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Stuck“A father for six years, a mother for ten and for a time in between, neither, or both … a parental version of the schnoodle or the cockapoo…” Jennifer Finney Boylan’s parenting credentials are unusual to say the least, and her newest book Stuck In The Middle With You; A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders is extraordinary.

The book explores Boylan’s experiences as both father and mother to her two sons and as daughter and son to her own parents. Within that framework, she examines parental roles on a wider scale. The naked adoration and accompanying holy terror shared by most parents is evident and immediately relatable.

The flow of the book is broken up by three sections of conversations with other writers (Richard Russo, Ann Beattie and Agustin Burroughs among others) and a handful of other parents with extrordinary stories to tell. I expected this format to be jarring but found it quite the opposite as she weaves these conversations into her own narrative with a deft hand and they inform the bigger picture rather than detract from it.

I’ve read all three of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoirs. My mother-in-law gave me a copy of I’m Looking Through You; Growing Up Haunted shortly after Ashlie died and we both read on through She’s Not There; A Life In Two Genders. Boylan’s quirkiness and honesty coupled with her ability to paint a picture so clearly that you can smell the coffee and taste the waffles solidified her as one of my literary heroes. That she, like my daughter and a number of dear friends, is transgender, is incidental.

Stuck In The Middle With You builds upon the foundation of Boylan’s earlier books, but doesn’t depend on them for context. Those who have read her previous memoirs will enjoy catching up, while those who are reading her for the first time may well be motivated to delve into the backstory.

I expected this to be one of those books I’d recommend to a small circle of friends – specifically my trans friends who are, or hope to be parents. As it turns out, Stuck In The Middle With You is one of those books that I’d recommend to every parent I know.

Throughout the book and explicitly in the afterward (a conversation with Anna Quindlen, Jennifer and Deedie Finney Boylan) the question arises whether Jenny’s personal transformation has effected her children negatively. In the deepest part of every parent’s heart, a similar question burns – How will my children survive my own failings or complications?

For me it is a question which will remain unanswered – unanswerable. Would my daughter have had a penchant for pharmaceutics if I didn’t drink so much? Would she still be alive if I’d paid more attention and guessed her true gender sooner? Does my son have a chance in hell of surviving this family and going on to thrive in the outside world?

Every parent has some fear they keep under wraps – that this thing or that thing in their lives will negatively affect their children. It’s one of those things we don’t talk about and yet Jennifer Finney Boylan dares to openly address hers, allowing us to do the same. She is not a parent with all the answers but she’s asking the right questions and that’s half the battle. This may well be her most intimate book and I recommend it with all my motherly heart.

[Buy it HERE and check out Jenny Boylan HERE.]

 

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mailboxThe clock reads 12:03. He’ll be home for lunch soon. She marks the page in her book and unfolds herself from the hideous couch, with its big blue flowers. She opens the shades of the single window, letting a faint beam of light into the dull gloom that is their apartment. They have lived here for a month now in this unfamiliar town, far enough away from home that no one has bothered to visit.

In the bathroom, she surveys her face. It’s bloated. Pregnancy pounds. She’s only in her sixth month, but her face has filled out something awful. Quickly, she applies concealer and a bit of lipstick. Lining her eyes makes them look a little less red. She slips out of her pjs and into the blue tent shirt that her mother bought. The old gray sweat pants still fit over her belly and she’s thankful for that. Read the rest of this entry »

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SpriteA few years ago, I gave my father a fat stack of stories that I’d written about our family, hoping to connect with him by sharing a bit of myself. What I didn’t know for years after was the stories hurt him deeply, each one feeling like a condemnation when I had written them as love letters. This is one of those stories:

 

There’s this tiny alcove at the mechanic’s shop, with a garish gold recliner and a soggy box of National Geographics. I am actually delighted with the room and curled now into the recliner with both feet tucked beneath me while the mechanic changes my tires. His sweet, smelly golden retriever has been following me around since I arrived fifteen minutes ago, and now, he sits beside me like a fuzzy end table, mumbling an ancient tennis ball and practically purring while I scratch his head.

This is one of those moments when I am most my father’s daughter, content amid the wrenches, oil filters and battery cables. Read the rest of this entry »

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ColumbiaAt this point in my revision process I’m supposed to be cutting words, not adding them, but last night I pounded out a rough version of a new chapter, one of those things that I’d toyed with writing originally but never got around to. I don’t know if it will stay in the book, but I thought I’d share it here because it amused me enough that I couldn’t quite keep it to myself. 

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 Mom taught us that if we cursed with a strong enough accent, we could get away with it. Seriously, you can say shite and feckin’ in front of the whole class and no one will notice, but one futher-mucker and the whole thing goes to hell.” Alice says, leaning between the front seats so she can be sure that Sophie hears her.

 Max snorts from the backseat beside Alice, but doesn’t look up from his GameBoy.

 You taught them to curse with a Scottish accent?” Sophie asks, incredulous.

 It was my Irving Welsh period,” I say, “and to be perfectly honest, I was tired of being called to the Principal’s office.”

We’re on our way to Columbia State Park a tiny ghost town in the foothills below the Sierra Nevada mountains. I may have grown up in the valley, but I was born in the foothills and driving through them on this late spring morning still feels a bit like coming home.

We stop off in Sonora to have a quick lunch with Ruby who works in the Memorial Chapel three blocks from the apartment where my first memories are stored. It’s another ten minutes to Columbia, the main street of which has been restored to it’s 1850s charm, It’s the kind of place that kids visit on school trips, and families stop off at on their summer vacation. For my family, it holds even a more personal nostalgia as the house my maternal grandparents lived in is two blocks up from Main St. Read the rest of this entry »

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uhh“Is everything alright?” The wide-faced woman folding sweaters at the entrance of the Target dressing room asks.

“Oh no, we’re fine.” I assure her, standing in the narrow hall between dressing rooms, while Alice cries loudly within the stall.

The woman looks unconvinced.

“Teenage girls and jeans.” I explain, rolling my eyes. Then I lean against the door and whisper. “Al, put your pants back on and bring everything out. We can do this another day.”

“B …bu …but I need jeans.” she wails.

“Ok, then we can do it at another store.”

The weeping downgrades to sniffles and I hear her moving around behind the door. I smile at the attendant, pacing nervously while I wait.

It was brave of us to try this in the first place, just march into the dressing room, daring anyone to try and stop us. What we hadn’t counted on when picking out the items to try on, was that Alice has shot up another couple of inches, and thinned out in the last few months, so every pair of jeans she took into the dressing room is too big, too short or doesn’t fit in the crotch. We don’t talk about Alice’s crotch much. Mostly we talk around it, a thing which must be managed for the time being, but too intimate to be discussed freely. Read the rest of this entry »