve published three other poems.

For me, fiction is an escape. I draw on real life, sure, but I primarily write fantasy fiction and that’s an opportunity to imagine something, well, fantastic. Fiction is about being out there. Asking, “What if?”

Poetry, on the other hand, is a very internal experience. For me, it’s about processing my thoughts. It’s about connecting memories and revealing meaning. The overwhelming majority of my poetry is non-fiction, and many of my poems—at least the first drafts—are written in the first person. It is a place where I convert complex thoughts and emotions into words.

That I started writing poetry and became a parent in the same year is no coincidence.

At first, I viewed being a mom as something separate from my writing. A distraction, even. For months I lamented to friends, family, and classmates that I wasn’t able to write enough. On the increasingly rare occasion that I was able to sit down and write uninterrupted, I found that mom thoughts were crowding my brain. Stifling my imagination. Suffocating my creative energy.

So, I stopped fighting them.

You might have heard that mother-daughter poems are tired. Cliché. Lucky for me, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know a lick about what made a good poem, but I started writing poetry about my daughter.

My kid and I have a strong bond. Duh, any half-decent parent is thinking. You parents know that being a parent completely morphs who you are as a person. It centered my gravity around my kid. It morphed my voice as a writer, too. And once I gave myself permission to write what was on my mind, I unblocked myself.

In my case, having a child brought up a lot of questions about my identity—particularly as an Iñupiaq womanand the legacy I will pass to her. Most of my poetry started to focus on these ideas. My micro-chapbook, Immuk and Cookies, follows these themes and is forthcoming from Kissing Dynamite Poetry.

My kid just learned to recognize her letters, but gave me my most important writing lesson: our strongest feelings make for the best writing.

What are your strongest feelings?