Stuck in the Middle With You

Parenthood in three genders.

Does Having a Transgender Parent Make Sons into Better Men?

After six years as a mother, twelve as a father, a parent climbs a mountain.

The Boylan family--Zach, Deedie ("Grace"), Jenny, Sean
Late last summer, my wife and two sons climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine. That trip was something of a swan song for the family we had been— less than a week later, our older boy Zach would depart for his freshman year at Vassar, and the rest of us, including 16-year-old Sean, would have to begin to learn what it was like to be a group of three.

The morning was rainy, and as the sun came out, mist and fog rose all around the ridges of Hamlin Peak and the Knife Edge Trail.

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It wasn’t the first mountain our family had climbed, nor, for that matter was it the first time we’d all been through a mysterious set of changes.

When I came out as transgender, my boys were six and four, back in 2000. For a while back then we weren’t as certain who we were anymore. The four of us, as familiar to one another as family members can be, suddenly found ourselves morphing into something new, something unrecognizable.

For my sons, it had meant going from a family with a mother and a father—and all the normative privilege that comes with that—to a family with two moms, a family that all at once seemed to be on the margins of the culture.

For my wife, it had meant going from what seemed like a traditional marriage of husband and wife to a same-sex one, from a place of safety within the culture to a place of uncertainty.

There were times when we weren’t sure if we were going to survive as a family, and if we did survive, we weren’t entirely sure who we were going to become.

And yet we did emerge from that time of change, stronger as a family, more in love as a couple. To our own great surprise we moved from a time of great vulnerability into a new time in which, as Robert Hunter once wrote, “Things we’ve never seen will seem familiar.”

This spring will see the publication of my book, Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenthood in Three Genders by Crown/Random House. Psychology Today has graciously asked me to blog about my experiences during my six years as a father, my twelve years as a mother, and the odd time between the two when I was neither, or both, the parental version of the schnoodle, or the cockapoo.

As transgender narratives have gradually become more commonplace in the culture—and as Gender Identity Disorder itself is removed, at least in the terms by which it has been known, from the D.S.M. V— it seems as if we are slowly coming to understand that “male” and “female” are much more flexible terms than we once thought, and that human biology—not to mention human behavior— includes a lot of grey area between those binary poles.

Some people might feel that the loss of gender as a well defined area of un-negotiable certainty destabilizes the culture, not to mention the lives of children. But it’s my feeling that embracing the wondrous scope of gender is to affirm the vast potential of life in all its messy, unfathomable beauty. And what greater celebration of life’s potentiality—and its messiness—is there than the family?

If male and female have come to be understood as unexpectedly mutable categories, then surely “motherhood” and “fatherhood” are more elusive terms as well.

What do we even mean when we call someone a “mother?” Do we mean the person who physically went through labor? Or is it the female person who raises that child, regardless of who went through labor? If two women are raising a child, are they both the “mother?” Does motherhood, in fact, refer to behavior, rather than sex—which is to say, that, as feminist scholar Sara Ruddick suggests, it’s more about about nurturing and protection than delivery? If we accept Ruddick’s definition, does that mean that men, too can be mothers?

None of these questions are easily answerable. But if anything’s clear, it’s that the definitions of parenthood are changing as swiftly as the traditional American family.

In this blog, I’ll be looking at the many ways there are of being good parents, and of the many ways there are of being families. Stuck in the Middle with You is not only a memoir; it’s also a series of interviews with other mothers, fathers, and “former children,” including the authors Richard Russo, Augusten Burroughs, Edward Albee, Ann Beattie, Timothy Kreider, and Susan Minot, whose insights I’ll share concerning the children they were, and the parents that some of them became.

When I first began working on Stuck in the Middle with You, I asked my younger son, Sean, what he remembered about the days when I was his father. Sean thought long and hard about this question before saying, “The main thing I remember is that you began to smell different. You smelled one way when you were a father, and afterwards you smelled another way.”

How would you describe that smell? I asked my son, with more than a little self-consciousness.

Sean just smiled wryly. “Different,” he said.

It’s that elusive difference that I’m most interesting in exploring in this blog, and which I’ll try to share in the months ahead.

There are moments in our lives, of course, that elude language. Last summer, for instance, as I stood at the top of Mt.Katahdin with my sons, gazing into the distance, I wanted so much to tell them how proud I was of them both, how resilient and courageous and smart I think they are. We’d come so far together since the days of their infancy. But I knew, as we looked across the beautiful, distant horizon together, that things were just about to change again.

But for the life of me, I didn’t know how to put this into words, or where I should even begin.

Instead, my older son, Zach just put his arm around my shoulder and smiled, as we stared out upon the broad, mist-filled world.

“We made it,” he said.

 

Jennifer F. Boylan is a writer-in-residence at Barnard College and the author of 13 books.

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