There is no such thing as a typical American family. Only eight percent of American families consist of a married man and woman in which the father works and the mother stays home. There are single mothers and single fathers, and families with two moms and two dads. There are families with transgender parents and parents with special-needs children. There are families with eight children and families with no children. Every single one of these families deserves love and respect. In the end, the biggest minority, and the greatest rarity, may be the typical American family itself. Or maybe our definition of “typical” has to change.
Jennifer Finney Boylan—author of She’s Not There, the first New York Times bestselling work by a transgender American—describes her own unique family and the difference between fatherhood and motherhood in Stuck in the Middle With You: Parenthood in Three Genders. Boylan came out as transgender when her two children were young, and as she moved from man to woman, she feared that she had somehow damaged her boys. But as her memoir reveals, her transition—and the love the family shared—taught the boys to be compassionate, bighearted and generous. “They have more sympathy to the world’s outliers and wastrels,” Boylan says.
In addition to her own story, Boylan’s memoir includes interviews with others—Richard Russo, Edward Albee, Ann Beattie, Augusten Burroughs, Susan Minot, Trey Ellis, Timothy Kreider and more—that explore family relationships from many angles. Here’s a selection of insights from the book that celebrate the many different ways a family can be, well, a family.
Jenny Boylan on fathers vs. mothers
On the whole, fathers are more playful than mothers. “As a father,” Boylan writes, “I found I was more likely to spend my time with my sons putting spray-cheese on the dog’s head. As a mother, I am much more likely to worry now that they are going to, for instance, put an eye out with that thing.” And, “Having a father who became a woman in turn helped my sons become better men.”
Richard Russo on fatherhood
Having a mostly absent father inspired forgiveness rather than resentment. In one of this book’s 10 interviews with parents and “former children,” Russo says, “The pure entertainment value of the man was just astonishing . . . even though he said to me, ‘I didn’t care about you at all. There was a poker game to go to. The track was there.’”
Memoirist Augusten Burroughs on parent/child relationships
The shadows parents cast on their children can last forever. Burroughs says, “We break free, but just because we leave our parents doesn’t mean they leave us.”
Playwright Edward Albee’s advice for children
Albee believes that the most powerful thing children can do is leave their parents behind. “There is no one to tell you who you are except yourself.” He asks what it is that makes someone a parent. “Is it the making? Or is it the being?”
Dr. Christine McGinn on defying definitions of what it means to be a mother or a father
Dr. McGinn, a transgender woman, saved her sperm when she was male. Ten years later, she and her female partner used that sperm to have children, and both mothers breast-fed. Those children have two mothers, both biological parents. “You cannot deny the biology of men and women,” she says. “But where society gets it wrong is the binary. There are plenty of people in between. It’s a mystery, and I think it always will be a mystery.”
Cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider on adoptive parents
The search always ends in surprise. For Kreider, it meant not only finding his mother, at age 40, but also finding his half sisters, whom he “adores horribly.” “My mother picked my letter to her up off the table, and she saw the return address, and she instantly knew what it was. She had never forgotten me. She told me that she couldn’t really bear to see pictures of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan because, for all she knew, I might be one of them.”
Boylan’s wife, Deirdre on marriage
Dierdre still thinks that marrying her transgender husband—later wife—was the luckiest thing that ever happened to her. “I get to be married to the person I love,” she says in the book’s epilogue.”
To learn more, visit jenniferboylan.net.